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Manuscript Monday: Ms. Codex 1881 – Astronomical treatises and tables

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Medieval and early modern manuscript acquisitions: A bumper crop for 2017
by Nicholas Herman, Curator of Manuscripts, SIMS

Penn Libraries and the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies are delighted to announce the acquisition of several fascinating medieval and early modern manuscripts over the past year, including an important late-fifteenth-century compendium of astronomical treatises illustrated with numerous diagrams, rotating volvelles, and tables. These new arrivals complement our existing holdings, and provide new and exciting opportunities for original research by students, curators, faculty, and visiting scholars alike. The material encompasses a wide array of subjects, and is especially topical as the new undergraduate minor in Global Medieval Studies launches this academic year. We also look forward to showcasing these and other treasures to a broad audience as Penn prepares to host the Medieval Academy of America annual conference in March of 2019.

What follows is the first in a series of four blog posts
announcing these new acquisitions to the world.

A consummate guide to the heavens (Ms. Codex 1881)

This astronomical compendium, acquired with the generous assistance of the Bernard H. Breslauer Foundation, is an imposing ensemble of texts, diagrams, and tables related to the computation of the relative positions of the celestial bodies. The manuscript, dated to 1481 in a colophon on folio 61v and likely produced in South-Eastern Germany, is a paper codex of 93 folios, rebound in a modern vellum binding. The texts found within include the Theorica planetarum (folios 2r–14v) traditionally attributed to Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114–1187), a leading exponent of the Toledo School of translators and a key conduit of Greek and Arabic knowledge into the West in the twelfth century. This first text is accompanied by extensive marginal commentary and diagrams, probably produced during the same decade as the manuscript itself. The other major text found within the manuscript is the Tractatus de sphaera (fols. 15v–36v), the most widely read astronomical textbook of late medieval Europe, written by the University of Paris-based astronomer John of Sacro Bosco (c. 1195– c. 1256). Here, the text is accompanied by briefer interlinear and marginal glosses and small diagrams. The manuscript also includes a complete set of Alphonsine Tables, so-named after their sponsor, the Castilian King Alphonso X. These matrices, together with the accompanying indices (folios 40r–68v) and instructions or canons (fols. 69r–73v), enable the user to compute the position of the sun, moon, and planets with relative ease. Originally written in Castillian, these texts were translated into Latin by the mid-fourteenth century and broadly disseminated thereafter. In our manuscript, further sets of updated tables and instructions, written by John of Saxony, a key transmitter and interpreter of the Alphonsine tradition, are also included (fols. 75r–87v), as is a brief, as-of-yet unidentified treatise on eclipses (fols. 87v­–89r). The Alphonsine tables and their various addenda were printed for the first time in 1483 by Erhard Ratdolt;[1] Penn’s new manuscript therefore represents a veritable summa of the Alphonsine tradition immediately prior to its translation into print. Together with the introductory treatises, it crystalizes the state of European astronomical knowledge on the eve of the Copernican revolution.
Left. Introductory volvelle diagrams showing the rotation of the earth and the rotation of the moon (the lower diagram is missing a volvelle). Fol. 1v.
Right. Beginning of the text of Gerard of Cremona’s Theorica planetarum, with marginal commentary and diagrams added in an early hand.  Fol. 2r.

Alphonsine Tables, with added values in lower margin. Fol. 44r.

What makes this new acquisition particularly compelling, however, is the set of more than fifty diagrams, of both marginal and inset types, that accompany the principle texts, many of them carefully tinted with ink washes. Included among these are six pristine, fully functional volvelles—rotating paper or parchment discs—illustrating the revolutions of the planetary spheres. Given the great fragility of such mechanical elements, their survival is extraordinary, and confirms that the manuscript was always handled with the greatest care. The largest stationary diagrams, which occupy the entire page, show the off-centered orbits of the sun, moon, and planets (fols. 1r, 11r–14v). Smaller marginal diagrams, some tinted in yellow and blue, elucidate the geometrical properties of planetary spheres, polygons, and shadows (fols. 19v and 20r). One particularly evocative illustration demonstrates how a ship’s mast, gradually appearing on the horizon, confirms the curvature of the earth (fol. 20v). A large circular diagram (fol. 33v) shows the known world divided into climactic zones, with the frigid polar area at the bottom, the equatorial land “uninhabitable on account of the great heat of the sun” in the middle, and the unknown or “incognita” portion at the top. In the lower half, one can make out the names of familiar entities: Hibernia, Britania, Francia, and so forth. A few pages on, a circular, double-volvelle diagram allows the reader to visualize the motions that led to solar eclipses at various points throughout the zodiacal year (fol. 35v). Here, the sun and the moon are personified through amusing facial features. Two marginal diagrams on the facing page (fol. 36r) illustrate the mechanics of solar and lunar eclipses with great clarity.

