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Never Before Has Your Like Been Printed: The Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493

Nuremberg, c. 1493

By Nancy Bisaha

On the banks of the Pegnitz River, almost directly in the center of the Holy Roman Empire, lay the imperial city of Nuremberg. With approximately 20,000 inhabitants, the city was well populated for the region and the period—only Cologne was larger. Its wealth and productivity as a trade center made it one of the most important cities in southern Germany, competing with Augsburg and Basel.1 In 1493, Nuremberg would become known across Europe for another reason: it was the birthplace of the massive Liber chronicarum, or Nuremberg Chronicle, compiled by Hartman Schedel and printed by Anton Koberger, a tome which claimed to cover all of world history from the Creation to the 1490s. Filled with beautiful wood cut illustrations and maps to boot, the work soon became a best seller. What was it about Nuremberg that gave rise to this enormous achievement? Was it the city’s wealth, its learning, its political autonomy, or simply the vision of a few of its citizens? To some extent all of these factors played a role. This essay will examine each of them.

Before delving into the specifics of Nuremberg, we should pause to consider what it meant to be an imperial city c. 1493. First, what we call Germany today was a veritable hodge podge of towns, principalities, and regions loosely linked by their common acceptance of an elected emperor as their leader. In 1493 that office was newly occupied by Maximilian I (r. 1493-1519), a man responsible, at least in theory, for organizing defenses against the Ottomans and the French, and keeping peace between the vast territories under his purview, stretching from the Low Countries to Northern Italy to Austria. Keeping any semblance of unity in the empire alone was a daunting and futile job.2 The empire was made up of some 3,000 cities and towns, 65 of which were imperial cities like Nuremberg. This gave it special status; with a remote and preoccupied emperor as their overlord, the Nurembergers managed to escape the meddling of lords and bishops who ruled other towns.

Nuremberg, as a result, enjoyed more freedom and sovereignty than most German towns, governing its citizens and the surrounding territory by means of an elected City Council. The emperors and local lords rarely tried to interfere with their industrial and commercial activities, allowing the elites of the city to grow wealthy and develop a strong sense of civic identity. As Strauss argued in his survey of the city, “No one questioned Nuremberg’s standing as one of the two or three preeminent cities in the Empire.”3 On occasion, however, some did question it with military force, including the Hussites in the 1420s and Albert “Achilles” of Brandenburg who led the Second Cities War against the city and other allied towns in 1449. Strong walls were therefore completed in the mid 15th c. with 150 towers and a 60 foot trench. The sight of Nuremberg as one approached by land or river, must have been impressive indeed. Not only was it powerful, but it was beautiful. As Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, a Sienese humanist serving at the imperial court, who later became Pope Pius II, wrote in the mid 15th century, “What a splendid appearance this city presents! What beauty of location, what learning there, what culture, what a superb government! Nothing is missing to make a perfect civic community. How clean the streets, how elegant the houses!” Given his familiarity with many German (and Italian) cities, this was saying something.4

So what made this city such a prize and kept merchants coming in a steady stream? First, Nuremberg was known for its metalwork, including gold. Its craftsmen produced diverse and beautifully crafted items of all shapes and sizes ranging from large church bells to armor, swords, lanterns, scissors, jewelry, buttons, and nails. Musical instruments, clocks, keyless locks, and compasses—works of wondrous precision—also put Nuremberg on the map.5 Its central location aided Nuremberg’s success, as did the decline of the Hanseatic League, which pushed traffic to several inland cities. By the early fourteenth century, no fewer than twelve major trade routes led in and out of the city. These routes became even busier after the late fourteenth century, when the city abolished restrictions against foreign merchants, thereby drawing them and their business as never before. Nor did Nuremberg simply wait for merchants to come to the city; her merchants ventured out and extended Nuremberg’s economic reach to other towns. If they were less ambitious than the men of Augsburg, like the rich Fuggers, the Nurembergers were more stable in their fortunes.6 The city’s central location also made it an ideal spot for imperial diets, hosting large crowds from around the empire.

A healthy economy and regular traffic would be hard to sustain without a capable, harmonious government, and Nuremberg was blessed with one at the end of the fifteenth century. The city received a charter from Emperor Frederick II in 1219, granting its citizens security of person and property and providing other legal rights and protections including a group rate for taxes on the entire city, which lightened the load on each individual. These privileges were a boon for the city, but Nuremberg continued to be subject to the local Hohenzollern Burggraf in many judicial matters. While the Burggrafen tried to tighten their hold on the city, communal officers chosen by the citizens found ways to increase their own authority by controlling tax collection and police power, for example. In 1313 these communal officers were recognized by Emperor Henry VII in a new privilege, thereby reversing the relationship between the city and imperial agents. In 1422 after the Burggraf”s castle burnt down, Emperor Sigismund awarded the hill on which the imperial castle stood to the city. The City Council now controlled the fortress, and in 1427 the city purchased the remaining governing prerogatives from Burggraf Frederick VI. County courts were further denied jurisdiction over Nuremberg’s citizens.7

Lest we view the rise of the Council and the marginalization of the Burggraf as the triumph of democracy, we must ask what role the lower classes played in all of this. The Council was, or quickly became, a body comprised of elite citizens. Some of the city’s artisans rebelled in the mid-fourteenth century against this governing class, using their guilds in the same way Florentines had done: as highly organized, governing bodies and a means to demand a share of communal rule. But their quest for political participation was short-lived. With the help of Emperor Charles IV, the Council dissolved and banned guilds in 1349, thereby ensuring little challenge to the few powerful families who dominated Nuremberg’s politics. Broader-based government was a small price to pay for peace and prosperity—or so the council and emperor would argue.8 An even sadder casualty of the city’s quest for stability and control was the targeting and eventual exile of Nuremberg’s Jewish population in 1498. Why the Council decided on a permanent expulsion is unclear, but they seemed coldly confident that they no longer needed the Jews for financial stability and profited heavily by selling their homes to the highest bidders.9 The city now had a homogenous religious population—at least until the 1520s when Luther’s revolt would pit Catholics against Protestants. Ironically, Nuremberg would become a leader in the Reformation and tout its religious principles as the Council openly broke away from the Roman Church, but no such self determination was granted to the Jews who had lived in the city for centuries.

The aura of control and stability the Council sought to create was punctured in other ways in this period. Brigands and robber barons prowled the woods and hills outside Nuremberg attacking individuals, stealing cattle, and sometimes declaring feud against the city itself; major disturbances took place on a yearly basis. The Council combated this by diplomacy and sometimes force, hiring mercenaries to hunt the worst offenders. In 1499 the Burggraf of Rothenburg lashed out at the Council by kidnapping one of its members, cutting off his right hand, and sending the man home with the mutilated appendage in his pocket. Perhaps it was an effort to control some of this countryside, to profit from it, or both, that led the city in 1504 to seize eastern districts around the city known as the Neue Landschaft. Nuremberg did not deliberately go to war for this purpose—it had become embroiled in the War of Bavarian Succession, which provided the opportunity—but it was still an unusual move among southern German cities, and it made Nuremberg the largest city-state in Germany.10

While thriving business and autonomous government provided some of the spirit and means to help produce the Nuremberg Chronicle, this volume would never have been conceived or brought to fruition had the city not possessed a vibrant intellectual climate. As with all late medieval cities, business depended on widespread literacy and numeracy as well as a class of notaries and jurists trained to make contracts, keep records, and generally ensure that the wheels of commerce and government continued to turn. In the fifteenth century, another intellectual force began to make itself felt: humanism, which arrived by way of Italian scholars who had taken posts in the North, like Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, or German scholars who had traveled south and brought back their learning.

Whereas some German towns benefited from the presence of either a strong secondary school or a university, Nuremberg had neither of these. In fact, some have claimed that the city did little to encourage intellectual growth. Artists like Dürer may have elicited respect from the conservative citizens for their craftsmanship, “but a social and political climate that put so little value on independent thinking and did its best to discourage adventurous minds from reaching untested conclusions was bound to exert a stifling effect on thought.”11 If Conrad Celtis is any guide, this was not altogether untrue. The famous German humanist composed a stirring encomium of Nuremberg in 1493 only to be offended by the stingy payment the Council offered him; perhaps anticipating the snub, as Strauss argues, “theNorimberga contains not a single reference to an intellectual life… and his silence on this point is a conspicuous testimony of his opinion of counselors and townsfolk.”12 Other scholars take a more positive view of intellectual life in Nuremberg. Like Augsburg, Noel Brann argues, Nuremberg “found the mainstay of support for the humanist program in its patriciate, possibly aided by the establishment of a literary sodality but unsustained by a supporting educational institution.”13 In short, despite the absence of a formal school or university and the conservative bent of the Council, the elite citizens of the town nourished a love of the new learning with a strong focus on the classics, history and rhetoric, especially.

