Tag: History of Science Advent Calendar

Nicephorus Gregoras’s “περὶ κατασκευῆς … ἀστρολάβου”

An illustration of a rete from a 15th-century copy of Nicephorus Gregoras’s “περὶ κατασκευῆς καὶ γενέσεως ἀστρολάβου,” BN suppl. graec. 0652, fol. 285v.

A nice drawing of the rete from Nicephorus Gregoras’s “περὶ κατασκευῆς καὶ γενέσεως ἀστρολάβου” (“On the Mathematical Origin and Construction of the Astrolabe”). This rete, like other diagrams in copies of Gregoras’s text, lacks stars and finer details. In the few copies I’ve seen that include the stars, the rete closely resembles the one surviving Byzantine astrolabe, especially the number and style of the star pointers.

The only Byzantine astrolabe known to survive dates from the 11th century and reflects the style of other early, Islamic astrolabes. Today this astrolabes is in Brescia.

Interesting, at least to me, is the fact that the illustrations in different copies of Gregoras’s text often label the diagrams in different ways. In this copy diagrams are labeled counterclockwise starting at the 9 o’clock position, e.g., the diagrams on fol. 284v of BN suppl. graec. 0652. In other copies, diagrams are labeled counterclockwise or clockwise from various starting points (the 9 o’clock position is the most common starting point). In one manuscript, diagrams on consecutive folia are labeled in opposite ways. The absence of illustration in many copies of Gregoras’s work makes it challenging to follow the text. In most such cases, the copyist left no room for illustrations, suggesting he was working from an unillustrated copy. In some manuscripts, the copyist left large spaces for the illustrations.

Oliver Wendell Holmes to E. D. Cope

Oliver Wendell Holmes thanks E. D. Cope for sending a copy of his “Outline of the Philosophy of Evolution,” though he confesses he cannot find the time to read it. This letter and many others are in the collection of Edward Drinker Cope Papers, 1848–1940 in Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections.

Oliver Wendell Holmes could write a thank-you letter. Here he thanks E. D. Cope for sending him a copy of his latest essay. Holmes regrets that he has not yet found the free time to concentrate on Cope’s essay and so has yet to read it, though he looks forward to doing so.

Boston, Nov. 26th 1889

My dear Sir,
I am much obliged to you for sending me your “Outline of the Philosophy of Evolution”. I have had it on my table for more days than I like to recall—but it is because I cannot read it as it should be read until I get a little respite from other pressing occupations. It is a most welcome visitor to my library.

On October 4, 1889 E. D. Cope read a paper before a meeting of the American Philosophical Society, which was immediately published as “An Outline of the Philosophy of Evolution” in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. In it he ruminated on the question cognition and how it was possible. He promises,

Hitherto the nature of cognition has been chiefly considered in the realist-idealist discussion, but the nature of will is equally involved in it. Free will is in some sense a priori will or unconditioned will. I propose to devote a few pages to this old question, both as to the intellect and the will. My apology for doing so is that our knowledge of evolution is now greater than has been the case hitherto; and also because it appears to me that the attempt to develop a metaphysical system on a basis of Darwinian evolution has been only partially successful. Let us see what results follow the introduction into philosophy of the Lamarckian principle of evolution.[1]

Shortly after delivering his lecture, Cope sent a copy of it to Holmes, prompting Holmes to write his thank you note. Not only is Holmes’s note gracious, it is perfectly timed in that he wrote it before he read Cope’s essay. You should always send thank you notes for books or essays before you read them. In your ignorance of its quality, you can be genuine in your thanks. After reading the essay or book you might find it difficult to thank the person.


  1. It is unsurprising that Cope would introduce Lamarckian principles; he was a well-known Neo-Lamarckian. I’ve written about Cope before.  ↩

A Wolf-Headed Byzantine Veterinarian

A wolf-headed man binds a horse’s leg in this illustration “On Fractures” from a 15th-century copy of the “Hippiatrica”, University of Leiden, VSQ 50, fol. 68r.

The Hippiatrica assembles treatments for a wide range of ailments and injuries horses might suffer. The work itself is a collection from various other treatises by authors—e.g., Eumelos, Apsyrtos, Anatolios, Pelagonius, Themnestos, and Hierocles—and was probably assembled sometime between the 5th and the 10th centuries. In this illustration from a 15th-century Italian copy (now in Leiden), a wolf-headed man binds a horse’s fractured leg, the caption says “περὶ κατεαγμάτων” or “On Fractures.” What makes this illustration so amazing is the wolf-like creature caring for the horse. This illustration (like others in the manuscript) closely resembles, in most ways, illustrations in other copies of the Hippiatrica.

A man binds a horse’s fractured leg in late 14th-century copy of the Hippiatrica, Paris, BN graec. 2244, fol. 36v.

