The Atlas of Early Printing

The Fifteenth Century Book

Image of Fifteenth Century Book

A comprehensive understanding of the features of fifteenth century printed books can only be gained through the physical examination of many copies. However, a great deal can be learned by looking at even one single copy of a book. The amount of historical evidence and context that can be obtained from a copy of a book is remarkable, and demonstrates the wealth of valuable information antiquarian books hold for scholars and students to discover today.

The books that were produced by the early printers in Europe during the late fifteenth century can provide specific and comprehensive evidence of how printing was practiced and how books were read and used. This essay examines a book from the collections at the University of Iowa, a 1490 copy of Scriptores Historiae Augustae, and uses it to highlight the many pieces of historical information that can be discovered through the study of a single incunabula (a book printed in the fifteenth century).

The first books printed after the invention of moveable type and the printing press are in many ways similar to the books we are familiar with today. They are in the form of a codex - folded sheets of paper grouped in ordered gatherings that are sewn together on the spine and covered in paper, boards, leather, or other materials. A fifteenth century printed book is used the same way a twenty first century printed book is used, but the history of its creation, transmission, manufacture, and reading is often quite complex, as can be seen in a study, organized by date, of the Historia Augusta.

Ninth Century: The Text

1480s: The Printer

1490: Printing the Scriptores Historiae Augustae

1490s: Binding

1490s: Decoration

1490 - 1874: Ownership - Marcus Perfumus/Pillone Library

1874 - 1960s: Ownership - Sir Thomas Brook/University of Iowa