Some words delight me simply because of how they feel in my mouth as I voice them. Incunabula is one of those words. The repeated “u” makes my lips pucker, while “nabula” sounds like a word a wizard might utter to work magic or like some marvelously sinuous creature who lives deep under the sea. I remember when I first learned this word. My much-older sister had given me a strange birthday present when I turned eight years old–a book called Thirty Days To a Powerful Vocabulary. It was in paperback, maybe one of the early titles to be available in that new cheap format. On every page were words and words, each with two or three definitions and then a sentence made using the preferred meaning. I was told that each day I would learn one of these often very long and strange words. At dinner, I would be asked to say the word, give a definition and make my own sentence. Needless to say, evening meals became occasions for stress and pressure to perform.
The days I had to deal with “prestidigitation” and “post-prandial” put me right off whatever my mother was serving for dinner, but then there came a day when the word was “incunabula.” Something about its sound and its meaning drew me into its aura, and I’ve never read or heard it since those childhood formative days without rolling it around inside my mouth before uttering it out loud. If I ask myself how I feel about the meaning of this lovely-sounding word, again I feel utterly positive because books have been at the very heart of my being for almost my entire life. So always remembering that this word refers to books printed before 1500, named “incunabula” because of the Latin root of “cradle,” endears the word to me on a content level to match the auditory one.
Such books are extremely rare now and are considered words of art as well as being souvenirs from the infant stages of the field of publishing. Such books are, of course, related to the invention by William Caxton (1433-1491) of the first printing press in England. It resided in the household of the Duchess of Burgundy (who was French) and was used to print her own collection of French romances. Carrying the design from France to England, Caxton set up his own press in Westminster and between 1477 and 1491, he published about eighty books, all translated from the French.
One of the most significant volumes to come from this cradle press was Thomas Cranmer’s edition of the Bible in 1540. Cranmer himself wrote a prologue talking about what it would mean for this crucial book to be printed so that some people could read for themselves what was in the various sections, no longer having to rely on a priest to tell people in the pews what was in such germinal books. This version included a woodcut by Hans Holbein, the famous artist. In the woodcut, King Henry VIII is shown seated, watching Cranmer and Oliver Cromwell hand out copies to deserving members of the court.
Today we sometimes are warned that the book as we’ve known it may be on the way “out,” to be replaced with e-books or Audible taped books or other immaterial versions of those things we have long held in our hands, reading them with flashlights under the covers after our parents have turned off the lights, or passing them from person to person so as to have groups with whom to argue the virtues (and vices) of some new novel or poem. I listen to these predictions, keep holding my novels and poem collections in my hands, and believing that there will continue to be people who come upon their very own incunabula when someone lets them hold those first cardboard picture books while one mesmerizing story after the other is read to them. Or the next stage of encountering incunabula when youngsters check out their first/cradle books from their local library, experiencing the power of momentary ownership and the heady sense of not having to rely on someone else to tell them what’s between the covers–just as those early people in churches could finally read the word of their god themselves.
So I’ll keep rolling the vowels and consonants of the magic word for what has become a magic act down through the centuries ever since Caxton ran off a few copies of bawdy romances and we first spoke of “incunabula.”