Detail of marginal diagrams demonstrating the properties of triangles,
including a triangular volvelle (center). Fol. 19v.

Detail of marginal diagrams demonstrating the shadows cast by the earth
(with a missing volvelle on the right). Fol. 20r.

Detail of marginal diagrams demonstrating
the curvature of the earth. Fol. 20v.

Left. Detail of circular diagram showing the climactic zones of the earth. Fol. 33v.
Right. Detail of a double volvelle illustrating the doubling of the zodiacal cycles. Fol. 35r.

Left. Double volvelle illustrating rotation of the sun and moon. Fol. 35v.
Right. Tinted marginal diagrams illustrating solar and lunar eclipses. Fol. 36r.

Folio with transliterated Hebrew Alphabet. Fol. 95v.

Where did this fascinating manuscript come from? Early annotations within the manuscript showing calculations of daylight hours for various European cities, including Erfurt, Magdeburg, Leipzig, Mainz, Nuremberg, Paris, Prague, Magdeburg, and Worms (fols. 45v–51v), point to a place of production (or at least early use) in the central German-speaking lands. Intriguingly, the manuscript concludes with an unusual, horizontally written Hebrew Alphabet accompanied by Latin transliterations (fol. 95v) that likewise mentions the city of Magdeburg (perhaps confirming a Northeastern German origin) and the name of a certain Iacob Affrahim. Beyond providing evidence of the dissemination of scientific learning from the Mediterranean world to the Ashkenazi communities of Central Europe, these inscriptions yield precious clues as to the possible identity of the manuscript’s early owner and merit much additional research.

The value of this manuscript for research and teaching at Penn is clear: while it is mentioned in the De Ricci census of manuscripts in North America, it is otherwise unknown and has never before been available for scholars to study.[2] Moreover, the manuscript complements the outstanding ensemble of texts related to ancient and Medieval astronomy that form a key component of the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection. Specifically, the manuscript enriches the formidable group of Sacrobosco manuscripts already much-loved by students and teachers: LJS 216 (click for facsimile and video orientation), LJS 26 (facsimile and video orientation), and LJS 494 (facsimile). The extensive explication of eclipses, a common concern of Arabic and Latin science, is dealt with in other frequently-consulted manuscripts from the collection, including our Regiomontanus (LJS 300; facsimile and video orientation) and Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī compilation (LJS 407; facsimile). The Alphonsine Tables, found in stand-alone form in LJS 174 (facsimile and video orientation), were also fundamental to Georg von Peurbach (1423–1461), the Austrian astronomer whose Theoricae Novae Planetarum was additionally the subject of a tradition of diagrammatic volvelles (LJS 64; facsimile and video orientation). As Professor Emily Steiner of Penn’s English Department said to me, “am so delighted with the new astronomical manuscripts we recently purchased. With its unusual, fabulously intact volvelles, it will add immeasurably to our knowledge of other medieval astronomical treatises in our collection, and especially our 3 other Sacro Bosco manuscripts.” Perhaps most significantly, the acquisition of such an important, diagram-laden scientific manuscript honors the vision and collecting passion of SIMS founder Larry Schoenberg, whose impact on the institute, and on Penn Libraries more broadly, continues to be felt.

You can view the full cataloging entry for Ms. Codex 1881 in Penn’s Franklin Catalog, and full facsimiles will soon be available in Penn in Hand and OPenn.

Nicholas Herman
Curator of Manuscripts, SIMS
(with the assistance of Amey Hutchins, Mitch Fraas, and Will Noel)

1. See a digitized version of this edition here.
2. Seymour De Ricci, Census of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in the United States and Canada, v. 2 (New York: Wilson, 1937), 1144, no. 6; C. U. Faye and W. H. Bond, Supplement to the Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (New York: Wilson, 1962), 301, no. 6.

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