Protestant histories in the margins

Schedel, Hartmann. Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, VII 1493).
Chetham’s Library, Mun.I.8.2, f. 239r.

Protestant histories in the margins The Nuremberg Chronicles

By kind permission of the Chetham’s Library

All Our Chronicles

The Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493, presented sacred history along traditional Catholic lines. Protestant readers of the book often tried to update it by censoring descriptions of Catholic ‘errors’ and by narrating the history of the Protestant Reformation, right there in the margins. The copy of the Chronicle held by Chetham’s Library provides an example of how a late 16th-century English reader supplemented the text of the Chronicle with extensive ‘coutacions and addicions’ borrowed from several printed Protestant histories.

As the page on display demonstrates, this book may be the most heavily annotated copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Several different readers owned this book, and one – a Lancashire gentleman Thomas Gudlawe (d. 1606) –  covered the margins of this copy  with copious notes. Almost all of them are quotations or synopses of various history books, written or revised by English Protestant authors.

“Thomas Gudlawe transformed his copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle into a large commonplace book.”

For example, Gudlawe used two books to annotate this page about the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Sigismund.   In the upper margin he inserted a paragraph on Sigismund from Cooper’s Chronicle (1560) by Thomas Lanquet and Thomas Cooper,  a world history with a strong Protestant bias. In the right and the bottom margins, under the title ‘Residium historiae marterum etc. (‘the rest of the history of martyrs’), Gudlawe recounted the history of “that notable prophet & servaunt of god, Doctor Martin Luther”. For that he again used Cooper’s Chronicle as well as an even more famous Protestant ‘historia sacra’ – John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1st edition of 1563).

Thomas Gudlawe transformed his copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle into a large commonplace book, a good part of which dealt with a Protestant vision of sacred history. Gudlawe’s reading may seem even more meaningful if viewed in the context of the religious controversies of his neighbourhood.    Although Elizabethan England was officially a Protestant country, many of Gudlawe’s kinsmen and neighbours in Lancashire were Catholics and accused of recusancy.  In contrast,  Gudlawe’s choice of books was staunchly Protestant.  Gudlawe’s marginalia provide us with a glimpse into the reading practices and the private library of a country gentleman, showing how he used a variety of English books on sacred history.


In the age of Reformation both Catholic and Protestant readers reacted to the way sacred history was presented in the Nuremberg Chronicle. They censored and supplemented its text, carrying confessional debates into the margins of this world history.