It was 500 years ago today…

On 3 October 1513 Aton Koberger, “the greatest entrepreneur of the printed-book, trade in the fifteenth century”[1], met life’s final deadline. Born around 1440 into a family of bakers in Nürnberg almost nothing is known about Koberger’s youth or upbringing. Sources claim that he was a goldsmith before he became a printer but there is no real evidence to support this claim. He set up his printing office in Nürnberg in about 1470 and the first known products of his workshop date from 1472. Koberger was a conventional printer publisher printing books for the university market, for the law, theology and medicine faculties. What distinguishes Koberger from his contemporaries in the book trade was his business sense and his entrepreneurial drive. Although the products of his printing presses were first class he was not really interested in producing beautiful books but in being a successful businessman and he became a very successful businessman indeed.

Whereas most fifteenth century printing businesses were small craftsmen’s workshops with maybe one or two presses and a handful of workers according to the Nürnberger writing master Johann Neudörffer, who was himself manager of Petreius’ publishing house in the next generation, Koberger ran twenty-four printing presses and had around one hundred employees. In an age where there were no wholesalers and no distribution network in the book trade, Koberger created his own distribution network spanning a large part of Europe.

In order to reduce the problem of transporting bulky books around Europe, Koberger licenced other printer publishers to print and distribute his title in their area, for example the Amerbach-Froben-Petri publishing cooperative in Basel or Jean Grüninger in Strasbourg. Koberger not only sold his own books but those of other printer publishers making him a major book dealer. He had agents buying and selling books for him in Frankfurt, Leipzig, Vienna, Cologne, Basel, Strasbourg, Budapest, Warsaw, Venice, Florence, Antwerp, Bruges, Leyden and Paris. He controlled his empire through correspondence and accurate and thorough double entry bookkeeping, still something of a novelty at the time. Koberger’s dominance is reflected in his print run figures. Whereas the average print run for the first edition of a book before 1500 was between 400 and 600 copies Koberger was printing 1600 copies of his books. Koberger is known to have published more than 250 books in his lifetime. One could describe Koberger as the Jeff Bezos of the incunabula period.

It is one of the great ironies of publishing history that Koberger didn’t publish the most famous book that was printed in his workshop, the Liber Chronicarum. Better know as the Nuremberg Chronicle in English and Die Schedel’sche Weltchronik in German, this splendid 656-page folio volume (596 pages in the German translation) with its 1804 woodcut illustrations is generally regarded as the first printed encyclopaedia.

Nürnberg was a Free Imperial City, which meant it was an independent city-state that only owed feudal allegiance to the German Emperor. Sitting on a cross roads of major European trading routes and granted special tax privileges by the Emperor the Nurnberg traders became very rich. Buying the feudal rights to rule the city they set up a republic governed by an oligarchy of the richest trading families. With their large trading warehouses in the Northern Italian cities it became fashionable for them to send their sons to be educated at the Italian universities, who when they returned to Nürnberg brought the new humanist learning with them along with the exotic spices that they traded. Fifteenth century Nürnberg prided itself on being a Northern European centre of humanist art and culture and the patrician traders undertook a series of project to reflex this situation, the Liber Chronicarum was one of them.


City of Nürnberg Nuremberg Chronicles Workshop of Michael Wohlgemut

City of Nürnberg
Nuremberg Chronicles
Workshop of Michael Wohlgemut

A company was set up by Sebald Schreyer (1446 – 1520) and Sebastian Kammermeister (1446 – 1503), both university educated traders, to produce and publish the book.  They commissioned Hartmann Schedel (1440 – 1514) to write the Latin text and George Alt to translate it into German. Schedel was a physician, a humanist scholar and a bibliophile with an extensive private library. Schedel can perhaps better be described as compiler rather than author as the vast majority of the text is copied from other books or provided by other authors such as the so-called arch humanist Conrad Celtis (1459 –1408). Michael Wohlgemut (1434 – 1519) and his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (c. 1450 – 1494) were commissioned, on 29 December 1491, to provide the illustrations and were also responsible for the layout. Wohlgemut was one of Germany’s leading printmakers and included Koberger’s godson Albrecht Dürer amongst his apprentices at the time. There has been much speculation as to which of the illustration might possibly be attributable to the young Dürer, who would go on to become one of the greatest print makers of all time. Koberger was commissioned, on 16 March 1492, to print the work and to provide working space for Wohlgemut and Pleydenwurff. The Latin edition of about 1400 copies is dated 12 June 1493 and the German one of about 700 copies is dated 23 December 1493. In 1500 according to the accounts 595 copies (535 Latin, 60 German) remained unsold. A pirate edition of the book of about 250 copies, printed by Johann Schönsperger, appeared in Augsburg in 1496 followed by a second edition in 1500.

The book is based on the chronicles of the Middle Ages and divided into the seven ages of the earth.

First Age: Creation to the Flood

Second Age: Up to the birth of Abraham

Third Age: Up to the reign of King David

Fourth Age: Up to the Babylonia Exile

Fifth Age: Up to the birth of Christ

Sixth Age: (The most extensive) Birth of Christ to the present

Seventh Age: The Apocalypse

The Nuremberg Chronicle distinguishes itself from its medieval predecessors through the inclusion of the complete humanist natural philosophical, natural historical and philosophical knowledge as well as detailed descriptions of the principle German and European cities. A milestone in the history of early book production the Nuremberg Chronicle is one of the most studied and commentated of all books.

To mark the 500th anniversary of Koberger’s demise the town library of Nürnberg has an exhibition of his books, which includes Hartmann Schedel’s original manuscript of the Nuremberg Chronicle. The exhibition runs from 20 September to 28 December 2013 and is well worth a look if you happen to be in the area.


[1] Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The printing press as an agent of change: Communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe, Volumes I and II, Cambridge University Press, Pb. 1980 p. 248


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing

10 responses to “It was 500 years ago today…

  1. Pingback: It was 500 years ago today… | Books, Pho...

  2. Auke

    I am struck by the resemblance of the Nurenberg Liber Chronicarum and todays digital publication: “Big History” sponsored by one of our biggest businessmen called Bill. It contains eight tresholds in stead of seven ages of the world…..
    Anyway it is very usefull material for the classroom.

    A. Cuiper from Holland.

  3. Thanks for this! LOVE learning new things!

  4. Jonathan Bush

    Interesting article. Do you happen to know whether the pirate edition is particularly rare. We have a copy in our library (as well as the larger original version) and always bring it out for displays!

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