The Liber Chronicarum (Book of Chronicles) – also known as Die Schedelsche Weltchronik (Schedel’s World History) and the Nuremberg Chronicle – is a history of the world from the 15th-century European Christian perspective written by the German physician and humanist Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514) and illustrated by painters Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff. The book, which was created on commission from Nuremberg merchants Sebald Schreyer (1446-1520) and Sebastian Kammermeister (1446-1503), was published in Latin and German by printer Anton Koberger (godfather of the renowned painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer) in 1493. (Note that Johannes Gutenberg had invented the printing press not very long ago in 1447). It is one of the most noteworthy “incunables” (any pre-1501 printed and not handwritten work in Europe) of Germany and is a fine early specimen of a successful and extensive integration of text and illustration.
The Nuremberg Chronicle is basically a “Biblical paraphrase” – a literary work that does not abridge or translate the Bible but retells it in accordance with a particular historical or cultural setting. It merges the Christian metanarrative with the contemporary world so that the latter is projected through the lens of the prevalent theological doctrine and spiritual practice.
The entire Nuremberg Chronicle is available on the digital library of the University of Cambridge. The introduction states: “Drawn by the author from multiple medieval and Renaissance sources, such as Bede, Vincent of Beauvais, Martin of Tropau, Flavius Blondus, Bartolomeo Platina and Philippus de Bergamo (Iacopo Filippo Foresta), the Chronicle also incorporates geographical and historical information on European countries and towns. The narrative is divided into 11 parts, the so-called world ages, and is profusely illustrated by images of biblical and historical events, and topographical views of towns and countries in Europe and the Middle East, including Jerusalem (and its destruction) and Byzantium.”
The narrative of the Chronicle is arranged into seven temporal parts:
- First age – Creation to the Flood
- Second age – Till the birth of the patriarch Abraham
- Third age – Till the reign of King David
- Fourth age – Till the Babylonian captivity of Israel
- Fifth age – Till the birth of Jesus Christ
- Sixth age – Till the present time
- Seventh age – The end of the world and the Last Judgment
These are the opening sentences:
“Among the most learned and outstanding men who have described the true nature and history of the creation of the world and the first birth of man, a twofold opinion has emerged. We wish to write briefly of these first days and the beginnings, as much as befits things that lie so far in the past. Some have put forward the opinion that the world is without beginning and indestructible, and that the human race has existed for eternity. And that there was no beginning and no origin. Others maintain that the world was created and is destructible. And they say that mankind had its beginnings in a birth.”
A write-up on the website of Beloit College, Wisconsin states:
These first sentences of the Chronicle provide a window into Schedel’s compositional technique. The non-italicized words are those of the first-century BC Greek writer Diodorus Siculus, whose work was translated into Latin by the Florentine humanist Poggio in 1481. The italicized text is Schedel’s own words…From one perspective, we might conclude that Schedel is at best a copyist (the modern term plagiarist does not apply to a fifteenth-century writer) who occasionally interweaves additional material into the text for clarification (e.g., the phrase of the creation of the world and the first birth of man, the word opinion) or personal commentary (we wish to write briefly…). But from another perspective it is these very additions to his source material, additions that have been estimated to make up less than 10% of the Chronicle’s text, which can often reveal something about Schedel’s own mindset as well as that of the culture which produced him.
Now a selection of pages:
The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1976) by Adrian Wilson and Joyce Lancaster Wilson
Medieval Woodcut Illustrations: City Views and Decorations from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1998) by Carol Belanger Grafton
Schedel: Chronicle of the World – 1493 (2013) by Stephan Fussel
Featured: Woodcut of the city of Nuremberg, Germany from the Nuremberg Chronicle, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons