Books printed in Europe before 1501 are known as incunables. Many of the works that appeared in print before 1501 were religious (e.g. missals) or academic. The majority of texts were in Latin. According to the French Wikipedia article incunable,

Des 30 000 incunables répertoriés, 21 000 sont écrits en latin, 3 000 sont en allemand, 2 000 sont en italien et 1000 sont en français.


Of the 30,000 incunabula inventoried, 21,000 are written in Latin, 3,000 are in German, 2,000 are in Italian and 1,000 are in French.

The English, French and German Wikipedia articles about incunables don't say all that much about the genres that were printed. For example, I have not been able to find when a play was printed for the first time. Presumably, that would have been a Latin or Greek text from Antiquity (unless it was some popular Medieval play).

My question now is: what was the first play that appeared in print in Europe? Who was its author? Where and by whom was it printed? Was it even printed before 1501?

1 Answer 1


The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue is an “international database of 15th-century European printing” created by the British Library, and now operated by the Consortium of European Research Libraries. I searched the catalog for Greek and Roman playwrights and found editions of five playwrights:

Year Language Playwright Title Contents
1470 Latin Terence Comoediae The Eunuch, The Self-Tormenter, The Brothers, etc.
1472 Latin Plautus Comoediae Amphitruo, The Asses, The Pot of Gold, etc.
1478 Latin Seneca Tragoediae The Madness of Hercules, Medea, Trojan Women, etc.
1495 Greek Euripides Tragoediae quattuor Medea, Hippolytus, Alcestis, Andromache
1498 Greek Aristophanes Comoediae novem Wealth, The Clouds, The Frogs, etc.

(The lists of editiones principes in Latin and Greek at Wikipedia give similar results, except that Wikipedia does not include the 1478 edition of Seneca, and gives 1494 rather than 1495 for the edition of Euripides.)

There do not seem to be digitized versions of the 1470 Terence or 1472 Plautus, but there is a digitized 1484 Seneca at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. This is the first page of The Madness of Hercules:

  • Thanks. That looks great. Several of these editions predate the Lyon Terence (1492) that I had found, and another Terence from 1491.
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 18, 2023 at 18:04

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