Go to navigation (press enter key)Menu

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

The Printing of the Nuremberg Chronicle: Background, Production, Legacy

By Ronald Patkus

In the years following the appearance of Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible around 1455 (not later than 1456), printing spread through German-speaking regions and other parts of Europe in remarkable ways, but we should take care to note that this growth was not always smooth, well-paced, and evenly distributed. For example, though many tried their hand at printing, not all were successful and able to make a stable career of it. As for rates of growth, there was a real upsurge in the 1470s (when the number of places where printing took place grew from 16 to 87), followed by a period of decline beginning in the 1490s.1 And though the new technology appeared in many geographical localities, it favored urban centers of trade. In the German-speaking lands, six cities dominated printing: Cologne, Strasbourg, Leipzig, Basle, Augsburg, and Nuremberg. In the southern areas, Basle, Augsburg, and Nuremberg each carved out their own niches in terms of type of material printed, and audiences served.

As was the case in other German towns and cities, the beginning of printing in Nuremberg is traced to the decade of the 1470s. The first dated book (Franciscus de Retza’s Comestorium Vitiorum) appeared in 1470, a collaboration between Johann Sensenschmidt and Heinrich Keffer, who had both worked in Mainz (Keffer had been an assistant to Gutenberg). Sensenschmidt had begun printing in Nuremberg before this; his undated edition of Albertus Magnus is thought to date from not later than 1469. He went on to print about 50 works in Nuremberg before moving on

to Bamberg, where he was equally productive in the 1480s. Other significant early Nuremberg printers include Friedrich Creussner, who had ties to the humanist circle in Nuremberg and produced over 200 books between 1472 and 1503, many of a literary nature; and Georg Stuchs, who specialized in liturgical books, and produced over 100 works between 1483 and 1517. There were several other printers who worked in the city around this time but individually their output was small.3

Among all printers active in Nuremberg in the final decades of the fifteenth century, clearly the one who operated the largest business and was most productive was Anton Koberger (ca. 1445-1513). He has recently been called by one scholar of early printing “the quintessential merchant publisher.”4 Koberger was born into one of the city’s wealthiest families, and was the godson of Albrecht Dürer the elder; later he would become godfather to Dürer the younger. His social standing meant that he would have had the financial means at his disposal to support a business venture, an important point in a speculative trade like printing. We do not know how he learned the craft, but he set up the second shop in the city and began work in 1470 or 1471. At first his output was small, but the business grew within a few years, and by the end of the century Koberger had printed over 200 books. The scale of his operation was enormous, with perhaps 18 or more presses running when he was at his peak in the 1490s. Koberger functioned not only as a printer, but also as a publisher and bookseller. His business was international in scope, and he maintained connections across the continent, with offices in Italy, France, and other parts of Europe. He paid close attention to his audience, and conservatively printed books that would sell. Koberger’s books bore certain traits: they were typically expensive, well-made, multi-volume works in Latin. Several examples from the 1480s, including two bibles, an edition of the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), and a devotional text called the Schatzbehalter, feature impressive woodcut illustrations.5

Given Koberger’s experience and ability, it was natural for the merchant Sebald Schreyer and his brother-in-law Sebastian Kammermeister to approach him when they conceived the production of a large-scale, illustrated chronicle of the world. There existed a long tradition of writing such historical works, and Schreyer and Kammermeister strived to surpass all of them. They backed the publication financially and sought out partners who could help them achieve their vision. They had already executed, in 1491, a contract with local artists Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, who ran a respected workshop that specialized in book illustration (the young Albrecht Dürer worked there for a short time). The artists were responsible for producing and correcting woodcuts for the books. The patrons of the project also enrolled the help of Dr. Hartmann Schedel, a member of the city’s circle of humanists, who was asked to compile the text, in Latin. The scribe Georg Alt was engaged to produce a translation from the Latin in to German, for a vernacular edition.

