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Incunabula

Nuremberg chronicle

Woodcut image of Noah’s ArkWoodcut image of Noah’s ArkWoodcut images of devilish creatures with printed textWoodcut images of devilish creatures with printed textBookplates showing ownership of Michael Tomkinson and Charles BrookBookplates showing ownership of Michael Tomkinson and Charles BrookThe Liber chronicarum, or Nuremberg chronicle as it is also known, is a history of the world from a biblical perspective, written by the German humanist scholar Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514).

This ‘biblical paraphrase’, encompassing a history of the world, is divided into seven ages with the first age dealing with Creation to the deluge and the final age covering the end of the world and the Last Judgment.

The book includes 1,809 woodcut images and is regarded as one of the finest illustrated books of the 15th century. The woodblock subjects would have been sketched in first and the text set to fit in the remaining space.

The importance of images to the overall narrative is evident and the woodcuts depict biblical scenes such as the image of Noah building his ark, (which is reproduced here), major cities and characters from myth and fable.

Also evident is an underlying fear of the devil, illustrated by the diabolical imagery of a cloven hooved Satan and deformed creatures.

Each woodcut adds to the power of the narrative and the Nuremberg chronicle effectively combines techniques of print and illustration. Schedel, a bibliophile with a suitably extensive and well cared for library, drew from sources he knew well and themes of the Renaissance and advancements of the early modern world expand the work from the traditions of the medieval chronicle, into a more universally interrogative work.

There are two copies of this book held at King’s: one was presented to the University by Charles Brook, a theological student at King’s from 1953 to 1957; and before this the book belonged to Michael Tomkinson, of Franche Hall, Worcestershire.

These provenances are evidenced on the bookplate and presentation label reproduced here. This copy also has goatskin binding, which is blind-tooled with geometric designs on the front, back and spine, with raised bands and metal cornerplates.

From manuscript to print

The transition from the handwritten to the printed book, one of the key factors of the birth of the modern world, began in the mid-15th century, following Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the technique of printing with movable type.

In the other copy of this work held at King’s, an example of a medieval manuscript is bound within the book, and this is reproduced below.

The manuscript has been identified as a setting of part of the Catholic liturgy for Holy Week and has been dated to the early 15th century. The sheet found in the book contains words from the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah, set to music for use on Maundy Thursday.

This leads to the question of how a musical liturgy could have found itself within the binding of the Nuremberg chronicle.

Medieval manuscript from the binding of the Nuremberg chronicleMedieval manuscript from the binding of the Nuremberg chronicleThe discolouration around the top, bottom, and right-hand side of the manuscript is probably due to it being in contact with a previous leather binding and suggests that it was used as either a paste-down sheet on the inside front board or as an attractive flyleaf.

It would have remained like this, until the book received its new binding, when it was integrated into the book as a separate leaf.

In the study of incunabula and early printed books there is often more to the history of the book than is initially evident. History can be found in the most unlikely places, even within the bindings of books.

In this second copy, there is also evidence of 'papa' (Pope) having been crossed out in fol CII, CIII and CXI. This suggests the book was in the possession of an Englishman after King Henry VIII's break from Rome in 1532, but that the annotations occurred before King Edward VI's Protestant rule in 1547, because no Catholic martyrs have been defaced.

We are very grateful to Dr David Rundle, of Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, for his advice regarding this copy of the Nuremberg chronicle.

Link to King's College London catalogue record:
Hartmann Schedel. Liber chronicarum. Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 12 July 1493
Hartmann Schedel. Liber chronicarum. Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 12 July 1493
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