Category Archives: Early Scientific Publishing

History of science is global history

The simple statement that the history of science is global history is for me and, I assume, for every reasonably well-informed historian of science a rather trivial truism. So, I feel that James Poskett and the publishers Viking are presenting something of a strawman with the sensational claims for Poskett’s new book, HorizonsA Global History of Science[1]; claims that are made prominently by a series of pop science celebrities on the cover of the book. 

“Hugely Important,” Jim al-Khalili, really? 

“Revolutionary and revelatory,” Alice Roberts what’s so revolutionary about it?  

“This treasure trove of a book puts the case persuasively and compellingly that modern science did not develop solely in Europe,” Jim al-Khalili, I don’t know any sane historian of science, who would claim it did.

“Horizons is a remarkable book that challenges almost everything we know about science in the West. [Poskett brings to light an extraordinary array of material to change our thinking on virtually every great scientific breakthrough in the last 500 years… An explosive book that truly broadens our global scientific horizons, past and present.”] Jerry Brotton (The bit in square brackets is on the publisher’s website not on the book cover) I find this particularly fascinating as Brotton’s own The RenaissanceA Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2006) very much emphasises what is purportedly the main thesis of Horizons that science, in Brotton’s case the Renaissance, is not a purely Western or European phenomenon.

On June 22, Canadian historian Ted McCormick tweeted the following:

It’s not unusual for popular history to present as radical what has been scholarly consensus for a generation. If this bridges the gap between scholarship and public perception, then it is understandable. But what happens when the authors who do this are scholars who know better?

This is exactly what we have with Poskett’s book, he attempts to present in a popular format the actually stand amongst historian of science on the development of science over the last approximately five hundred years. I know Viking are only trying to drum up sales for the book, but I personally find it wrong that they use misleading hyperbole to do so. 

Having complained about the publisher’s pitch, let’s take a look at what Poskett is actually trying to sell to his readers and how he goes about doing so. Central to his message is that claims that science is a European invention/discovery[2] are false and that it is actually a global phenomenon. To back up his stand that such claims exist he reproduces a series of rather dated quotes making that claim. I would contend that very, very few historians of science actually believe that claim nowadays. He also proposes, what he sees as a new approach to the history of science of the last five hundred years, in that he divides the period into four epochs or eras, in which he sees science external factors during each era as the defining or driving force behind the scientific development in that era. Each is split into two central themes: Part One: Scientific Revolution, c. 1450–1700 1. New Worlds 2. Heaven and Earth, Part Two: Empire and Enlightenment, c. 1650–1800 3. Newton’s Slaves 4. Economy of Nature, Part Three:  Capitalism and Conflict, c. 1790–­1914 5. Struggle for Existence 6. Industrial Experiments, Part Four: Ideology and Aftermath, c. 1914–200 7. Faster Than Light 8. Genetic States.

I must sadly report that Part One, the area in which I claim a modicum of knowledge, is as appears recently oft to be the case strewn with factual errors and misleading statements and would have benefited from some basic fact checking.

New Worlds starts with a description of the palace of Emperor Moctezuma II and presents right away the first misleading claim. Poskett write:

Each morning he would take a walk around the royal botanical garden. Roses and vanilla flowers lined the paths, whilst hundreds of Aztec gardeners tended to rows of medicinal plants. Built in 1467, this Aztec botanical garden predated European examples by almost a century.[3]

Here Poskett is taking the university botanical gardens as his measure, the first of which was establish in Pisa in 1544, that is 77 years after Moctezuma’s Garden. However, there were herbal gardens, on which the university botanical gardens were modelled, in the European monasteries dating back to at least the ninth century. Matthaeus Silvaticus (c.1280–c. 1342) created a botanical garden at Salerno in 1334. Pope Nicholas V established a botanical garden in the Vatican in 1544. 

This is not as trivial as it might a first appear, as Poskett uses the discovery of South America to make a much bigger claim. First, he sets up a cardboard cut out image of the medieval university in the fifteenth century, he writes:

Surprisingly as it may sound today, the idea of making observations or preforming experiments was largely unknown to medieval thinkers. Instead, students at medieval universities in Europe spent their time reading, reciting, and discussing the works of Greek and Roman authors. This was a tradition known as scholasticism. Commonly read texts included Aristotle’s Physics, written in the fourth century BCE, and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, written in the first century CE. The same approach was common to medicine. Studying medicine at medieval university in Europe involved almost no contact with actual human bodies. There was certainly no dissections or experiments on the working of particular organs. Instead, medieval medical students read and recited the works of the ancient Greek physician Galen. Why, then, sometime between 1500 and 1700, did European scholars turn away from investigating the natural world for themselves?[4]

His answer:

The answer has a lot to do with colonization of the New World alongside the accompanying appropriation of Aztec and Aztec and Inca knowledge, something that traditional histories of science fail to account for.[5]

Addressing European, medieval, medical education first, the practical turn to dissection began in the fourteenth century and by 1400 public dissections were part of the curriculum of nearly all European universities. The introduction of a practical materia medica education on a practical basis began towards the end of the fifteenth century. Both of these practical changes to an empirical approach to teaching medicine at the medieval university well before any possible influence from the New World. In general, the turn to empiricism in the European Renaissance took place before any such influence, which is not to say that that process was not accelerated by the discovery of a whole New World not covered by the authors of antiquity. However, it was not triggered by it, as Poskett would have us believe. 

Poskett’s next example to bolster his thesis is quite frankly bizarre. He tells the story of José de Acosta (c. 1539–1600), the Jesuit missionary who travelled and worked in South America and published his account of what he experienced, Natural and Moral History of the Indies in 1590. Poskett tells us: 

The young priest was anxious about the journey, not least because of what ancient authorities said about the equator. According to Aristotle, the world was divided into three climatic zones. The north and south poles were characterized by extreme cold and known as the ‘frigid zone’. Around the equator was the ‘torrid zone’, a region of burning dry heat. Finally, between the two extremes, at around the same latitudes as Europe, was the ‘temperate zone’. Crucially, Aristotle argued that life, particularly human life, could only be sustained in the ‘temperate zone’. Everywhere else was either too hot nor too cold.

Poskett pp. 17-18

Poskett goes on to quote Acosta:

I must confess I laughed and jeered at Aristotle’s meteorological theories and his philosophy, seeing that in the very place where, according to his rules, everything must be burning and on fire, I and all my companions were cold.

Poskett p. 18

Instead of commenting on Acosta’s ignorance or naivety, Aristotle’s myth of the ‘torrid zone’ had been busted decades earlier, at the very latest when Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450–1500) had rounded the southern tip of Africa fifty-two years before Acosta was born and eight-two year before he travelled to Peru, Poskett sees this as some sort of great anti-Aristotelian revelation. He writes:

This was certainly a blow to classical authority. If Aristotle had been mistaken about the climate zones, what else might he have been wrong about?

Poskett p.18

This is all part of Poskett’s fake narrative that the breakdown of the scholastic system was first provoked by the contact with the new world. We have Poskett making this claim directly:

It was this commercial attitude towards the New World that really transformed the study of natural history. Merchants and doctors tended to place much greater emphasis on collecting and experimentation over classical authority.[6]

This transformation had begun in Europe well before any scholar set foot in the New World and was well established before any reports on the natural history of the New World had become known in Europe. The discovery of the New World accelerated the process but it in no way initiated it as Poskett would have his readers believe. Poskett once again paints a totally misleading picture a few pages on:

This new approach to natural history was also reflected in the increasing use of images. Whereas ancient texts on natural history tended not to be illustrated, the new natural histories of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were full of drawings and engravings, many of which were hand-coloured. This was partly a reaction to the novelty of what had been discovered. How else would those in Europe know what a vanilla plant or a hummingbird looked like?

Poskett pp.29-30

Firstly, both ancient and medieval natural history texts were illustrated, I refer Mr Proskett, for example, to the lavishly illustrated Vienna Dioscorides from 512 CE. Secondly, the introduction of heavily illustrated, printed herbals began in the sixteenth century before any illustrated natural history books or manuscripts from the New World had arrived in Europe. For example, Otto Brunfels’ Herbarium vivae eicones three volumes 1530-1536 or the second edition of Hieronymus Bock’s Neu Kreütterbuch in 1546 and finally the truly lavishly illustrated De Historia Stirpium Commentarii by Leonhard Fuchs published in 1542. The later inclusion of illustrations plants and animals from the New World in such books was the continuation of an already established tradition. 

Poskett moves on from natural history to cartography and produced what I can only call a train wreck. He tells us:

The basic problem, which was now more pressing [following the discovery of the New World], stemmed from the fact that the world is round, but a map is flat. What then was the best way to represent a three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane? Ptolemy had used what is known as a ‘conic’ projection, in which the world is divided into arcs radiating out from the north pole, rather like a fan. This worked well for depicting one hemisphere, but not both. It also made it difficult for navigators to follow compass bearings, as the lines spread outwards the further one got from the north pole. In the sixteenth century, European cartographers started experimenting with new projections. In 1569, the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator produced an influential map he titled ‘New and More Complete Representation of the Terrestrial Globe Properly Adapted for Use in Navigation’. Mercator effectively stretched the earth at the poles and shrunk it in the middle. This allowed him to produce a map of the world in which the lines of latitude are always at right angles to one another. This was particularly useful for sailors, as it allowed them to follow compass bearings as straight lines.

Poskett p. 39

Where to begin? First off, the discovery of the New World is almost contemporaneous with the development of the printed terrestrial globe, Waldseemüller 1507 and more significantly Johannes Schöner 1515. So, it became fairly common in the sixteenth century to represent the three-dimensional world three-dimensionally as a globe. In fact, Mercator, the only Early Modern cartographer mentioned here, was in his time the premium globe maker in Europe. Secondly, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries mariners did not even attempt to use a Ptolemaic projection on the marine charts, instead they used portulan charts–which first emerged in the Mediterranean in the fourteenth century–to navigate in the Atlantic, and which used an equiangular or plane chart projection that ignores the curvature of the earth. Thirdly between the re-emergence of Ptolemy’s Geographia in 1406 and Mercator’s world map of 1569, Johannes Werner published Johannes Stabius’ cordiform projection in 1514, which can be used to depict two hemispheres and in fact Mercator used a pair of cordiform maps to do just that in his world map from 1538. In 1508, Francesco Rosselli published his oval projection, which can be used to display two hemispheres and was used by Abraham Ortelius for his world map from 1564. Fourthly, stereographic projection, known at least since the second century CE and used in astrolabes, can be used in pairs to depict two hemispheres, as was demonstrated by Mercator’s son Rumold in his version of his father’s world map in 1587. Fifthly, the Mercator projection if based on the equator, as it normally is, does not shrink the earth in the middle. Lastly, far from being influential, Mercator’s ‘New and More Complete Representation of the Terrestrial Globe Properly Adapted for Use in Navigation’, even in the improved version of Edward Wright from 1599 had very little influence on practical navigation in the first century after it first was published. 

After this abuse of the history of cartography Poskett introduces something, which is actually very interesting. He describes how the Spanish crown went about creating a map of their newly won territories in the New World. The authorities sent out questionnaires to each province asking the local governors or mayors to describe their province. Poskett notes quite correctly that a lot of the information gathered by this method came from the indigenous population. However, he once again displays his ignorance of the history of European cartography. He writes:

A questionnaire might seem like an obvious way to collect geographical information, but in the sixteenth century this idea was entirely novel. It represented a new way of doing geography, one that – like science more generally in this period – relied less and less on ancient Greek and Roman authority.

Poskett p. 41

It would appear that Poskett has never heard of Sebastian Münster and his Cosmographia, published in 1544, probably the biggest selling book of the sixteenth century. An atlas of the entire world it was compiled by Münster from the contributions from over one hundred scholars from all over Europe, who provided maps and texts on various topics for inclusion in what was effectively an encyclopaedia. Münster, who was not a political authority did not send out a questionnaire but appealed for contributions both in publications and with personal letters. Whilst not exactly the same, the methodology is very similar to that used later in 1577 by the Spanish authorities. 

In his conclusion to the section on the New World Poskett repeats his misleading summation of the development of science in the sixteenth century:

Prior to the sixteenth century, European scholars relied almost exclusively on ancient Greek and Roman authorities. For natural history they read Pliny for geography they read Ptolemy. However, following the colonization of the Americas, a new generation of thinkers started to place a greater emphasis on experience as the main source of scientific knowledge. They conducted experiments, collected specimens, and organised geographical surveys. This might seem an obvious way to do science to us today, but at the time it was a revelation. This new emphasis on experience was in part a response to the fact that the Americas were completely unknown to the ancients.

Poskett p. 44

Poskett’s claim simply ignores the fact that the turn to empirical science had already begun in the latter part of the fifteenth century and by the time Europeans began to investigate the Americas was well established, those investigators carrying the new methods with them rather than developing them in situ. 

Following on from the New World, Poskett takes us into the age of Renaissance astronomy serving up a well worn and well know story of non-European contributions to the Early Modern history of the discipline which has been well represented in basic texts for decades. Nothing ‘revolutionary and revelatory’ here, to quote Alice Roberts. However, despite the fact that everything he in presenting in this section is well documented he still manages to include some errors. To start with he attributes all of the mechanics of Ptolemy’s geocentric astronomy–deferent, eccentric, epicycle, equant–to Ptolemy, whereas in fact they were largely developed by other astronomers–Hipparchus, Apollonius–and merely taken over by Ptolemy.  

Next up we get the so-called twelfth century “scientific Renaissance” dealt with in one paragraph. Poskett tells us the Gerard of Cremona translated Ptolemy from Arabic into Latin in 1175, completely ignoring the fact that it was translated from Greek into Latin in Sicily at around the same time. This is a lead into the Humanist Renaissance, which Poskett presents with the totally outdated thesis that it was the result of the fall of Constantinople, which he rather confusingly calls Istanbul, in 1453, evoking images of Christians fleeing across the Adriatic with armfuls of books; the Humanist Renaissance had been in full swing for about a century by that point. 

Following the introduction of Georg of Trebizond and his translation of the Almagest from Greek, not the first as already noted above as Poskett seems to imply, up next is a very mangled account of the connections between Bessarion, Regiomontanus, and Peuerbach and Bessarion’s request that Peuerbach produce a new translation of the Almagest from the Greek because of the deficiencies in Trebizond’s translation. Poskett completely misses the fact that Peuerbach couldn’t read Greek and the Epitome, the Peuerbach-Regiomontanus Almagest, started as a compendium of his extensive knowledge of the existing Latin translations. Poskett then sends Regiomontanus off the Italy for ten years collecting manuscripts to improve his translation. In fact, Regiomontanus only spent four years in Italy in the service of Bessarion collecting manuscripts for Bessarion’s library, whilst also making copies for himself, and learning Greek to finish the Epitome.

Poskett correctly points out that the Epitome was an improved, modernised version of the Almagest drawing on Greek, Latin and Arabic sources. Poskett now claims that Regiomontanus introduced an innovation borrowed from the Islamic astronomer, Ali Qushji, that deferent and epicycles could be replaced by the eccentric. Poskett supports this argument by the fact that Regiomontanus uses Ali Qushji diagram to illustrate this possibility. The argument is not original to Poskett but is taken from the work of historian of astronomy, F. Jamil Ragip. Like Ragip, Poskett now argues thus:

In short, Ali Qushji argued that the motion of all the planets could be modelled simply by imagining that the centre of their orbits was at a point other than the Earth. Neither he nor Regiomontanus went as far as to suggest this point might in fact be the Sun. By dispensing with Ptolemy’s notion of the epicycle, Ali Qushji opened the door for a much more radical version of the structure of the cosmos.[7]

This is Ragip theory of what motivated Copernicus to adopt a heliocentric model of the cosmos. The question of Copernicus’s motivation remains open and there are numerous theories. This theory, as presented, however, has several problems. That the planetary models can be presented either with the deferent-epicycle model or the eccentric model goes back to Apollonius and is actually included in the Almagest by Ptolemy as Apollonius’ theorem (Almagest, Book XII, first two paragraphs), so this is neither an innovation from Ali Qushji nor from Regiomontanus. In Copernicus’ work the Sun is not actually at the centre of the planetary orbits but slightly offset, as has been pointed out his system is not actually heliocentric but more accurately heliostatic. Lastly, Copernicus in his heliostatic system continues to use the deferent-epicycle model to describe planetary orbits.

Poskett is presenting Ragip’s disputed theory to bolster his presentation of Copernicus’ dependency on Arabic sources, somewhat unnecessary as no historian of astronomy would dispute that dependency. Poskett continues along this line, when introducing Copernicus and De revolutionibus. After a highly inaccurate half paragraph biography of Copernicus–for example he has the good Nicolaus appointed canon of Frombork Cathedral after he had finished his studies in Italy, whereas he was actually appointed before he began his studies, he introduces us to De revolutionibus. He emphasis the wide range of international sources on which the book is based, and then presents Ragip’s high speculative hypothesis, for which there is very little supporting evidence, as fact:

Copernicus suggested that all these problems could be solved if we imagined the Sun was at the centre of the universe. In making this move he was directly inspired by the Epitome of the Almagest. Regiomontanus, drawing on Ali Qushji, had shown it was possible to imagine that the centre of all the orbits of the planets was somewhere other than the Earth. Copernicus took the final step, arguing that that this point was in fact the Sun.[8]

We simply do not know what inspired Copernicus to adopt a heliocentric model and to present a speculative hypothesis, one of a number, as the factual answer to this problem in a popular book is in my opinion irresponsible and not something a historian should be doing. 

Poskett now follows on with the next misleading statement. Having, a couple of pages earlier, introduced the Persian astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and the so-called Tusi couple, a mathematical device that allows linear motion to be reproduced geometrically with circles, Poskett now turns to Copernicus’ use of the Tusi couple. He writes:

The diagram in On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres shows the Tusi couple in action. Copernicus used this idea to solve exactly the same problem as al-Tusi. He wanted a way to generate an oscillating circular movement without sacrificing a commitment to uniform circular motion. He used the Tusi couple to model planetary motion around the Sun rather than the Earth. This mathematical tool, invented in thirteenth-century Persia, found its way into the most important work in the history of European astronomy. Without it, Copernicus would not have been able to place the Sun at the centre of the universe.[9] [my emphasis]

As my alter-ego the HISTSCI_HULK would say the emphasised sentence is pure and utter bullshit!

The bizarre claims continue, Poskett writes:

The publication of On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543 has long been considered the starting point for the scientific revolution. However, what is less often recognised is that Nicolaus Copernicus was in fact building on a much longer Islamic tradition.[10]

When I first read the second sentence here, I had a truly WTF! moment. There was a time in the past when it was claimed that the Islamic astronomers merely conserved ancient Greek astronomy, adding nothing new to it before passing it on to the Europeans in the High Middle Ages. However, this myth was exploded long ago. All the general histories of astronomy, the histories of Early Modern and Renaissance astronomy, and the histories of Copernicus, his De revolutionibus and its reception that I have on my bookshelf emphasise quite clearly and in detail the influence that Islamic astronomy had on the development of astronomy in Europe in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Early Modern period. Either Poskett is ignorant of the true facts, which I don’t believe, or he is presenting a false picture to support his own incorrect thesis.

Having botched European Renaissance astronomy, Poskett turns his attention to the Ottoman Empire and the Istanbul observatory of Taqi al-Din with a couple of pages that are OK, but he does indulge in a bit of hype when talking about al-Din’s use of a clock in an observatory, whilst quietly ignoring Jost Bürgi’s far more advanced clocks used in the observatories of Wilhelm IV of Hessen-Kassel and Tycho Brahe contemporaneously. 

This is followed by a brief section on astronomy in North Africa in the same period, which is basically an extension of Islamic astronomy with a bit of local colouration. Travelling around the globe we land in China and, of course, the Jesuits. Nothing really to complain about here but Poskett does allow himself another clangour on the subject of calendar reform. Having correctly discussed the Chinese obsession with calendar reform and the Jesuit missionaries’ involvement in it in the seventeenth century Poskett add an aside about the Gregorian Calendar reform in Europe. He writes:

The problem was not unique to China. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII had asked the Jesuits to help reform the Christian Calendar back in Europe. As both leading astronomers and Catholic servants, the Jesuits proved an ideal group to undertake such a task. Christoph Clavius, Ricci’s tutor at the Roman College [Ricci had featured prominently in the section on the Jesuits in China], led the reforms. He integrated the latest mathematical methods alongside data taken from Copernicus’s astronomical tables. The result was the Gregorian calendar, still in use today throughout many parts of the world.[11]

I have no idea what source Poskett used for this brief account, but he has managed to get almost everything wrong that one can get wrong. The process of calendar reform didn’t start in 1582, that’s the year in which the finished calendar reform was announced in the papal bull Inter gravissimas. The whole process had begun many years before when the Vatican issued two appeals for suggestion on how to reform the Julian calendar which was now ten days out of sync with the solar year. Eventually, the suggestion of the physician Luigi Lilio was adopted for consideration and a committee was set up to do just that. We don’t actually know how long the committee deliberated but it was at least ten years. We also don’t know, who sat in that committee over those years; we only know the nine members who signed the final report. Clavius was not the leader of the reform, in fact he was the least important member of the committee, the leader being naturally a cardinal. You can read all of the details in this earlier blog post. At the time there were not a lot of Jesuit astronomers, that development came later and data from Copernicus’ astronomical tables were not used for the reform. Just for those who don’t want to read my blog post, Clavius only became associated with the reform after the fact, when he was commissioned by the pope to defend it against its numerous detractors.  I do feel that a bit of fact checking might prevent Poskett and Viking from filling the world with false information about what is after all a major historical event. 

