Of the fifty or so medieval printed books held in Worcester Cathedral Library, one really does stand out from all the rest. Its size is one the first things that strikes you – at 450mm by 310mm it puts most modern glossy coffee table books to shame. Yet it’s inside that the wonder really begins. It contains no fewer than 1809 woodcut prints, making it easily one of the most lavishly illustrated books of the Middle Ages. Written by the Bavarian polymath Hartmann Schedel, the book is known in Germany as Die Schedelsche Weltchronik, but in the English-speaking world is more commonly named after the city in which it was created – Nuremberg.
So just what is the Nuremberg Chronicle? Essentially, it is a history of the world. Following the conventions of late medieval thought and understanding, it begins with the Genesis creation narrative, proceeds through both Old and New Testaments, gives a healthy level of attention to Graeco-Roman history and mythology, and then proceeds through the medieval period and up to the contemporary world of 1493. Then it keeps going – until the end of the world and Judgement Day.
Interspersed amongst all this are various digressions on geography and the histories of various cities. Some of the most impressive illustrations are cityscapes – Nuremberg is honoured with a whole double-page spread, showcasing its fine houses, broad thoroughfares, a double ring of mighty, defensive walls and some truly gravity-defying towers. Nuremberg may seem from this to be more impressive than it actually was, but on the whole these cityscapes tend to be accurate – at least for the area in and around the place of the book’s production. The drawings of the great cities of Southern Germany and Italy do bear a real resemblance to both what was actually there, and often to what is there now. The views of Rome and Florence, for instance, are instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever visited those places.
Often, the detail is rather remarkable too. The view of Cologne shows the Cathedral topped by a huge crane. This crane was in place since at least 1473, when work on the Cathedral’s west front was suddenly halted. It was still there when the work was recommenced, 369 years later in 1842.
The Nuremberg Chronicle does, however, rather let itself down in other areas. The cities of the British Isles and Scandinavia – on the fringes of civilization in the medieval world, are nowhere represented. Less important cities are often illustrated with the same generic woodcut scene, often repeated several times. The same is true of some of the less important people from history. Of the 1809 illustrations, only 645 of these are original. Important places which were a long distances from Nuremberg – such as Constantinople or Jerusalem are often depicted accurately – but there is lots of evidence to suggest that the artists working on the Chronicle plagiarised the efforts of others.
Taken with a large pinch of salt, the Nuremberg Chronicle is still a useful resource for students of the later Middle Ages. It shows us not only the built environment, but also offers clues about the society, fashion, religion, superstition, and the state of science in Europe in 1493.
Beyond its contents, the Chronicle is interesting as a book in its own right. Printing was still very much in its infancy when the Chronicle was published, but as a product it offered a glimpse on the future of book production. It was one of the first books to be mass produced, with its printer, Anton Koberger, reputedly employing over 100 apprentices and having now fewer than 24 presses in operation. The art work was contracted out to a certain Michael Wolgemut, whose workshop is likely to have employed a large number of people, including (at one point) a young Albrecht Dürer. Estimates for the number of volumes produced range upwards to 2500 – a number without precedent so early on in the history of the printed book.
Some 800 copies of the Chronicle survive intact to the 21st Century – which actually makes it a relatively common book, when considering how old it is. Yet it would be quite wrong to assume that all printed books are truly identical. Some editions of the Chronicle were produced in Latin, and some in German. Some have hand-coloured decoration, others are without it. Some have interesting notes in the margins, acquired over the years, or have associations with particularly noteworthy historical characters.
Worcester’s copy, as a monochrome Latin edition (coloured ones are rarer, as is the version in German) may not seem terribly special, but it is unique in its own and interesting way. While we don’t know how long we have had our copy, it was certainly here by 1774 – for in that year Dr Samuel Johnson visited Worcester Cathedral, and mentions seeing it in the Chapter House, where the library was located from 17th to the late 19th Centuries.
Yet another curious thing about our copy also comes from the Georgian period. On the frontispiece is written ‘Per Wolfbrand Oldenbuck’. Inscriptions in books can often give us exciting information about aspects of their history, such as their provenance and previous owners. Wolfbrand Oldenbuck, however, never owned or had anything whatsoever to do with our copy, on account of the fact that he never existed. He is a fictional character who features in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary, published in 1816. In a scene from Scott’s novel, two historians are engaged in a debate over their conflicting ideas. In order to compound their arguments by emphasising their respective academic pre-eminence, the conversation turns towards the prestige of their ancestors. The eponymous antiquarian, Jonathan Oldbuck, claims descent (spuriously) from a certain Wolfbrand Oldenbuck, the typographer of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Yet we know that the Chronicle was printed by Anton Koberger. Oldenbuck never existed outside of Scott’s imagination – and the appearance of his name in our Nuremberg Chronicle is instead perhaps evidence of a great wit doing the rounds in the Cathedral library in the early 19th Century.