A Seriously Old Book

We have recently bought an incunable. Incunabulum is Latin for “things in the cradle”, and the term means an item that was printed before 1501, i.e. during the infancy of printing with movable type.

A book’s title page as we know it, with title, subtitle, author’s name, publisher’s name, and date and place of publication, was only fully developed by 1500. Before that, the author’s name and the title of the book usually appeared in the heading of the first page and then the printer launched straight into the text. This is also the case with our new acquisition: Dec 2012 blog 3

We don’t often buy incunables because there are no Scottish ones: printing in Scotland did not start until 1508. The reason why we purchased this one has to do with its topic. The book is by the Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56-117) and it contains the first printing of his biography of Agricola. Agricola was Tacitus’ father-in-law, and, more importantly, the Roman general and governor of Britain who extended Roman occupation northwards into Scotland. So, in this incunable we find the first substantial historical account of events in what is now Scotland! It also gives the first published account of a battle on Scottish soil: the Battle of Mons Graupius.  There is even a mention of the “objectionable climate with its frequent rains and mists”!

This incunable was printed in Milan in 1487. The text was edited by the famous Italian Renaissance scholar Francesco Dal Pozzo (Franciscus Puteolanus) (d. 1490), a professor of rhetoric and poetry at the University of Bologna.