The section Heaven and Earth closes with an account of Jai Singh’s observatories in India in the eighteenth century, the spectacular instruments of the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur still stand today. 

Readers of this review need not worry that I’m going to go on at such length about the other three quarters of Poskett’s book. I’m not for two reasons. Firstly, he appears to be on territory where he knows his way around better than in the Early Modern period, which was dealt with in the first quarter Secondly, my knowledge of the periods and sciences he now deals with are severely limited so I might not necessarily have seen any errors. 

There are however a couple more train wrecks before we reach the end and the biggest one of all comes at the beginning of the second quarter in the section titled Newton’s Slaves. I’ll start with a series of partial quote, then analyse them:

(a) Where did Newton get this idea [theory of gravity] from? Contrary to popular belief, Newton did not make his great discovery after an apple fell on his head. Instead in a key passage in the Principia, Newton cited the experiments of a French astronomer named Jean Richer. In 1672, Richer had travelled to the French colony of Cayenne in South America. The voyage was sponsored by King Louis XIV through the Royal Academy of Science in Paris.


(b) Once in Cayenne, Richer made a series of astronomical observations, focusing on the movements of the planets and cataloguing stars close to the equator.


(c) Whilst in Cayenne, Richer also undertook a number of experiments with a pendulum clock.


(d) In particular, a pendulum with a length of just one metre makes a complete swing, left to right, every second. This became known as a ‘seconds pendulum’…


(e) In Cayenne, Richer noticed that his carefully calibrated pendulum was running slow, taking longer than a second to complete each swing.


(f) [On a second voyage] Richer found that, on both Gorée and Guadeloupe, he needed to shorten the pendulum by about four millimetres to keep it running on time.


(g) What could explain this variation?


(h) Newton, however, quickly realised the implications the implications of what Richer had observed. Writing in the Principia, Newton argued that the force of gravity varied across the surface of the planet. 


(i) This was a radical suggestion, one which seemed to go against common sense. But Newton did the calculations and showed how his equations for the gravitational force matched exactly Richer’s results from Cayenne and Gorée. Gravity really was weaker nearer the equator.


(j) All this implied a second, even more controversial, conclusion. If gravity was variable, then the Earth could not be a perfect sphere. Instead, Newton argued, the Earth must be a ‘spheroid’, flattened at the poles rather like a pumpkin. 


(k) Today, it is easy to see the Principia as a scientific masterpiece, the validity of which nobody could deny. But at the time, Newton’s ideas were incredibly controversial.


(l) Many preferred the mechanical philosophy of the French mathematician René Descartes. Writing in his Principles of Philosophy (1644), Descartes denied the possibility of any kind of invisible force like gravity, instead arguing that force was only transferred through direct contact. Descartes also suggested that, according to his own theory of matter, the Earth should be stretched the other way, elongated like an egg rather than squashed like a pumpkin.


(m) These differences were not simply a case of national rivalry or scientific ignorance. When Newton published the Principia in 1687, his theories were in fact incomplete. Two major problems remained to be solved. First, there were the aforementioned conflicting reports of the shape of the Earth. And if Newton was wrong about the shape of the Earth, then he was wrong about gravity.[12]

To begin at the beginning: (a) The suggestion or implication that Newton got the idea of the theory of gravity from Richer’s second pendulum experiments is quite simply grotesque. The concept of a force holding the solar system together and propelling the planets in their orbits evolved throughout the seventeenth century beginning with Kepler. The inverse square law of gravity was first hypothesised by Ismaël Boulliau, although he didn’t believe it existed. Newton made his first attempt to show that the force causing an object to fall to the Earth, an apple for example, and the force that held the Moon in its orbit and prevented it shooting off at a tangent as the law of inertia required, before Richer even went to Cayenne.

(c)–(g) It is probable that Richer didn’t make the discovery of the difference in length between a second pendulum in Northern Europe and the equatorial region, this had already ben observed earlier. What he did was to carry out systematic experiments to determine the size of the difference.

(l) Descartes did not suggest, according to his own theory of matter, that the Earth was an elongated spheroid. In fact, using Descartes theories Huygens arrived at the same shape for the Earth as Newton. This suggestion was first made by Jean-Dominique Cassini and his son Jacques long after Descartes death. Their reasoning was based on the difference in the length of one degree of latitude as measured by Willebrord Snel in The Netherlands in 1615 and by Jean Picard in France in 1670. 

This is all a prelude for the main train wreck, which I will now elucidate. In the middle of the eighteenth century, to solve the dispute on the shape of the Earth, Huygens & Newton vs the Cassinis, the French Academy of Science organised two expeditions, one to Lapland and one to Peru in order to determine as accurately as possible the length of one degree of latitude at each location. Re-enter Poskett, who almost completely ignoring the Lapland expedition, now gives his account of the French expedition to Peru. He tells us:

The basic technique for conducting a survey [triangulation] of this kind had been pioneered in France in the seventeenth century. To begin the team needed to construct what was known as a ‘baseline’. This was a perfectly straight trench, only a few inches deep, but at least a couple of miles long.[13]

Triangulation was not first pioneered in France in the seventeenth century. First described in print in the sixteenth century by Gemma Frisius, it was pioneered in the sixteenth century by Mercator when he surveyed the Duchy of Lorraine, and also used by Tycho Brahe to map his island of Hven. To determine the length of one degree of latitude it was pioneered, as already stated, by Willebrord Snell. However, although wrong this is not what most disturbed me about this quote. One of my major interests is the history of triangulation and its use in surveying the Earth and determining its shape and I have never come across any reference to digging a trench to lay out a baseline. Clearing the undergrowth and levelling the surface, yes, but a trench? Uncertain, I consulted the book that Poskett references for this section of his book, Larrie D Ferreiro’s Measure of the EarthThe Enlightenment Expedition that Reshaped the World (Basic Books, 2011), which I have on my bookshelf. Mr Ferreiro make no mention of a baseline trench. Still uncertain and not wishing to do Poskett wrong I consulter Professor Matthew Edney, a leading expert on the history of surveying by triangulation, his answer:

This is the first I’ve heard of digging a trench for a baseline. It makes little sense. The key is to have a flat surface (flat within the tolerance dictated by the quality of the instruments being used, which wasn’t great before 1770). Natural forces (erosion) and human forces (road building) can construct a sufficiently level surface; digging a trench would only increase irregularities.[14]

The problems don’t end here, Poskett writes:

La Condamine did not build the baseline himself. The backbreaking work of digging a seven-mile trench was left to the local Peruvian Indians.[15]

This is contradicted by Ferreiro who write:

Just as the three men completed the alignment for the baseline, the rest of the expedition arrived on the scene, in time for the most difficult phase of the operation. In order to create a baseline, an absolutely straight path, seven miles long and just eighteen inches wide, had to be dug into, ripped up from, and scraped out of the landscape. For the scientists, who had been accustomed to a largely sedentary life back in Europe, this would involve eight days of back breaking labour and struggling for breath in the rarefied air. “We worked at felling trees,” Bouguer explained in his letter to Bignon, “breaking through walls and filling in ravines to align [a baseline] of more than two leagues.” They employed several Indians to help transport equipment, though Bouguer felt it necessary that someone “keep an eye on them.”[16]

Poskett includes this whole story of the Peruvian Indians not digging a non-existent baseline trench because he wants to draw a parallel between the baseline and the Nazca Lines, a group of geoglyphs made in the soil of the Nazca desert in southern Peru that were created between 500 BCE and 500 CE. He writes:

The Peruvian Indians who built the baseline must have believed that La Condamine wanted to construct his own ritual line much like the earlier Inca rulers.[17]


Intriguingly some are simply long straight lines. They carry on for miles, dead straight, crossing hills and valleys. Whilst their exact function is still unclear, many historians now believe they were used to align astronomical observations, exactly as La Condamine intended with his baseline.[18]

The Nazca lines are of course pre-Inca. The ‘many historians’ is a bit of a giveaway, which historians? Who? Even if the straight Nazca lines are astronomically aligned, they by no means serve the same function as La Condamine’s triangulation baseline, which is terrestrial not celestial.  

To be fair to Poskett, without turning the baseline into a trench and without having the Indians dig it, Ferreiro draws the same parallel but without the astronomical component: 

For their part, the Indians were also observing the scientists, but to them “all was confusion” regarding the scientists’ motives for this arduous work. The long straight baseline the had scratched out of the ground certainly resembled the sacred linear pathways that Peruvian cultures since long before the Incas, had been constructing.[19]

Poskett’s conclusion to this section, in my opinion, contains a piece of pure bullshit.

By January 1742, the results were in. La Condamine calculated that the distance between Quito and Cuenca was exactly 344,856 metres. From observations made of the stars at both ends of the survey, La Condamine also found that the difference in latitude between Quit and Cuenca was a little over three degrees. Dividing the two, La Condamine concluded that the length of a degree of latitude at the equator was 110,613 metres. This was over 1,000 metres less than the result found by the Lapland expedition, which had recently returned to Paris. The French, unwittingly relying on Indigenous Andean science [my emphasis] had discovered the true shape of the Earth. It was an ‘oblate spheroid’, squashed at the poles and bulging at the equator. Newton was right.[20]

Sorry, but just because Poskett thinks that a triangulation survey baseline looks like an ancient, straight line, Peruvian geoglyph doesn’t in anyway make the French triangulation survey in anyway dependent on Indigenous Andean science. As I said, pure bullshit. 

The next section deals with the reliance of European navigators of interaction with indigenous navigators throughout the eighteenth century and is OK. This is followed by the history of eighteenth-century natural history outside of Europe and is also OK. 

At the beginning of the third quarter, we again run into a significant problem. The chapter Struggle for Existence open with the story of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a natural historian, who having taken part in Napoleon’s Egypt expedition, compared mummified ancient Egyptian ibises with contemporary ones in order to detect traces of evolutions but because the time span was too short, he found nothing. His work was published in France 1818, but Poskett argues that his earliest work was published in Egyptian at the start of the century and so, “In order to understand the history of evolution, we therefore need to begin with Geoffroy and the French army in North Africa.” I’m not a historian of evolution but really? Ignoring all the claims for evolutionary thought in earlier history, Poskett completely blends out the evolutionary theories of Pierre Louis Maupertuis (1751), James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, (between 1767 and 1792) and above all Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, who published his theory of evolution in his Zoonomia (1794–1796). So why do we need to begin with Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire?

Having dealt briefly with Charles Darwin, Poskett takes us on a tour of the contributions to evolutionary theory made in Russia, Japan, and China in the nineteenth century, whilst ignoring the European contributions. 

Up next in Industrial Experiments Poskett takes us on a tour of the contributions to the physical sciences outside of Europe in the nineteenth century. Here we have one brief WTF statement. Poskett writes:

Since the early nineteenth century, scientists had known that the magnetic field of the Earth varies across the planet. This means that the direction of the north pole (‘true north’) and the direction that the compass needle points (‘magnetic north’) are not necessarily identical, depending on where you are.[21]

Magnetic declination, to give the technical name, had been known and documented since before the seventeenth century, having been first measured accurately for Rome by Georg Hartmann in 1510, it was even known that it varies over time for a given location. Edmund Halley even mapped the magnetic declination of the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the seventeenth century in the hope that it would provide a solution to the longitude problem. 

In the final quarter we move into the twentieth century. The first half deals with modern physics up till WWII, and the second with genetic research following WWII, in each case documenting the contribution from outside of Europe. Faster than Light, the modern physics section, move through Revolutionary Russia, China, Japan, and India; here Poskett connects the individual contributions to the various revolutionary political movements in these countries. Genetic States moves from the US, setting the background, through Mexico, India, China, and Israel.  I have two minor quibbles about what is presented in these two sections.

Firstly, in both sections, instead of a chronological narrative of the science under discussion we have a series of biographical essays of the figures in the different countries who made the contribution, which, of course, also outlines their individual contributions. I have no objections to this, but something became obvious to me reading through this collection of biographies. They all have the same muster. X was born in Y, became interested in topic Z, began their studies at some comparatively local institute of higher education, and then went off to Heidelberg/Berlin/Paris/London/Cambridge/Edinburg… to study with some famous European authority, and acquire a PhD. Then off to a different European or US university to research, or teach or both, before to returning home to a professorship in their mother country. This does seem to suggest that opposed to Poskett’s central thesis of the global development of science, a central and dominant role for Europe.  

My second quibble concerns only the genetics section. One of Poskett’s central theses is that science in a given epoch is driven by an external to the science cultural, social, or political factor. For this section he claims that the external driving force was the Cold War. Reading through this section my impression was that every time he evoked the Cold War he could just have easily written ‘post Second World War’ or even ‘second half of the twentieth century’ and it would have made absolutely no difference to his narrative. In my opinion he fails to actually connect the Cold War to the scientific developments he is describing.

The book closes with a look into the future and what Poskett thinks will be the force driving science there. Not surprisingly he chooses AI and being a sceptic what all such attempts at crystal ball gazing are concerned I won’t comment here.

The book has very extensive end notes, which are largely references to a vast array of primary and mostly secondary literature, which confirms what I said at the beginning that Poskett in merely presenting in semi-popular form the current stand in the history of science of the last half millennium. There is no separate bibliography, which is a pain if you didn’t look to see something the first time it was end noted, as in subsequent notes it just becomes Smith, 2003, sending you off on an oft hopeless search for that all important first mention in the notes. There are occasional grey scale illustrations and two blocks, one of thirteen and one of sixteen, colour plates. There is also an extensive index.

So, after all the negative comments, what do I really think about James Poskett, highly praised volume. I find the concept excellent, and the intention is to be applauded. A general popular overview of the development of the sciences since the Renaissance is an important contribution to the history of science book market. Poskett’s book has much to recommend it, and I personally learnt a lot reading it. However, as a notorious history of science pedant, I cannot ignore or excuse the errors than I have outlined in my review, some of which are in my opinion far from minor. The various sections of the book should have been fact checked by other historians, expert in the topic of the section, and this has very obviously not been done. It is to be hoped that this will take place before a second edition is published. 

Would I recommend it? Perhaps surprisingly, yes. James Poskett is a good writer and there is much to be gained from reading this book but, of course, with the caveat that it also contains things that are simply wrong. 

[1] James Poskett, Horizons: A Global History of Science, Viking, 2022 

[2] Take your pick according to your personal philosophy of science.

[3] Poskett p. 11

[4] Poskett p. 16

[5] Poskett 16

[6] Poskett p. 23

[7] Poskett p. 59

[8] Poskett p. 61

[9] Poskett p. 62

[10] Poskett p. 62

[11] Poskett p. 84

[12] Poskett pp. 101-104

[13] Poskett p. 107

[14] Edney private correspondence 27.07.2022

[15] Poskett p. 108

[16] Ferreiro p. 107

[17] Poskett p. 111

[18] Poskett p. 110

[19] Ferreiro p. 107

[20] Poskett pp. 111-112

[21] Poskett p. 251


Filed under Book Reviews, Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of botany, History of Cartography, History of Geodesy, History of Islamic Science, History of Navigation, Natural history, Renaissance Science

The Wizard Earl’s mathematici 

In my recent post on the Oxford mathematician and astrologer Thomas Allen, I mentioned his association with Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, who because of his strong interest in the sciences was known as the Wizard Earl.

HENRY PERCY, 9TH EARL OF NORTHUMBERLAND (1564-1632) by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). The ‘Wizard Earl’ was painted posthumously as a philosopher, hung in Square Room at Petworth. This is NT owned. via Wikimedia Commons

As already explained there Percy actively supported four mathematici, or to use the English term mathematical practitioners, Thomas Harriot (c. 1560–1621), Robert Hues (1553–1632), Walter Warner (1563–1643), and Nathaniel Torporley (1564–1632). Today, I’m going to take a closer look at them.

Thomas Harriot is, of course, the most well-known of the four; I have already written a post about him in the past, so I will only brief account of the salient point here.

Portrait often claimed to be Thomas Harriot (1602), which hangs in Oriel College, Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He graduatied from Oxford in 1580 and entered the service of Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618) in 1583. At Raleigh’s instigation he set up a school to teach Raleigh’s marine captains the newest methods of navigation and cartography, writing a manual on mathematical navigation, which contained the correct mathematical method for the construction of the Mercator projection. This manual was never published but we can assume he used it in his teaching. He was also directly involved in Raleigh’s voyages to establish the colony of Roanoke Island.

Sir Walter Ralegh in 1588 artist unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1590, he left Raleigh’s service and became a pensioner of Henry Percy, with a very generous pension, the title to some land in the North of England, and a house on Percy’s estate, Syon House, in Middlesex.[1] Here, Harriot lived out his years as a research scientist with no obligations.

Syon House Attributed to Robert Griffier

After Harriot, the most significant of the Wizard Earl’s mathematici was Robert Hues. Like Harriot, Hues attended St Mary’s Hall in Oxford, graduating a couple of years ahead of him in 1578. Being interested in geography and mathematics, he was one of those who studied navigation under Harriot in the school set up by Raleigh, having been introduced to Raleigh by Richard Hakluyt (1553–1616), another student of Thomas Allen and a big promoter of English colonisation of North America.  

Hakluyt depicted in stained glass in the west window of the south transept of Bristol Cathedral – Charles Eamer Kempe, c. 1905. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hues went on to become an experienced mariner. During a trip to Newfoundland, he came to doubt the published values for magnetic declination, the difference between magnetic north and true north, which varies from place to place.

In 1586, he joined with Thomas Cavendish (1560–1592), a privateer and another graduate of the Harriot school of navigation, who set out to raid Spanish shipping and undertake a circumnavigation of the globe, leaving Plymouth with three ships on 21 July. After the usual collection of adventures, they returned to Plymouth with just one ship on 9 September 1588, as the third ever ship to complete the circumnavigation after Magellan and Drake. Like Drake, Cavendish was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his endeavours.

Thomas Cavendish An engraving from Henry Holland’s Herōologia Anglica (1620). Animum fortuna sequatur is Latin for “May fortune follow courage.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hues undertook astronomical observations throughout the journey and determined the latitudes of the places they visited. In 1589, he served with the mathematicus Edward Wright (1561–1615), who like Harriot worked out the correct mathematical method for the construction of the Mercator projection, but unlike Harriot published it in his Certaine Errors in Navigation in 1599.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In August 1591, he set out once again with Cavendish on another attempted circumnavigation, also accompanied by the navigator John Davis (c. 1550–1605), another associate of Raleigh’s, known for his attempts to discover the North-West passage and his discovery of the Falkland Islands.

Miniature engraved portrait of navigator John Davis (c. 1550-1605), detail from the title page of Samuel Purchas’s Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes (1624). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cavendish died on route in 1592 and Hues returned to England with Davis in 1683. On this voyage Hues continued his astronomical observations in the South Atlantic and made determinations of compass declinations at various latitudes and the equator. 

Back in England, Hues published the results of his astronomical and navigational research in his Tractatus de globis et eorum usu (Treatise on Globes and Their Use, 1594), which was dedicated to Raleigh.

The book was a guide to the use of the terrestrial and celestial globes that Emery Molyneux (died 1598) had published in 1592 or 1593.

Molyneux CEltial Globe Middle Temple Library
A terrestrial globe by Emery Molyneux (d.1598-1599) is dated 1592 and is the earliest such English globe in existence. It is weighted with sand and made from layers of paper with a surface coat of plaster engraved with elaborate cartouches, fanciful sea-monsters and other nautical decoration by the Fleming Jodocus Hondius (1563-1611). There is a wooden horizon circle and brass meridian rings.

Molyneux belong to the same circle of mariners and mathematici, counting Hues, Wright, Cavendish, Davis, Raleigh, and Francis Drake (c. 1540–1596) amongst his acquaintances. In fact, he took part in Drake’s circumnavigation 1577–1580. These were the first globes made in England apparently at the suggestion of John Davis to his patron the wealthy London merchant William Sanderson (?1548–1638), who financed the construction of Molyneux’s globes to the tune of £1,000. Sanderson had sponsored Davis’ voyages and for a time was Raleigh’s financial manager. He named his first three sons Raleigh, Cavendish, and Drake.

Molyneux’s terrestrial globe was his own work incorporating information from his mariner friends and with the assistance of Edward Wright in plotting the coast lines. The circumnavigations of Drake and Cavendish were marked on the globe in red and blue line respectively. His celestial globe was a copy of the 1571 globe of Gerard Mercator (1512–1594), which itself was based on the 1537 globe of Gemma Frisius (1508–1555), on which Mercator had served his apprenticeship as globe maker. Molyneux’s globes were engraved by Jodocus Hondius (1563–1612), who lived in London between 1584 and 1593, and who would upon his return to the Netherlands would found one of the two biggest cartographical publishing houses of the seventeenth century.

Hues’ Tractatus de globis et eorum usu was one of four publications on the use of the globes. Molyneux wrote one himself, The Globes Celestial and Terrestrial Set Forth in Plano, published by Sanderson in 1592, of which none have survived. The London public lecturer on mathematics Thomas Hood published his The Vse of Both the Globes, Celestiall and Terrestriall in 1592, and finally Thomas Blundeville (c. 1522–c. 1606) in his Exercises containing six treatises including Cosmography, Astronomy, Geography and Navigation in 1594.