Some of the early lights of Nuremberg were mid-century jurists like Gregor Heimburg, who earned degrees in civil and canon law from Padua and wrote passionately on the city’s behalf against the claims of Albert Achilles c. 1450.14 His role in bringing Italian learning to Germany was compared by his friend Piccolomini to that of Cicero, who brought Greek eloquence to Italy.15 Far from being alone in his interests, Heimburg was part of an intellectual circle in Nuremberg comprised of Heinrich Leubing, Martin Mair, and Nicholas von Wyle. Jurist and secretary von Wyle was also praised by Piccolomini in 1452 “I rejoice to see the art of oratory finding its way back to Germany and am confident that the rhetorical art will soon again be revived in this region. For in an earlier time there were many Germans who not only were well educated, but who composed very ornate writings.”16 Von Wyle also translated Latin and Italian texts by Petrarch, Boccaccio, Poggio Bracciolini, and others into German. 17

At the same time, it bears noting that every one of these scholars soon moved on to other places: “None of these men remained in Nuremberg long enough to alter the city’s cultural tone, but they did introduce the discussion of topics which had been exciting literary men in Italy for some time.”18 The itinerant nature of these scholars may be seen as a commentary on the city or at least an explanation of why its intellectual tradition is less known than its artistic achievements. Still, the city impressed Piccolomini enough for him to comment in hisGermania (1458) “kings of Scotland wish they could live as well as a modest Nuremberg citizen,” calling it “a city perfect in every sense.”19 Clearly, much was happening in Nuremberg, and the next generation of scholars—men and women who were born and chose to remain there—showed the effects.

Three individuals stand out in this period: Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530) and his sister Caritas Pirckheimer (1467-1532). The Pirckheimers are later contemporaries who take us just beyond the scope of this essay, but their contribution was significant and can be tied to the cultural context of Schedel’s heyday. Willibald was born to a well-to-do patrician family in Nuremberg. He studied law and the classics for seven years in Italy, but returned to Nuremberg and served on the Council from about 1502-1523. He also inherited and built up a very large private library.20 Despite his busy career as a lawyer and Council member, he wrote works like The Swiss War and the humorous Defense and Praise of the Gout. In the latter work he extolled the liberal arts for their ability to help devotees rise above their sufferings and look to higher concerns, arguing that they “should not be condemned… but should be learned far into the future… For the knowledge of letters and of the good arts is far superior to external honors and great wealth.”21 Clearly the humanities comforted the busy Pirckheimer who, himself, suffered from the gout.

Willibald’s older sister Barbara was devoted to both humanism and religious life. She first studied with her father and was tutored by an aunt in Latin. She entered St. Clare’s convent school at age 12 and later took the veil and the name of Caritas. In 1503 she became abbess. Had it not been for the Reformation and Nuremberg’s decision to adopt Lutheranism, Caritas might not be remembered today. But her courageous fight against the Council, which tried to force the young nuns to return to their families and the convent to close, provided the circumstances for a fascinating record of her struggles and her eloquent defense of female religious life. Caritas and many of the sisters refused to budge even when forced to hear sermons that dragged on for hours on Lutheranism or when their mothers attempted to fetch them home. In the end, through the touching intervention of Luther’s right hand man (and fellow humanist), Philip Melancthon, the Council was persuaded to allow the convent to remain open; they even apologized to Caritas.22 This moment speaks volumes about the character of the town’s citizens: their strength of conviction, but also their ability to compromise in the end for the sake of stability and decorum.23 It is worth noting that Nuremberg was among the few imperial cities in 16th century where the City Council quickly picked up on the people’s impulse to reform and then led the way.24

Finally, we turn to Hartmann Schedel and his wonderful book. Schedel—like his cousin Hermann, many of whose books he inherited—studied in Padua and collected and copied as many texts as he could get his hands on: mostly Latin classical authors and Greek scientific works, but also Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Piccolomini’s works. He became a municipal physician in Nuremberg in 1481, but continued to read, collect, and eventually, write history of his own.25 Much of the credit for this project goes to Sebald Schreyer and Sebastian Kammermeister, the patrons of the project who asked Schedel to compile a history. Influenced, no doubt, by the local chronicle tradition, Schedel compiled and arranged a massive 600 printed pages of narratives from the Bible, chronicles, legend, literature, and classical and humanist history, all the while inserting his own authorial touches and vision.26