The Nuremberg Chronicle was a complicated endeavor that demanded substantial planning. In the 1491 contract between Schreyer and Kammermeister and the artists, it is noted that the artists will be responsible for supplying to the patrons manuscript layouts of both the Latin and German editions. Today we are fortunate that these remarkable sources (sometimes called exemplars) still survive, as they show an important stage in the production of the Chronicle. It is likely that the exemplars were created both in Schedel’s study (where his library would have provided useful models) and in Wolgemut and Pleydenwurff’s workshop. Scholars have determined that most of the writing of the text for the Latin exemplar was done by Schedel, though Alt and as many as five other hands also contributed. After the text was written out, illustrations were added; most of them are hand-drawn, but in a few cases there are woodblock prints. In addition to the exemplars themselves, a few preliminary drawings have also survived, which indicate an even earlier stage in the production of the illustrations. The German exemplar probably relied on the Latin exemplar; it has the same dimensions and the same paper. The bulk of its writing was done by an unknown scribe, though the script of Alt and several others also can be seen. There are some differences between the two exemplars; the German one, for instance, has fewer leaves, and some texts were changed or shortened. The importance of the exemplars is revealed by the fact that once they were given to the patrons, they were bound, with their coats of arms on the endpapers.6

In order to ensure that the exemplars were closely followed, it was necessary for one of the artists to be in Koberger’s shop during the printing process. A comparison of the exemplars with the printed copies shows some differences, but they are substantially the same. The Chronicle is made up of the following texts: an index title page (made from a calligraphic woodcut, not type); an index, mainly to people and places; a prefatory piece dealing with the story of the Creation; sections on the seven ages of the world, which begin with Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, the Babylonian Captivity, the birth of Christ, and the Antichrist; a section on the last age, or Judgement Day; a text on Poland; a text on Europe; and a colophon giving details on the making of the book.7 Together these texts run to 326 printed leaves in the Latin edition, and 297 in the German. By far the longest is the one on the sixth age of the world, which covers history from the time of Christ to the present; for both editions it runs from leaf 95 to leaf 258. It must be emphasized that Schedel functioned more as a compiler than an original author of texts. He drew substantially from a variety of works, especially Jacobus Philippus Foresti da Bergamo’s Supplementum Chronicarum, another universal chronicle that went through several editions, with woodcut illustrations. Other books of special value to Schedel were Aeneas Piccolomini’s books on Europe and Asia, Bartolomeo Platina’s book on the popes, Flavio Biondo’s book on the Roman emperors, and the bible, to name a few. In keeping with the practice of the time, Schedel usually did not cite his sources, though Piccolomini’s work toward the end of the book is clearly attributed.

Apart from the texts, a remarkable feature of the Chronicle is its illustrative nature; after all, this was the most heavily illustrated book of the entire period. A considerable amount of time, perhaps as much as 3 years, was spent creating the woodcuts. Altogether there are, incredibly, 1,804 of them, made from 652 woodblocks. The numbers here tell us that on occasion blocks were used more than once in the book. Most of the illustrations are of cities or people, and two maps (one of the world, one of Germany) appear. There is a focus on Germany in the depiction of cities, and in fact there are no illustrations of places in England, Spain, the Netherlands, or Flanders. Some of the city views were based on observation, others on models from books in Schedel’s library.Over the years scholars have speculated about the possibility that Albrecht Dürer contributed to the woodcuts, but this has never been definitively proven.9 Regardless, the Chronicle holds an important place in the rich tradition of illustrated books that developed in fifteenth century Germany.

Moving from the exemplars to printed sheets was a huge project even for a printer like Koberger who had substantial resources.10 Acquiring the paper alone (400,000 sheets were needed) was a major undertaking. The contracts specified the use of large superregal paper, and Koberger procured supplies from a variety of mills, as evidenced by watermarks. Koberger also was responsible for selecting typefaces that would be acceptable to the patrons; in the end a Rotunda type was chosen for the Latin edition, and a Schwabacher type was used for the German. Larger versions are used for headings, and initials appear in a Lombardic font. It likely took 2 or 3 months to design, cut and cast the type. Because of the survival of the contract with Koberger, we know the printing of the Latin edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle took place between March 16, 1492, and June 12, 1493. The German edition was completed by December 23 of the same year. With multiple presses being operated for long hours each day, approximately 1,300 Latin and 600 German copies were made, a substantial print run for the time. 11

Anton Koberger was responsible not only for printing the Nuremberg Chronicle, but also for coordinating sales and distribution. Soon after printing was completed, he issued a one-page prospectus in Latin, which proclaimed the virtues of the book to potential readers. It read, in part:

Speed now, book, and make yourself known wherever the winds blow free.
Never before has your like been printed.
A thousand hands will grasp you with eager desire
And read you with great attention.

