Stars on the Small Screen: Creating Digital Editions of Penn’s Astronomical Manuscripts

by Aylin Malcolm

The first time that I handled medieval manuscripts was nearly the last time. It was the final semester of my undergraduate degree, and my Middle English class was visiting Rare Books. After viewing a selection of Islamic and of Christian manuscripts, we concluded the class by passing a hefty facsimile of the Rothschild Miscellany around the room. Just as I was handed the facsimile, my professor announced that it had cost over $10 000, and I nearly dropped it in shock. It was probably for the best that I did not learn the value of original manuscript codices until I was a graduate student.

The Rothschild Miscellany (Jerusalem, Israel Museum MS 180/51).

The wonder that I felt that day, both at the manuscripts (and facsimiles) themselves and at being permitted to touch such precious objects, highlights one of the dilemmas of this field, which we might frame as a conflict between the present and past uses of manuscripts. Today, premodern manuscripts are valuable, irreplaceable objects, and every opportunity to handle them must be weighed against the risk of degradation. Yet while some manuscripts were created for display purposes, many others were designed to be annotated and manipulated by generations of readers. Understanding these objects often requires us to engage with them in the personal, tactile ways that their creators intended, a privilege generally reserved for those with institutional access and specialized training.

The recent proliferation of manuscript images and metadata has therefore both raised questions and created opportunities for new types of work. Digital facsimiles cannot replicate the experience of viewing original manuscripts, nor fully capture their smells, sizes, or textures. Yet digital resources can prompt us to ask new kinds of questions before we settle down with the objects themselves, and can allow for more extensive research on texts too brittle for frequent viewing. Moreover, digital tools can offer us new ways of combining and annotating manuscripts. Examples include the Fragmentarium project and the Mirador viewer, both of which allow users to assemble and compare manuscripts from different repositories.

Inspired by resources like these, I set out this summer to create two digital tools based on late medieval manuscripts in the Kislak Center’s collections. The first, a series of interactive diagrams from a copy of Johannes de Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi (MS Codex 1881, fols. 15r-36v), is designed for students and specialists who are interested in premodern astronomy and scientific illustrations. The second project, an edition of an astronomical miscellany (LJS 445) that is intended for a broader audience, places the emphasis on how readers through the centuries altered this manuscript by annotating, cutting, and rebinding its pages.

UPenn LJS 445, endpaper stub and fol. 1r.

As Nicholas Herman writes in his Manuscript Monday blog post, MS Codex 1881 contains several Latin texts that were central to the basic astronomy curriculum of later medieval Europe. These include the Theorica planetarum attributed to Gerard of Cremona and Johannes de Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi, both of which had appeared in print before this manuscript was copied. Yet the most striking feature of MS Codex 1881 may be its numerous, intricate, and text-heavy images, such as its fascinating diagram of the seven climes.

Climata diagram from fol. 33v of MS Codex 1881.

Despite the importance of De sphaera mundi in medieval Europe, diagrams in manuscripts of this text remain under-studied. I therefore hoped to provide support for future research by creating a digital resource focused on the diagrams in MS Codex 1881.

The five diagrams currently available on the World of the “Sphere” website.

Thus far, I have produced three annotated facsimiles of these diagrams and two rotatable images, all of which can be viewed at To make the annotated diagrams, I used the Omeka exhibit platform and the Neatline plugin, which allowed me to link my transcriptions and translations to shapes that I drew on images from OPenn. The resulting diagrams can be clicked in different places to reveal these transcriptions and translations.

Neatline diagram of the celestial and elemental spheres, with the Sphere of Mars selected.

The rotating diagrams, which viewers can move by clicking on them and dragging, use a combination of Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) and Javascript, and were created with assistance from Doug Emery. The first rotating diagram uses the same image of the spheres as one of the annotated diagrams, but while the annotated diagram provides transcriptions, the rotating diagram improves the legibility of the original text. The second rotating diagram represents one of the six volvelles, or rotating discs, in this manuscript.

My other goal this summer was to produce a publicly accessible edition of LJS 445, an astronomical anthology from fifteenth-century Germany that I previously explored in a SIMS video orientation. This edition has now been published at

The “Browse” view of LJS 445, fols. 189v-190r.

I created this resource using Manicule, a web application for Mac OS systems built by Liza Daly and Whitney Trettien, which is available on GitHub. The Manicule interface offers readers multiple ways of interacting with a digitized manuscript; for example, a viewer can “Browse” through the facsimile while reading marginal notes, or follow a series of “Tour Stops” highlighting notable pages. A “Structure” feature, which draws on the VisColl data model, illustrates the manuscript collation.

Part of the “Structure” view for LJS 445.

This large and somewhat disorderly codex is an ideal case study of the roles that subsequent owners could play in reshaping medieval manuscripts. Like MS Codex 1881, LJS 445 includes texts that had already been printed; in fact, it contains a title page copied from a 1478 edition of Regiomontanus’s Calendarium. However, the fact that most of LJS 445 is written in German suggests that it was intended for a broader audience than MS Codex 1881. Indeed, according to the catalogue description by Regina Cermann, this book’s users included two children in sixteenth-century Nuremberg: Georg Veit (1573-1606) and Veit Engelhard (1581-1656) Holtzschuher. Georg Veit appears to have annotated the manuscript in 1582, while Veit Engelhard seems to be responsible for many doodles and inscriptions, including his name, the year “1589,” and a series of proverbs.

Though we cannot be sure about this, it might also have been these children who cut many of the illustrations of planets and constellations out of this book. While some pages have been completely mutilated, the images on others have been removed more carefully; in particular, the outline of Canis Minor (the small dog) is still visible on fol. 182. We might imagine that this image of a dog was placed on display, or possibly used as a toy for children.

Detail of fol. 182r of LJS 445, showing damage to Corvus and Hydra caused by the extraction of Canis Minor on the verso.

Both of these resources are likely to grow and change as new information about these manuscripts emerges, and I encourage readers to submit their recommendations to me at malcolma[at] In addition to their flexibility, these digital facsimiles are affordable to produce, easy to access, and difficult to damage if dropped – though still, I hope, capable of inspiring wonder.

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