Volume IX · Spring 1954 · Number 3
Werner Rolewinck's Fasciculus temporum
Relatives and friends of Dr. and Mrs. Hiram Olsan several years ago established in their honor a fund which has been used for the purchase of books illustrating the scholarship of the fifteenth century and the progress of early printing. Robert F. Metzdorf in the Library Bulletin (Winter, 1948) reported on six of the first acquisitions. Since then others have been added, among them a book which served its day as a reference work on world history. This is the Fasciculus temporum omnes antiquorum cronicas complectens, a Latin way of saying "Encyclopedia of History."
The author of this compendium was Werner Rolewinck, who was born in Westphalia in 1425, the son of a fairly prosperous farmer. He was educated at home and probably in Cologne, where in 1447 he entered the Carthusian cloister of St. Barbara. He remained there till his death in 1502. The Abbot Trithemius who visited him about 1495 speaks of him as an "extraordinarily diligent and prolific author" of thirty or more books. His works on theology and sacred history were intended for the edification of his fellow monks, and most of them remain in manuscript.
The Fasciculus temporum was first printed in Cologne in 1474. It passed through more than thirty editions in its author's lifetime, and was apparently an indispensable work of reference until after 1532, when it was superseded by others more up-to-date. It was translated into Flemish, German, and French, and an edition appeared in Seville in 1480. The copy acquired by the Library was printed no earlier than 1490, since the last entry records the death in that year of Matthias I, king of the Hungarians. The printer was Johann Prüss, or Pryss, the elder, a native of Württemberg. He had his press at Strassburg as early as 1483, and his first printing of the Fasciculus temporum was in 1487.
The compilation of chronicles or annals was begun in Roman times, and in the eleventh century the chronicle of Marianus Scotus was one of the more valuable examples of this type of literature. Marianus, who was born in Ireland and became a monk there in 1052, was in Cologne for a short time and in 1058 became a recluse in the monastery of Fulda. A careful student of ancient sources, he produced a chronicle of the world up to 1082, a book highly regarded as an authority and one which was continued by many later writers, men who do not seem to have reached his standard of accuracy or historical worth.
One of these continuators was Rolewinck. German critical opinion in the nineteenth century was inclined to make the popularity of the Fasciculus temporum the result not of its real value but of a "successful speculation" of the printer. It is written in the undistinguished Latin of its time, and the printer has used type perpetuating the manuscript practice of abbreviating final syllables and words in common use.
Nine different woodcuts were used for illustration. A small one, representing the towers and battlements of a city, is repeated several times to mark the foundation of famous towns: Nineveh and Treves, said by Rolewinck to have been founded about 1950 B.C.; Athens, Rome, Byzantium; Lyons, Cologne, Berne; a choice of cities which seems to show the fields of history in which the author was interested. A city in flames calls the reader's attention to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Troy and Babylon. The Tower of Babel and a naïve drawing of Noah's Ark and the rainbow illustrate great moments of Old Testament history. Three other woodcuts illustrate omens and prodigies such as comets and monstrous births. The verso of the title page has a full-page picture of a blind beggar, and folio 37 is an example of clever typesetting, the names of the four Evangelists with appropriate quotations from the Bible being arranged around the figure of Christ.
In the printing itself, the printer has shown considerable skill in contriving a method of reporting contemporary events. A strip across the center of each page is separated from the rest of the text above and below by two sets of heavy lines. Within this strip are placed one or two, sometimes three, circles in which appear the names of Hebrew worthies, beginning with Adam. Beside each circle is a brief statement of each man's length of life and number of children. Above the circles is given the date, anno mundi, reckoned from the creation of the world in 5199 B.C.; below them and printed upside down, the number of years before the birth of Christ. The upper section of the page carries extracts from Biblical history with occasional comments from St. Augustine and other fathers, while the lower section has reports of men and events of secular history. Greek myth, Homer, Roman tradition and history are freely used. Emphasis is laid on sacred history, and after the birth of Christ the names of the popes fill the circles in the center strips. Lists of martyrs, saints, abbots, and bishops are distributed through the book, and once in a while the names of philosophers and literary men.