Koberger relied on his wide network of agents, offices, and collaborators throughout Europe to market the book. Many copies of the Chronicle were sold, especially in the region around Nuremberg, but also in other places. A final account of sales, from 1509, indicates that copies were sent all over Europe, to places such as Milan, Florence, Bologna, Venice, and Genoa; to Paris and Lyon; and to places further afield, like Vienna, Cracow, Prague, and Buda. From copies now in libraries, we know that many chose to have the initials and/or illustrations in their Nuremberg Chronicle colored by hand, or the entire text placed in decorated bindings. Bound copies cost around 3 guilders, and those with coloring of the woodcuts cost around 6 guilders.12

In assessing the success of the work, we must note that according to the 1509 accounting, nearly 600 copies, mostly of the Latin edition, remained unsold. One wonders, though, if sales were affected by another development: the publication of the same work by another printer in Augsburg. Between 1496 and 1500, Johann Schönsperger produced three editions: two in German, and one in Latin. These books followed the Nuremberg printings very closely in terms of both text and illustration, but they were offered in a smaller format (quarto), with smaller type and newly-made illustrations. Schönsperger’s efforts were not illegal because no copyright laws existed at the time, but they reveal the vagaries of early printing, where possibility for one could mean difficulty for another. Still, if we combine the copies sold of all printings, we see an even wider influence of this work in the culture. Andrew Pettegree has observed that “the Chronicle was a formidable statement of German self-belief. It epitomized the commercial sophistication, economic power and technical virtuosity that had brought the art of print to this extraordinary climax.”13

The influence of the Nuremberg Chronicle can be seen in a number of books produced in the sixteenth century. In 1531, the German Protestant reformer Sebastian Franck published hisChronica, Zeitbuch und Geschichtsbibel (another chronicle of history) and relied substantively on Schedel’s work. The cartographer and scholar Sebastian Münster’s drew from the Chronicle in his Cosmographia, an important work of geography which first appeared in Basle in 1544 and went through a number of editions in the latter part of the century. Even works of a more literary nature drew on the Chronicle. The first book about the Faust story, for instance, the Historia von D. Johan Fausten, printed in 1587, betrays a close reading of it. In the story, Faust tours various European cities on his winged horse in an unusual pattern, which turns out to be in the same sequence as cities presented in the Nuremberg Chronicle.

In the twenty-first century, many copies of both the Latin and German editions of the Chronicle survive (approximately 800 of the former, and 400 of the latter).14 The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC), available via the British Library, lists copies held by institutions around the world.15 A number of them are noted as holding multiple copies of either the Latin or the German edition. In the United States, several institutions have more than one copy. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas holds the most copies of any American institution (6 Latin, 2 German, 1 German leaf, 1 Augsburg leaf). Fewer copies of the three Augsburg reprints survive, though some institutions do hold multiple copies. It should also be noted that apart from institutional holdings, there are still copies in private collections. Moreover, in addition to entire books, many fragments and individual leaves survive as well, both in institutions and in private collections. A quick search on the major online shopping sites for books yields copies of various leaves for sale.

Not only have many original copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle survived, but since the early twentieth century, several facsimiles of the work have been produced, attesting to its long-standing popularity.16 In 1933 F.W. Hendel Verlag of Leipzig published a full-sized facsimile of the German edition; this was a limited edition printed by Max Breslauer on special paper. A full-sized limited edition of the Latin Chronicle appeared between 1967 and 1970 from T. Marczell of Puchheim. During the last 50 years several other facsimiles have been produced that are not fully to scale or are otherwise different from the originals; recent examples include a 2001 color reproduction of the German edition issued by Taschen, and a facsimile of the Latin edition with notes and a complete translation into English by Smith & Press. In addition to the facsimiles, a number of leaf books, or books that contain original leaves from the Nuremberg Chronicle, have also been published. Examples include Henry Lewis Bullen’sThe Nuremberg Chronicle…Its Background, its Provenance, its Creators, its Patrons, its Illustrations, and its Literary Plan (San Francisco, 1930), printed by John Henry Nash, and Ernest Johnson’sLiber Chronicarum: A Folio of the Nuremberg Chronicle Restored from an Incomplete Copy from the Library of Lambton Castle, England (Greenwich, CT, 1932). The famous biblioclast Otto Ege offered leaves of the Nuremberg Chronicle in his portfolio Original Leaves from Famous Booksin 1949. Ellen Shaffer’s The Nuremberg Chronicle: a Pictorial World History from the Creation to 1493, featured a leaf of the Latin Augsburg reprint of 1497.

