The Medieval Review 16.11.38

Posselt, Bernd. Konzeption und Kompilation der Schedelschen Weltchronik. Monumenta Germaniae Historica Schriften, 71. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015. pp. liv, 618. €84.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-3-447-10434-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Jonathan Green
University of North Dakota

Among early printed books, the Nuremberg Chronicle (as it is known in English) has exerted a unique fascination on readers, collectors, and scholars since its publication in 1493. Of the nearly 29,000 fifteenth-century printed editions currently known, many more copies of the chronicle's first Latin edition survive (around 1200 according to the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue) than any other single edition. Art historians have long taken interest in the Nuremberg Chronicle due to its numerous woodcut illustrations from the workshop of Wilhelm Pleydenwurff and Michael Wolgemut (which invited the question of contributions by a young Albrecht Dürer, who trained in their workshop). Thanks to the preservation of contracts between the artists and Sebald Schreyer and Sebastian Kammermeister, the financiers who set the project in motion, as well as other documents relating to the chronicle's production from the press of Anton Koberger, the Nuremberg Chronicle has been the focus of several studies in the field of book history. The life of Hartmann Schedel, the humanist and medical doctor who owned one of the finest personal libraries of his time and was enlisted by Schreyer and Kammermeister to compile the chronicle's text, has been illuminated by several article-length treatments. And yet Schedel's work, the text of the Nuremberg Chronicle, has long suffered from scholarly neglect. The subtitle of a 1993 article by Klaus Vogel referred to the study of Schedel's compilation as a "nearly empty field of research," a description that the last two decades have done little to change. The 1899 Munich dissertation of Michael Haitz remained the authoritative statement on Schedel's sources and compilation methods throughout the twentieth century, even as Haitz treated only a portion of the chronicle's text and was not aware of several sources that were only identified decades after his time.

Bernd Posselt's study of the compilation of the Nuremberg Chronicle, which examines the chronicle's entire text, is therefore a welcome and long overdue contribution. For readers not already familiar with the Nuremberg Chronicle, Posselt opens his work with a concise overview of the chronicle's content and structure, followed by a review of the work's production that summarizes the primary sources and recent scholarly literature on the topic. Konzeption und Kompilation der Schedelschen Weltchronik is the most complete orientation to scholarship on the Nuremberg Chronicle currently available due not only to its thorough bibliography, but also to the author's discerning discussion of prior scholarship, particularly for work since 2000, that categorizes and weighs the value of each book and article. Posselt deserves special praise for the care and generosity with which he treats the contributions of prior scholars; rather than disregarding work that could easily have been dismissed as flawed, slight, or repetitive, Posselt carefully uncovers each scholar's unique contributions to the study of the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Following these preliminaries, Posselt's study of the chronicle's text begins with an insightful close reading of the colophons and of the earliest evidence of the chronicle's reception (in a list of writer biographies compiled by Johannes Trithemius), which document that the Nuremberg Chronicle was intended and received in the late fifteenth century as a compilation of recent work by humanist historians. In addition to identifying several new sources used by Schedel, Posselt's work confirms that Schedel's most important source was Jacobus Philippus de Bergamo's Supplementum chronicarum, which appeared in one Italian and five Latin editions between 1480 and 1492. While much of Schedel's library has been preserved, the copy of the Supplementum chronicarum used by Schedel in preparing his compilation is lost, so the precise edition that served as exemplar for the Nuremberg Chronicle remains unknown. Posselt does not confine his study to the source texts of various chronicle entries, however, but also examines the macrostructure of the chronicle as a whole, and so he is able to demonstrate the profound influence of another work, Werner Rolewinck's Fasciculus temporum (with 33 Latin and vernacular editions between 1474 and 1498) on the conceptual organization and graphic layout of the Nuremberg Chronicle. The world chronicle, as Posselt points out, has not only a chronological but also a geographical structure; in both of them, the city of Nuremberg finds its way to the center of the world. Readers who are familiar with the chronicle will be aware of its complex and multiple organizational structures, as stereotype woodcuts and other graphic elements connect entries within and across page boundaries. Posselt observes that the competing organizational structures and visual categorical identifiers enabled both linear and non-linear access to the text as well as a hybrid thematic approach that followed particular topics. Thus Posselt's work touches on the study of word and image, the aspirations and self-understanding of German humanism, and the history of reading in the late medieval and early modern period. To document his work, Posselt includes extensive and focused analyses of the papal biographies and city descriptions, the two most significant types of entries in the Nuremberg Chronicle. An appendix lists the known sources for all of the chronicle's individual articles, including a parallel-column comparison between the sources and Schedel's compiled text for several important entries.

Beyond the considerable accomplishments of Konzeption und Kompilation der Schedelschen Weltchronik as a source study, Posselt also seeks to build a theoretical foundation for the systematic study of compilation as a technique of literary composition. In addition to the historical concepts of ordinatio and compilatio, Posselt investigates the basic moves of compilation from the perspective of information theory. On the basis of this theoretical discussion, he examines how Schedel's compilation technique disturbed and restored thematic coherence and grammatical cohesion compared to his source texts, and how the acts of compilation were overt or unmarked, at both macroscopic or structural levels and the microscopic level of particular entries and sentences. Schedel's method, as Posselt finds, was usually not to adopt an entry wholesale from a single source, but to create a new text based on two or more sources with a high degree of complexity in the articulation between them. In this meticulous study of the Nuremberg Chronicle and its source texts, one feels at times that one is getting a glimpse of the mind of the compiler at work.

Just as Adrian Wilson's Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1976) was supplanted by Christoph Reske's Produktion der Schedelschen Weltchronik in Nürnberg (2000) as the definitive work on the chronicle's printing, Bernd Posselt's work builds on and surpasses the prior work of earlier scholars, not only that of Haitz but also Elisabeth Rücker's Schedelsche Weltchronik: Das größte Buchunternehmen der Dürer-Zeit (1973) and numerous shorter treatments of the Nuremberg Chronicle and its cultural context. Yet the author is also conscious that the present work occupies a middle position, utilizing digital facsimiles that earlier scholars did not have access to, but without the full electronic texts that future scholars will hopefully enjoy. There are still gaps where Schedel's source cannot yet be identified. For Posselt, this work also represents a middle step of another kind, as he sees it as an intermediate stage leading towards a complete critical edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle that will lay out the relationship between the chronicle and its sources.

Even for an intermediate step, Konzeption und Kompilation der Schedelschen Weltchronik represents a foundational work and necessary reading, not only for studies of the Nuremberg Chronicle, but also for the study of compilation, a basic technique of medieval rhetoric and writing. The book would represent a significant contribution to scholarship even if the author had done nothing more than examine the entirety of the chronicle's text and identify new sources used by Schedel. But Posselt has done a good deal more than that in Konzeption und Kompilation der Schedelschen Weltchronik, enough so to render this book an important work with relevance to several different fields of medieval and early modern studies.

Copyright (c) 2016 Jonathan Green

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login