Hues’ Tractatus de globis has five sections the first of which deals with a basic description of and use of Molyneux’s globes. The second is concerned with matters celestial, plants, stars, and constellations. The third describes the lands, and seas displayed on the terrestrial globe, the circumference of the earth and degrees of a great circle. Part four contains the meat of the book and explains how mariners can use the globes to determine the sun’s position, latitude, course and distance, amplitudes and azimuths, and time and declination. The final section is a treatise, inspired by Harriot’s work on rhumb lines, on the use of the nautical triangle for dead reckoning. Difference of latitude and departure (or longitude) are two legs of a right triangle, the distance travelled is the hypotenuse, and the angle between difference of latitude and distance is the course. If any two elements are known, the other two can be determined by plotting or calculation using trigonometry.

The book was a success going through numerous editions in various languages. The original in Latin in 1593, Dutch in 1597, an enlarged and corrected Latin edition in 1611, Dutch again in 1613, enlarged once again in Latin in 1617, French in 1618, another Dutch edition in 1622, Latin again in 1627, English in 1638, Latin in 1659, another English edition also in 1659, and finally the third enlarged Latin edition reprinted in 1663. There were others.

The title page of Robert Hues (1634) Tractatvs de Globis Coelesti et Terrestri eorvmqve vsv in the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal via Wikimedia Commons

Hues continued his acquaintance with Raleigh in the 1590s and was one of the executors of Raleigh’s will. He became a servant of Thomas Grey, 15th Baron Gray de Wilton (died 1614) and when Grey was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his involvement in a Catholic plot against James I & VI in 1604, Hues was granted permission to visit and even to stay with him in the Tower. From 1605 to 1621, Northumberland was also incarcerated in the Tower because of his family’s involvement in the Gunpowder Plot. Following Grey’s death Hues transferred his Tower visits to Northumberland, who paid him a yearly pension of £40 until his death in 1632.

He withdrew to Oxford University and tutored Henry Percy’s oldest son Algernon, the future 10th Earl of Northumberland, in mathematics when he matriculated at Christ’s Church in 1617.

Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland, as Lord High Admiral of England, by Anthony van Dyck. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1622-23 he would also tutor the younger son Henry.

Oil painting on canvas, Henry Percy, Baron Percy of Alnwick (1605-1659) by Anthony Van Dyck Source: Wikimedia Commons

During this period, he probably visited both Petworth and Syon, Northumberland’s southern estates. He in known to have had discussion with Walter Warner on reflection. He remained in Oxford discussing mathematics with like minded fellows until his death.

Compared to the nautical adventures of Harriot and Hues, both Warner and Torporley led quiet lives. Walter Warner was born in Leicestershire and educated at Merton College Oxford graduating BA in 1579, the year between Hues and Harriot. According to John Aubrey in his Brief Lives, Warner was born with only one hand. It is almost certain that Hues, Warner, and Harriot met each other attending the mathematics lectures of Thomas Allen at Oxford. Originally a protégé of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, (1532–1588), he entered Northumberland’s household as a gentleman servitor in 1590 and became a pensioner in 1617. Although a servant, Warner dined with the family and was treated as a companion by the Earl. In Syon house, he was responsible for purchasing the Earl’s books, Northumberland had one of the largest libraries in England, and scientific instruments. He accompanied the Earl on his military mission to the Netherlands in 1600-01, acting as his confidential courier.       

Like Harriot, Warner was a true polymath, researching and writing on a very wide range of topics–logic, psychology, animal locomotion, atomism, time and space, the nature of heat and light, bullion and exchange, hydrostatics, chemistry, and the circulation of the blood, which he claimed to have discovered before William Harvey. However, like Harriot he published almost nothing, although, like Harriot, he was well-known in scholarly circles. Some of his work on optics was published posthumously by Marin Mersenne (1588–1648) in his Universæ geometriæ (1646).

Source: Google Books

It seems that following Harriot’s death Warner left Syon house, living in Charing Cross and at Cranbourne Lodge in Windsor the home of Sir Thomas Aylesbury, 1st Baronet (!576–1657), who had also been a student of Thomas Allen, and who had served both as Surveyor of the Navy and Master of the Mint. Aylesbury became Warner’s patron.

This painting by William Dobson probably represents Sir Thomas Aylesbury, 1st Baronet. 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aylesbury had inherited Harriot’s papers and encouraged Warner in the work of editing them for publication (of which more later), together with the young mathematician John Pell (1611–1685), asking Northumberland for financial assistance in the endeavour.

Northumberland died in 1632 and Algernon Percy the 10th Earl discontinued Warner’s pension. In 1635, Warner tried to win the patronage of Sir Charles Cavendish and his brother William Cavendish, enthusiastic supporters of the new scientific developments, in particular Keplerian astronomy. Charles Cavendish’s wife was the notorious female philosopher, Margaret Cavendish. Warner sent Cavendish a tract on the construction of telescopes and lenses for which he was rewarded with £20. However, Thomas Hobbes, another member of the Cavendish circle, managed to get Warner expelled from Cavendish’s patronage. Despite Aylesbury’s support Warner died in poverty. 

Nathaniel Torporley was born in Shropshire of unknow parentage and educated at Shrewsbury Grammar Scholl before matriculating at Christ Church Oxford in 1581. He graduated BA in 1584 and then travelled to France where he served as amanuensis to the French mathematician François Viète (1540–1603).

François Viète Source: Wikimedia Commons

He is thought to have supplied Harriot with a copy of Viète’s Isagoge, making Harriot the first English mathematician to have read it.


Torporley returned to Oxford in 1587 or 1588 and graduated MA from Brasenose College in 1591. 

He entered holy orders and was appointed rector of Salwarpe in Worcestershire, a living he retained until 1622. From 1611 he was also rector of Liddington in Wiltshire. His interest in mathematics, astronomy and astrology attracted the attention of Northumberland and he probably received a pension from him but there is only evidence of one payment in 1627. He was investigated in 1605, shortly before the Gunpowder Plot for having cast a nativity of the king. At some point he published a pamphlet, under the name Poulterey, attacking Viète. In 1632, he died at Sion College, on London Wall and in a will written in the year of his death he left all of his books, papers, and scientific instrument to the Sion College library.

Although his papers in the Sion College library contain several unpublished mathematical texts, still extant today, he only published one book his Diclides Coelometricae; seu Valuae Astronomicae universales, omnia artis totius munera Psephophoretica in sat modicis Finibus Duarum Tabularum methodo Nova, generali et facillima continentes, (containing a preface, Directionis accuratae consummata Doctrina, Astrologis hactenus plurimum desiderata and the Tabula praemissilis ad Declinationes et coeli meditations) in London in 1602.


This is a book on how to calculate astrological directions, a method for determining the time of major incidents in the life of a subject including their point of death, which was a very popular astrological method in the Renaissance. This requires spherical trigonometry, and the book is interesting for containing new simplified methods of solving right spherical triangles of any sort, methods that are normally attributed to John Napier (1550–1617) in a later publication. The book is, however, extremely cryptic and obscure, and almost unreadable. Despite this the surviving copies would suggest that it was widely distributed in Europe.

Our three mathematici came together as executors of Harriot’s will. Hues was charged with pricing Harriot’s books and other items for sale to the Bodleian Library. Hues and Torporley were charged with assisting Warner with the publication of Harriot’s mathematical manuscripts, a task that the three of them managed to bungle. In the end they only managed to publish one single book, Harriot’s algebra Artis Analyticae Praxis in 1631 and this text they castrated.


Harriot’s manuscript was the most advanced text on the topic written at the time and included full solutions of algebraic equations including negative and complex solutions. Either Warner et al did not understand Harriot’s work or they got cold feet in the face of his revolutionary new methods, whichever, they removed all of the innovative parts of the book making it basically irrelevant and depriving Harriot of the glory that was due to him.

For myself the main lesson to be learned from taking a closer look at the lives of this group of mathematici is that it shows that those interested in mathematics, astronomy, cartography, and navigation in England the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were intricately linked in a complex network of relationships, which contains hubs one of which was initially Harriot and Raleigh and then later Harriot and Northumberland. 

[1] For those who don’t know, Middlesex was a small English county bordering London, in the South-West corner of Essex, squeezed between Hertfordshire to the north and Surry in the South, which now no longer exists having been largely absorbed into Greater London. 


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, History of Optics, History of science, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXV

Whether they were introducing materia medica into the medical curriculum at the universities, going out into the countryside to search for and study plants for themselves, leading students on field trips to do the same, establishing and developing botanical gardens, or creating their herbaria, the Renaissance humanist physicians in the first half of the sixteenth century always had their botanical guides from antiquity to hand. Mostly one or other edition of Dioscorides but also Theophrastus on plants, Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, and Galen’s texts on medical simples. The work of all four of these authors concentrated largely on plants growing around the Mediterranean, although they did include some medical herbs from other areas, India for example. The North Italian, Renaissance, medical humanists also started out studying the Mediterranean plants, but soon their field of study widened, as the changes they had initiated spread throughout Europe led to other medical humanists to search for and study the plants of their own local regions. This expansion became even larger as colleagues began to study and compare the plants growing in the newly discovered land in the so-called age of exploration. Reports began coming into Europe of plants growing in the Americas and Asia. These developments meant that Dioscorides et al were no longer adequate guides for the teaching of medical herbal lore and the age of the Early Modern printed herbal began. 

As already noted in an earlier episode of this series Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, which is, of course, a herbal, was well known and widely available throughout the Middle Ages, but it was by no means the only medieval herbal. Herbal medicine was widely used throughout the Middle Ages and many monks, apothecaries, and herbalists, who utilised herbal cures, compiled their own herbals, some of which were copied and distributed amongst others. A few of these herbals were printed during the incunabula period in the second half of the fifteenth century. Many printer publishers in this early period were on the lookout for potential money earning publications and herbals certainly fit the mould.

The earliest of these was the De proprietatibus rerum of the Franciscan friar Bartholomeus Anglicus (before 1203–1272), written in the thirteenth century and printed for the first time about 1470, which went through twenty-five editions before the end of the century. This was an encyclopaedia containing a long section on trees and herbs.

De proprietatibus rerum, Lyon 1482, erste Seite (Eisenbibliothek, Schlatt) via Wikipedia Commons

This was followed by the herbal of Apuleius Platonicus, also known as Pseudo-Apuleius, about whom almost nothing is known, but it is assumed he probably wrote his herbal the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici in the fifth century; the oldest known manuscript dates from the sixth century. It is a derivative text based on Dioscorides and Pliny. It is a much shorter and simpler herbal than Dioscorides, but was immensely popular throughout the Middle Ages, existing in many manuscripts. The first printed edition appeared in Rome in 1481. 

Herbarium Apuleii Platonici Print Rome 1481. Plantago, Arnoglossa Source: Wikimedia Commons
Herbarium Apuleii Platonici  Print Rome 1481. Dracontea Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici, three other medieval herbals were printed and published in Mainz in Germany. The Latin Herbarius (1484), and the Herbarius zu Teutsch or German Herbarius (1485), which evolved into the Hortus or Ortus sanitates (1491).

Fruits of Paradise. Hortus sanitatis 1491 Source: Wikimedia Commons

These herbals probably date back to the Early Medieval Period but unlike the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici there is no hard proof for this. All three books went through numerous editions under various titles in various languages. In England the first printed herbal was by Rycharde Banckes in which the title page begins Here begynneth a newe mater, the whiche sheweth and treateth of ye vertues and proprytes of herbes, the which is called an Herball, which appeared in 1525.

Bankes Herbal Source

It had no illustrations. This was followed by the more successful The grete herbal, printed by Peter Treveris in 1526 and then again in 1529. Many of the illustrations were taken from the French Le Grant Herbier, but which originated in the Herbarius zu Teutsch, continuing an old process of copying illustrations from earlier books, which as we will see continued with the new Renaissance herbals to which we now turn.


Whereas the printed medieval herbals were largely derived from the works of Dioscorides and Pliny, the Renaissance humanist physicians produced new printed herbals based on new material, which they and their colleagues had collected on field trips. However, these new herbals were still based in concept on Dioscorides’ De materia medica, were medical in detail, although they gradually led towards botany as an independent discipline throughout the century.

We begin with four Germans, who are often described as “The Fathers of Botany”. The first of these was Otto Brunfels (possibly 1488–1534), a Carthusian monk, who converted to Lutheran Protestantism and became a pastor.

Otto Brunfels portrait by Hans Baldung Grien Source: Wikimedia Common

He was the nominal author of the Herbarum vivae eicones published in three volumes between 1530 and 1536 and the German version of the same, Contrafayt Kräuterbuch published in two volumes between 1532 and 1537. Both publications were published by Hans Schott in Straßburg and were illustrated by Hans Weiditz the Younger (1495–c. 1537). I said nominal author because it is thought that the initiative for the book was Schott’s centred around Weidnitz’s illustrations with Brunfels basically employed to provide the written descriptions of the plants. Weidnitz’s illustrations, drawn from nature, are excellent and set new standards in the illustration of herbals.

Nymphaea alba, also known as the European White Waterlily, White Lotus, or Nenuphar from “Herbarium Vivae Eicones” Hans Weiditz the Younger Source: Wikimedia Commons

They are, however, not matched by Brunfels’ descriptions, which are very poor quality, simply cobbled together from early descriptions.

The second of the so-called “German Fathers of Botany” was Hieronymus Bock (1498–1554), whose Latin texts were published under the name Hieronymus Tragus (Tragus is the Greek for the German bock, a male goat).

David Kandel (1546) – Kreütter Büch, (1546) a Herbal Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like Brunfels he converted from Catholicism to Lutheran Protestantism. His knowledge of plants was acquired empirically on botanical excursions. His first publication was De herbarum quarundam nomenclaturis, a tract linking Greek and Latin names to local plants, which, interestingly was published in the second volume of Brunfels’ Herbarum vivae eicones. It was also Brunfels who persuaded him to publish his own herbal. This was titled Neu Kreütterbuch and appeared in 1539. Unlike Brunfels book, Bock’s herbal had no illustration, however, his plant descriptions were excellent, setting new standards. In 1546 there was a second expanded edition with illustration by David Kandel (1520–1592).

Neu Kreütterbuch  Steinbrech David Kandel Source: Wikimedia Commons

A third expanded edition was published in 1551 of which a Latin translation, De stirpium, maxime earum, quae in Germania nostra nascuntur …, was published in 1552. All these editions were published by Wendel Rihel in Straßburg, who produced an edition without the text in 1553 and several editions after Bock’s death. 

The original German edition without illustrations had less impact that Brunfels’ herbal but after the addition of the illustrations and the Latin edition his work became successful. Bock was very innovative in that instead of listing the plants in his book in alphabetical order, he listed them in groups based on what he perceived as their similarities. An early step towards systematic classification.

The third of the German herbal authors Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566) was the most well-known and successful of the quartet.

Leonhart Fuchs portrait by Heinrich Füllmaurer Source: Wikimedia Commons

He received his doctorate in medicine from the University of Ingolstadt in 1524. After two years of private practice followed by two as professor of medicine in Ingolstadt, he became court physician to George von Brandenburg Margrave of Ansbach. He acquired a very good reputation and was reappointed to the professorship in Ingolstadt in 1533. As a Lutheran, he was prevented from taking up the appointment and became professor for medicine in Tübingen instead in 1535, where he remained until his death despite many offers of other positions. In Tübingen he created the botanical garden. He edited a Greek edition of Galen’s work and translated both Hippocratic and Galenic medical texts. Fuchs became somewhat notorious for his bitter controversies with other medical authors and the sharpness of his invective.

Unlike Brunfels and Bock, whose herbals were based on the own empirical studiers of local German herbs, Fuchs concentrated on identifying the plants described by the classical authors, although when published his herbal included a large number of reports on local plants as well as new plants discovered in the Americas. In 1542 he published his De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes (Notable commentaries on the history of plants) in Latin and Greek, it contained 512 pictures of plants, which are even more spectacular than the illustrations in Brunfels’ Herbarum vivae eicones. 

Cannabis plant from ‘De historia stirpivm commentarii insignes … ‘ Source: Wellcome Library, London. via Wikimedia Commons

In a rare innovation he named the Illustrators, Heinrich Füllmaurer and Albrecht Meyer along with the woodcutter Veit Rudolph Speckle including portraits of all three.

Portrait of the three engravers of Fuchs’ ‘de Historia….’ Credit: Wellcome Library, London. via Wikimedia Commons

A German translation New Kreüterbuch was published in 1543. Alone, during Fuch’s lifetime 39 editions of the book appeared in Dutch, French, German, Latin, and Spanish. Twenty years after his death an English edition was published.

Fuchs influence went further than the editions of his own books. The excellent illustrations in his Historia Stirpium were borrowed/pirated reused in a number of later herbals and botanical books:

The majority of the wood-engravings in Doeden’s Crūÿdeboek (1554), Turner’s New Herbal (1551-68), Lyte’s Nievve Herball (1578), Jean Bauhin’s Historia plantarum universalis (1650/1), and Schinz’s Anleitung (1774), are copied from Fuchs, or even printed from his actual wood-blocks, while use was made of his figures in the herbals of Bock, Egenolph, d’Aléchamps, Tabernaemontanus, Gerard, Nylandt, etc., and in the commentaries on Dioscorides of Amatus Lusitanus and Ruellius. It was not the large woodcuts in De Historia Stirpium (1542) which chiefly served for these borrowings, but the smaller versions of the blocjks, made for Fuchs’ octavo herbal of 1545.[1]

If Fuchs is the most well known of the so-called four German “Fathers of Botany”, then Valeriuis Cordus (1515–1544) is the least well known.

Artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

His father was Euricius Cordus (1486–1535), who published his Botanologican, a guide to the empirical study of plants in 1534. Valerius can be said to have gone into the family business, studying medicine and botany under his father at the University of Marburg from the age of twelve in 1527. He graduated bachelor in 1531 and changed to the University of Leipzig, also working in the apothecary shop of his uncle Johannes Ralla (1509–1560), where he learnt pharmacology. In 1539 he changed to the University of Wittenberg, where he once again studied medicine and botany, and lectured on the De materia medica of Dioscorides. In Wittenberg he continued his studies of pharmacology in the apothecary shop of the painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1473–1553), where he wrote his Dispensatorium, a pharmacopoeia, a systematic list of medicaments. During a short visit to Nürnberg in 1542, there were strong ties between Wittenberg and Nürnberg, Cordus presented his Dispensatorium to the city council, who awarded him with 100 gulden, paid for it to be printed posthumously in 1546, as the Dispensatorium Norimbergense. It was the first officially government approved pharmacopoeia, Nürnberg being a self-governing city state. It soon became the obligatory standard throughout Germany. 

Source: Wellcome Library, London. via Wikimedia Commons

On the last of his many journeys from Wittenberg, Cordus travelled through Italy visiting Padua, Lucca, Florence, and Rome, where he died, aged just twenty-nine in 1544. When he died, he had published almost nothing, his Dispensatorium, as already stated was published posthumously as were two further important books on botany. In 1549, Conrad Gessner published the notes on his Wittenberg lectures on Dioscorides De materia medica, which had collected by his students, as Annotationes in Dioscoridis de materia medica lihros in Straßburg.


Gessner also published his Historiae stirpium libri IV (Straßburg 1561), which was followed in 1563 by his Stirpium descriptionis liber quintus. As with the other German herbals, Cordus’ books were issued in many further editions. Like Brock, Cordus rejected the alphabetic listing of the earlier herbals and in fact went much further down the road of trying to distinguish what we now call species and genus.

Not considered one of the “German Fathers of Botany”, the work of Joachim Camerarius the Younger (1534–1598) was also highly influential.

Joachim Camerarius the Younger Engraving by Bartholomaeus Kilian Source: Wikimedia Commons

Son of the famous philologist and the friend and biographer of Philip Melanchthon, Joachim Camerarius the Elder (1500–1574), he studied at Wittenberg and other universities before completing his doctorate in medicine in Bologna in 1562. Following graduation, Camerarius returned to Nürnberg where he set up as a physician practicing there for the rest of his life. Already a lifelong fan of botany, influenced by his time in North Italy he set up a botanical garden in his home city. He was a central figure in the reforms in the practice of medicine in Nürnberg similar to those I outlined in episode XXXII of this series, of which the publication and adoption of Cordus’ Dispensatorium was an important element.[2] Camerarius was also a central figure in the medical-botanical republic of letters that I will deal with in a later episode. As well as his own herbal Hortus Medicus et Philosophicus (Frankfurt/M., 1598), he published an expanded German translation of the Di Pedacio Dioscoride Anazarbeo Libri cinque Della historia, et materia medicinale tradotti in lingua volgare italiana (1554 and later editions) of Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501–c. 1577), as Kreutterbuch deß hochgelehrten unnd weitberühmten Herrn D. Petri Andreae Matthioli : jetzt widerumb mit viel schönen neuwen Figuren, auch nützlichen Artzeneyen, und andern guten Stücken, zum andern mal auß sonderm Fleiß gemehret und verfertigt (Frankfurt, 1586).

J. Camerarius. Mattiolisches Kräuterbuch Cichorium intybus Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with the introduction of the materia medica into the university medical curriculum, the field trips, the botanical gardens, and the herbaria, which all spread out through Europe from Northern Italy, the new style herbals also spread throughout the continent during the sixteenth century.

