Tuesday, 9 September 2008

nuremberg chronicle

I managed to acquire something of a minor treasure during the summer: a leaf from the first edition (in Latin) of the Nuremberg Chronicles printed in 1493. This book purports to tell the story of the history of the world from the creation right up to the present day. It was immensely popular in its own day: 2500 copies were printed, many in German, and was possibly the first ever book to be pirated: a cheaper version was published in Augsburg in 1497.

The glory of this book lies not so much in the text as in the illustrations. It contains 1804 pictures, mostly of people, towns, genealogies and Bible stories. My leaf as you can see from the top left illustration is quite modest, but very typical.
However the 1804 illustrations are created from only 652 woodblocks, meaning that many images were used more than once. Thus an image depicting a Biblical king was used again for a contemporary king. And a prophet could quite easily reappear as a pope. In the same way the picture shown below which purports to be of Alexandria is also used in other parts of the book to represent Athens, Pavia, Austria, Carinthia, Prussia and Amazonia. The repetition of woodcuts was a common practice during this time, both in order to save money and because many readers of the Chronicle accepted these as idealized renderings of distant locales. However, there are 32 authentic city views in the Chronicle, based on both contemporary illustrations and models already existing in the printer's archives.
Of course the world whose history the chronicle purported to describe was narrow and flat. Columbus had only just sailed the ocean blue in1493 and his conclusions remained to be formulated let alone believed.

The best notion of the world’s shape was taken from Ptolemy’s Geographia, published in 150, rediscovered in 1300 and reprinted in the 1480s. Thus the world view that appears in the Nuremberg Chronicles was that formed 1350 years earlier. Within less than 50 years that view was itself history.

The credit for compiling these chronicles is usually given to a Nuremberg doctor, Schedel. And here another issue arises: just as the printers were quite happy to use any old picture in their stock of woodblocks so Schedel did little more than copy chunks of narrative from other sources and link them with the occasional conjunction or linking phrase. Over 90% of the text was lifted straight out of other histories. There is nothing new in plagiarism. Of course not all of these were in print so he made more widely accessible documents that existed in manuscript only.

So why the fuss about the Nuremberg Chronicles? It is not rare: a modest original double sided leaf of an early German edition with some illustration is available on the internet for around £50. The whole book can be bought in a fine facsimile for around £200. Many international libraries will carry an original copy and pages can easily be seen on the internet.

Some of the pictures are original and show interesting views of the places as they were in 1490. Some of the pictures were carved into the wood by significant artists such as the young Durer, who was born in Nuremberg and whose godfather Koberger oversaw the book production.

But perhaps what is most fascinating is the fact that these chronicles were produced right on the cusp of a significant change in human attitude to events and to mankind itself. In 1490 Germany it was quite acceptable to portray an obscure Judean king with the same features as a remote medieval one. It was their kingliness that was important not their appearance. Similarly a legendary , even make-believe, place like Amazonia (the Amazon itself was not yet discovered and was named after the myth—not the other way round) could be portrayed with the same features as Athens since both were reckoned to be places of significance: what was portrayed was aura not architecture. And yet in the same book there are magnificent realistic depictions of contemporary cities like Bamberg: we visited Bamberg this summer. It is still recognizable from this picture. Already people and places were being depicted with astonishing verisimilitude. When Cromwell, 150 years later, was painted warts and all he was by no means the first.

There is, though a further interesting side to the Nuremberg Chronicles. They do not end in 1493 when the book was printed. There is one further chapter in which the future is predicted. It was widely believed that the end of the world would come in 1500. This belief was based on an interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel that the time and a half of time referred to a period of 1000 and 500 years respectively. Since it was believed that Jesus had been born in the year 0 the year 1500 took on a huge significance.

So the book of the Chronicles has a purpose beyond that of simply providing Germany with a luxury picture book. It was produced to prepare a people for judgment. Durer’s first published book in his own name followed but 5 years later. It was a full, dazzling and terrifying illustrated edition of the Apocalypse. This end to the book was not speculative it was as certain as the stories of the past.
What was so amazing was that far from 1500 bringing the end of the world in the terms they envisaged it only brought the end of the world as they knew it. Far from closing down the world the demi millennium opened it up. For 500 years every year brought new discoveries, new continents, new rivers, new species of animals, new civilisations, new myths and new perspectives. By 1830 geologist Archibald Lyell was stating about the earth that there was no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end. And no longer could two people be given the same face for the very variety of the world and its peoples rather than its homogeneity is its glory. Our young people trek the frontiers of heaven from monastery to monastery in the mystic heights of the Himalayas, our old people traverse the oceans on cruise ships to the frightening ends of the earth at Terra del Fuego, in the Magellan Straits named after the man whose crew first circumnavigated the world less than 30 years after the Chronicles were printed. Now round the world racing is an annual and almost unremarkable event.

Above all the Nuremberg Chronicles were a triumph for the recently invented printing press. They showed the glory of what could be produced. And in what numbers. It was the printing press that facilitated the Lutheran Reformation. It was the printing press that revolutionised the sharing of knowledge. In many ways it was the very medium of which the Chronicles were one of the finest examples that brought about the end of its world. That ultimately is what fascinates in this extraordinary work. Not only does it stand on the cusp of two ages, it is in itself that cusp.

But in the same way we live on the cusp of a new age. Computers and the world wide web are to our age a not dissimilar revolution to that of printing in the 15th century. The exploration of the universe, the discovery of DNA, the ability to create life, all these are about to change our world as dramatically as did the discoveries of the sixteenth century.
To some extent we have learnt our lesson: not even many theologically anchored history books are bold enough to end with the last judgment as if it were an historical event. The church may laugh at the naivety of the soviet astronaut who returned to earth saying he had been out there an found no trace of heaven or God. And yet I received a book this week from an American publisher purporting to prove modern science wrong and the Bible right about the creation of the world. This book is wondrously illustrated, weighs about 8 kilos and is but the second volume in a total work of 7. It concentrates all this page power on Darwin, who lived and died an honest Christian struggling to discover a little more about God’s world than was revealed in the closed minds within which the church had imprisoned it.

Brothers and sisters once it was a best seller but now the Nuremberg Chronicles are no longer read. No one is going to take a world view for our age even from such an impressive tome. It belongs in museums and glass cases. Its pages are just a curiosity for collectors: one of the last great works o the middle ages, one of the first great printed books. What message is the church proclaiming for this new world in which we live? Fifty years ago the gospel was still being delivered in virtually Victorian ways. In the last 50 years things have changed a little. But sadly much that the church says today is as irrelevant as the maps of the Nuremberg Chronicle were to Magellan and Drake.

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