First published on 12 July 1493, the Liber Chronicarum (now termed by English speakers, the Nuremberg Chronicle) was one of the most popular books of the 15th century. A glance through its sizable leaves quickly reveals clues as to its timeless allure: intended as a universal history of the world from the beginning of time to the 1490s (and conceived from a specifically German perspective), this work is packed with information that is inextricably combined with lavish and detailed woodcut illustrations. If to 15th-century readers The Nuremberg Chronicle conveyed a popular subject via a vivid and innovative approach to book design, from our own perspective the work also offers unique insights into 15th-century life and thinking. Reformation vandalism, 500 years’ wear and tear, together with a botched 18th-century restoration had rendered this Queens’ College copy in urgent need of thorough conservation (one early reader scorched some of its pages by reading too close to a candle): this has all now been put right thanks to the painstaking and skilled intervention of the Cambridge Colleges Conservation Consortium.
The project to produce the Nuremberg Chronicle was instigated by the artist Michael Wolgemut (1434/37–1519), who with Wilhelm Pleydenwurif (c. 1450-94), conceived and executed its illustrations and engravings (one of Wolgemut’s apprentices had included the young Albrecht Durer but it is no longer thought that he worked on the Chronicle). To finance this expensive and hugely risky undertaking Wolgemut obtained the support of two wealthy patrons, Sebald Schreyer (1446-1520) and Sebastian Kamermaister(1446-1520), after which the famous Nuremberg printer Anton Koberger (ca.1440-1513), agreed to do the printing. The task of actually writing the work was assigned to the Nuremberg physician and humanist Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). The diverse range of medieval and Renaissance sources used were drawn from authors Schedel studied as a student (at Leipzig and Padua), including Bede, Vincent of Beauvais, Martin of Tropau, Flavius Blondus, Bartolomeo Platina and Philippus de Bergamo. Like most incunabula (ie books printed before 1501), the work was published in Latin, although a German version was also produced a few months later, which was quickly followed by further pirated editions .
Schedel’s use of different graphic layouts to integrate text and image is all the more impressive if we remember that book production was still in its infancy. Images of biblical, mythological and historical events, family trees, views of towns and countries in Europe (including ‘Anglia’) and the Middle East all afford the 21st century reader a fascinating insight into the European world at that time (both physical and intellectual). Of particular historical importance are two double-page maps: a world map and a map of northern and central Europe. Based on Mela’s Cosmographia (1482), the former is one of only three 15th-century maps showing Portuguese knowledge of the Gulf of Guinea of about 1470. The map of Europe, by Hieronymus Münzer (1437-1508) after Nicolas Khyrpffs, is claimed to be the first modern map of the region to appear in print. We must, however, bring to the work an awareness of book design conventions of the day.
The Nuremberg Chronicle offers a prime example of the 15th-century practice of recycling the same image to depict more than one object (e.g. the same scene can represent a number of cities; and the same portrait, several different men). Thus of 1809 illustrations only 645 woodcuts were used, the remaining 1164 illustrations being repetitions of woodcuts used elsewhere in this same book.
Through this closely integrated interplay of text and images world history is vividly portrayed in parallel with the seven ages of man: Whilst the first five ages detail Old Testament events, Classical history and mythology, the sixth age takes the reader up to the reign of Maximilian I (who was Holy Roman Emperor when the work was published) . Political and ecclesiastical history is interspersed here with descriptions of cities and biographies of famous people. The seventh age is that of the Anti-Christ. The Last Judgment, is also treated very briefly, followed by a longer section, describing further places. (Poland and Russia).
Queens’ College’s Copy
It was not until 1760 that Queens’ Nurmeberg Chronicle came to the college. Although we know little of its existence prior to the 18th century, the book was certainly well read and used in the 16th century, as is indicated by the presence of several early annotations. Sadly these were obscured when the book was cropped during its 18th-century restoration: it seems that old annotations were valued less in the 18th century than they are today. This, though, is not the book’s only sign of use. As a work of religious history it contains numerous references to, and images of popes. In accordance with widespread practice in protestant lands during the Reformation period, many of these have been angrily defaced with black inc, and thus obscured, thereby providing the modern reader material evidence of the religious passions of the period. A small minority of images were removed at some point: the presence in the volume of a handwritten list of them suggests this occurred in the 18th century or before.
The book was bequeathed to Queens’ by John Pooley (d. 1757) of Boxted hall (a 14th century manor in Suffolk) who was admitted to Queens’ as a fellow commoner in 1694. The volume came to the College following his death around which time it appears to have been rebound in a somewhat slipshod manner (the boards were not square; the pages were not properly cropped). The volume has now been resewn and bound in a goatskin binding.
The Queens’ copy can be viewed durng the Queens’ Old Library Open Week on 25 Feb-1 March. There are several copies of this hugely important and influential book in Cambridge all of which will have their own provenance story and copy-specific features. To see the complete work online see the University Library’s digitised hand coloured copy.
Tim Eggington, Queens’ College Librarian