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Rare-book Detective Work: The Nuremberg Chronicle

Nuremberg ChronicleSchedel, Hartmann (1440-1514). Liber chronicarum. Nuremberg: Anton Korberger, 12 July 1493.

Known most commonly as the Nuremberg Chronicle (top, left), Hartmann Schedel’s Liber chronicarum provides a complete history of the known world—to 1493, that is. Its Latin text and more than eighteen hundred woodcut illustrations recount what its German author and illustrators knew of history: from Creation through the fifteenth-century and on ahead to the Second Coming of Christ.

Perhaps the quirkiest characteristic of the Chronicle is its inclusion of blank pages between the 1493 present and the anticipated Last Judgment. More than just a symbolic representation of the unknown future, the pages give owners of the Chronicle space to record the rest of history with their own pens. Evidently, the chroniclers believed that the Second Coming wasn’t far off, as they only left three blank leaves with which to complete the task.

Two Blank Leaves, Nuremberg ChronicleRecently, we noticed that the Dibner Library’s copy of Liber chronicarum has only two blank leaves (center, left) rather than the usual three. These leaves are shorter than the others and have clearly been repaired. Our investigation of this anomaly offered us a chance to do a little rare-book detective work.

Folio Seven, Nuremberg ChronicleFirst, we looked for other repairs to the Dibner Library’s copy of the Chronicle. Folio seven (bottom image), which contains a woodcut portraying the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, shows evidence not only of repair but replacement. Holes from bookworm damage align through folios six and eight, but a different pattern of holes in folio seven proves that it is not original to our copy of Liber chronicarum.

This replacement leaf was evidently taken from a copy of the Chronicle that was trimmed down at some point from its original size (a common fate of early books printed with wide margins). In order to match the pages of the Dibner’s larger copy, the replacement leaf was surrounded on all four sides by a border of newer paper, as if it were a photograph matted in a frame. It was then tipped in to the binding, a technique in which a detached leaf is glued to the stub of the original page. This sort of leaf-substitution repair was common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Without knowing more about the paper used in the border and the provenance of our copy, though, it’s impossible to know for sure when the work was completed.

To find out if the Dibner’s copy is unique in needing repair to folio seven, I compared notes with Jay Satterfield, Head of Special Collections at Dartmouth College.

Jay writes that, though folio seven is intact in both Dartmouth’s copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle, it is “of a slightly lighter weight paper than the surrounding leaves.” He suggested that “if the piece of paper used . . . was less strong, then it would be more likely to tear, need repair, or just plain break down and need to be replaced at some point.” It isn’t surprising that paper thickness is variable in the Chronicle, since according to Adrian Wilson’s The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle (Amsterdam: Nico Israel, 1976) the amount of paper needed to print Schedel’s monumental work was so large no one mill could handle the task. With up to half a dozen paper mills contributing to the final product, some variation in paper thickness (and thus durability) is to be expected.

After hearing from Jay about the condition of the Dartmouth copies, we looked again at the paper of the Dibner’s folio seven. Unfortunately, the repaired border makes the folio’s paper thickness difficult to judge. We can’t know for sure whether it was an intrinsic weakness in the paper, poor handling, or some other accident that damaged our copy of Liber chronicarum, but a five-hundred-year-old book nearly always needs some kind of repair work. It’s often the instinct of a collector, whether private or institutional, to want a complete and “perfect” copy, and historically collectors went to great lengths to assemble or recreate complete texts. Today, most conservators opt not to substitute leaves from other copies in order to preserve the integrity of a volume; moreover, replacement leaves often come from copies that are tragically broken apart for the sake of their individual leaves.

Taken together, the evidence suggests that the repairs to the Dibner’s copy of Liber chronicarum were made by someone, probably an owner or bookseller, who was trying to assemble a complete and presentable volume. Though we weren’t able to discover by whom or when the repairs were made, we are lucky that such care was taken in conserving what is today one of the highlights of the Dibner Library’s collection.

Beloit College’s Morse Library has digitized its hand-colored copy of the Chronicle.

Anne Peale, 2010 Dibner Library Intern. Anne is a senior at Dartmouth College majoring in English. Her other main interest is rare book studies.


  1. Diane Shaw

    This is a fascinating story, Anne. I think I ought to update the catalog record for the Dibner’s Liber Chronicarum to make note of some of the details you discovered!

  2. Susan Finney

    Is Anne Peale still associated with the libraries? I need information about conservation of the Nuremberg Chronicles.

    • Trina Brown

      Hello Susan,
      Anne Peale was an intern and is no longer with the Smithsonian Libraries. But you are welcome to contact the staff at the Dibner Library with any questions: They would be happy to help!

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