In the Netherlands, the printer-publisher and bookseller Christophe Plantin (c. 1520–1589), who I dealt with fairly extensively in an earlier post, contributed much to the dissemination of herbals and other plant books. The first notable Flemish author was the physician and botanist Rembert Dodoens (1517–1585), who published a herbal in Dutch, his Cruydeboeck, with an emphasis on the local flora of the Netherlands, with 715 images, 515 borrowed from the Dutch edition of Fuchs’ herbal, and 200 drawn by Pieter van der Borcht the Elder (c. 1530–1608) with the blocks cut by Arnold Nicolai (fl. 1550–1596), published in Antwerp in 1554 and again in 1563.

Rembert Dodoens portrait by Theodor de Bry Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Fuchs, who still listed his herbs alphabetically, Dodoens grouped his herbs according to their properties and reciprocal affinities, making his book as much a pharmacopoeia as a herbal. The Cruydeboeck was translated into French by Charles de l’Ecluse (1526–1609) in 1557, Histoire des Plantes, into English via the l’Ecluse French by Henry Lyte, A new herbal of historie of plants in 1578. Later in 1583, it was translated into Latin Stirpium historiae pemptades sex. Both the French and the Latin translations were commissioned and published by Platin. It is claimed that it was the most translated book after the bible during the late sixteenth century and in its numerous versions it remained a standard text for two hundred years.

Title page of the Crvydt-Boeck (1618 ed.) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Charles de l’Ecluse, better known as Carolus Clusius, was himself a physician and botanist, a student of Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566) at the University of Montpellier, he became one of the leading medical botanists in Europe.

This portrait is the only known painted portrait of Clusius. It was made in 1585 when Clusius was in Vienna. Attributed to Jacob de Monte Source: Wikipedia Commons

Clusius had two great passions languages and botany. He was said to be fluent in Greek. Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Flemish, and German He was also a polymath deeply knowledgeable in law, philosophy, history, cartography, zoology, minerology, numismatics, and epigraphy. In 1573, he was appointed director of the imperial botanical garden in Vienna by Maximillian II (1564–1576) but dismissed again shortly after Maximillian’s death, when Rudolph II (1576–1612) moved the imperial court to Prague. Later in his life, when he was called to the University of Leiden in 1593, he created the university’s first botanical garden. His first botanical publication was his translation into French of Dodoens’ Cruydeboeck.This was followed by a Latin translation from the Portuguese of Garcia de Orta’s Colóquios dos simples e Drogas da IndiaAromatum et simplicium aliquot medicamentorum apud Indios nascentium historia (1567) and a Latin translation from Spanish of Nicolás Monardes’  Historia medicinal delas cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven al uso de la medicina, , De simplicibus medicamentis ex occidentali India delatis quorum in medicina usus est (1574), with a second edition (1579), both published by Plantin.His own  Rariorum alioquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum historia: libris duobus expressas (1576), based on an expedition to Spain and Portugal followed.  Next up Rariorum aliquot stirpium, per Pannoniam, Austriam, & vicinas quasdam provincias observatarum historia, quatuor libris expressa … (1583). All of these were printed and published by Plantin. His Rariorum plantarum historia: quae accesserint, proxima pagina docebit (1601) was published by Plantin’s son-in-law Jan Moretus, who inherited the Antwerp printing house. Appended to this last publication was a Fungorum historia, the very first publication of this kind. In his publications on plants, Clusius definitely crossed the boundary from materia medica into the discipline of botany qua botany.

Title page, Rariorvm plantarvm historia Source: Wikimedia Commons
Chestnuts Source: Wikimedia Commons

The third Platin author, who made major contributions to the herbal literature was another of Guillaume Rondelet’s students from Montpellier, Mathias de l’Obel (1538–1616), a Frenchman from Lille also known as Lobilus. 

Matthias de l’Obel by Francis Delaram, print, 1615 Source: Wikimedia Commons

His Stirpium aduersaria noua… (A new notebook of plants) was originally published in London in 1571, but a much-extended edition, Plantarum seu stirpium historia…, with 1, 486 engravings in two volumes was printed and published by Plantin in 1576.

Plantarum, seu, Stirpium historia /Matthiae de l’Obel page 111 Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1581 Plantin also published a Dutch translation of his herbal, Kruydtboek oft beschrÿuinghe van allerleye ghewassen… There is also an anonymous Stirpium seu Plantarum Icones (images of plants) published by Plantin in 1581, with a second edition in 1591, that has been attributed to Loblius but is now thought to have been together by Plantin himself from his extensive stock of plant engravings. Like others already mentioned, de l’Obel abandoned the traditional listing of the plants alphabetically and introduced a system of classification based on the character of their leaves.

The major Italian contributor to the new herbal movement in Europe was Pietro Andrea Gregorio Mattioli (1501–c. 1577),

Pietro Andrea Mattioli portrait by Moretto da Brescia Source: Wikimedia Commons

who, as already mentioned in the episode on the publication of the classical texts as printed books, produced a heavily annotated Italian translation version of Dioscorides’ De materia medica, which included descriptions of one hundred new plants, Commentarii in libros sex Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei, de medica materia, which went through four editions between 1544 and 1550, published by Vincenzo Valgrisi (c. 1490– after 1572) in Venice, and selling thirty-two thousand copies by 1572.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mattioli’s annotations, or commentaries, were translated into translated into French (Lyon, 1561), Czech (Prague, 1562) and German (Prague, 1563). 

Another Italian botanist was Fabio Colonna (1567–1640)

Fabio Colonna artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

who disappointed by the errors that he found in Dioscorides researched and wrote two herbals of his own Phytobasanos (plant touchstone), published in Naples, 1592 and Ekphrasis altera, published in Rome, 1616. Both books display a high standard in the illustrations and in the descriptions of the plants. 

Fabio Colonna, Phytobasanos Sive Plantarum Aliquot Historia Source

The main Portuguese contribution was the Coloquios dos simples, e drogas he cousas mediçinais da India by Garcia de Orta (1501–1568) published in Goa in 1563, one of the earliest European books printed in India, which as we have seen was translated into Latin by Clusius.

Statue of Garcia de Orta by Martins Correia at the Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Lisbon Source: Wikimedia Commons
Title page of Colóquio dos Simples de Garcia de Orta. Goa, 1563. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was the Portuguese, who brought the herbs of Asia into the European herbals in the sixteenth century, those of the newly discovered Americas were brought into Europe by the Spanish, most notably by Nicolás Monrades (1493–1588).

Nicolás Monrades Source: Wikimedia Commons

Monrades learnt about the American herbs and drugs not by visiting the Americas but by collecting information at the docks in Seville. He published the results initially in three separate parts the first two parts in 1569 and 1571 and in complete form in 1574 under the title Primera y Segunda y Tercera partes de la Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven en Medicina

Nicolas Monardes, Dos libros, 1565, title page Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is the book that once again Clusius translated into Latin. It was also translated into English by John Frampton, a merchant, who specialised in books on various aspects of exploration, and published under the titles The Three Books of Monardes, 1577, and Joyfull newes out of the new founde worlde, 1580. 

Nicolas Monardes, John Frampton translation Joyfull newes out of the new-found world (1596), University of Liverpool Special Collections and Archives, SPEC Fraser 567. Source

The most significant herbal produced in Switzerland didn’t become published in the sixteenth century. This was the general history of plants, Historia plantarum compiled by the polymath Conrad Gessner (1516–1565), which was still unfinished when he died.

Conrad Gesner by Tobias Stimme Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was partially published in 1750, with the first full publication being by the Swizz Government at the end of the nineteenth century. The quality of the drawings and the descriptions of the plants would have set new standards in botany if Gessner had published it during his lifetime. A student of Gessner’s, who also went on to study under Fuchs was Jean Bauhin (1541–1613).

Jean Bauhin Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a young man he became an assistant to Gessner and worked with him collecting material for his Historia plantarum. Later he decided to compile his own Historia plantarum universalis. Like his teacher he died before he could complete and publish his work. It was first published in full in three volumes in 1650/1.

Historia plantarum universalis, 1650 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jeans younger brother Garpard (1560–1624) also set out to produce a complete catalogue of all known plants, but like Jean he never lived to see it published.

Gaspard Bauhin Source: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, unlike Jean’s Historia plantarum universalis, it was not even published posthumously. He did, however, publish sections of it during his life: Phytopinax (1596), Prodromos theatre botanici (1620,) and Pinax theatre botanici (1623). The Pinax contains a complete and methodological concordance of the names of plants, sorting out the confusing tangle of different names awarded by different authors to the same plant.

Caspar Bauhin (1623), Pinax Theatri Botanici, page 291. On this page, a number of Tithymalus species (now Euphorbia) is listed, described and provided with synonyms and references. Bauhin already used binomial names but did not consistently give all species throughout the work binomials. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was a major step in the development of scientific botany. The work of all three Swiss authors transcends the bounds of the herbal into the science of botany.

The only notable French botanical author of the sixteenth century was Jean Ruel (1474–1537), who produced a Latin translation of Dioscorides in 1516, which served as the basis for Mattioli’s Commentarrii. He also wrote a general botanical treatise on Aristotelian lines, De Natura stirpium, published in 1536.

De natura stirpium Basel 1537. Title page Source: wikimedia Commons

One should, however, remember that the students of Guillaume Rondelet in Montpellier form a veritable who’s who of botanical authors in the sixteenth century. 

Turning finally to England the earliest herbal author was William Turner (c. 1509–1568), who during his wanderings through Europe had studied botany at the University of Bologna under Luca Ghini (1490–1556), who, as we saw in the previous episode, had a massive influence on the early development of medical botany in the early sixteenth century. Turner also knew and corresponded with Conrad Gessner and Leonhart Fuchs. Turner’s first work was his Latin, Libellus de re herbari novus (1538). In 1548, he produced his The names of herbes in Greke, Latin, Englishe, Duche, and Frenche with the common names that Herberies and Apotecaries use. His magnum opus was his A new herball, wherin are conteyned the names of herbes… published in three volumes, the first in London 1551, the first and second on Cologne in 1562, and the third together with the first and second in 1568.

llustration of Mandrake plant from William Turner’s Herbal,

It was illustrated with the pictures from Fuchs’ De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes. Henry Lyte (1529?–1607),

Henry Lyte Source: Wikimedia Commons

an antiquary, published an English translation of Dodoens CruydeboeckA nievve Herball, or Historie of Plantes,…, from the French of Clusius in 1578. This included new material provided by Dodoens himself. Once again the illustration were taken largely from Fuchs. 

A page on gillofers (gillyflowers, that is, carnations and pinks), from A niewe Herball by Henry Lyte, 1578. Source: Wikimedia Commons

John Gerrard produced the most successful English herbal, his The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes(1597), which was however, a plagiarism.

John Gerard Frontispiece of 1636 edition of Herball Source: Wikimedia Commons

A Dr Priest had been commissioned by the publisher John North to translate Dodoen’s Stirpium historiae pemptades sex into English, but he died before completing it. Gerrard took the work, completed it, and rearranged the plants according to the scheme of de l’Obel from that of Dodoens, and then published it as his own work. 

Gerrard Herball 1579 Virginia Potato

As I hope is clear from the above herbals were an important genre of books in the sixteenth century, which over time gradually evolved from books of a medical nature into the earliest works in the science of botany. 

[1] Agnes Arber, HerbalsTheir Origin and EvolutionA Chapter in the History of Botany 1470–1670, CUP; 1912, republished Hafner Publishing Company, Darien Conn., 1970, p. 70

[2] This is wonderfully described in Hannah Murphy, A New Order of Medicine: The Rise of Physicians in Reformation Nuremberg, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2019, which I reviewed here


Filed under Book History, Early Scientific Publishing, History of botany, Mediaeval Science, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Scotland’s premier topographer

For those of us, who grew up in the UK with real maps printed on paper, rather than the online digital version offered up by Google Maps, the Ordnance Survey has been delivering up ever more accurate and detailed maps of the entire British Isles since their original Principal Triangulation of Great Britain carried out between 1791 and 1853.

Principal Triangulation of Great Britain Source: Wikimedia Commons

Supplied with this cartographical richness it is easy to forget that England and Scotland once had separate mapping histories, before James VI & I[1] became monarch of both countries in 1603, and later the Act of Union in 1707, joined them together as one nation. 

Rather bizarrely, the Ptolemaic world map rediscovered in Europe in the fifteenth century but originating in the second century CE gives an at least recognisable version of England but with Scotland turned through ninety degrees, pointing to the east rather than the north. 

1482 version of the Ptolemaic map of the British Isles Source: National Library of Wales via Wikimedia Commons

The same image can be found on a world map from the eleventh century in the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Cotton (1570/1–1631). 

Detail of the 11th-century map of the world showing Britain and Ireland: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v Source: British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog

The most developed of the maps of Britain drawn by the monk Matthew Paris (c. 1200–1259), also in the Cotton manuscript collection, has Scotland north of England but very strangely divided into two parts north of the Antonine Wall joined by a bridge at Stirling.

Detail of a map of Britain by Matthew Paris showing Scotland: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v Source: British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog

Whereas on Matthew Paris’ map, the northern part of Scotland is only attached by the bridge at Stirling, on the Hereford Mappa mundi from c. 1300, Britain looks like a shapeless slug squashed down into the northwest corner of the map with Scotland, a separate island, floating to the north. 

Britain on the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Scotland separated left). Source

On the medieval Gough Map, the date of which is uncertain, with estimates varying between 1300 and 1430, Scotland, whilst hardly recognisable, had at least achieved its true north pointing orientation, although the map itself has east at the top. 

Gough Map Source: Wikimedia Commons

The version of Britain on the Ptolemaic, the eleventh century Cotton, and the Hereford world maps show almost no details. Matthew Paris’ map is part of a pilgrimage itinerary and shows the towns on route and very prominently the rivers but otherwise very little detail. The Gough map, like the Paris map emphasises towns rivers and route. Also compared to the Ptolemaic map, its depictions of the coastlines of England and Wales are much improved. However, its depiction of the independent kingdom of Scotland is extremely poor.

All the maps presented so far show Scotland in a much wider geographical context, part of the world or part of Britain. The oldest known existing single map of Scotland was created by John Hardyng (1378–1465) an English soldier turned chronicler, who set out to prove that the English kings had a right to rule over Scotland. As part of the fist version of his Chronicle of the history of Britain, which he presented to King Henry VI of England, in a failed attempt to instigate an invasion of Scotland, he included a strangely rectangular map of Scotland with west at the top and north to the right. 

John Hardyng’s map of Scotland: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r Source: British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog

As can be seen, this map contains much more detail of the Scottish towns, displaying castles and walls, as well as in two cases churches instead. 

Detail of John Hardyng’s map of Scotland, showing Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline and St Andrews: Lansdowne MS 204, f. 226v Source: British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog

The next map of Scotland was produced by the English antiquarian, cartographer, and early scholar of Anglo-Saxon and literature, Laurence Nowell (1530–c. 1570) in the mid 1560s. Around the same time he produced a pocket-sized map of Britain entitled A general description of England and Ireland with the costes adioyning for his patron Sir William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520–1598) Elizabeth I chief adviser.

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley portrait attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger Source: National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

His map of Scotland, with west at the top, is much more detailed than any previous maps and bears all the visual hallmarks of comparatively modern mapmaking.  

Map of Scotland by Laurence Nowell: Cotton MS Domitian A XVIII, ff. 98v–99r Source: British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog

With Nowell we have entered the Early Modern Period and the birth of modern mapmaking in the hands of Gemma Frisius (1508–1555), who published the first account of triangulation in 1533, Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) creator of the first modern atlas[2] in 1570, and Gerard Mercator (1512–1594) the greatest globe and mapmaker of the century. As I have already detailed in an earlier post, England lagged behind the continental developments, as in all of the mathematical disciplines. 

Burghley motivated and arranged sponsorship for other English mapmakers, which led to the publication of the first English atlas, created by Christopher Saxton (c. 1540–c. 1610), in 1579, following a survey, which took place from 1574 to 1578. Scotland was at this time still an independent country, so Saxton’s atlas only covers the counties of England and Wales.

Saxton England and Wales proof map Source: British Library

Various projects were undertaken to improve the quality of Saxton’s atlas of which, the most successful was by the John Speed (1551/2–1629), who published his The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, which was dated 1611, in 1612. By now James had been sitting on the throne on both countries for nine years, however, Speed’s Theatre only contains a general map of Scotland and not detailed maps of the Scottish counties. 

John Speed’s map of Scotland

Why was this? The annotations to the facsimile edition of Speed’s Theatre give two reasons for this. Firstly, the book was originally conceived in 1590, when the two kingdoms were still independent of each other, and it was production delays that led to the later publication date, when modification to include the Scottish counties would have led to further delays. However, in our context, the mapping of Scotland, it is the second reason that is more interesting:

Secondly, Speed knew of the Scotsman Timothy Pont’s work in surveying Scotland. The have extended the Theatre to include maps for Scotland similar to those for England, Wales and Ireland would have been to duplicate Pont’s efforts, even if cartographical aspects were differently emphasised by the two men.[3]

We have now reached the title topographer of this blog post, Timothy Pont (c. 1560–c. 1614), who was he and why is there no Pont’s Atlas of Scotland?

Timothy Pont was the first person to make an almost complete topographical survey of Scotland. Unfortunately, as with many people from the Early Modern Period, we only have a sketchy outline of his life and no known portrait, in fact we know far more about his father, Robert Pont (1529–1606), a minister, judge, and reformer, an influential legal, political, and religious man, who rose to be Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in 1575. Timothy was his eldest child by his first wife Catherine daughter of Masterton of Grange, with whom he had two sons and two daughters[4]. By his second wife Sarah Denholme he had one daughter and by his third wife Margaret Smith he had three sons.

In 1574 Timothy received an annual grant of church funds from his father, he matriculated at the University of St Andrews in 1508 and graduated M.A. in 1583. It was possibly at St Andrews that he learnt the art of cartography, but it is not known for certain. It is not known when he carried out his survey of Scotland. Only his map of Clydesdale contains a date, (Sept. et Octob: 1596 Descripta) and it appears he ended his travels around this time and that he began them after graduating from St Andrews.

Pont’s Map of Lanark from 1596 Source

Somewhat earlier in 1592, he had received a commission to undertake a mineral reconnaissance of Orkney and Shetland, so his activities were obviously known. In 1593 his father again supported him financially, assigning him an annuity from Edinburg Town Council.

His wanderings and topographical activities apparently terminated, in 1600 Timothy was appointed minister of the parish of Dunnet in Caithness. He is recorded as having visited Edinburg in 1605. In 1609, he applied unsuccessfully for a grant of land in the north of Ireland. There is evidence that he was still Parson of Dunnet in 1610 but in 1614 another held the post, and in 1615, Isabel Pont is recorded as his widow both facts indicating that he had died sometime between 1611 and 1614. Unfortunately, as is often the case with mapmakers in the Early Modern Period, we have no real information as to how Pont carried out his surveys or which methods he used. 

We now turn to Pont’s activities as a topographer and mapmaker. Pont never finished his original project of producing an atlas of Scotland. Only one of Pont’s maps, Lothian and Linlithgow,

Pont’s map, Lothian and Linlithgow,

was engraved during his lifetime, by Jodocus Hondius the elder in Amsterdam,

Lothian and Linlithgow engraved by Jodocus Hondius the elder in Amsterdam
Same map in Joan Blaeu’s Atlas of Scotland Source: Wikimedia commons

sometime between 1603 and 1612. However, the map, dedicated to James VI &I, was first published in the Hondius-Mercator Atlas in 1630. In a letter from 1629, Charles I wrote in a letter that his father had intended to financially support Pont’s project and granted the antiquarian Sir James Balfour of Denmilne (1600-1657), the Lord Lyon King-of-Arms, who had acquired the maps from Pont’s heirs, money to plan the publication of the maps. 

Sir James Balfour artist unknown Source: (c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation via Wikimedia Commons

At this point Sir John Scot, Lord Scotstarvit (1585-1670) entered the story. Already a correspondent of Willem (1571–1638) and Joan Blaeu (1596–1679), of the Amsterdam cartographical publishing House of Blaeu, he informed them of Balfour’s acquisition of Pont’s topographical survey of Scotland, Willem Blaeu having already asked Scot about maps of Scotland in 1626. Through Scot’s offices Pont’s maps made their way to Amsterdam. What then followed is briefly described by Joan Blaeu in his Atlas Novus in 1654.

Scot collected them and other maps and sent them over to me but much torn and defaced. I brought them into order and sometimes divided a single map. into several parts. After this Robert and James Gordon gave this work the finishing touches. and added thereto, besides the corrections in Timothy Pont’s maps, a few maps of their own.

Robert Gordon of Straloch (1580–1661) and his son James Gordon of Rothiemay (c. 1615–1686) were Scottish mapmakers, who obviously played a central role in preparing Pont’s maps for publication.

Source: National Portrait Gallery

Robert was called upon to undertake this work by Charles I in a letter from 1641; Charles entreated him “to reveis the saidis cairtiss”. Acts of parliament exempted him from military service, whilst he undertook this task and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland published a request to the clergy, to afford him assistance. 

The exact nature of the role undertaken by Robert and James Gordon in the revision of the maps is disputed amongst historians and I won’t go into that discussion here. However, following his father’s death in 1661, James preserved all of Pont’s surviving maps, along with his and his father’s own cartographical work and passed them on to the Geographer Royal to Charles II, Sir Robert Sibbald (1641–1722), in the 1680s. Sibbald’s own papers along with the Pont maps were placed in the Advocates Library following his death in 1772. The Advocates Library became the National Library of Scotland, where Pont’s maps still reside[5].