Generally the text is a plain statement of fact, but the author likes to add comment on morality or ethics. For example, about the year 1423, he describes the circle of mortal life: abundance, when men become passionate and children are brought up in wealth and luxury; discord, when no one learns how to give way to another, and the result is war which leads to poverty; then men learn wisdom, to live not as they wish but as they may; this life of temperance brings wealth; and so back to abundance, and the repetition of the cycle.
As might be expected from the use of the book of Marianus Scotus, England and Ireland appear prominently. The story of Lear and his daughters is told in detail on the same page with that of Lycurgus of Sparta and the founding of Rome. Merlin and Arthur are recorded a millennium later. "Arthur, a very noble king of Britain, killed in his victories 460 men with his own sword. He aided the church of God and greatly increased the faith. He compelled all lands of France, Dacia, Norway, etc., to obey him. He died at last and it is not known where he lies. In his day England flourished, thirteen kingdoms obeying her; but for a short time." St. Patrick is "a man of marvelous works, who lived 120 years." Bishop Dunstan has his place, and the violent end of St. Thomas of Canterbury is mentioned. King Alfred, "a man entirely virtuous," gave eight hours of his day to prayer, reading, and writing, eight hours to the business of his kingdom, and eight hours to his personal needs.
The author, being a German monk, pays special attention to the work of St. Boniface, and the German campaigns and plans of Charlemagne and his successors, but his heart is in Cologne. He makes three references to its foundation, unfortunately none of them accurate. About 840 A.D., a bolt of lightning in the form of a dragon struck the church of St. Peter in Cologne, killed three, and left six "half-alive." In 1335, the Carthusian monastery of St. Barbara, the author's convent, was founded "in that place, as it is believed, where once the blessed Severinus saw the soul of St. Martin carried to heaven amid an angelic throng." And of course, the martyrdom of the eleven thousand virgins is recorded, and, in the decades 1153-1173 the translation of the bodies of the Three Kings from Milan, rescued by the Bishop of Cologne from the threat of capture by the Emperor Frederick, is mentioned.
The second half of the book is full of references to signs and marvels. Floods, storms, earthquakes, the fall of huge stones, unusual flights of birds, more than one rain of blood, the appearance of comets (often described in detail), eclipses with the sun darkened for three hours or three days, give some idea of their extent. The phenomenon of three suns is recorded for the time of Julius Caesar, when they gradually became one, showing that Asia, Africa, and Europe would be under one rule. Again in the fifteenth century the appearance of three suns is noted, followed by the contest among three rival popes. Two horrible creatures of human form in the Nile, and the sun's losing a third of its strength from morning to noon, portended something which was found to be the spread of the Saracens and the loss of one-third of Christendom. "Often the Lord reveals to men signs to rouse their fear of sins. O that by the examples of others we might be frightened so as to cease from sin!"
Commenting on the destruction of the library of four hundred thousand volumes in Egypt in the time of Julius Caesar, the author says: "From this it is clear what great diligence ancient times showed in collecting books. Let those blush for shame who do not acquire a good supply of books when it can be done, of course, by small cost."
The invention of printing leads to a rhetorical flourish: "This is the art of arts, the science of sciences, through the swift practice of which the valuable treasures of wisdom and of knowledge, instinctively desired by all men, leap as it were from the deep shadows of their hidingplaces, and enrich and illuminate this world in its evil state. The unlimited virtue of books which formerly in Athens or Paris and the other schools or sacred libraries was made known to a very few students is now spread by this discovery to every tribe, people, nation, and language everywhere, a true fulfillment of Proverbs, ch. 1," which is then quoted at some length.
Rolewinck relates the dreadful deeds of the English troops and their allies in the invasion of Burgundy in 1374-1375, and adds this comment: "The cause of human wickedness, learned men show, is of many forms; among them, not the least is the fact that parents do not bring up their children under discipline, hut allow them abundant means to satisfy their desires. So self-indulgence when it has passed from custom into character cannot feel fear or shame. Then the neck becomes hard, until it is worn down and softened by poverty, wars, toil, and other tribulations. Therefore he who does not chastise his sons prepares a whip for himself."
And a reader has underscored the last sentence as though he cried, "Amen to that!"