Volume VI · Spring 1951 · Number 3
The Nuremberg Chronicle
--JOHN R. RUSSELL
The Library has recently added to its rare-book collection one of the most famous fifteenth-century books,The Nuremberg Chronicle. The special fund provided by relatives and friends of Dr. and Mrs. Hiram Olsan was used for this purchase, and this book thus joins the group of incunabula already purchased for the Treasure Room in memory of Dr. and Mrs. Olsan. It is a very fitting addition to this collection, not solely because it is one of the great books published in the fifteenth century, but also because it was written by a physician and includes much information about science and medicine, an unusual feature for a history of the world, even today.
The Nuremberg Chronicle was published in several editions in the fifteenth century. Our copy was printed in Augsburg in 1500 by Hans Schönsperger and was a pirated edition, which means that Schönsperger copied the work of the original publisher without receiving his permission or paying any fee for the privilege-a common practice in the earlier days of printing, before anyone had thought of copyright laws. The first edition of The Nuremberg Chronicle, which was in Latin, was published in Nuremberg in 1493 by Anthony Koberger. It was a tremendously complex printing project which began in 1491 and continued until completion of the book in July 1493. In December of the same year Koberger published a German edition of the Chronicle, the translation having been made by George Alt. Three years later Hans Schönsperger published his first pirated edition of the Chronicle in Augsburg. This was in German, and was followed in 1497 by his Latin edition, and in 1500 by another German edition, of which our copy is an example.
The popularity of the book is shown by the fact that there were five editions in eight years. The reasons for its success are not difficult to see. It contained more illustrations than any book previously printed from movable type, which was enough to make it a "best seller." Its subject matter also had wide appeal, for history has always been a popular subject. This text, covering the history of the world from the beginning to the time of the book's publication, was packed with information and was written in a style that was easily understood; those who could not read Latin could get one of the German editions. In the history considerable emphasis was put on Germany, particularly in the German editions, which undoubtedly helped to increase its popularity in that country. While the Nuremberg editions were costly and therefore could be purchased only by wealthy people, the Augsburg editions were less expensive and thus were within the reach of those of more modest means. This may account for the fact that there are more copies of the Nuremberg editions in existence today. Being more expensive, and also considerably larger, they were more carefully preserved, while the cheaper Augsburg editions were read to pieces, so today only nine other libraries in the United States have copies of the Augsburg edition of 1500, which we have just acquired, while more than seventy have copies of the Nuremberg Latin edition of 1493.
The illustrations in The Nuremberg Chronicle were not only its most important selling point, they were actually the reason for its being. Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurif were the illustrators and engravers who were responsible for the illustrations used in the first edition, and it was Wolgemut who conceived the idea of preparing a profusely illustrated world history. He tried to get his friend, Koberger, the printer, to undertake it, but Koberger felt it was too expensive and risky a project, so Wolgemut obtained the support of two wealthy patrons, Sebald Schreyer and Sebastian Kamermaister, whereupon Koberger agreed to do the printing.
Wolgemut was a well-known artist in Nuremberg, who had a number of assistants and apprentices working for him. Albrecht Dürer was apprenticed to him when he was fifteen years old, and for three years studied painting and wood-engraving with him, but left his establishment before the work on The Nuremberg Chronicle began. Wolgemut, Pleydenwurif, and assistants in Wolgemut's workshop cut the wood blocks from which the illustrations were made. There were 1809 illustrations in the first edition, but only 645 woodcuts were used. The remaining 1164 illustrations were repetitions of woodcuts previously used in this same book. The illustrators apparently were not at all hesitant to use the same portrait to stand for several different men, or the same scene to represent a number of cities. One wonders what the purchasers of the expensive Nuremberg editions thought about this repetition of the illustrations. At least they could not complain about the quality of the woodcuts themselves, for they were filled with detail, were original in design, and skillfully drawn. To us, they have special interest because, although the scenes range chronologically from the Creation to the time the book was printed, the characters in them all wear costumes of the late fifteenth century. So, despite the length of time covered by the Chronicle, its illustrations give a very good idea of the appearance of the people of Germany at the time Columbus discovered America.