We can point to other influences that led this opus: humanism, scientific studies, book collecting, and Schedel’s circle of scholarly friends, but we must also remember the impact of the new technology and the business of printing itself, which thrived in Nuremberg. The Chronicle, as Strauss reminds us “was a happy result of the joint efforts of scholar, artists, printer, and businessman.”27 It was a work that citizens firmly believed would redound to the credit of their city, as Petegree argues, “…the ambition to place Nuremberg at the centre of an encyclopedic rendering of world history from the Creation made it an especially important project for the city’s merchant elite.” The printer Anton Koberger stated as much in a broadsheet advertising the work: “Nothing like this has hitherto appeared to increase and heighten the delight of men of learning and of everyone who has any education at all: the new book of chronicles with its pictures of famous men and cities which has just been printed at the expense of rich citizens of Nuremberg.”28 Koberger’s words say as much about the civic capital required to produce the Chronicle as the intention to reach a broad readership: “everyone who has any education at all” could benefit from such a work.

One sure way to reach a broad audience was to offer it in two languages. The Chronicle was printed in 1493 in 1,300 Latin and 600 German copies, ensuring it would be read across Europe, but especially in the Holy Roman Empire.29 The goal of reaching vernacular audiences, then, was present from the start. As such it can be seen as an early expression of “national” pride—a desire to distinguish modern German intellectual work from that of Italian humanists who were all too keen to credit their own ancestors for the civilizing influence Italians supposedly had on Germans since ancient times.30 The very mode of production of this work can also be seen as an expression of national pride. There was something very German about early printing with its recent origins in Gutenberg’s press. Conrad Celtis proudly called it “the German art,” placing its great contribution to learning on a footing with accomplishments of the Greeks and Latins.31

The economic, social, political, and cultural milieu of Nuremberg c. 1493 gives us a glimpse into a proud citizenship that was attached to their local traditions, but also outward looking, seeking dialogue with the larger world of historical thought, humanism, religious studies, and the sciences. The Nuremberg Chronicle was a potent means to send this message to the outside world and to invite a vigorous intellectual exchange with the city.


1 See Gerald Strauss, Nuremberg in the Sixteenth Century (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1966), 36-37; Andrew Petegree, The Book in the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 36. Petegree estimates the population at 50,000, which seems too large and may either take in the area outside the walls or derive from Conrad Celtis’s inflated number in 1502.

2 Strauss, Nuremberg, 1.

3 Strauss, Nuremberg, 6-7.

4 Strauss, Nuremberg, 4; Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, Germania, ed. and tr. Gioacchino Paparelli (Fussi: Florence, 1449), 58.

5 Strauss, Nuremberg, 135-40.

6 Strauss, Nuremberg, 127; Fritz Rörig, The Medieval Town (Berkeley: University of California Press), 103-4.

7 Strauss, Nuremberg, 42-45

8 Strauss, Nuremberg, 49-50

9 Strauss, Nuremberg, 121-23.

10 Strauss, Nuremberg, 52-53; Tom Scott, The City-State in Europe, 1000-1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 149, 240.

11 Strauss, Nuremberg, 234.

12 Strauss, Nuremberg, 237-38.

13 Noel Brann, “Humanism in Germany,” in Renaissance Humanism, ed. Albert Rabil Jr., (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), vol. 2: 128.

14 Strauss, Nuremberg, 242.

15 Brann, “Humanism in Germany,” 129.

16 Brann, “Humanism in Germany,” 126.

17 Brann, “Humanism in Germany,” 129.

18 Strauss, Nuremberg, 242.

19 Piccolomini, Germania, 58, 60.

20 Eckhard Bernstein, German Humanism (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983), 96-7.

21 Brann, “Humanism in Germany,” 149.

22 Caritas Pirckheimer, Journal of the Reformation Years, 1524-1528, tr. Paul MacKenzie (Rochester: D.S. Brewer, 2006), 9.

23 On Melancthon, see Brann, “Humanism in Germany,” 147-49.

24 Bernd Moeller, Imperial Cities and the Reformation, ed. and tr. H.C. Erik Midelfort and Mark U. Edwards, Jr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 61.

25 Strauss, Nuremberg, 238-39.

26 Strauss, Nuremberg, 253-55.

27 Strauss, Nuremberg, 255.

28 Petegree, Book in the Renaissance, 41.

29 Christoph Reske, Die Produktion der Schedelschen Weltchronik in Nürnberg,
(Weisbaden: Harrassowitz: 2000).

30 Brann, “Humanism in Germany,”138; Piccolomini, Germania.

31 Brann, “Humanism in Germany,” 140.