Personalising The Book

Schedel, Hartmann. Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, VII 1493).
The Library of Russian Academy of Science
[Библиотека Российской академии наук]: 485 (701), f. 1v


The Nuremberg Chronicles Personalising the Book

By kind permission of the Library of Russian Academy of Science. Публикуется с разрешения Библиотеки Российской Академии наук

All Our Chronicles

Every early printed book is a unique object in itself: hand-press printing and flaws in paper production created slightly different copies of the same volumes. Early modern readers also applied various techniques to personalise their books. They had them coloured, bound, and embellished, and added their own marks of ownership (for example inscriptions and bookplates). Printers encouraged readers to customise their books by leaving blank spaces for illuminated initials, inscriptions, and notes.

A 16th century reader wrote in Latin: “He is not here in hell”.

This opening page of the Nuremberg Chronicle has two empty shields in the bottom of the woodcut. They were left blank on purpose, to enable readers to insert their family coat of arms. Although many readers of the Chronicle ignored this option, a reader of this expensive, coloured copy did draw insignia of two territories of Holy Roman Empire. The coat of arms on the right belongs to the Austrian dukes Habsburg, while the other coat of arts probably belonged to  their subordinates – the Andlau family of Alsace. In the middle of the Habsburg coat of arms, another 16th century reader wrote in Latin: “He is not here in hell”.  These words – taken from the Easter liturgy –  may reflect contemporary debates about Christ’s descent into Hell.

This copy made a further journey within the realm of the Holy Roman Empire.  It came into possession of the Radzivills, a prominent aristocratic family in Lithuania and Poland who were Princes of Holy Roman Empire and Dukes (‘Ordynats’) of Nesvizh.

They must have had the Chronicle in their splendid private library by the 17th century, as the book also has inscriptions by Stanislaw Niezabitowski (1641-1717), a Calvinist steward of one of Radzivills’ estates. He or another Polish reader left several marginal notes in Polish on religious matters. After the first partition of Poland in 1772, this copy of the Chronicle was confiscated by Russian troops, along with other rare books,  and brought to the Russian Academy of Sciences. Three years later, the cost of sequestrated books was partly reimbursed to Karol Stanislaw Radziwill.


Many of these Nuremberg Chronicles  reveal how readers kept and used their copies as well as how they read the text.   They personalised their volumes, equipped them with indexes, and tried out their pens in the margins. Some of the  traces on the pages – dirt and stains – reflect the life of the Chronicle as a material object in the early modern household.