Eschatological search for omens and portents

Schedel, Hartmann. Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, VII 1493).
The Library of St John’s College, Cambridge: Ii.2.26, f. 250r.

The Nuremberg Chronicles Eschatological search for omens and portents

By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.

All Our Chronicles

Hartmann Schedel structured his Chronicle according to medieval patterns, interlacing ancient and sacred history with stories of strange natural phenomena, portents, and omens. These subjects interested early modern readers, who often highlighted paragraphs about monsters, witchcraft and prophesies. A French reader of this copy of the Chronicle was so interested in supernatural signs that he used the margins of more than forty pages to describe the portents of impending Apocalypse. What may be surprising about this reader is that he lived much later than most of other annotators of the Chronicle – at the end of the Age of Enlightenment.

“A reader told in the margins various prophesies and portents of Apocalypse.”

This page provides us with an example of a dialogue between the 15th_century compiler, Hartmann Schedel, and an anonymous 18th-century reader. The printed text combines historical events with tales about double-headed calves, bloody rains, and comets. In the margins, the reader has added details of the prophesies of St Malachy, an Irish Saint of the 12th century, who predicted the names of the next 112 Popes. The reader was particularly interested in the details of the last pope before the Apocalypse, the fictional Pope Peter II.  St Malachy’s prophesy was probably a forgery of the late 16th century, so it is not surprising that it was not mentioned in the Chronicle itself.

Other margins of this copy of the Chronicle contain copious manuscript notes about yet more prophesies and portents of Apocalypse. This reader’s interest in the Apocalypse may be explained by the violent politics of 18th-century France: one of his or her notes mentions that France was a ruin in the year of 1799.  This copy of the Chronicle reveals the long life of medieval traditions, which interested people well into the Enlightenment and beyond. 


The Nuremberg Chronicle was not a book on devotion, but reflected readers’ personal piety. The Chronicle’s predictions of the Apocalypse made them contemplate the vanity of life, the meaning of death, and their hopes of salvation. The margins of the Chronicle preserve manuscript prayers and pious quotations, as well as records of births and deaths in the readers’ own families.