Illustrated World History

Hartmann Schedel, Registrum huius operis libri cronicarum cum figuris et ymagibus ab inicio mundi (Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1493)   Cpbd.c.3.lower shelf.5

Oxford, St John’s College, Cpbd.c.3.lower shelf.5. Detail of Rome (fols 57v and 58r)
Oxford, St John’s College, Cpbd.c.3.lower shelf.5. Detail of Nuremberg (fols 99v and 100r)
Oxford, St John’s College, Cpbd.c.3.lower shelf.5. Detail of England (fol. 289r)

This huge book is more commonly known as the Nuremberg Chronicle (also Schedelsche Chronik or Liber chronicarum). Despite its early publication date, it is certainly not a rare book. The Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue lists 858 holding institutions, some of them with multiple copies. It is, however, one of those books to which you can keep returning and still be surprised by details you had not noticed before.

Across over 600 pages the Nuremberg Chronicle presents a Christian history of the world, the first one ‘written in Germany from a humanist and scholarly perspective’ (Mosurinjohn & Ascough, p. 441). Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), a physician, humanist and historian from Nuremberg, was commissioned to compose the work by wealthy Nuremberg merchants. The woodcut illustrations were supplied by Michael Wolgemut (1434?-1519) and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (d. 1494), both also from Nuremberg.

The Nuremberg Chronicle, which features over 1,800 illustrations made from over 650 woodcuts, represents a significant development in the history of the book because of its sophisticated combination of text and illustrations. As Michael Wolgemut counted none other than Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) among his apprentices between 1486 and 1489, scholars have been debating whether (and what) Dürer may have contributed to the design and/or execution of the woodcuts. The majority of illustrations are little ‘portraits’, representing Biblical men and women, monarchs, popes as well as famous theologians, philosophers, writers, a noticeable number of physicians (not surprising, considering Schedel’s own profession), and other notable men and women (though mostly men) throughout history up to the mid-/late 15th century. The vast majority of the people illustrated are dressed in contemporary Renaissance clothes regardless of when or where they had lived. The beautiful, often large-scale illustrations of cities take centre-stage in the chronicle. Nuremberg itself takes pride of place. Spread out over two pages, it is the only illustration not surrounded by text. Most cities look very much like Renaissance continental European cities regardless of their geography or the historical time with which they are connected in the texts. This creates a uniform appearance and it can be difficult to identify cities without their captions. One noticeable exception to this is Rome, which is certainly easy to identify with the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Castel Sant’Angelo all represented. An entirely different matter is England. It appears twice in similar but not exactly matching woodcut illustrations with the captions ‘Anglie Provincia’ (fol. 46r) and ‘Anglia’ (fol. 289r), respectively. In neither illustration is it clear what city or cities are represented.

Oxford, St John’s College, Cpbd.c.3.lower shelf.5. The witch of Berkeley (fol. 189v)
Oxford, St John’s College, Cpbd.c.3.lower shelf.5. People of the Jewish faith being burned (fol. 220v)

The Nuremberg Chronicle is not without controversies. Among other issues, the misogynistic and anti-Semitic attitudes of its time are reflected in the book’s visual and textual content. The illustration of the witch of Berkeley, for instance, ‘helped popularize the link between […] witchcraft and the devil’ (Kenney & Tancheva) en route to the height of the European witch-hunts, which took place not in the ‘dark’ Middle Ages but between 1550 and 1650. The illustration is not only much larger than the four lines that outline the legend, but it is the largest illustration on that page. By comparison, the illustration of the wizard Merlin is almost dwarfed by the large paragraph dedicated to him. It is also noteworthy that in contrast to the female witch, the male wizard is depicted positively ‘normal’ considering that the accompanying text discusses his legendary human-demonic parentage.

Even clearer is the anti-Semitic thread that runs through the book in the descriptions and depictions of members of the Jewish faith after the birth of Christ. The Jewish people are consistently represented in a negative light, culminating with a depiction of the centuries-old false and absurd accusation that those of Jewish faith carried out ritual murders on Christian children:

‘[…] in Schedel’s world chronicle, post-biblical Jews kill; desecrate images and the Eucharist; poison wells and springs; and convent, but then revert, to Judaism. In return, they are expelled, burned, plundered, and killed. […] The Jews of Christian chroniclers are not the Jews Christians actually encountered every day as their neighbors, with whom they shared towns, neighborhoods, even homes. These were dangerous, demonic figures, enemies, who needed to be contained and punished’ (Teter, p. 50).

The texts next to depictions of Jewish people being burned present accusations which aim to ‘justify’ the burning after the fact. The phenomenon of ‘fake news’ is certainly not a recent development!

St John’s copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle has several annotations and ownership inscriptions. Most notably, someone has diligently gone through the copy trying to black out all occurrences of the word papa ‘pope’. According to the surprisingly precise ex dono inscription, the book was donated to the College on 23 January 1599 by the alumnus John Case (d.1600), a physician and philosopher.


Monurinjohn, Sharday C., and Richard S. Ascough, ‘The Nuremberg Chronicle: Art, Artifact and the End of the World’, Queen’s Quarterly 127:3(2020), 438-59.

Teter, Magda, ‘Blood Libel, a Lie and Its Legacies’ in Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past, ed. Andew Albin et al. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), pp. 45-54.

Kenney, Anne, and Kornelia Tancheva, The World Bewitch’d: Visions of Witchcraft from the Cornell Collections at [access 29/11/2022]

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