Material Evidence in Incunabula

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NEW: A video on the visualisation of the circulation of 15th-century printed books over time and space, using MEI data, can be seen here: Video.

MEI is a database specifically designed to record and search the material evidence (or copy specific, post-production evidence and provenance information) of 15th-century printed books: ownership, decoration, binding, manuscript annotations, stamps, prices, etc. MEI is linked to the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC), provided by the British Library, from which it derives the bibliographical records, and it allows the user at last to combine searches of bibliographical records (extracted from ISTC) with copy specific records.

Uniquely, every element recorded (a certain style of decoration or binding, a manuscript note, prices, etc.) is treated as a valuable clue for provenance, therefore it can be geographically located and chronologically dated. Explicit ownership notes are further categorised as private or institutional, religious or lay, female or male, and by profession. This enables tracking of the movement of books across Europe and beyond, and through the centuries.

Manuscript notes, equally valuable for understanding the readership of the early editions, are classified according to their frequency and their type: corrections, completions, supplements, extraction of key words, collation, translation, structuring the text, comments, censorship, reading marks (underlining and pointing hands), drawings, corrections/notes by the printer, lecture notes, later rubrication, autograph, pen trials, and personal notes. These data allow for sophisticated social studies on the use of books, readership and reading.

Prices and currencies, fundamentally important to the economic study of the book-trade, are also individually recorded. This will allow a critical mass of evidence to be submitted to the analysis of economic historians.

Personal and institutional names of ownership are collected in the satellite database Owners of Incunabula (where further bio-bibliographical information can be found. This provides links to all the copies owned by the same person or institution, allowing for the reconstruction of dispersed collections. Provenance locations are also linked to another satellite database, Geographic Regions, which offers geocoordinates ( and map locations. Finally, the database Holding Institutions contains the names of the libraries listed in MEI and ISTC.

In MEI we are also capturing evidence of specific copies known to have existed at a certain time in a certain place, from documentary evidence, and now lost - or maybe sitting in a library not yet included in MEI: these are catalogued as Historical Copies, followed by the name of the collection they belonged to; for example Historical Copy, Venezia (once in the collection of the Benedictines of San Giorgio Maggiore); Historical Copy, Perugia (once in the collection of Prospero Podiani). In this way we are starting to quantify also what we have lost through the centuries due to different reasons. With the same principle, we capture copies in the trade and in private collections.

MEI has been developed to provide a physical representation of the circulation of books throughout the centuries, from place of production, to their present locations: this is now available in our visualisation tool, 15cV.

PLEASE NOTE: a number of large collections of incunabula with already some copy specific information in their online catalogues have been uploaded: Oxford Bodleian Library, The Hague KB, Cambridge UL, and Wien NL. These records are in the process of being adjusted to MEI standards with reference to separate blocks of provenance each with their temporal and geographical markers.

Contribute to MEI

Records are being inserted at the moment by a number of libraries in Europe and the US. Contribution of records to MEI is free and welcome: any library with incunabula holdings is encouraged to insert their copy-specific records. Please contact CERL’s Secretary, Cristina Dondi at

MEI Organisation

MEI is hosted and maintained by CERL, and freely available on its website. It was created by Cristina Dondi, University of Oxford and Secretary of the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL), and developed by Alexander Jahnke of Data Conversion Group, University of Göttingen, with funds from the British Academy granted to Dondi and Nigel Palmer. Further development is being funded by a 5-year ERC Consolidator Grant held by Cristina Dondi as PI of the 15cBOOKTRADE Project, for which see

Patterns of Historic Shelfmarks

Table of shelfmark patterns

For further information please contact Dr Cristina Dondi.

A leaflet about MEI can be downloaded as a PDF file here.