But unlike the stern but generally non-threatening looking man in the BN copy, the man (?) in the the Leiden copy is rather scary looking, with his wolf’s head and long tongue threatening the horse. There are other strange creatures depicted in this manuscript caring for horses, such as the footless, dragon-bird monster treating a horse for an ulcer.

A strange footless, dragon-bird hybrid treats a horse for an ulcer in the chapter “On Ulcers” from a 15th-century copy of the “Hippiatrica”, University of Leiden, VSQ 50, fol. 70r.

I know so little about Byzantine veterinary medicine, but am now intrigued. I think I’ve found my holiday reading: Anne Elena McCabe, A Byzantine encyclopaedia of horse medicine (OUP, 2007).[1]

Anne Elena McCabe, A Byzantine encyclopaedia of horse medicine (OUP, 2007) looks promising, but sorry OUP, I can’t afford $155 for a book.

  1. Alas, I will have to wait until the new year, since I have to request a copy though ILL. OUP prices are too high for a) our library or b) me to justify buying a copy. Seriously OUP? $155 for a single volume? That is outrageous! There is something wrong with the business that raises the prices at the expense of selling more copies. Whose interests are served by this? Not the author’s, who presumably would like people to read and benefit from her work and who might enjoy even a small royalty check now and then.  ↩

Botanologia. The English Herbal

Hand-colored illustrations of the “Small Burnet” and the “Large Common Burnet” in William Salmon’s Botanologia. The English Herbal (London, 1710), from Haverford College’s Quaker & Special Collections, call# QK41.S17.

In 1710 the English empiric and author William Salmon published the first volume of his massive Botanologia. The English Herbal. Like most herbals, entries included names of plants, varieties, descriptions, where the plant grew, its qualities (e.g., hot or cold, dry or wet), its virtues, when it flowered, how to combine it with other ingredients to make medicines, and a list of ailments it was supposed to cure. Entries were also illustrated, showing the different forms of the plant. In Haverford’s copy, some of these illustrations have been hand colored, as is the case here with the Small Burnet and Large Common Burnet.

Herbals were relatively successful books in early modern England. Early herbals seemed to have been translations of closely derived from continental texts, e.g., John Gerard’s Herball (1597) borrowed closely from an English translation of Bock’s Kreuterbuch. Over time new plants were introduced to the herbals, e.g., scurvy grass becomes common in later English herbals such as John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum (1640), Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1653), and Salmon’s Botanologia. I suspect there is a connection between scurvy grass’s incorporation into the herbals in the middle of the century and the scurvy epidemic in 1670s and 1680s.

Salmon lists the various uses of scurvy grass and the ailments it cured.

Scurvy grass was quite popular in the latter half of the century and was useful for all sorts of things: as an aperitif, cosmetic, digestive, diuretic, emmenagogic, sudorific; it cured scurvy, relieved obstructions of the liver, spleen, and womb, cured palsy, “all sorts of sores,” ulcers in the mouth, and skin conditions. Just in case anybody cares, what modern scholars identify as scurvy grass could not cure the disease we call scurvy, unless you consumed acres and acres of it (see the post on the scurvy epidemic). I doubt that scurvy grass was more effective at relieving those other issues Salmon listed.

Salmon had previous published quite a number of texts, e.g., his Synopsis Medicinae, or a Compendium of Astrological, Galenical, and Chymical Physick and other texts on medicine and surgery, a volume on drawing, a prophetic almanac, theological texts on baptism and transubstantiation. In some of these texts, Salmon advertised pills he sold, which he promised would cure a vast array of diseases. I suspect there is an interesting connection between the authors of herbals and the sale of panaceas.

Byzantine Structure of the Cosmos

A diagram showing the nature of the cosmos from earth at the center to God at the top, passing through the various levels‚—e.g., the elements, ether, angles—from a 16th-century copy of Nicephorus Blemmydes’ “Epitome physica” Oxford, Bodleain Barocci 94, fol. 27v.

This diagram showing the structure of the cosmos comes from Nicephorus Blemmydes’ “Epitome physica.” At the center is the sphere of elemental earth surrounded by a narrow sphere of water. Then a broad sphere of air surrounds them capped by the sphere of fire. Separating the elements from the heaves is the sphere of the moon. Beyond that is the ether, the “ΑΙΘΗΡ,” where we see planets and stars. Beyond this is the “Water beyond the heavens” surrounded by the “Place of the angels.” A hierarchy of nine levels of angels, archangels, and beyond culminates in the Trinity at the top.

Born just before the Latins sacked Constantinople in 1204, Blemmydes fled the capital and studied mathematics, medicine, astronomy, logic, as well as theology and rhetoric in Asia Minor, especially Nicaea. He participated in the controversies between the Eastern and Western Churches, agreeing with the Western Church’s beliefs on such issues as the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father through the Son. He was also renowned for establishing a school, where the young George Akropolites studied. Like so many Byzantine polymaths, he ultimately retired from public life to a monastery he had built.