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‘A Hell of a Ride’

‘A Hell of a Ride’

‘A Hell of a Ride ‘
Image from ‘The Sixth Age of the World’, f.189v, in Registrum huius operis libri cronicarum cum figuris et ymagionibus ab inicio mundi (also known as The Nuremberg Chronicle)
Nuremberge : Ad intuitum autem et preces Sebaldi Schreyer et Sebastiani kamermaister hunc librum Anthonius koberger Nuremberge impressit, 1493.
Canterbury Cathedral Library W/S-18-1

In many ways The Nuremberg Chronicle is a monster book. It is huge, nearly half a metre high and over 600 pages long; it is old (an incunabula from 1493, only a year after Christopher Columbus sailed off to find a new route to the Orient); it is famous; and it is jam-packed with wonders, demons and indeed monsters. It is a book that embodies and encompasses arresting contrasts: beginnings and endings, stability and innovation, centre and edge. I have chosen this image from it as an appropriate one for October as it depicts an English witch coming to a sticky end and also because it illustrates these binaries so well.

The image looks at first glance almost jaunty. Indeed one blogger thought the pair was galloping off together having upturned a picnic trestle table. However, the text reveals a darker narrative

A wicked sorceress, who lived in England, died; and while the priests were singing the Psalms, she was terribly dragged out [of her grave] by the Devil, who set her on a horrible horse and rode through the air with her; and for fully four miles a fearful and frightening cry was heard.

This ‘maleficia auguriatrix’ was not only a witch but one who foretold the future and therefore truly evil because, as St Augustine of Hippo points out, ‘Divination is the fornication of the soul’ (City of God, ch.34). This is a graveyard scene where the funeral of the woman is taking place, the unseen priests are singing psalms from the Office of the Dead, but the Devil cannot wait and interrupts to pull the woman out of the grave, leaving part of her shroud behind as he gallops off with her on the back of his flame-tailed steed. No wonder she raises her arms and screams in despair – a searing howl that can be heard for miles around – this is the horror of riding with a fallen angel to Hell. The Devil looks aptly fiendish, with both bull and goat horns sprouting from his head, talonned feet and beak-faced knees; all indications of his bestiality and demonic hybridization and medieval in form. However, fear of witches was to peak as an early modern phenomenon and in this story of punished sorcery there is a glimpse of the witchcraft persecutions to come. So if she truly could foresee the future, no wonder the sorceress screamed.

DSC_0675This scene is just a tiny part of the world history in chronicle form written in Latin by Nuremberg physician and humanist scholar, Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). The work was commissioned by two wealthy merchants of the city who also paid George Alt to translate Schedel’s work into German; the two editions were published in 1493 by Anton Koburger, who printed between 1,400-1,500 Latin copies and 700-1,000 German ones. Canterbury Cathedral Library owns two copies of the Latin version. The book is not only a history divided into the traditional seven eras as a metaphor for the seven ages of man, it is also a modern gazetteer with descriptions and illustrations of European cities, a map of the world and a map of Europe centred on the German states. From Genesis (via the Flood; Abraham; David; the Babylonian captivity; the birth of Christ) up to 1493 and followed by the anticipated seventh age of the Antichrist, End of the World and the Last Judgment, this is the standard Christian universal history, much beloved by medieval chroniclers. Its eschatological approach is therefore the epitome of the medieval worldview.

So far, then, so very medieval; how could this book be described as innovative? Not only was this a large, lengthy (and expensive) tome, it was also extensively illustrated. It has over 1,800 original woodcuts and in the complexity of its layout, plus its German version using the same woodcuts (another first) it was a monumental achievement in the history of the book, truly pushing the frontiers of the new printing technology, then barely forty years old. Schedel himself gave an enthusiastic endorsement to:

those Germans who, through their brilliant and ingenious skill, thought out and discovered the art of printing, by which the long closed fountain of untold wisdom of sacred and profane art was caused to again flow forth to all mankind (f.252v)

Schedel’s work also reveals his own scholarly enthusiasm for humanism. For example, the translation from the Greek by Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) of a work by of Diodorus Siculus is used on the very first page and clearly demonstrates the tensions between medieval eschatology and humanist foregrounding of ideas from classical antiquity:

Among the most learned and outstanding men who have described the true nature and history of the creation of the world and the first birth of man, a twofold opinion has emerged… Some have put forward the opinion that the world is without beginning and indestructible, and that the human race has existed for eternity. And that there was no beginning and no origin. Others maintain that the world was created and is destructible. And they say that mankind had its beginnings in a birth.

The Chronicle also included descriptions of humanists such as the great German scholar Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). His book is not only a chronicle but a rhetorical dialogue on the ‘twofold opinion’ expressed by Diodorus as translated by Poggio at the beginning of the book.

In this light, the last folio of the sixth age forms the crux of the dialogue. Schedel celebrates Maximilian I as simultaneously the Emperor of the Last Days and as a worthy Caesar of a new Golden Age who shall unite Christianity and the classical heritage of Italy and Germany, and he expounds how history and poetry have ‘immortality given to the mortal king’; a squaring of the opening argument on the destructible and indestructible nature of the world.

Diane Heath: Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent
Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further reading:

  • Jeffrey Ashcroft, ‘Black Arts: Renaissance and Printing Press in Nuremberg, 1493–1528: For Peter Branscombe’ in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. 45, no.1, 2009, pp.3-18; on Cusa, Gutenberg, Schedel and Dürer.
  • Hartmann Schedel, Chronicle of the world the complete and annotated Nuremberg chronicle of 1493, Taschen facsimile 2001


  • University of Cambridge Search ‘Nuremberg Chronicle’ for hand-coloured copy that belonged to Matthew Parker, Elizabeth I’s Archbishop of Canterbury.
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