Masks, Hells, and Books: The Nuremberg Schembartlauf (1449-1539)
The Schembartlauf (“the running of the masked men”) was a traditional element of Carnival in Nuremberg in Franconia. Celebrated on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, it consisted of a parade of men in masks and ornate costumes who came down from the castle into the city, culminating in a dramatic destruction of their parade float in the town square.
We are fortunate to have access to two and a half Schembartlauf manuscripts, thanks to a private collector. The manuscripts have been fully digitized and are available in the MU Digital Library here, here, and here. A digitization of a facsimile of a fourth Schembart manuscript can be found here.
This exhibit is divided into eight pages:
- Reichsstadt Nürnberg. This page offers an overview of medieval Nuremberg, outlining its privileges as an Imperial City and its general political organization.
- Der Schembartlauf. This page describes the Schembartlauf parade, its origins and its general organization.
- Die Schembartläufer. This page describes the people who participated in the Schembartlauf, called “Läufer.”
- Die Höllen. This page describes a later aspect of the Schembartlauf, the massive parade floats called “Höllen.”
- 1539. This page describes the Schembartlauf’s implosion in 1539 where the festivities went too far and the tradition came to an abrupt and permanent end.
- Die Schembartbücher. This page provides an overview of the manuscripts that provide us with our most detailed descriptions of the Schembartlauf.
- Gallery: Läufer. The first of two galleries, this gallery focuses on the Läufer as they are depicted in the Schembartbücher.
- Gallery: Höllen. The second of two galleries, this gallery focuses on the Höllen as they are depicted in the Schembartbücher.
Because the Schembartlauf was a unique variant on Carnival practices, this exhibit uses some German words to describe it. A quick list of important vocabulary is available below.
Schembart: A medieval German word, apparently meaning a “mask.” Some older sources translate the word as “bearded mask” with an etymology of “Schemen” and “Bart,” but this etymology is doubtful since none of the masks depicted in the Schembart manuscripts have beards.
N.B.: Medieval sources sometimes use the word “Schembart” to refer to the “Schembartlauf” (see below).
Schembartlauf: Literally “running of the masks” or “running of the masked men.” A parade held in medieval Nuremberg as part of Shrove Tuesday celebrations, originating as part of an honor guard for the Nuremberg butchers during their Shrove Tuesday dance.
Läufer (pl. Läufer): Literally “the runner” or “the runners.” A term for a person or group of people participating in the Schembartlauf. To minimize confusion for non-German speakers, this exhibit uses the abbreviated term “Läufer” rather than the longer “Schembartläufer.”
Hölle (pl. Höllen): The German word for “Hell” but also a local term for the large parade floats used in the Schembartlauf from 1475 onwards.
Schembartbuch (pl. Schembartbücher): Literally the “book of the Schembart,” this term refers to any one of the eighty or so manuscript books that document the Schembartlauf.
Landsknecht (pl. Landsknechte): A medieval term for mercenary infantrymen, commonly armed with pikes or other polearms.
Briefmaler (pl. Briefmaler): Literally “the letter painter,” this term refers to a kind of professional German illuminator common in the sixteenth century. As printing became more and more common, the Briefmaler were gradually absorbed into the ranks of the woodcut artists.