Robert Sibbald artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

As already indicated above Pont’s maps formed the nucleus of Joan Blaeu’s Atlas of Scotland, the fifth volume of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum sive Atlas Novus published in Amsterdam in Latin, French, and German in 1654.

Joan Blaeu Atlas of Scotland German title page
Caithness Blaeu’s Atlas of Scotland The parish of Dunnet where Pont was minister is in the bottom corner od the rectangular bay Source: Wikimedia Commons
Pont’s map of the area around Dunnet

This was the first atlas of Scotland, and it wasn’t really improved on in any way until the military survey of Scotland carried out by William Roy (1726–1790) between 1747 and 1755. Roy would go on to be appointed surveyor-general and his work and lobbying led to the establishment of the Ordnance Survey, whose Principal Triangulation of Great Britain, mentioned at the beginning of this post, began in 1791, one year after his death. 

My attention was first drawn to Pont’s orthographical survey of Scotland by advertising for a new permanent exhibition “Treasures of the National Library of Scotland”, which prominently features Pont’s maps, so I went looking for the story of this elusive mapmaker. 

[1] For any readers confused by James VI & I, he was James VI of Scotland and James I of England

[2] This and other uses of the term atlas here are anachronistic as Mercator first used the term in the title of his Atlas, sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi published in 1585

[3] The Counties of BRITAIN: A Tudor Atlas by John Speed, Introduction by Nigel Nicolson, County Commentaries by Alasdair Hawkyard, Published in association with The British Library, Pavilion, London 1998, p. 265

[4] I can’t resit noting that Timothy’s youngest sister, Helen, married an Adam Blackadder!

[5] The National Library of Scotland has an extensive website devoted to Pont and his maps from which much of the information for this blog post was culled


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Cartography, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXI

In the last episode of this series, I traced the roots of natural history in Europe in antiquity and through the medieval period. Beginning roughly in the late fifteenth century, over the next one hundred and fifty years those roots were brought together and transformed in a series of stages into the modern science of natural history. Two major factors contributed to the first stage of this process in the fifteenth century, the reinvention of moveable type in Europe and with it the printed book, and the critical intervention of the North Italian Renaissance humanists with their philological analysis of Greek and Latin texts.

Gutenberg printed and published his famous Bible around 1450 and the print technology that he invented spread first throughout Germany and then into the neighbouring countries fairly rapidly. As I wrote in an earlier episode:

The first printer-publishers in Italy were Arnold Pannartz and Conrad Sweynheym, who set up a press in the Benedictine abbey of Subiaco in 1464. Their output was from the beginning humanist orientated. Their first book was by Aelius Donatus a Roman grammarian of which no copies survived. Next, they printed Cicero’s De oratore followed by religious books by Lactantius and Augustinus.

From the very beginning, the new art of book printing was closely associated with the Renaissance Humanists in Italy[1]. In terms of the sources for natural history we looked at in the last episode the works of Aristotle found their way into print fairly early. Individual works found their way into print earlier, but the first edition of his Opera (complete works) in Latin was issued in Venice by Philippus Petri, in 1482. Earlier, his three works on biology, including his De Historia Animalium had been issued separately in Latin also in Venice by Johannes de Colonia and Johannes Manthen in 1476. They reprinted this work in 1492, 1495, and 1498. It was also reissued by the Aldine Press in 1504 and 1513 and by Hieronymus Scotus in 1545. 

In 1495, Aldus Manutius published the first volume of a five-volume edition of the opera of Aristotle in Greek, in Venice. The subsequent volumes followed in 1497, volumes two three and four, and 1498, volume five. Reprinted in 1504 by Aldine, in 1513 by Alde, and in Basel in 1534.  As well as the works of Aristotle, including, of course, his biological books, it contained works by other notable Greek authors.

Aristotle Opera Aldus Manutus 1495

As we saw earlier the Renaissance Humanist ideal was a back-to-the-roots-movement. Original Latin texts in the classical Latin of Cicero and co and not in the barbaric Latin of the medieval scholastics. Greek manuscripts in the original form, freshly translated into Latin and not corrupted and polluted by translation into and out of Arabic. At the end of the fifteenth century no printer-publisher did more to fulfil this ideal than Aldus Manutius (c.1450–1515) and his Aldine Press. A humanist scholar with close connections to Giovanni Pico (1493–1494), who helped to finance Manutius’ printing venture, he became the first printer publisher to systematically publish original Greek works in Greek and also to publish the new Latin translations of those texts.  Manutius printed thirty editio principes of Greek texts.

Aldus Pius Manutius, illustration in Vita di Aldo Pio Manuzio (1759) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Imprint of Aldus Manutius Source: Wikimedia Commons

Manutius also laid great value on the unique presentation of his published volumes. The humanists had criticised the scholastic handwriting and they developed a new style of handwriting. In particular Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459) developed a much admired and copied script.

1597 engraving of Poggio Bracciolini Source: Wikimedia Commons
A sample of Poggio’s handwriting Source: Wikimedia Commons

The French type-designer, Nicholas Jenson (c. 1420–1480) created a new type face, Antiqua, based on this script, and Manutius had the type-cutter Francesco Griffo (1450–1518) create a version of it for his Greek publications. 

Portrait of Nicholas Jenson Source: Wikipedia Commons
Griffo’s first Antiqua typeface 1495 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Manutius also introduced a series of octavo pocketbook publications, which were very popular, and he had Griffo created the first italic typeface, probably based on the handwriting of Niccolò de’ Niccoli (1364–1437) especially for his pocketbooks.

Sample of Niccoli’s cursive script, which developed into Italic type Source: Wikimedia Commons

These pocketbooks are said to be the forebears of the paperback. However, it should be noted that it is not true that Manutius was the first to print and publish octavo volumes.

Griff’s Italic typeface in Aldus Manutius’ Horace Source: Wikimedia Commons

Under Aldus Manutius, the Aldine Press was the material embodiment of the Renaissance Humanist ideal, and his books remained much sought after and highly prized long after his death and the later demise of his publishing venture.

As another major Greek author, highly regarded during the Middle Ages, Galen’s books received the same major treatment in the age of print, as Aristotle’s. His Opera in Latin was first issued by Philippus Pincius in Venice in 1490. However, this did not include either of his texts on simples. The Greek Opera, which did contain the texts on simples, was first published Ex aedibus Aldi et Andreae Asulani soceri in Venice, in five volumes, in 1525. In 1538, a new edition was published in Basil by Andreas Cratander, edited by Joachim Camerarius, Leonhart Fuchs and Hieronymous Gemusaeus. There had been earlier editions of separate Galen texts in Latin earlier in the fifteenth century but not of his texts on simples. 

Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, immensely popular during the Middle Ages, was just as popular during the early age of the printed book. The first printed edition was issued not later than 1469 in Venice by Johann von Spier. At least forty-six editions were printed before 1550. An Italian edition was published by Nicolas Jenson in Venice in 1476. The medical sections, De re medica V, which include much of his work on plants, were issued separately in the Collectio edited by Alban Thorer (c. 1489–1550), professor for medicine in Basel, and published by Andreas Cratander in Basel in 1528. 

PLINIUS SECUNDUS, Gaius (Pliny the Elder, 23-79). Historia naturalis. Venice: Johannes de Spira, [before 18 September] 1469. Source

Theophrastus is an interesting case, because although his name was known in the Middle Ages, through Pliny amongst others, his work wasn’t. A Greek manuscript 0f his two botanical works were brought to Rome through the offices of Pope Nicholas V (1397–1455), a humanist bibliophile, who initiated the Vatican Apostolic Library, although he didn’t live to see it built. Theodore Gaza (c. 1398–c. 1475), was commissioned by Pope Nicholas to produce the Latin translations of De plantis and De causis plantarum in 1454. The Greek originals were printed by Aldus Manutius in his Opera of the works of Aristotle 1495–1498. The Latin translation were first published as De historia et causis planatarum by Bartholomaeus Confalonerius in Treviso in 1483. 

De historia et causis planatarum 2nd edition 1529 Source:

Our last natural history author from antiquity is Dioscorides. His De materia medica rivalled Pliny in its popularity in the early days of print. The first Latin edition, a translation credited to Constantinus Africanus (d. before 1098), was published by Johannes de Medemblick in Colle di Valselsa in 1478. The first Greek edition was issued by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1499. Additional texts by other authors were often added to both Greek and Latin editions. 

There were at least thirty-two editions of Dioscorides are known to have been published between 1478 and 1550. Three of these were in Greek, one of them an improved text edited by Girolamo Rossi and Francesco Torresani, and published by the Aldine Press in Venice, in 1518. Three editions had both Greek and Latin texts.  Nineteen editions were in Latin, ten of them in the new Latin translation of Jean Ruel (1474–1537), which was first published by Henri Estienne in Paris, c. 1516. A German addition by J. Danz van Ast was issued in Frankfurt in 1546. 

De materia medica 1554 edition

There were six Italian editions during this period of which the most important were the four editions of the humanist physician and naturalist Pietro Andrea Gregorio Mattioli (1501–c. 1577) issued in 1544, 1548, 1549 and 1550 by Vincenzo Valgrisi (c. 1490– after 1572) in Venice.

Pietro Andrea Mattioli, by Alessandro Bonvicino called il Moretto c. 1533 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mattioli’s Italian translation was based on Jean Ruel’s Latin translation but was accompanied by lengthy Commentarii (commentaries) of his own. The book also included descriptions of a hundred new plants. In 1554, an edition of Ruel’s Latin translation with the addition of Mattioli’s Commentarii translated into Latin was published in Lyon. The Commentarii were also translated into French (Lyon, 1561), Czech (Prague, 1562) and German (Prague, 1563). The four Italian editions sold thirty-two thousand copies during Valgrisi’s lifetime. 

Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501–1577). Commentarii in libros sex Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei, de medica materia. Venice: Vincenzo Valgrisi, 1554. Source:

All of the major botanical texts from antiquity had become established printed works by the beginning of the sixteenth century and the number of editions published by 1550 indicated a major interest in the topic of natural history amongst the scholars of that century. The humanists began to apply their philological skills to the study of these texts, and this led to what might be called the Pliny wars. The two main contenders in the humanist disputes about Pliny’s Historia Naturalis were Ermolao Barbaro (1454–1493) and Niccolò Leoniceno (1428-1524)

Ermolao Barbaro was a scion of prominent, wealthy, patrician family of Venice with roots back to the ninth century. The family produced many noted church leaders, diplomats, patrons of the arts, military commanders, philosophers, scholars, and scientists. He was a Renaissance Humanist scholar, educated in various places throughout Northern Italy ending in Padua where he was appointed professor of philosophy in 1477. He was elected to the Senate of Venice in 1483. In 1486 he was appointed Venetian ambassador to the Dutchy of Milan and in 1490 ambassador to the Holy See. Embroiled in a political dispute between Venice and the Papacy he was sacked as ambassador and exiled him from Venice. He moved to Rome where he died of plague in 1493. He often complained that his political life interfered with his studies.

Ermolao Barbaro Source: Wikimedia Commons

Barbaro carefully and accurately analysed the first printed edition of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, and his not very positive conclusions were published in his Castigationes Plinainae et Pomponii Melae by Euchrius Silber in Rome, in 1492. Barbaro claimed to have identified and corrected five thousand errors in the Historia Naturalis. He attributed these errors not to Pliny but to the numerous copyists, who had copied the manuscript down the centuries.

In Caii Plinii Naturalis historiae libros castigationes, 1534 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He also produced a translation of Dioscorides, In Dioscoridem corollariorum libri V., published by Aloysius et Franciscus Barbari in Venice, in 1516.

Dioscorides, version by Barbaro, 1516: title page Source: Wikimedia Commons

Niccolò Leoniceno was a physician and humanist scholar born in Lonigo, Veneto, he graduated at the University of Padua. In 1464, he was appointed to teach mathematics, philosophy, and medicine at the University of Ferrara, where he remained until his death.

Artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Also in 1492, he launched an attack on the Historia Naturalis in his pamphlet, De Plinii et plurium aliorum medicorum in medicina erroribus, published by Laurentius de Rubeis and Andreas de Grassis, in Ferrara.

De Plinii, & plurium aliorum medicorum in medicina erroribus opus primum (BEIC) Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was the opening salvo in a dispute over Pliny with Pandolfo Collenuccio (1444–1504) another humanist scholar.

Pandolfo Collenuccio artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Collenuccio’s response, Pliniana defensio adversus Nicolai Leoniceni accusationem, was published by Andreas Belfortis in Ferrara, in 1493.

Pliniana defensio adversus Nicolai Leoniceni accusationem title page Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Barbaro, Leoniceno did not blame the copyists in his attack on the botanical section of Pliny’s work, but rather Pliny himself. Leoniceno was of the opinion that many of Pliny’s error were produced because his translations from the Greek were defective. Other local humanists, such as the physician Alessandro Benedetti (c. 1450–1512) and the poet and translator Giorgio Merula (1430–1494), also defended Pliny’s honour against Leoniceno’s harsh criticism.

Due to large parts of it having been published in print the discussion over Pliny and the reliability of the natural history in his encyclopaedia spread throughout Europe as a talking point for much of the sixteenth century. However, it is two spin offs from the original debate that were most significant for the future development of natural history during that century. Firstly, the touchstone, the standard by which Pliny’s knowledge of natural history was judged was the works of Theophrastus and Dioscorides. The three areas of the study of natural history, the philosophical (Aristotle and Theophrastus), the medicinal (Dioscorides and Galen), and the encyclopaedical (Pliny), which had always been seen as separate in antiquity and the Middle Ages, now coalesced into a single stream, one topic and no longer three. Secondly, some of the participants in the debate, most notably Leoniceno, realised that to really identify the plants being discussed by Pliny and the others, reading the descriptions in their books was not enough, the scholar had to leave his study and venture out into the world and actually study plants empirically. We shall be following the results of this empirical development in further episodes.

[1] Most of the information on published editions of texts and their dates of publication are taken from Margaret Bingham Stillwell, The Awakening Interest in Science during the First Century of Printing 1450–1550: An annotated Checklist of First Editions viewed from the Angle of their Subject Content, The Bibliographical Society of America, New York, 1970


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXVIII

In the last episode of this series, we explored the history of the magnetic compass in Europe and marine cartography from the Portolan chart to the Mercator Projection. We will now turn our attention to the other developments in navigation at sea in the Renaissance. As already stated in the last episode, the need to develop new methods of navigation and the instruments to carry them out was driven by what I prefer to call the Contact Period, commonly called the Age of Discovery or Age of Exploration. The period when the Europeans moved out into the rest of the world and exploited it. 

This movement in turn was motivated by various factors. Curiosity about lands outside of Europe was driven both by travellers’ tales such as The Travels of Marco Polo c. 1300 and The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which first appeared around 1360, both of which were highly popular throughout Europe, and also by new cartographical representation of the know world, known to the Europeans that is, in particular Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, which first became available in the early fifteenth century. Another development was technological, the development by the Portuguese, who as we shall see led the drive out of Europe into the rest of the world, of a new type of ship, the caravel, which was more manoeuvrable than existing vessels and because of its lateen sails was capable of sailing windward, making it more suitable for long ocean voyages, as opposed to coastal sailing.

The Portuguese invention of the caravel, which was maneuverable and able to undertake ocean voyages, was essential to European maritime exploration. The present image shows the “Caravela Vera Cruz“, navigating the Tagus river, Lisboa. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Depending on the situation, different intervals between tacking can be used. This does not influence the total distance travelled (though may impact the time required). Sailing from point A to point B, path P1 involves more turns but only requires a narrow channel. Path P2 involves fewer turns but a wider channel. Path P3 requires only a single turn but covers comparatively the widest channel. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The final and definitely most important factor was trade or perhaps more accurately greed. The early sailors, who set out to investigate the world outside of Europe, were not the romantic explorers or discoverers, we get taught about in school, but hard-headed businessmen out to make a profit by trade or if necessary, theft. 

The two commodities most desired by these traders, were precious metals, principally gold but also silver and copper, and spices. The metal ore mines of Middle Europe could not fill the demands for precious metals, so other sources must be found. This is perhaps best illustrated by the search in South America, by the Spanish, for the mythical city of gold, El Dorado, during the sixteenth century. Spices had been coming into Europe from the East over the Indian Ocean and then overland, brought by Arab traders, to the port cities of Northern Italy, principally Venice and Genoa, from where there were distributed overland throughout Europe since the eleventh century. The new generation of traders thought they could maximise profits by cutting out the middlemen and going directly to the source by the sea route. This was the motivation of both Vasco da Gama (c. 1460–1524), sailing eastwards, and Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), sailing westward. Their voyages are, however, one end point of a series of voyages, which began with the Portuguese capture of Ceuta, in North Africa, from the Arabs, in 1415.

Having established a bridgehead in North Africa the Portuguese, who were after all situated on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, argued that they could bypass the middleman, their trading partners the Arabs, and sail down the coast to Sub-Saharan West Africa and fetch for themselves, the gold and the third great trading commodity of the Contact Period, slaves, who they had previously bought from Arab traders. It is fair to ask why other countries, further north, with Atlantic coasts did not lead the expansion into unknown territory? The first decades of the Portuguese Atlantic ventures were still very much coastal sailing progressively further down the African coast; other northern European countries, such as Britain did sail north and south along the Atlantic coast, but their journeys remained within Europe. 

Starting in 1520, Portuguese expeditions worked their way down the west coast of Africa until the end of the sixteenth century.

The gradual Portuguese progress down the West Coast of Africa Source: Wikipedia Commons

The Nürnberger Martin Behaim (1459–1507), responsible for the creation of the oldest surviving terrestrial globe and member of the Portuguese Board of Navigation (to which we will return), claimed to have sailed with Diogo Cão, who made two journeys in the 1480s, which is almost certainly a lie. At the time of Cão’s first voyage along the African coast Behaim is known to have been in Antwerp. On his second voyage Cão erected pillars at all of his landing places naming all of the important members of the crew, who were on the voyage, Martin Behaim is not amongst them. 

The two most significant Portuguese expedition were that of Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450–1500) in 1488, which was the first to round the Cape of Good Hope, actually Diogo Cão’s aim on his two voyages, which he failed to achieve, and, of course, Vasco da Gama’s voyage of 1497, which took him not only up the east African coast but all the way to India with the help of a local navigator. The two voyages also showed that the Indian Ocean was open to the south, whereas Ptolemaeus had shown it to be a closed sea in his Geographia. 

Much earlier in the century the Portuguese had ventured out into the Atlantic and when blown off course by a storm João Gonçalves Zarco (c. 1390 –1471) and Tristão Vaz Teixeira (c. 1395–1480) discovered the archipelago of Madeira in 1420 and one expedition discovered the Azores, 1,200 km from the Portuguese coast in 1427. The Canaries had already been discovered in the early fourteenth century and were colonised by the Spanish in 1402. The Cap Verde archipelago was discovered around 1456. The discovery of the Atlantic islands off the coasts of the Iberian Peninsula and Africa was important in two senses. Firstly, there developed myths about other islands further westward in the Atlantic, which encouraged people to go and look for them. Secondly, by venturing further out into the Atlantic sailors began to discover the major Atlantic winds and currents,, known as gyres essential knowledge for successful expeditions.

The Atlantic Gyres influenced the Portuguese discoveries and trading port routes, here shown in the India Run (“Carreira da Índia“), which would be developed in subsequent years. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Dias could only successfully round the Cape because he followed the prevailing current in a big loop almost all the way to South America and then back past the southern tip of Africa. Sailors crossing the Indian Ocean between Africa and India had long known about the prevailing winds and currents, which change with the seasons, which they had to follow to make successful crossings. The Spanish and the Portuguese would later discover the currents they needed to follow to successfully sail to the American continent and back.

The idea of island hopping to travel westwards in the Atlantic that the discoveries of the Azores and the other Southern Atlantic islands suggested was something already been followed in the North Atlantic by fishing fleets sailing out of Bristol in Southwest England in the fifteenth century. They would sail up the coast of Ireland going North to the Faroe Islands, settled by the Vikings around 800 CE and then onto Iceland, another Viking settlement, preceding to Greenland and onto the fishing grounds off the coast of Newfoundland. This is the route that Sebastian Cabot (c. 1474–c. 1557) would follow on his expedition to North America in the service of Henry VIII. It is also probable that Columbus got his first experience of navigating across the Atlantic on this northern route. 

Columbus famously made his first expedition to what would be erroneously named America in 1492, in an attempt to reach the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia by sailing westward around the globe. This expedition was undertaken on the basis of a series of errors concerning the size of the globe, the extent of the oikumene, the European-Asian landmass known to the Greek cartographers, and the distance of Japan from the Asian mainland. Columbus thought he was undertaking a journey of about 3,700 km from the Canary Islands to Japan instead of the actual 19,600 km! If he hadn’t bumped into America, he and his entire crew would have starved to death on the open sea. Be that as it may, he did bump into America and succeeded in returning safely, if only by the skin of his teeth. With Columbus’ expedition to America and da Gama’s to India, the Europeans were no longer merely coastal sailors but established deep sea and new approaches to navigation had to be found.

