Writing in the Margins: The Annotated Nuremberg Chronicle

This week we welcome guest author Dr Nina Adamova, British Academy Visiting Fellow at St Petersburg University, who explores a particularly interesting copy of The Nuremburg Chronicle held at the Central Library. Dr. Adamova will be delivering a talk on the same subject tomorrow at 2pm. Tickets are still available at the time of writing. 

The Nuremberg Chronicle is one of the most famous early-printed books. It tells the history of the world and of the Church in a manner typical of medieval Chronicles – but its implementation in print is truly remarkable. As early as 1493, the Nuremberg printer Anton Koberger unprecedentedly managed to create no less than 1400 copies of the 600-page book, adorned with more than 1800 illustrations. Such was the impact of the Nuremberg Chronicle that, three years later, a shrewd Augsburg printer, Johann Schönsperger, decided to ‘pirate’ Koberger’s idea in order to produce his own, smaller edition. However, he had to compromise on the quality of the illustrations, which had been crudely copied from the original. At the same time, Schönsperger’s edition was much cheaper and more affordable for the common readers. A copy of such ‘pirated’ edition (1497) belongs to Leeds Central Library and is undoubtedly one of its most outstanding treasures.

That copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle not only presents an exciting example of early printing, but also demonstrates an intriguing case of early reading. Indeed, the editions of the Chronicle have been always appealing to their readers, who admired both text and illustrations, as we can judge by numerous marks and notes they left in the margins of their copies. For example, in the age of Reformation, both Catholics and Protestants paid special attention to the Chronicle’s interpretation of sacred history, often censoring the parts they disagreed with, or complementing it with their own versions of the history of the Church. The 16th century English readers of the Central Library’s copy may illustrate such reading practices, as at least some of them had demonstrated an undoubtedly Protestant reaction to the text of the Chronicle.

The image above shows the page where a reader censored the image of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (1118-1170). Having been the most venerated saint in pre-Reformation England, as well as the then-King’s rival, the image of Thomas Becket was immediately attacked by Henry VIII after his break with Rome. In 1538, Henry ordered the destruction of Becket’s shrine, the banning of his ‘festival’, and the erasing of his name and images from ‘all the books’. In this copy, a reader might have crossed out the section on Thomas Becket violently in compliance with Henry’s decree, but probably also because of his own Protestant enmity towards ‘false’ saints and cults.

However, this is the only marginal note in this copy of the Chronicle, which reveals anti-Catholic sentiments so straightforwardly. The identified readers of the book, late 16th century English gentry or yeomen families (the Chaffyns of Seals in Wiltshire, James Langrake, and Thomas Doggett) annotated the book only slightly. They left confusing ownership inscriptions, a few notes in English, a psalm, a complaint by Thomas Doggett about being kept for 12 days at someone’s ‘porter’s lodge’ and, finally, a rusty imprint of a key, which probably served as a bookmark (see image above). Almost all notes are made in English, which makes us wonder if these readers knew enough Latin to understand the meaning of the Chronicle’s text. Therefore, this copy of the Chronicle’s presents a fascinating example of how a Latin book would be used and treated by ‘unlearned’ readers from minor gentry families in the late 16th century, who apparently cherished this book and carefully passed it through generations in their families.

Please contact the Information and Research department to arrange access to this copy of the Nuremburg Chronicle. 

Dr. Adamova’s talk was very-well received on the day – here are a few comments from attendees:

“It’s  a fascinating topic and very well presented. The enthusiasm of the speaker was infectious. As a member of the audience I was amazed at her curiosity.”

“Lovely, intellectually challenging.”

“Very interesting and enjoyable.”

“Very interesting story of the book. Made me think about writing in the margins.”

“Unexpected information about a lovely book. Really enjoyable.”

“Interesting subject. I previously had no idea that Leeds possess a copy of the Chronicle.”

And here is a short slideshow of images of the book and the talk:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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