The wide availability of original copies and facsimiles of the Nuremberg Chronicle is impressive, but for those who wish to delve deeper into the history of the work, there is also to be found today a rich array of archival sources for study, mainly in Germany. The original contracts, the 1509 accounting, and other materials are held by the Nuremberg City Archives. Preliminary drawings of some illustrations are available at the Nuremberg City Library, the British Museum, and the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig. The Nuremberg City Library holds the exemplars of the Latin and German editions, letters, and related material.The Bavarian State Library in Munich has Schedel’s library, including his hand-colored copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, and books he examined during the writing process. Still other materials relating to Schreyer are held by the Nuremberg State Archives and the German National Museum in Nuremberg.17

The longstanding popularity of the Chronicle, the existence of numerous copies in various forms, and the availability of related archival sources, has led scholars, authors, bibliophiles and others to engage with the material, and an extensive bibliography on this topic has developed since the late nineteenth century. 18 The literature includes works in German, English, and other languages, and features monographs, journal articles, magazine articles, and other pieces. In addition, a number of impressive exhibitions have been mounted in various places which deal at least in part with the Chronicle. Since the arrival of the Internet, a variety of new web resources have appeared. Of special note are websites and blogs that provide information about particular copies of the Chronicle held by collecting institutions.19At the beginning of the twenty-first century, recognition of the place of the Nuremberg Chronicle in the history of early printing is secure, and we continue to examine sources for information that will expand our understanding of this remarkable work.


1 These trends are discussed by Ursula Rautenberg in “From Mainz to the World: Book Printing and the Book Trade in the Incunable Period,” in Gutenberg: Man of the Millenium (Mainz, 2000).

2 The connection with trade centers in the early period is brought out by Andrew Pettegree inThe Book in the Renaissance (New Haven and London, 2010), pp. 33 and 36-38. A search for titles in the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC) shows how dominant these cities were. Seehttp://www.ustc.ac.uk/

3 For a review of early printing in Nuremberg, see Elisabeth Rücker, Hartmann Schedels Weltchronik (Munich, 1988), pp. 14-17.

4 Pettegree, p. 37.

5 An excellent recent biographical source (in German) is Hans-Otto Keunecke’s “Anton Koberger,” in Anton Koberger: zum 500. Todestag des Druckers der Schedelschen Weltchronik(Nuremberg, 2013). For a short biography in English see Christoph Reske, Die Produktion der Schedelschen Weltchronik in Nürnberg=The Production of Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle(Wiesbaden, 2000), pp. 161-162. An older discussion is available in Adrian Wilson, The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle (Amsterdam, 1976), pp. 175-179.

6 The exemplars are discussed at length by Wilson, pp. 55-173. A more recent overview is provided by Stephan Füssel’s introduction to Chronicle of the World: the Complete and Annotated Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 (Cologne, 2001).

7 Stephan Füssel discusses the contents in detail in the appendix to Chronicle of the World.

8 A catalog of the city views is given by Rücker, pp. 131-228.

9 Erwin Panofsky discussed Dürer’s possible role in The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer(Princeton, 1943). An extended treatment is given in Leonhard Sladeczek, Albrecht Dürer und die Illustrationen zur Schedelchronik (Baden-Baden/Strasburg, 1965). More recent reviews can be found in Wilson, pp. 193-205 and Füssel, pp. 18-21.

10 The best analytical study of the physical aspects of the Chronicle is Reske, Die Produktion der Schedelschen Weltchronik.

11 See Reske, pp. 186-189.

12 Wilson, p. 237.

13 Pettegree, p. 42.

14 Sources give conflicting information about the number of surviving copies; I follow here both Pettegree and Reske.

15 For locations of copies of the Latin edition see http://istc.bl.uk/search/search.html?operation=print&expand=false&locations=all&istc=is00307000; for the German, seehttp://istc.bl.uk/search/search.html?operation=print&expand=false&locations=all&istc=is00309000

16 A full listing of facsimiles (up to 1988) appears in Rücker, p. 117.

17 A helpful listing of archival sources is provided by Reske, pp. 86-87.

18 Many key works have been cited here. For a comprehensive bibliography of printed works, see Reske, pp. 87-102.

19 See, for example, websites of Beloit College https://www.beloit.edu/nuremberg/index.htm)and the University of Rochester (http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=2460)