The easiest way to locate something on a large open area is to use a geometrical coordinate system with one set of equally spaced lines running from top to bottom and a second set from side to side or in the case of a map from north to south and east to west. We now call such a grid on a map or sea chart, lines of longitude also called meridians, north to south, and lines of latitude also called parallels, east to west. The earliest know presentation of this idea is attributed to the Greek polymath Eratosthenes (c. 276­–c. 195 BCE).

A perspective view of the Earth showing how latitude (𝛟) and longitude (𝛌) are defined on a spherical model. The graticule spacing is 10 degrees.

The concept was reintroduced into Early Modern Europe by the discovery of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia. It’s all very well to have a location grid on your maps and charts but it’s a very different problem to determine where exactly you are on that grid when stuck in the middle of an ocean. However, before we consider this problem and its solutions I want to return to the Portuguese Board of Navigation, which I briefly mentioned above.

Both the Portuguese and the Spanish realised fairly early on as they began to journey out onto the oceans that they needed some way of collecting and collating new geographical and navigation relevant information that their various expeditions brought back with them and also a way of imparting the relevant information and techniques to navigators due to set out on new expeditions. Both countries established official institutions to fulfil these tasks and also appointed official cosmographers to lead these endeavours. Pedro Nunes (1502–1578), who we met in the first episode on navigation, as the discoverer of the loxodrome, was appointed Portugal’s Royal Cosmographer in 1529 and Chief Royal Cosmographer in 1547, a post he held until his death.

Image of Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes in Panorama magazine (1843); Lisbon, Portugal. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The practice of establishing official organisations to teach cartography and navigation, as well as the mathematics they needed to carry them out to seamen was followed in time by France, Holland, and Britain as they too began to send out deep sea marine expeditions. 

To determine latitude and longitude are two very different problems and I will start with the easier of the two, the determination of latitude. For the determination of longitude or latitude you first need a null point, for latitude this is the equator. In the northern hemisphere your latitude is how many degrees you are north of the equator. You can determine your latitude using either the Sun during the day or the North Star at night. At night you need to observe the North Star with some sort of angle measuring device then measure the angle that makes to the horizon and that angle is your latitude in degrees. During the day you need to observe the Sun at exactly noon with an angle measuring device then the angle to makes with a vertical plumb line is your latitude. This is only strictly true for the date of the two equinoxes. For other days of the year, you have to calculate an adjustment using tables. For these observations mariners initially used either a quadrant,

Geometric quadrant with plumb bob. Source: Wikimedia Commons

which had been in use since antiquity or a Jacob’s Staff or Cross Staff, the invention of which is attributed to the French astronomer Levi Ben Gershon (1268–1344).

A sailor uses a ‘Jacob’s Staff’ to calculate the angle between a star and the horizon Source

Contrary to many claims, astrolabes were never used on ships for this purpose. However, around the end of the fifteenth century a much-simplified version of the astrolabe, the mariner’s astrolabe began to be used for this purpose. 

Mariner’s astrolabe Source: Wikimedia Commons

Because looking directly into the Sun is not good for the eyes, the backstaff was developed over time. With a backstaff the mariner stands with his back to the Sun and a shadow is cast onto the angle measuring scale. Thomas Harriot (c. 1560–1621) is credited with being the originator of the concept. The mariner John Davis (c. 1550–1605) introduced the double quadrant or Davis quadrant in his book on practical navigation, The Seaman’s Secrets in 1594, a device that evolved over time.

Davis quadrant, made in 1765 by Johannes Van Keulen. On display at the Musée national de la Marine in Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons
How a Davis Quadrant is used Source includes a video of how to use one

In 1730, John Hadley invented the reflecting octant, which incorporated a mirror to reflect the image of the Sun, whilst the user observed the horizon.

John Hadley Source: Wikimedia Commons
Hadley Octant Source includes video

This evolved into the sextant the device still used today to “shoot the Sun” as it is called. Here we see an evolution of instruments used to fulfil a specific function.

The determination of longitude at sea is a much more difficult problem. First, there is no natural null point, and any meridian can be and indeed was used until the Greenwich Meridian was chosen as the international null point for the determination of longitude at the International Meridian Conference in Washington in 1884. Because the Earth revolves once in twenty-four hours the determination of the difference in longitude between two locations is equivalent to the difference in local time between them, one degree of longitude equals four minutes of time difference, so the determination of longitude is basically the determination of time differences, which is easy to state but much more difficult to carry out.

The various European sea going nations–Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, Britain–all offered financial awards to anybody who could come up with a practical solution for determining longitude at sea. 

In antiquity, the difference in longitude between two locations was determined by calculating the difference in the observation times of major astronomical events such as lunar or solar eclipses. Then, if one had determined the difference in longitude between two given locations and their respective distances from a third location, it was possible to calculate the difference in longitude for the third location geometrically. Using these methods, astronomers, and cartographers gradually built-up tables of longitude for large numbers of towns and cities such as the one found in Ptolemaeus’ Geographia. This method is, of course, not practical for mariners at sea.

Starting in the early sixteenth century, various methods were suggested for determining time differences in order to determine longitude. The Nürnberger mathematicus Johannes Werner (1468 – 1522) in his In hoc opere haec continentur Nova translatio primi libri geographiae Cl’ Ptolomaei … (Nürnberg 1514) proposed the so-called lunar distance method. In this method an accurate table of the position of the Moon relative to a given set of reference stars for a given location for the entire year needs to be created.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The mariner then has to observe the position of the Moon relative to the reference stars for his local time and then calculate the time difference to the given location from the tables. Unfortunately, because the Moon is pulled all over the place by the gravitational influence of both the Sun and the Earth, its orbit is highly irregular and the preparation of such tables proved beyond the capabilities of sixteenth century astronomers and indeed of seventeenth century astronomers, when the method was proposed again by Jean-Baptiste Morin (1583–1656). There was also the problem of an instrument accurate enough to measure the position of the Moon on a moving ship. It was Tobias Mayer (1723–1762), who first managed to produce accurate tables and Hadley’s octant or rather the sextant that evolved out of it solved the instrument problem. The calculations necessary to determine longitude having measured the lunar distance proved to be too complex and too time consuming for seamen and so Neville Maskelyne produced the Nautical Almanac containing the results pre-calculated in the form of tables and published for the first time in 1766.

Portrait of Nevil Maskelyne by Edward Scriven Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Library of Congress Washington

The next solution to the problem of determining longitude suggested during the Renaissance by Gemma Frisius (1508–1555) was the clock, published in his De principiis astronomiae et cosmographiae. (Antwerp, 1530).

Gemma Frisius 17th C woodcut by E. de Boulonois Source: Wikimedia Commons

The mariner should take a clock, capable of maintaining accurate time over a long period under the conditions that prevail on a ship on the high seas, set to the time of the point of departure. By comparing local time with the clock time, the longitude difference could then be calculated. The problem was that although mechanical clocks had been around for a couple of centuries when Gemma Frisius made his suggestion, they were incapable of maintaining the required accuracy on land, let alone on a ship at sea. Jean-Baptiste Morin thought it would never be possible, “I do not know if the Devil will succeed in making a longitude timekeeper but it is folly for man to try.” A view apparently shared by Isaac Newton, when he sat on the English Board of Longitude.

Only when Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695) had the first pendulum clock constructed by Salomon Coster (c. 1620–1659) accord his design in 1657 that Frisius’ idea began to seem realistic.

Christiaen Huygens II (1629-1695) signed C.Netscher / 1671 Source: Wikimedia Commons
Spring-driven pendulum clock, designed by Huygens and built by Salomon Coster (1657),  with a copy of the Horologium Oscillatorium (1673), at Museum Boerhaave, Leiden. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of Huygens’ clocks was actually sent on sea trials but failed the test. In what is, thanks to Dava Sobel[1], probably the most well-known story in the history of technology John Harrison (1693–1776)

P. L. Tassaert’s half-tone print of Thomas King’s original 1767 portrait of John Harrison, located at the Science and Society Picture Library, London Source: Wikimedia Commons

finally succeeded in producing a clock capable of fulfilling the demands with his H4 in 1761, slightly later than the successful fulfilment of the lunar distance method. In one sense the problem was still not really solved because the H4 was too complex and too expensive for it to be mass produced at a reasonable cost for use in sea transport. It was only really in the nineteenth century, after further developments in clock technology, that the marine chronometer became a real solution to the longitude problem.

Harrison’s “sea watch” No.1 (H4), with winding crank Source: Wikimedia Commons

Back tacking, at the beginning of the seventeenth century with the discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter another method suggested itself. These moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, have orbital periods of respectively, 1.77, 3.55, 7.15, and 16.6 days.

A montage of Jupiter and its four largest moons (distance and sizes not to scale) Source: Wikimedia Commons

This means that one or other of them is being fairly often eclipsed by Jupiter. Galileo argued that is one could calculate the orbits accurately enough they could be used as a clock to determine longitude. He tried to sell the idea to the governments of both Spain and the Netherlands without success. The principal problem was the difficulty of observing them with a telescope on a moving ship. Galileo worked on an idea of an observing chair with the telescope mounted on a helmet, but the idea never made it off the paper. Later in the seventeenth century Jean-Dominique Cassini (1625–1712) produced tables of the orbits accurate enough for them to be used to determine longitude and he and Jean Picard (1620–1682) used the method on land to accurately determine the borders of France, leading Louis XVI to famously quip that he had lost more territory to the cartographers than he ever lost to his enemies.

Map showing both old and new French coastlines Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the first part of this account of navigation I described the phenomenon of magnetic variations or declination, which is the fact that that a compass does not point to true north but to magnetic north, which is somewhat removed from true north. I also mentioned that magnetic declination is not constant but varies from location to location. This led to the thought that if one were to map the magnetic inclination for the entire Atlantic one could use the data to determine longitude, whilst at sea. Edmond Halley (1556–1742) did in fact create such a map on a voyage from1699 to 1700. However, this method of determining longitude was never really utilised. 

Portrait of Halley (c. 1690) by Thomas Murray Source: Wikimedia Commons
Halley’s 1701 map showing isogonic lines of equal magnetic declination in the Atlantic Ocean. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the methods eventually developed to determine longitude on the high seas all came to fruition long after the Renaissance, they all have their roots firmly planted in the practical science of the Renaissance. This brief sketch also displays an important aspect of the history of science and technology. A lot of time can pass, and very often does, between the recognition of a problem, the suggestion of one or more solutions to that problem, and the realisation or fulfilment of those solutions.

Having gone to great lengths to describe the principal methods suggested and eventually realised for determining longitude, there were others ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous that I haven’t described, there remains the question, how did mariners navigate when far away from the coast during the Early Modern Period? There are two answers firstly latitude sailing and secondly dead reckoning. In latitude sailing, instead of, for example, trying to cross the Atlantic by the most direct course from A to B, the navigator first sails due north or south along the coast until he reaches the latitude of his planned destination. They then turn their ship through ninety degrees and maintain a course along that latitude. This, of course, nearly always means a much longer voyage but one with less risk of getting lost. 

In dead reckoning, the navigator, starting from a fixed point, measures the speed and direction of his ship over a given period of time transferring this information mathematically to a sea chat to determine their new position. The direction is determined with the compass, but the determination of the ship’s speed is at best an approximation, which was carried out in the following manner. A log would be thrown overboard at the front of the ship and the mariners would measure how long it took for the ship to pass the log, and the result recorded in a book, which became known as the logbook. The term logbook expanded to include all the information recorded on a voyage on a sip and then later on planes and even lorries. Of note, the word blog is an abbreviation of the term weblog, a record of web or internet activity, but I’m deviating from the topic.

An example of dead reckoning Columbus’ return voyage Source

The process of measuring the ships speed evolved over time. The log was thrown overboard attached to a long line and using an hourglass, the time how long the line needed to pay out was recorded. Later the line was knotted at regular intervals and the number of knots were recorded for a given time period. This is, of course, the origin of the term knots for the speed of ships and aircraft. Overtime the simple log of wood was replaced with a so-called chip-log, which became standardised:

The shape is a quarter circle, or quadrant with a radius of 5 inches (130 mm) or 6 inches (150 mm), and 0.5 inches (13 mm) thick. The logline attaches to the board with a bridle of three lines that connect to the vertex and to the two ends of the quadrant’s arc. To ensure the log submerges and orients correctly in the water, the bottom of the log is weighted with lead. This provides more resistance in the water, and a more accurate and repeatable reading. The bridle attaches in such a way that a strong tug on the logline makes one or two of the bridle’s lines release, enabling a sailor to retrieve the log. (Wikipedia)

Model of chip log and associated kit. The reel of log-line is clearly visible. The first knot, marking the first nautical mile is visible on the reel just below the centre. The timing sandglass is in the upper left and the chip log is in the lower left. The small light-coloured wooden pin and plug form a release mechanism for two lines of the bridle. From the Musée de la Marine, Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The invention of the log method of determining a ship’s speed is attributed to the Portuguese mariner Bartolomeu Crescêncio at the end of the fifteenth century. The earliest known published account of using a log to determine a ship’s speed was by William Bourne (c. 1535–1582) in his A regiment of the Sea in 1574, which went through 11 English editions up to 1631 and at least 3 Dutch edition from 1594. 

Dead reckoning is a process that is prone to error, as it doesn’t take into account directional drift caused by wind and currents. Another problem was that not all mariners processed the necessary mathematical knowledge to transfer the data to a sea chart. Those mariners, who disliked and rejected the mathematical approach used a traverse board, which uses threads and pegs to record direction and speed of a ship. William Bourne writing in 1571 said:

I have known within these 20 years that them that were ancient masters of shippes hathe derided and mocked them that have occupied their cards and plattes and also the observation of the Altitude of the Pole saying; that they care not for their sheepskinne for he could keepe a better account upon a board.

This blog post is already far too long, so I’ll skip a detailed description of the traverse board, but you can read one here.

We have one last Renaissance contribution to the art of navigation from the English mathematical practitioner, Edmund Gunter (1581–1626), who we have already met as the inventor of the standard English surveyor’s chain in the episode on surveying. Gunter invented the Gunter scale or rule, simply known as the “gunter” by mariners, which he published in his Description and Use of the Sector, the Crosse-staffe and other Instrumentsin 1623. Developed shortly after the invention of logarithms, the scale is usually somewhat more than a half metre long and about 40 mm broad. It is engraved on both sides with various scales or lines. Usually, on the one side are natural line, chords, sines, tangents, rhumbs etc., and on the other scales of the logarithms of those functions. Navigational mathematical problems were then worked through using a pair of compasses. 

Gunter scale front
Gunter scale back Source

Despite its drawbacks, uncertainties, and errors dead reckoning was used for centuries by European mariners to crisscross the oceans and circumnavigate the globe. It continued to be used well into the nineteenth century, long after the perfection of the marine chronometer and the lunar distance method. 

This over long blog post is but a sketch of the contributions made by the Renaissance mathematical practitioners to the development of methods of deep-sea navigation required by the European mariners during the Contact Period, when they swarmed out to investigate the world beyond Europe and exploit it. Those contributions were in the form of theories, publications, instruments, charts, and practical instruction (which I haven’t really expanded upon here). For a more detailed version of the story, I heartily recommend Margaret Scotte’s excellent Sailing School: Navigation Science and Skill, 1550–1800 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).

[1] Sobel’s account of the story is somewhat less than historically accurate and as always, I recommend instead Dunne and Higgitt, Finding LongitudeHow ships, clocks and stars helped solve the longitude problem (Collins, 2014)

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Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, Renaissance Science

Renaissance Science – XXI

One of the products of the Republic of Letters during the Humanist Renaissance was the beginning or the foundation of the modern European library. Naturally they didn’t invent libraries; the concept of the library goes back quite a long way into antiquity. To a great extent, libraries are a natural consequence of the invention of writing. When you have writing, then you have written documents. If you preserve those written documents then at some point you have a collection of written documents and when that collection becomes big enough, then you start to think about storage, sorting, classification, listing, cataloguing and you have created an archive or a library. I’m not going try and sort out the difference between an archive and a library and will from now on only use the term library, meaning a collection of books, without answering the question, what constitutes a book?

The oldest know libraries are the collections of clay tablets found in the temples of Sumer, some of which date back to the middle of the third millennium BCE. There were probably parallel developments in ancient Egypt but as papyrus doesn’t survive as well as clay tablets there is less surviving evidence for early Egyptian libraries. There is evidence of a library in the Sumerian city of Nippur around two thousand BCE and a library with a classification system in the Assyrian city of Nineveh around seven hundred BCE. The Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh contained more than thirty thousand clay tablets containing literary, religious, administrative, and scientific works. Other ancient cultures such as China and India also developed early libraries.

Library of Ashurbanipal Mesopotamia 1500-539 BC Gallery, British Museum, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The most well-known ancient library is the legendary Library of Alexandria, which is clouded in layers of myth. The library was part of the of the Mouseion, a large research institute, which was probably conceived by Ptolemy I Soter (c. 367–282 BCE) but first realised by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309–246 BCE). Contrary to popular myth it was neither destroyed by Christian zealots nor by Muslim ones but suffered a steady decline over a number of centuries. For the full story read Tim O’Neill’s excellent blog post on the subject, which also deals with a number of the other myths. As Tim points out, Alexandria was by no means the only large library during this period, its biggest rival being the Library of Pergamum founded around the third century BCE. The Persian Empire is known to have had large libraries as did the Roman Empire.

Artistic rendering of the Library of Alexandria, based on some archaeological evidence Source: Wikimedia Commons

With the gradual decline of the Western Roman Empire, libraries disappeared out of Europe but continued to thrive in the Eastern Empire, the future Byzantium. The Islamic Empire became the major inheritor of the early written records of ancient Greece, Egypt, Persia, and Rome creating in turn their own libraries throughout their territories. These libraries became to source of the twelfth century translation movement, also known as the scientific renaissance, when those books first began to re-enter medieval Europe. 

During the Early Middle Ages, the only libraries still in existence in what had been the Western Roman Empire were those that existed in the Christian monasteries. Here we must once again dispose of two connected myths. The first more general one is the widespread myth that Christians deliberately destroyed pagan literature i.e., the texts of the Greeks and Romans. In fact, as Tim O’Neill points out in another excellent blog post, we have Christians to thank for those texts that did survive the general collapse of an urban civilisation. The second, closely related myth, spread by the “the Church is and always was anti-science brigade”, is that the Church deliberately abandoned Greek science because it was ant-Christian. Once again as Stephen McCluskey has documented in his excellent, Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe, (CUP; 1998) it was the monasteries that keep the flame of the mathematical science burning during this period even if only on a low flame.

The manuscript collections of the medieval libraries were very small in comparison to the great Greek libraries such as Alexandria and Pergamum or the many public libraries of Rome, numbering in the best cases in the hundreds but often only in the tens. However, the guardians of these precious written documents did everything in their power to keep the books safe and in good condition and also endeavouring to acquire new manuscripts by copying those from other monastery libraries, often undertaking very arduous journeys to do so. 

Chained library in Hereford Cathedral Most of the books in the collection date to about 1100. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Things began to improve in the twelfth century with the scientific renaissance and the translation movement, which coincided with the founding of the European universities. The number of works available in manuscript increased substantially but they still had to be copied time and again to gradually spread throughout Europe. Like the monasteries the universities also began to collect books and to establish libraries but if we look at the figures for Cambridge University founded in 1209. The university library has its roots in the beginning of the fifteenth century, there would have been earlier individual college libraries earlier. The earliest surviving catalogue from c. 1424 list 122 volumes in the library. By 1473 a second catalogue lists 330 volumes. It is first in the sixteenth century that things really take off and the library begins to grow substantially. The equally famous Oxford University Bodleian Library was first founded in 1600 by the humanist scholar Thomas Bodley in 1600, replacing the earlier university library from 1444, which had been stripped and dissipated during the Reformation. 

Thomas Bodley Artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons 

We have of course now reached the Humanist Renaissance and it is here that the roots of the modern library were laid. The Humanist Renaissance was all about written texts. The humanists read texts, analysed the content of texts, annotated texts, translated texts, and applied philological analysis to texts to correct and/or eliminate errors introduced into texts by repeated copying and translations. The text was everything for the humanists, so they began to accumulate collections of manuscripts. Both humanist scholars and the various potentates, who sponsored the humanist movement began to create libraries, as new spaces of learning. 

The Malatestiana Library was founded by Malatesta Novello of Cesena (1418–1485) in 1454.

Malatestiana Library of Cesena, the first European civic library Source: Wikimedia Commons

The foundations of the Laurentian Library in Florence were laid by Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464), as one of a sequence of libraries that he funded.

Reading room of the Laurentian Library Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pope Nicholas V (1397–1455) brought the papal Greek and Latin collections together in separate libraries in Rome and they were then housed by Pope Sixtus IV (1414–1484), who appointed the humanist Bartolomeo Platina (1421–1481) librarian of the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana.

Sixtus IV appointing Bartolomeo Platina librarian of the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana. From left Giovanni della Rovere, Girolamo Riario, Bartolomeo Platina, later Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere), Raffaele Riario, Pope Sixtus IV Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was followed by the establishment of many private libraries both in Rome and in other Italian cities. As with other aspects of the Humanist Renaissance this movement spread outside of Italy to other European Countries. For example, the Bibliotheca Palatina was founded by Elector Ludwig III (1378–1436) in Heidelberg in the 1430s.