The illustrations in our Augsburg edition of the Chronicle are more numerous than those in the Nuremberg edition, having been estimated at 2100. Schönsperger did not have the original blocks, since his were pirated editions, so he had to employ artists to make new woodcuts. The format of his book was considerably smaller than that of the Nuremberg editions, so he could hardly have used the original blocks anyway. His illustrations were smaller, and quite obviously copied from those made by Wolgemut and his associates. The repetition of woodcuts also occurs in our edition of the Chronicle. For example, a woodcut showing a walled city appears five times, representing England, Poland, Geneva, Milan, and Tiberias, while another woodcut was used for Mainz, Naples, Lyons, Bologna, and Aquileia. A picture of a physician holding a urinal appears eleven times representing physicians as widely separated in time as Alexander Tralles, who lived in the sixth century, and Matheolus of Perugia, who practiced in the fifteenth century. A portrait of a scholar holding a book in his lap and a pair of spectacles in his hand is used for nine different persons, including Paris, Virgil, Sextus Julius Africanus, and Rhazes, all of whom belong to the period before the invention of eyeglasses. The picture of Paris, hero of Greek legend, with spectacles and an open book, is one of the most amusing in the Chronicle, especially when we recall that Paris awarded the golden apple to Aphrodite, and not to Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
Our amusement at the anachronisms in the illustrations should not lessen our admiration, for the preparation of the pictures and their placement in the text was one of the most difficult tasks ever undertaken by a publisher. Schönsperger had Koberger's editions as guides, but his task was complicated by the smaller format of his books; his artists did well to get as much detail into their copies of the larger woodcuts as they did. While the pictures do not always fit their subjects perfectly, they do give a wealth of information about the appearance of people and places of the time in which they were made.
The text of The Nuremberg Chronicle was prepared by Dr. Hartmann Schedel, a Nuremberg physician who had studied at the universities of Leipzig and Padua. Schedel compiled his chronicle of events from books he had used as a student, many of which he doubtless had in his own library. His task was not made easier by the profuse illustrations, with the necessity of fitting the text to the space left on each page.
Schedel condensed his narrative remarkably well, telling the story of the chief events of world history clearly and vividly. His arrangement of world history into seven ages, paralleling the seven ages of man, reflects the interests of a physician. The first five ages, which end with the birth of Christ, occupy about a third of the book. This section presents the figures and events of the Old Testament, together with classical history and mythology, and descriptions of cities. The sixth age fills considerably more than half of the book, and carries the narrative from the birth of Christ to the reign of Maximilian I. In this section, political history and ecclesiastical history are combined with descriptions of cities and biographies of persons of renown. The accounts of comets, eclipses, storms, and plagues, and the many biographies of physicians, reflect the author's interest in science.
The seventh age is that of the Anti-Christ, and is briefly discussed. The final age, that of the Last Judgment, is also treated very briefly, and is followed by a longer section, describing places some of which had not been previously included, such as Poland and Russia.
One would hope that a history published in 1500 would include the discovery of America, but The Nuremberg Chronicle mentions neither Columbus nor the new world. The omission is understandable, for the first edition of the Chronicle appeared in July 1493, and the text was probably written months earlier, so word of the discovery had not reached Dr. Schedel in time to be included. Later editions followed the first very closely and did not attempt to add contemporary events. Actually, the Chronicle is considered to be an item of Americana, because it describes a voyage made by Martin Behaim, a Nuremberg navigator, which was presumed for a time to have taken him to America. After much dispute, scholars have come to the conclusion that the reference is to a voyage made by Diogo Cam and Martin Behaim to the coast of Africa, and the listing of the Chronicle as an example of early Americana thus seems to be unjustified.
Another important event in the fifteenth century is recorded in the Chronicle. The invention of printing is described in highly laudatory terms, although the name of the inventor is not given. The date is set at 1440, and Mainz is named as the place at which the invention was made. It seems most appropriate that one of the outstanding examples of printing in its first century should include this praise of the invention of the art that made The Nuremberg Chronicle possible.