Recent acquisitions: the Nuremberg Chronicle

Opening page from “Liber Chronicarum”, showing rubrication and ornamental flourishes.


Special Collections recently acquired a copy of Hartmann Schedel’s (1440-1514) 1493 Liber Chronicarum (also known as the “Nuremberg Chronicle”). Liber Chronicarum  is a fifteenth century history of the world, beginning with the creation of the world and concluding with its then-present day of 1493. As is the case with many histories of the period, the Chronicle’s narrative blends history, mythology, and religious tradition. Hartmann Schedel regarded the Bible as a source of literal history and included its narrative as part of his chronicle. Thus, the Chronicle opens with the creation as described in the Book of Genesis and concludes with an account of the Apocalypse prophesied in the Book of Revelation. (In between the year 1493 and the Apocalypse, Schedel also includes six blank pages, so that his readers could record the rest of the history of the world and thereby keep their copies up-to-date. Four of these six pages survive in our copy – due to the scarcity and value of paper, they were often removed from the books and used for other purposes.) In between, Schedel draws from a vast array of sources to recount the history of the world insofar as it was known in his day.


Woodcut illustration from “Liber Chronicarum”, depicting a dance of death.

Of particular interest are the wood-cuts which illustrate the Chronicle. Containing about 1800 wood-cuts, Liber Chronicarum is, by far, the most heavily illustrated book printed during the fifteenth century. Illustrations appear on virtually every single page of the book, and provide accompanying visuals of the individuals, genealogies, events and places described in the narrative. All of the illustrations were drawn to reflect the customs and styles of fifteenth century Europe, rather than those of their actual historical periods. For example, Egyptian soldiers appear garbed as armored European cavalry. Ancient cities, such as Troy and Babylon, are rendered in the style of medieval cities, with castles and fortified walls. Images of the Roman emperors and the Biblical patriarchs show their subjects dressed in the fashion of European nobility. Although anachronistic, these illustrations provide a valuable window onto the times in which the Chronicle was composed.

The page on the left includes an illustration of Carthage, depicted in the form of a medieval city. On the right is an image of Saul, the Biblical king of Israel, shown in 15th century dress.

Many of the illustrations in our copy have also been colored by hand, using paint and gold leaf. This would have been done after publication, usually at the expense and discretion of the book’s owner. Much of the book has also been rubricated, a process in which, much in the style of illuminated manuscripts, a scribe would inscribe initial letters and other ornamental flourishes onto the text. In addition to these decorative touches, our copy also contains numerous marginal annotations, which provide evidence of how contemporary readers responded to this text.

Alexander Clark Johnston

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