Early Books

Featured here are books and other materials we typically use to illustrate the development of printing in the West.

Works printed before 1501 are called incunabula, indicating that they were produced during the ‘cradle’ period of Western printing. A useful descriptive list of incunabula at Colby was published in the March 1960 issue of the Colby Library Quarterly.

Manuscript page, Book of Psalms, Italian convent, circa 1451

A leaf from an Italian folio manuscript of the Book of Psalms in Latin, written on vellum in black ink, with fine “uncial” capital letters in red and blue. Written on parchment in an Italian convent. The uncial scribal style was preferred in southern Europe.

Leaf from Gutenberg’s Catholicon, 1460

The Catholicon, written by Johannes Balbus of Genoa in the thirteenth century, was a popular encyclopedia and Latin dictionary. Our single leaf belongs to the “I” section of the dictionary. The complete volume is 373 leaves, and is printed in a small gothic type. The type is about a third smaller than the type Gutenberg used in his other two books, the 42-line Bible and 36-line Bible.

NC first age

A page from the First Age in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle in which the biblical creation of the world is depicted.

Manuscript copy of the Four Gospels, circa 1470

Fine example of German black letter scribal style. Presented in March 1942 by Charles W Spencer, class of 1890, as an addition to the Book Arts collection established by Edward F Stevens, class of 1889. Written on parchment. Illuminated initials.

Expositio in evangelium S. Lucae, Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, 1476

This commentary on the gospels of Saint Luke was written by Saint Ambrose sometime after 374, and printed by Anton Sorg in the city of Augsburg, Germany, in 1476.

Anton Sorg was an apprentice in the printing shop of the monastery of Saint Ulrich and Afra in 1472. Three years later he left the monastery to set up practice for himself in Augsburg, then particularly famed for craftsmen who produced woo1dcuts for block books, as well as cuts for playing-cards and pictures of saints. This commentary, as Sorg printed it, is divided into ten chapters. It does not contain pictorial illustrations but each chapter begins with a large outlined woodcut initial.

Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle), 1493

The Nuremberg Chronicle, authored by the city’s physician Hartmann Schedel and printed by Anton Koberger, is considered the masterwork that ended the scholarly-appointed first era (cradle period) of Western printing. It tells the history of the world from the Creation until 1493, the date of printing. The Chronicle’s production is one of the most important events in early book history due to the great scope and literary significance of the text, the complex illustrations and the detailed historical accounting of the production process.

The Nuremberg Chronicle, and the provenance of our copy, is described in a November 1955 article in the Colby Library Quarterly. Our copy was rebound in the 1980s in a style sympathetic with 15th century bookbinding practices in Germany that used wooden boards with pigskin spines.


Books printed by the Aldine Press, 1515, 1570 and 1575

Aldine Press italics

A page spread from the 1575 Aldine edition of the writings of Julius Caesar, featuring the Press’ dolphin and anchor device and italic font.

The Aldine Press was founded in Venice in 1494 by Aldus Manutius the Elder (1449-1515). After his death, the press was continued by family members until it finally closed in 1597. The books produced by the Aldine Press were significant, scholarly presentations of Greek and Latin classics, notable for the octavo format in which they were printed, which increased accessibility of the works. The press was also the first to print in an italic typeface.

The Aldine dolphin and anchor printer’s device would become a symbol of printing innovation and fine craftsmanship in the years to come. Our Aldine volumes present the works of Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, and statesman Gaius Julius Caesar.

Hutter’s polyglot Bible, 1600-1601

This New Testament bible is the work of German Hebraist and Leipzig University professor of Hebrew, Elias Hutter (1553–c.1605). It is written in twelve languages with the text arranged in six columns across facing pages. Each left-hand page contains Syriac, Hebrew, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and French; each right-hand page contains Latin, German, Bohemian, English, Danish, and Polish.

The book consists of two volumes, both bound in the original parchment-covered boards, and was printed in Nuremberg.