Elector Ludwig III. Contemporary image on the choir ceiling of the  Stiftskirche (Neustadt an der Weinstraße). Source: Wikimedia Commons

These new humanist libraries were not just book depositories but as stated above new spaces for learning. The groups of humanist scholars would meet regularly in the new libraries to discuss, debate or dispute over new texts, new translations, or new philological corrections to old, corrupted manuscripts. 

The (re)invention of movable type printing in about 1450 meant that libraries began to collect printed books as well as manuscripts. The first printer publishers in Italy concentrated on publishing the newly translated texts of the humanists even creating a new type face, Antiqua, which imitated the handwriting that had been developed and propagated by the first generations of humanist scholars. 

The spread of libraries during the Renaissance is a vast subject, too much to deal with in a blog post, but one can get a perspective on this development by looking at a sketch of the career of Johannes Müller (1436–1476) aka Regiomontanus or as he was known during his live time, Johannes de Monte Regio. 

Smithsonian “Print Artist: Braeht” (whereby the signature appears to be rather Brühl sculps[it] possibly Johann Benjamin Brühl (1691-1763) ) – Smithsonian Institution Libraries Digital Collection Source: Wikimedia Commons

Regiomontanus is, today, best known as the most significant European mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer of the fifteenth century, so it comes as something of a surprise to discover that he spent a substantial part of his life working as a librarian for various humanist book collectors. 

Regiomontanus graduated MA at the University of Vienna on his twenty-first birthday in 1457. He had actually completed the degree requirements much earlier, but university regulations required MA graduates to be at least twenty-one years old. He then joined his teacher Georg von Peuerbach as a teacher at the university, lecturing on optics amongst other things. Both Regiomontanus and Peuerbach were convinced humanists. In 1460 Basilios Bessarion (1403–1472) came to Vienna.

Basilios Bessarion Justus van Gent and Pedro Berruguete Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was a Greek Orthodox monk, who had converted to Catholicism, been elevated to Cardinal and was in Vienna as papal legate to negotiate with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III on behalf of Pope Pius II. Pius II, civil Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (1405–1464), was a humanist scholar well acquainted with Frederick and Vienna from his own time as a papal legate. Bessarion, a Neo-Platonist, was a very active humanist, setting up and sponsoring humanist circles wherever his travels took him. In Vienna he sought out Peuerbach to persuade him to undertake a new Latin translation of Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis from the original Greek. Peuerbach couldn’t read Greek but he, and after his death Regiomontanus, produced their Epitome of the Almagest, the story of which I have told elsewhere. Bessarion asked Peuerbach to return to Italy with him. Peuerbach agreed on the condition that Regiomontanus could also accompany them. Peuerbach died in 1461, so only Regiomontanus accompanied Bessarion back to Italy and it is here that his career as librarian began.

Bessarion was an avid book collector and Regiomontanus’ job in his personal entourage was to seek out and make copies of new manuscripts for Bessarion’s collection. A task that he fulfilled with esprit. Bessarion had in the meantime also taught him Greek. In 1468, Bessarion presented his personal library to the Senate of Venice in 1468 and the 482 Greek manuscripts and 264 Latin manuscripts today still form the core of the St. Mark’s Biblioteca Marciana.

Cardinal Bessarion’s letter to Doge Cristoforo Moro and the Senate of Venice, announcing the donation of his library. BNM Lat. XIV, 14 (= 4235), fol. 1r. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Regiomontanus left Bessarion’s entourage around 1465 and reappears in 1467 at the court of János Vitéz Archbishop of Esztergom (German, Gran) in Hungary. 

János Vitéz frontispiece of a manuscript Source: Wikimedia Commons

Vitéz, an old friend of Peuerbach, was a humanist scholar and an avid book collector. Although Regiomontanus served as court astrologer, his Tabulae Directionum, one of the most important Renaissance astrological texts was produced at Vitéz’s request, his main function at Vitéz’s court was as court librarian. From Esztergom he moved to the court of the Hungarian King, Matthias Corvinus (1443–1490), who had been educated by Vitéz.

Matthias Corvinus of Hungary portrait by Andrea Mantegna Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like his teacher, Corvinus was a humanist scholar and a major book collector. Once more, Regiomontanus served as a court librarian. The Bibliotheca Corviniana had become one of the largest libraries in Europe, second only to the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, when Corvinus died. Unfortunately, following his death, his library was dissipated. 

Long before Corvinus’ death, Regiomontanus had left Hungary for Nürnberg, with Corvinus’ blessing and a royal pension, to set up a programme to reform astronomy in order to improve astrological divination. During his travels, Regiomontanus had not only made copies of manuscripts for his patrons, but also for himself, so he arrived in Nürnberg with a large collection of manuscript in 1471. His aim was to set up a printing house and publish philologically corrected editions of a long list of Greek and Latin mathematical, astronomical, and astrological texts, which he advertised in a publisher’s list that he printed and published. Unfortunately, he died in 1476 having only published nine texts including his publishers list and to the shame of the city council of Nürnberg, his large manuscript collection was not housed in a library but dissipated. 

To close a last example of a lost and dissipated Renaissance library. The English mathematicus John Dee (1527–1609) hoped to establish a national library, but he failed to get the sponsorship he wished for.

John Dee artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Instead, he collected books and manuscripts in his own house in Mortlake, acquiring the largest library in England and one of the largest in Europe. In the humanist tradition, this became a research centre, with other scholars coming to Mortlake to consult the books and to discuss their research with Dee and other visitors. However, when Dee left England for the continent, in the 1580s with Edward Kelly, to try and find sponsors for his occult activities, his house was broken into, and his library pillaged and sold off. 

Despite the loss of some of the largest Renaissance book collections and libraries, the period saw the establishment of the library both public and private, as a centre for collecting books and a space for learning from them. 

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A seventeenth century Jesuit, who constructed his own monument and designed the first(?) ‘auto-mobile’.

One of the world’s great tourist attractions is the Imperial Observatory in Beijing.

Source: Top 12 Best Places to go visiting Beijing

The man, who rebuilt it in its current impressive form was the seventeenth century Jesuit mathematician, astronomer, and engineer Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688).

Ferdinand Verbiest artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have no idea how many Jesuits took part in the Chines mission in the seventeenth century[1]. A mission that is historically important because of the amount of cultural, scientific, and technological information that flowed between Europe and China in both directions. But Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s print of the Jesuit Mission to China only shows the three most important missionaries, Matteo Ricci Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Ferdinand Verbiest.

Jesuit Mission to China, left to right  Matteo Ricci, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, Ferdinand Verbiest Source: Wikimedia

I have already written blog posts about Ricci and Schall von Bell and here, I complete the trilogy with a sketch of the life story of Ferdinand Verbiest and how, as the title states, he came to build his own monument in the form of one of the most splendid, surviving, seventeenth-century observatories. 

Ferdinand Verbiest was born 9 October 1623 in Pittem, a village about 25 km south of Bruges in the Spanish Netherlands, the fourth of seven children of the bailiff and tax collector, Judocus Verbiest and his wife Ann van Hecke. Initially educated in the village school, in 1635 was sent to school in Bruges. In 1636 he moved onto the Jesuit College in Kortrijk. In 1641 he matriculated in Lily College of the University of Leuven, the liberal arts faculty of the university. He entered the Society of Jesus 2 September 1641 and transferred to Mechelen for the next two years. In 1643 he returned to the University of Leuven for two years, where he had the luck to study mathematics under Andrea Tacquet (1612–1660) an excellent Jesuit mathematics pedagogue. 


In 1645, Verbiest became a mathematics teacher at the Jesuit College in Kortrijk, In the same year he applied to be sent to the Americas as a missionary, but his request was turned down.

One time Jesuit College now the Church of Saint Michael Kortrijk Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1647 his third request was granted, and he was assigned to go to Mexico. However, in Spain the authorities refused him passage and he went instead to Brussels where he taught Greek and Latin from 1648 to 1652. He was now sent to the Gregorian University in Rome where he studied under Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) and Gaspar Schott (1608–1666). In 1653, he was granted permission to become a missionary in the New Kingdom of Granada (now Columbia) but was first sent to Seville to complete his theological studies, which he did in 1655. Once again, the Spanish authorities refused him passage to the Americas, so he decided to go to China instead.

Whilst waiting for a passage to China he continued his studies of mathematics in Genoa. In 1656 he travelled to Lisbon; however, his plans were once again foiled when pirates hijacked the ship, he was due to sail on, whilst waiting for a new ship he taught mathematics at the Jesuit College in Coimbra. In 1657, he finally sailed from Lisbon eastwards with 37 missionaries of whom 17 were heading for China under the leadership of Martino Martini (1614–1661), a historian and cartographer of China, who provided the atlas of China for Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, his Novus Atlas Sinensis.

Martino Martini Source: Wikimedia Commons
Frontpage of Novus Atlas sinensis, by Martino Martini, Amsterdam, 1655. Source: Wikimedia Commons

They arrived in Goa 30 January 1658 and sailed to Macao, which they reached 17 June. In the spring of 1659, now 37 years old, he finally entered China.

Verbiest was initially assigned to be a preacher in the Shaanxi province but in 1660 Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666), who was President of the Imperial Astronomical Institute and personal adviser to the Emperor Shunzhi (1638–1661), called him to Beijing to become his personal assistant. However, in 1664, following Shunzhi’s death in 1661, Schall von Bell fell foul of his political opponents at court and both he and Verbiest were thrown into jail. Because Schall von Bell had suffered a stroke, Verbiest functioned as his representative during the subsequent trial. Initially sentenced to death, they were pardoned and rehabilitated by the new young Kangxi Emperor Xuanye (1654–1722), Schall von Bell dying in 1666.  

Johann Adam Schall von Bell artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yang Guangxian (1597–1669), Schall von Bell’s Chinese rival, took over the Directorship of the Imperial Observatory and the Presidency of the Imperial Astronomical Institute and although now free Verbiest had little influence at the court. However, he was able to demonstrate that Yang Guangxian’s calendar contained serious errors. Constructing an astronomical calendar, which was used for astrological and ritual purposes, was the principal function of the Imperial Astronomical Institute, so this was a serious problem. A contest was set up between Verbiest and Yang Guangxian to test their astronomical acumen, which Verbiest won with ease. Verbiest was appointed to replace Yang Guangxian in both of his positions and also became a personal advisor to the still young emperor.

Kangxi Emperor Xuanye (1654–1722) unknown artist Source: Wikimedia Commons

Verbiest tutored the Kangxi Emperor in geometry and a skilled linguist (he spoke Manchu, Latin, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and Tartar) he translated the first six books of the Element of Euclid in Manchu for the Emperor. Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) together with Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) had translated them into Classical Chinese, the literal language of the educated elite, in 1607.

Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqui (from Athanasius Kircher, China Illustrata, 1670). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Verbiest, like Schall von Bell before him, used his skills as an engineer to cast cannons for the imperial army,

A cannon made with technical guidance by Ferdinand Verbiest(Nan Huairen), in Hakozaki Shrine, Higashi Ward, Fukuoka City, Fukuoka, Japan. Source: Wikimedia Commons

but it was for the Imperial Observatory that he left his greatest mark as an engineer, when in 1673 he received the commission to rebuild it. 

Imperial Observatory Beijing Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Beijing Imperial Observatory was originally constructed in 1442 during the Ming dynasty. It was substantially reorganised by the Jesuits in 1644 but underwent its biggest restoration at the hands of Verbiest.

The emperor requested the priest to construct instruments like those of Europe, and in May, 1674, Verbiest was able to present him with six, made under his direction: a quadrant, six feet in radius; an azimuth compass, six feet in diameter; a sextant, eight feet in radius; a celestial globe, six feet in diameter; and two armillary spheres, zodiacal and equinoctial, each six feet in diameter. These large instruments, all of brass and with decorations which made them notable works of art, were, despite their weight, very easy to manipulate, and a credit to Verbiest’s mechanical skill as well as to his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. They are still in a perfect state of preservation … Joseph Brucker, Ferdinand Verbiest, Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)

Childe, Thomas: Sternwarte, Peking. Observatory, Peking, c.1875. Terrace view. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Many secondary sources attribute the instrument designs to Verbiest

L0020841 Illustrations of astronomical instruments, Beijing, China Credit: Wellcome Library, London. via Wikimedia Commons

but they are, in fact, basically copies of the instruments that Tycho Brahe designed for his observatory on the island of Hven.

Tycho Brahe’s astronomical instruments from his Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata 1572 Source:

The Jesuits were supporters of the Tychonic helio-geocentric model of the cosmos in the seventeenth century. Verbiest recreated Hven in Beijing.  

Ricci had already realised the utility of geography and cartography in gaining the interest and trust of the Chinese and using woodblocks had printed a world map with China in the centre, Kunyu Wanguo Quantu, at the request of the Wanli Emperor, Zhu Yijun, in 1602. He was assisted by the Mandarin Zhong Wentao and the technical translator Li Zhizao. It was the first western style Chinese map. 

Kunyu Wanguo Quantu Left panel Source Wikimedia Commons
Kunyu Wanguo Quantu Right panel Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1674, Verbiest once again followed Ricci’s example and printed, using woodblocks, his own world map the Kunya Quantu, this time in the form of two hemispheres, with the Americas in the right-hand hemisphere and Asia, Africa, and Europe in the left-hand one, once again with China roughly at the centre where the two meet.

Kunyu Quantu Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was part of a larger geographical work the Kunyu tushuo as Joseph Brucker describes it in his Catholic Encyclopedia article (1907):

the map was part of a larger geographical work called ‘Kunyu tushuo’ (Illustrated Discussion of the Geography of the World), which included information on different lands as well as the physical map itself. Cartouches provide information on the size, climate, land-forms, customs and history of various parts of the world and details of natural phenomena such as eclipses and earthquakes.  Columbus’ discovery of America is also discussed.  Images of ships, real and imaginary animals and sea creatures pepper both hemispheres, creating a visually stunning as well as historically important object.

Due to his success at gaining access to the imperial court and the emperor, in 1677, Verbiest was appointed vice principle that is head of the Jesuit missions to China, a position that he held until his death.

Perhaps the most fascinating of all of Verbiest creations was his ‘auto-mobile’, which he built for Kangxi sometime tin the 1670s.

The steam ‘car’ designed by Verbiest in 1672 – from an 18th-century print Source: Wikimedia Commons

L. H. Weeks in his Automobile Biographies. An Account of the Lives and the Work of Those Who Have Been Identified with the Invention and Development of Self-Propelled Vehicles on the Common Roads (The Monograph Press, NY, 1904) describes it thus:

The Verbiest model was for a four-wheeled carriage, on which an aeolipile was mounted with a pan of burning coals beneath it. A jet of steam from the aeolipile impinged upon the vanes of a wheel on a vertical axle, the lower end of the spindle being geared to the front axle. An additional wheel, larger than the supporting wheels, was mounted on an adjustable arm in a manner to adapt the vehicle to moving in a circular path. Another orifice in the aeolipile was fitted with a reed, so that the steam going through it imitated the song of a bird.

The aeolipile was steam driving toy described in the Pneumatica of Hero of Alexandria and the De architectura of Vitruvius, both of which enjoyed great popularity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe. 

A modern replica of Hero’s aeolipile. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Having suffered a fall while out horse riding a year before, Verbiest died on 28 January 1688 and was buried with great ceremony in the same graveyard as Ricci and Schall von Bell. A man of great learning and talent he forged, for a time, a strong link between Europe and China. For example, Verbiest correspondence and publications were the source of much of Leibniz’s fascination with China. He was succeeded in his various positions by the Belgian Jesuits, mathematician and astronomer Antoine Thomas (1644–1709), whom he had called to Beijing to be his assistant in old age as Schall von Bell had called him three decades earlier. 

[1] According to research by David E. Mungello from 1552 (i.e., the death of St. Francis Xavier) to 1800, a total of 920 Jesuits participated in the China mission, of whom 314 were Portuguese, and 130 were French. Source: Wikipedia


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of science

Renaissance Science – XVII

As we saw in the last episode, Ptolemaeus’ Geographia enjoyed a strong popularity following its rediscovery and translation into Latin from Greek at the beginning of fifteenth century, going through at least five printed editions before the end of the century. The following century saw several important new translation and revised editions both in Latin and in the vernacular. This initial popularity can at least be partially explained by the fact that Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis and his Tetrabiblos, whilst not without rivals, were the dominant books in medieval astronomy and astrology respectively. But the Geographia, although, as explained in the previous episode, in some senses related to the other two books, was a book about mapmaking. So how did affect European mapmaking in the centuries after its re-emergence? To answer this question, we first need to look at medieval European, terrestrial mapmaking.

Mapmaking was relatively low level during the medieval period before the fifteenth century and although there were certainly more, only a very small number of maps have survived. These can be divided into three largely distinct categories, regional and local maps, Mappa Mundi, and portolan charts. There are very few surviving regional or local maps from the medieval period and of those the majority are from 1350 or later, mapmaking was obviously not very widespread in the early part of the Middle Ages. There are almost no maps of entire countries, the exceptions being maps of Palestine,

Map of Palestine according to Burchard of Mount Sion Manuscript c. 1300 entitled: “De more vivendi diversarum gentium, secundum Hieronymum in libro II contra Iovinianum, quae illis cibariis vesci solent, quibus abundant” Source: Wikimedia Commons

the Matthew Paris and Gough maps of Britain,

The most developed of Matthew Paris’s four maps of Britain 13th century (Cotton MS Claudius D VI, fol. 12v). The work is organised around a central north-south itinerary from Dover to Newcastle. The crenellations of both the Antonine Wall and Hadrian’s Wall can be seen in the upper half of the drawing. British Library, London. via Wikimedia Commons

and Nicolas of Cusa’s maps of Germany and central Europe. 

Nicolas of Cusa map of central Europe printed edition 1491 Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg via Wikimedia Commons

The Mappa Mundi are the medieval maps of the known world. These range from very simple schematic diagrams to the full-blown presentations of the oikoumenikos, the entire world as known to European antiquity, consisting of the three continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa. The sketch maps are mostly of two different types, the zonal maps, and the T-O maps. 

The zonal maps show just the eastern hemisphere divided by lines into the five climata or climate zones, as defined by Aristotle. These are the northern frigid zone, the northern temperate zone, the equatorial tropical zone, the southern temperate zone, and the southern frigid zone, of which the Greek believed only the two temperate zones were habitable. In the medieval period, zonal maps are mostly found in copies of Macrobius’ Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis (Commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio).

Macrobius zonal world map c. 1050 Source: British Library

T-O sketch maps show a diagrammatic presentation of the three know continents, Asia, Europe, and Africa enclosed within a double circle representing the ocean surrounding oikoumenikos. The oikoumenikos is orientated, that is with east at the top and is divided into three parts by a T consisting of the Mediterranean, the Nile, and the Danube, with the top half consisting of Asia and the bottom half with Europe on the left and Africa on the right. T-O maps have their origin in the works of Isidore, his De Natura Rerum and Etymologiae. He writes in De Natura Rerum

So the earth may be divided into three sides (trifarie), of which one part is Europe, another Asia, and the third is called Africa. Europe is divided from Africa by a sea from the end of the ocean and the Pillars of Hercules. And Asia is divided from Libya with Egypt by the Nile… Moreover, Asia – as the most blessed Augustine said – runs from the southeast to the north … Thus we see the earth is divided into two to comprise, on the one hand, Europe and Africa, and on the other only Asia

This T and O map, from the first printed version of Isidore’s Etymologiae, identifies the three known continents as populated by descendants of Sem, Iafeth and Cham. Source: Wikimedia Commons

For most people the term Mappa Mundi evokes the large circular, highly coloured maps of the oikoumenikos, packed with symbols and text such as the Hereford and Ebstorf maps, rather that the small schematic ones.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, about 1300, Hereford Cathedral, England Source: Wikimedia Commons

These are basically T-O maps but appear to be geographically very inaccurate. This is because although they give an approximate map of the oikoumenikos, they are not intended to be geographical maps, as we understand them today. So, what are they? The clue can be found in the comparatively large number of regional maps of Palestine, the High Middle Ages is a period where the Catholic Church and Christianity dominated Europe and the Mappa Mundi are philosophical maps depicting the world of Christianity. 

Recreation of the Ebstorf Map of about 1235; the original was destroyed by wartime bombing Source: Wikimedia Commons

These maps are literally orientated, that is East at the top and have Jerusalem, the hub of the Christian world, at their centre. The Hereford map has the Garden of Eden at the top in the east, whereas the Ebstrof map, has Christ’s head at the top in the east, his hands on the sides north and south and his feet at the bottom in the south, so that he is literally holding the world. The much smaller Psalter map has Christ above the map in the east blessing the world.

Psalter world map, ca. 1260 British Library via Wikimedia Commons

These are not maps of the world but maps of the Christian world. The illustrations and cartouches scattered all over the maps elucidate a motley collection of history, legends and myths that were common in medieval Europe. These Mappa Mundi are repositories of an extensive collection of information, but not the type of geographical knowledge we expect when we hear the word map.

The third area of medieval mapping is the portolan charts, which pose some problems. These are nautical charts that first appeared in the late thirteenth century in the Mediterranean and then over the centuries were extended to other sea areas. They display a detailed and surprising accurate stretch of coastline and are covered with networks of rhumb lines showing compass bearings.

