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Johannes de Sacrobosco and the sphere of the universe

Contrary to what you may have learned in school, people in the Middle Ages knew quite well that the world was round.  Johannes de Sacrobosco made sure of that fact.

Sacrobosco was one of the leading astronomers, educators, and science communicators of the Middle Ages.  We don’t know very much about his life: he wrote during the early thirteenth century, might have been English, and likely spent his career at the University of Paris.  Even with this lack of personal information, Sacrobosco was a household name among scholars.  Everybody who studied astronomy from the thirteenth century through the seventeenth century started out by reading his books.  You might think of him as the medieval equivalent of Carl Sagan – but with much more staying power.

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Using compelling visuals and simple language, Sphaera was a beginning astronomy textbook that taught generations of people to think about the basic math and science that underlay their experience of the natural world.  The text was so popular that it still exists in hundreds of medieval manuscript copies, and it may have been the very first astronomical work to be printed.  Between 1472 and 1673, over two hundred printed editions were published, keeping it continuously in print for two centuries, a record unmatched by any other text on astronomy.  Even after it was superseded by newer knowledge, publishers issued the book with commentaries to keep it up-to-date.

Sphaera has four chapters dealing with spherical nature of the universe, spheres in the heavens, the heavens as observed from various geographic points on Earth (which illustrates that the Earth itself is a sphere), and an explanation of Ptolemy’s theory of planetary motion and eclipses.   Printed editions of Sphaera included numerous images: geometric diagrams, naturalistic images, pictures of armillary spheres and other instruments.  One common diagram illustrates a ship and a tower to demonstrate the idea that the earth is spherical; the curvature of the ocean obstructs the view of the tower for the observer on the deck of the ship, while the observer on the mast is able to see it above the bulge of the water.

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In a recent article in the journal Isis, Kathleen Crowther and Peter Barker argued that the images in Sphaera are meant to train the inner eye and help the reader develop his own mental model of the cosmos.  Some editions had volvelles that could be turned with the fingers, but in most printings of Sphaera, the reader was expected to manipulate the images mentally.  We decided to help ourselves (and you all) by turning some of the diagrams from the 1569 edition into gifs that move on their own. Watch the universe spin!

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Spinning gifs aside, Sacrobosco’s work was an important introduction to Ptolemaic astronomy, and the diagrams and other illustrations were important because they helped readers visualize his ideas.  Sacrobosco’s text provided a basis for later work by Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler.  In some sense, our own understanding of the cosmos adds to or corrects the mental models he started building over seven centuries ago.

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We have two editions of Sphaera in Special Collections: one published in Paris in 1572, and another published in Venice in 1569 (that’s the one we’re showing here). Both were edited and augmented by the French mathematician and historian Elie Vinet. The 1569 Venice edition was reprinted from the Paris edition of the same year (the note “Ex postrema impressione Lutetiae” means “From the final Paris impression”). While many editions of Sphaera can be found in rare book libraries throughout the United States and Europe, the 1569 Venice edition seems to be a bit scarcer than most. A quick check of WorldCat reveals only three copies in research libraries in the United States; the bibliography and census of Sacrobosco editions maintained Roberto de Andrade Martins at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, reveals two additional copies, for a total of five.

Want to know more about Sacrobosco?  Check out these resources.

  • Roberto de Andrade Martins. Johannes de Sacrobosco: Editions of the Tractatus de Sphaera. University of São Paulo, Brazil, n.d.
  • Kathleen M. Crowther and Peter Barker. “Training the Intelligent Eye: Understanding Illustrations in Early Modern Astronomy Texts.” Isis 104 (September 2013), pp. 429-470. doi:10.1086/673269
  • Adam Mosley, Johannes de Sacrobosco, University of Cambridge, 1999.
  • Olaf Pedersen, “In Quest of Sacrobosco.” Journal for the History of Astronomy 16 (1985), pp. 175-221.
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Fordyce’s Sermons and a Real-Life Mr. Collins

Remember Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice?  He's the creepy, pompous cousin of Mr. Bennett – the one who was intended to marry Lizzie, but ended up with Charlotte Lucas, Lizzie's best friend.  During his first visit to the Bennett family, Mr. Collins proves to be such a bore in conversation that he's asked to read out loud instead:

Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels. Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed. Other books were produced, and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce's Sermons. Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him with:

"Do you know, mamma, that my uncle Phillips talks of turning away Richard; and if he does, Colonel Forster will hire him. My aunt told me so herself on Saturday. I shall walk to Meryton to-morrow to hear more about it, and to ask when Mr. Denny comes back from town."

Lydia was bid by her two eldest sisters to hold her tongue; but Mr. Collins, much offended, laid aside his book, and said:

"I have often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit. It amazes me, I confess; for, certainly, there can be nothing so advantageous to them as instruction. But I will no longer importune my young cousin."

Books on proper conduct were popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and James Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women was one of the most widely read and circulated.  It became a staple in household and school libraries and went through multiple editions in a short period.  One has to wonder, however, whether the young women who were subjected to its wisdom liked it as much as their parents, teachers, and clergymen did.  Scholars have pointed out that Jane Austen uses the events above to comment on the place of the novel in society, but also to frame her female characters in relation to the submissive, modest, and pious behavior Fordyce prescribes.  

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We have one copy of Fordyce's Sermons in Special Collections.  It's a second edition in two volumes, printed in 1766 in London.  It's interesting to read, especially as an insight into the world of Jane Austen.  But what's most interesting about it, to me at least, is that at some point in its early history, it was owned by a man named L. Buck, LL.D., who seemed to have appreciated Fordyce just as much as Mr. Collins did.  Here's what he wrote on the front free endpaper:

This Book ought to be read again and again by every young Lady in the Kingdom. I do not know any Praise too great, that can be given to the Author of it. L. B.

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Mr. Buck went on to take notes throughout the first and second volumes, underlining sentences and making short, summarizing comments in the margins. I've collected a gallery of some representative examples below.

From Alumni Oxoniensis I was able to find out that our Mr. Buck was probably Reverend Lewis Buck of Bideford, Devon.  He enrolled in Exeter College at Oxford in May 1753 at the age of 19, received a bachelor's degree in law in 1765 and a D.C.L. in 1771, and died in April 1783.  

To Mr. Buck's credit, it's pretty unfair of me to call him a real-life Mr. Collins.  After all, we know very little about him, except for his regard for Fordyce and the fact that he was a clergyman.  His interest in these sermons mirrored the attitudes and values of the society around him.  Still, it's tempting to look for the reasons he read this book so closely.  Was he a father of daughters looking for parenting advice?  Was he involved in the education of women?  Or perhaps he was looking for ways to counsel young women in his parish?  Whatever his purposes, Fordyce's Sermons was a text he studied fully and, evidently, enjoyed.

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Posted in Rare Book Collection

Special Collections contributes to the Missouri Over There digitization project

Special Collections and Rare Books recently contributed several World War I posters to the Missouri Over There digitization project.  Coordinated by the Missouri State Library, the Missouri Over There project explores the state's involvement in the first World War.  The posters selected for digitization deal with military recruiting and home front efforts such as food conservation, savings programs, and civic organizations.  Many pertain to the St. Louis area, but a few are specific to Columbia and mid-Missouri.

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Take a look at the project blog, and browse the entire selection of posters in the Missouri Digital Heritage database.  Special Collections has a collection of over 900 World War I posters, including examples from France, Germany, and Belgium.  You can find a description of the entire World War I poster collection on the Special Collections website.

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