The oldest original cartographic artifact in the Library of Congress: a portolan nautical chart of the Mediterranean. Second quarter of the 14th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portolan charts have no coordinates. The major problem with portolan charts is their origin. They display an accuracy, at the time, unknown in other forms of mapping but the oldest known charts are fully developed. There is no known development leading to this type of mapping i.e., there are no known antecedent charts. The second problem is the question, are they based on a projection? There is some discussion on this topic, but the generally accepted view is that they are plate carrée or plane chart projection, which means that the mapmakers assumes that the area to be map is flat. This false assumption is OK if the area being mapped is comparatively small but leads to serios problems of distortion, when applied to larger areas.

Maps, mapping, and map making began to change radically during the Renaissance and one of the principle driving factors of that change was the rediscovery of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia. It is important to note that the Geographia was only one factor and there were several others, also this process of change was gradual and drawn out. 

What did the Geographia bring to medieval mapmaking that was new? It reintroduced the concept of coordinates, longitude and latitude, as well as map projection. As Ptolemaeus points out the Earth is a sphere, and it is mathematically impossible to flatten out the surface of a sphere onto a flat sheet without producing some sort of distortion. Map projections are literally what they say they are, they are ways of projecting the surface of the sphere onto a flat surface. There are thousands of different projections, and the mapmaker has to choose, which one is best suited to the map that he is drawing. As Ptolemaeus points out for a map of the world, it is actually better not the draw it on a flat sheet but instead to draw it on a globe. 

The Geographia contains instructions for drawing a map of the Earth i.e., the oikoumenikos, and for regional maps. For his regional maps Ptolemaeus uses the plate carrée or plane chart projection, the invention of which he attributes to his contemporary Marinus of Tyre. In this projection, the lines of longitude (meridians) and latitude (parallels) are parallel sets of equally spaced lines. For maps of the world, he describes three other projections. The first of these was a simple conic projection in which the surface of the globe is projected onto a cone, tangent to the Earth at the 36th parallel. Here the meridians are straight lines that tend to close towards the poles, while the parallels are concentric arcs. The second was a modified cone projection where the parallels are concentric arcs and the meridians curve inward towards the poles.

Ptolemaeus’ projection I above and II below Source: Marjo T Nurminen, “The Mapmakers’ World”, Pool of London Press, 2014

His third projection, a perspective projection, needn’t interest us here as it was hardly used, however the art historian Samuel Y Edgerton, who died this year, argued that the rediscovery of Ptolemaeus’ third projection at the beginning of the fifteenth century was the impulse that led to Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective.

A mid-15th century Florentine Ptolemaic map of the world Ptolemy’s 1st projection.
A printed Ptolemaic world map using his 2nd projection Johannes Schnitzer (1482). Source: Wikimedia Commons

From very early on Renaissance cosmographers began to devise and introduce new map projections, at the beginning based on Ptolemaeus’ projections. For example, in his In Hoc Opere Haec Continentur Nova Translatio Primi Libri Geographicae Cl Ptolomaei, from 1514, Johannes Werner (1468–1522) introduced the heart shaped or cordiform projection devised by his friend and colleague Johannes Stabius (1540–1522), now know as the Werner-Stabius projection. This was used by several mapmakers in the sixteenth century, perhaps most famously by Oronce Fine (1494–1555) in 1536.

Oronce Fine World Map 1536 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Francesco Rosselli (1455–died before 1513) introduced an oval projection with his world map of 1508

World Map oval by Francesco Rosselli, copper plate engraving on vellum 1508, National Maritime Museum via Wikimedia Commons

It should be noted that prior to the rediscovery of the Geographia, map projection was not unknown in medieval Europe, as the celestial sphere engraved on the tympans or climata of astrolabes are created using a stereographic projection.

Animation showing how celestial and geographic coordinates are mapped on an astrolabe’s tympan through a stereographic projection. Hypothetical tympan (40° north latitude) of a 16th-century European planispheric astrolabe. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first wave of Renaissance mapmaking concerned the Geographia itself. As already noted, in the previous episode, the first printed edition with maps appeared in Bologna in 1477. This was closely followed by one produced with copper plate engravings, which appeared in Rome in 1478. An edition with maps printed with woodblocks in Ulm in 1482. Another edition, using the same plates as the 1478 edition appeared in Rome in 1490. Whereas the other fifteenth century edition only contained the twenty-seven maps described by Ptolemaeus in his text, the Ulm edition started a trend, that would continue in later editions, of adding new contemporary maps to the Geographia. These editions of the Geographia represent the advent of the modern atlas, to use an anachronistic term, an, at least nominally, uniform collection of maps with text bound together in book. It would be approximately a century before the first real modern atlas, that of Abraham Ortelius, would be published, but as Elizabeth Eisenstein observed, the European mapmakers first had to catch up with Ptolemaeus. 

These printed edition of the Geographia also illustrate another driving force behind the radical increase in mapmaking during the Renaissance, the invention of the printing press. The invention of the printing press and the development of cooper plate engraving, as well as woodblock printing meant that the multiple reproduction of maps and plans became much easier and also much cheaper. 

Another factor behind the increase in mapmaking was the so-called age of discovery. The Portuguese had been working their way down the coast of Africa throughout the fifteenth century and Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450–1500) rounded the southern tip of Africa, for the first time in 1488, paving the way for the first trip by a European by an ocean route to India by Vasco da Gama (c. 1460s–1524) in 1497–99. Of course, as every school kid knows “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” or put for formally the Genoese seaman Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) undertook his first voyage to Asia in service of the Spanish Crown in 1492 and accidentally discovered the so-called forth continent, which Martin Waldseemüller (c. 1475–1520) and Matthias Ringmann (c. 1482–1511) incorrectly christened America in 1507, in honour of Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512), whom they falsely believed to be the discoverer of the new, to Europeans, continent. 

The initial maps produced by the European discovery expedition carried the portolan chart tradition out from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic Ocean, down the coast of Africa and eventually across the Atlantic to the coasts of the newly discovered Americas.

Kunstmann II or Four Finger Map. Dating from the period circa 1502‒6 Source: World Digital Library

Although not really suitable for maps of large areas the tradition of the portolan charts survived well into the seventeenth century. In 1500, Juan de la Cosa (c. 1450–1510) produced a world portolan chart. This is the earliest known map to include a representation of the New World.

Juan de la Cosa world map 1500

The 1508 edition of the Geographia published in Rome was the first edition to include the European voyages of exploration to the New World. The world map drawn by the Flemish mapmaker Johan Ruysch (c. 1460–1533), who had himself sailed to America, includes the north coast of South America and some of the West Indian islands. On the other side it also includes eastern Asia with China indicated by a city marked as Cathaya, however, Japan (Zinpangu) is not included.

Ruysch’s 1507 map of the world. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ruysch’s map bears a strong resemblance to the Cantarini-Rosselli world map published in Venice or Florence in 1506. Drawn by Giovanni Matteo Conarini (died 1507) and engraved by Francesco Rosselli (1455–died before 1513), which was the earliest known printed map containing the New World. The Ruysch map and the Cantarini-Rosselli probably shared a common source. 

The most famous map showing the newly discovered fourth continent is, of course, the Waldseemüller world map of 1507, which gave America its name.

Universalis Cosmographia, the Waldseemüller wall map dated 1507, depicts America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Oceanus Orientalis Indicus separating Asia from the Americas. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Of interest here is the fact that Waldseemüller apparently also published a small, printed globe of his wall map, which is the earliest known printed globe.

Waldseemüller globe gores of 1507 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The age of the modern terrestrial globe was ushered in by the earliest known, surviving manuscript globe produced by Martin Behaim (1549-1507) in 1493. Because he had supposedly taken part on Portuguese expedition along the African coast, he was commissioned, by the city council of Nürnberg, during a visit to the city of his birth,  to produce a globe and a large wall map of the world for the council chamber. The map no longer exists. Behaim’s main source for his maps was Ptolemaeus’ Geographia.

Behaim Globe Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

Waldseemüller’s globe had apparently little impact and only four sets of globe gores still exist but none of the finished globes. The person who really set the production of printed globes in motion was the Nürnberger mathematicus Johannes Schöner (1477–1547), who produced his first printed terrestrial globe in 1515, which did much to cement the name America given to the fourth continent by Waldseemüller and Ringmann. Schöner was the owner of the only surviving copy of the Waldseemüller map.

Schöner Terrestrial Globe 1515, Historisches Museum Frankfurt

Like Behaim and Waldseemüller, Schöner’s main source of information was Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, of which he owned a heavily annotated copy, and which like them he supplemented with information from various other sources. In 1517, he also produced a matching, printed celestial globe, establishing the tradition of matching globe pairs that persisted down to the nineteenth century.

Schöner was not the only Nürnberger mathematicus, who produced globes. We know that Georg Hartmann (1489–1564), who acted as Schöner’s globe salesman in Nürnberg, when Schöner was still living in Kirchehrenbach, also manufactured globes, but none of his have survived. Although they weren’t cheap, it seems that Schöner’s globes sold very well, well enough to motivate others to copy them. Both Waldseemüller, with his map, and Schöner, with his globes, published an accompanying cosmographia, a booklet, consisting of instructions for use as well as further geographical and historical information. An innovative printer/publisher in Louvain reprinted Schöner’s cosmographia, Lucullentissima quaedam terrae totius descriptio, and commissioned Gemma Frisius (1508–1555) to make a copy of Schöner’s globe to accompany it. Frisius became a globe maker, as did his one-time student and assistant Gerard Mercator (1512-1594), who went on to become the most successful globe maker in Europe.

Gemma Frisius globe 1536

Both Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571–1638) and Jodocus Hondius (1563–1612) emulated Mercator’s work establishing the Netherlands as the major European map and globe making centre in the seventeenth century.

Another factor that contributed to the spread of map making in the sixteenth century was the Renaissance development of realism in painting. This was a combination of the invention of linear perspective during the fifteenth century on the one hand and on the other, the development of Naturalism beginning in the late fourteenth century in the Netherlands. During the sixteenth century many notable artists were also map makers and several map makers were also artists. 

Dürer-Stabius world map a rare example of Ptolemaeus’ 3rd projection

It became fashionable during the Renaissance for those in power to sponsor and employ those working in the sciences. This patronage also included map makers. On the one hand this meant employing map makes to make maps as status symbols for potentates to display their magnificence. A good example is the map galleries that Egnatio Danti (1536–1586) was commissioned to create in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence for Cosimo I de’ Medici and in the Vatican for Pope Gregory XIII.

Source: Fiorani The Marvel of Maps p. 110 Note that the map is up side down!

Similarly, Peter Apian ((1495–1552) was commissioned to produce maps for the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V

Peter Apian cordiform world map 1530 Source: British Library

His son Philipp (1531–1589) did the same for Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria.

Overview of the 24 woodblock prints of Apian’s map of Bavaria

Another example is Oronce Fine (1494–1555), who made maps for Francis I. The first English atlas created by Christopher Saxton (c. 1540–c. 1610) was commissioned by Thomas Seckford, Master of Ordinary on the instructions of William Cecil, 1stBaron Burghley (1520–1598), Queen Elizabeth’s chief advisor.

Saxton England and Wales proof map Source: British Library

These maps came more and more to serve as aids to administration. The latter usage also led to European rulers commissioning maps of their new overseas possessions. 

Another area that required map making was the changes in this period in the pursuit of warfare. Larger armies, the increased use of artillery, and a quasi-professionalisation of the infantry led to demand for maps for manoeuvres during military campaigns. 

Starting around 1500 mapping took off in Renaissance Europe driven by the various factors that I’ve sketched above, a full account would be much more complex and require a book rather than a blog post. The amount of mapmaking increased steadily over the decades and with it the skill of the mapmakers reaching a first high point towards the end of the century in the atlases of Ortelius, De Jode, and Mercator. The seventeenth century saw the establishment of a major European commercial map and globe making industry dominated by the Dutch map makers, particularly the Houses of Blaeu and Hondius.


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Cartography, History of science, Renaissance Science

Renaissance Science – XVI

In terms of the books rediscovered from antiquity during the Renaissance one of those that had the biggest impact was Ptolemaeus’ Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis, which became known in Latin as either the Geographia or Cosmographia. Claudius Ptolemaeus or (Klaúdios Ptolemaîos in Greek) is a scholar, who had a major impart on the development of the mathematical sciences in the second century CE and then again when his writings were rediscovered in the High Middle Ages during the twelfth century translation movement. He wrote important texts on astronomy, astrology, cosmology, harmony (music), and optics, amongst others. However, we know next to nothing about the man himself, neither his date of birth nor his date of death, nor very much else. He lived and worked in the city of Alexandria and people in the Middle Ages made the mistake of thinking he was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt from 323–30 BCE. There is a possibility that he acquired the name because he came from the town of Ptolemaîos Hermaiou in Upper Egypt.

Three of his books the Mathēmatikē Syntaxis (better known in English as the Almagest) on astronomy, the Tetrabiblos or Apotelesmatiká on astrology and the Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis on geography form a sort of trilogy. He says in the introduction of the Tetrabiblos that the study of the science of the stars is divided into two parts. The first, his Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, describes where to find the celestial objects and the second, his Tetrabiblos, explains their influence. The Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis is in different ways directly related to both books. It is related to the Mathēmatikē Syntaxis in that both works use a latitude/longitude coordinate system to map their respective realms, the sphere of the earth and the sphere of the heavens. This interconnectedness in reflected in the fact that in Early Modern Europe a cosmographer was somebody, who mapped both the celestial and terrestrial spheres. The Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis is in three parts, a theoretical introduction on mapping, a gazetteer of the coordinates of a long list of places and, geographical features, and a collection of maps. Like the Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, the Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis built on earlier works in the disciple, most notably that of Marinus of Tyre (c. 70–130 CE). To cast a horoscope in Greek astrology, one needs the coordinates of the place for which the horoscope in being cast, the Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsisdelivered those coordinates. In antiquity the last known reference to the Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis was in the work of Cassiodorus (c. 485–c. 585). 

All three of these books by Ptolemaeus were translated into Arabic by the ninth century. Both the Mathēmatikē Syntaxisand the Tetrabiblos had a major impact in Islamic culture, although both were criticised, changed, improved on in wide ranging commentaries by Islamic scholars. It was here that the Mathēmatikē Syntaxis acquired the name Almagestmeaning the greatest to distinguish it from a shorter, less important astronomical text from Ptolemaeus. Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis, however had very little impact on Islamic map making being used almost exclusively in an astrological context.

The Mathēmatikē Syntaxis was translated into Latin three times in the twelfth century. Twice from Arabic once by Abd al-Masīḥ of Winchester and once by Gerard of Cremona (1114–1187) and once directly from Greek in Sicily by an unknown translator. These translations establish Ptolemaic astronomy as the de facto medieval European astronomy. In the twelfth century the Tetrabiblos was also translated from Arabic into Latin by Plato of Trivoli in 1138 and directly from Greek into Latin by William of Moerbeke (c. 1220–c. 1286). Integrated into Christian theology by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas it dominated European astrology right up to the end of the seventeenth century. 

Unlike the Mathēmatikē Syntaxis and the Tetrabiblos the Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis was apparently not translated either from Arabic or Greek during the twelfth century. Giacomo or Jacopo d’Angelo of Scarperia better known in Latin as Jacobus Angelus obtained a Greek manuscript, found in Constantinople that he translated, into Latin in about 1406.

Jacobus Angelus’ Latin translation of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia Early 15th century Source via Wikimedia Commons

Here it obtained the title of Geographia or Cosmographia. There is some discussion or even doubt about how genuine the book is, as the oldest known Greek manuscript only dates back to the thirteenth century.

A Byzantine Greek world map according to Ptolemy’s first (conic) projection. From Codex Vaticanus Urbinas Graecus 82, Constantinople c. 1300. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite criticism of the quality of Jacobus Angelus’ translation it proved very popular, and the first printed edition appeared in Venice in 1475. However, it contained no maps. A second edition was printed in Rome in 1478, which contained maps printed from copper engravings. The engravings were begun by Konrad Sweynheym (who together with Arnold Pannartz set up the first printing press in Italy) and were completed by Arnold Buckinck after Sweynheym’s death in 1476. The first edition of Geographia with maps printed using woodcuts was published in Ulm in 1482. Three major printed editions in les than a decade indicate the popularity of the book. 

First page of the 1482 Ulm edition go Gepgraphis Source: Wikimedia Commons

The quality, or rather supposed lack of it, of Jacobus Angelus’ translation led to a series of new translations from the Greek. The Nürnberger mathematicus Johannes Werner (1468–1522)

Artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

published a new translation of the theoretical first section, his In Hoc Opere Haec Continentur Nova Translatio Primi Libri Geographicae Cl Ptolomaei, in Nürnberg in 1514.


This in turn was heavily criticised by Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530) Nürnberger politician, soldier, humanist scholar and friend and patron of Albrecht Dürer.

Willibald Pirckheimer portrait by Dürer Souce: Wikimedia Commons

Pirckheimer, an excellent classist, published his own translation of the entire text in Nürnberg in 1525.

Claudius Ptolemaeus (Greek, Alexandria (?) A.D. 100?–?170 Alexandria (?)) In Claudii Ptolemaei Geographiacae Enarrationis Libri octo., March 30, 1525 German, Willibald Pirckheimer The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1920 (20.83-) Source
Claudius Ptolemaeus (Greek, Alexandria (?) A.D. 100?–?170 Alexandria (?)) In Claudii Ptolemaei Geographiacae Enarrationis Libri octo., March 30, 1525 German, Willibald Pirckheimer The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1920 (20.83-) Source

Earlier in the fifteenth century another Nürnberger, Regiomontanus (1436–1476), had heavily criticised the Angelus translation. In the catalogue that he published when he set up his scientific printing press in Nürnberg. he announced that he intended to produce and print a new edition of the text, but he died too early to fulfil his intention. Pirckheimer included Regiomonatanus’ criticisms in the introduction to his own new translation of the text.

Pirckheimer’s edition formed the basis for the revised and edited edition published by the cosmographer, Sebastian Münster (1488–1552), in 1540 in Basel. Münster published an updated edition with extra illustrations in 1550. Münster’s Geographia was generally regarded as the standard Latin reference text of the work.

Geographiae Claudii Ptolemaei Alexandrini, Philosophi ac Mathematici praestantissimi, Libri VIII, partim à Bilbaldo Pirckheymero . MÜNSTER, Sebastian (1488-1552), ed. Edité par Basel: Heinrich Petri, March 1552 [colophon], 1552
Geographiae Claudii Ptolemaei Alexandrini, Philosophi ac Mathematici praestantissimi, Libri VIII, partim à Bilbaldo Pirckheymero . MÜNSTER, Sebastian (1488-1552), ed. Edité par Basel: Heinrich Petri, March 1552 [colophon], 1552

The Portuguese mathematicus Pedro Nunes (1502–1578), noted for his contributions to the history of navigation, who was appointed Royal Cosmographer in 1529 and Chief Royal Cosmographer in 1547 by King Joāo III o Piedoso,

Image of Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes in Panorama magazine (1843); Lisbon, Portugal. Source: Wikimedia Commons

published his Tratado da sphera com a Theorica do Sol e da Lua in Lisbon in 1537. This was a based on a collection of texts and included the first, theoretical, section of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia. To make it more accessible Nunes published it in Latin, Spanish and Portuguese.

There were, naturally, also other vernacular translations of the work published in the sixteenth century, as for example this description of an Italian translation (borrowed from amateur astronomer and book collector, David Kolb, on Facebook):

Here is another one of the gems from my collection. I proudly present Claudius Ptolemy’s “La Geografia di Claudio Tolomeo Alessandrino” that was published in 1574. This volume is an expanded edition of his treatise on geography. Claudius Ptolemy lived in Alexandria during the 2nd century and is better known by astronomers for his astronomical treatise “The Almagest”. This is the third edition of the Italian translation by Girolamo Ruscelli, which was first printed by Vincenzo Valgrisi in Venice, in 1561. This edition is revised and corrected by Giovanni Malombra. The engraved maps, which are enlarged copies of Giacomo Gastaldi’s maps in his Italian edition of Venice, 1548, are generally the same in the Venice 1561, 1562 (Latin), and 1564 editions printed in Venice. Sixty-three of the maps are printed from the same plates as the 1561 edition. The exceptions are the Ptolemaic world map, “Tavola prima universale antica, di tutta la terra conosciura fin’ a’ tempi di Tolomeo,” which is on a revised conical projection, and the additional map “Territorio di Roma duodecima tavola nuova d’Europa” which is new to this edition. The atlas contains 27 Ptolemaic maps and 38 new maps.

The cosmographer Gerard Mercator (1512–1594), famous for introducing the name atlas for a collection of maps, initially intended to publish a large multi-volume work, which he never completed before he died.

Mercator the Frans Hogenberg portrait of 1574 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first volume was intended to be his Geographia. In 1578 he published his Tabulae geographicae Cl. Ptolemaei ad mentem auctoris restitutis ac emendatis. (Geographic maps according to Claudius Ptolemy, drawn in the spirit of the author and expanded by Gerard Mercator). This was followed by a second edition in 1584 his Geographiae Libri Octo: recogniti iam et diligenter emendati, containing his revised version of Ptolemaeus’ text.

Geographiae Libri Octo :recogniti iam et diligenter emendati cum tabulis geographicis ad mentem auctoris restitutis ac emendatis ; Cum gratia & Priuilegio Sac Caes. Maiestat. Source:

 I hope I have made clear just how important the rediscovery of the Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries given the number of editions, of which I have only named a few, and the status of the authors, who produced those editions. In the next episode we will examine its impact on the map making in Europe during this period. 


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Cartography, Renaissance Science