Tag: Manuscripts

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.

Joseph Grünpeck’s “Prodigiorum potentorem”

An illustration from Joseph Grünpeck’s “Prodigiorum potentorem” showing the young Maximilian I confronting various prodigies and monsters. From Joseph Grünpeck’s “Prodigiorum potentorem,” Universitätsbibliothek, Innsbruck, codex 314, fol. 4r.

In 1501 Joseph Grünpeck had to leave his service at the imperial court because he had recently contracted the French Disease.[1] In his absence, however, he continued to maintain connections with bureaucrats at Maximilian’s court. In 1502 he dedicated his “Prodigiorum potentorem” to Blasius Hölzl, Maximilian’s finance secretary. In this manuscript, Grünpeck recounted the many terrestrial and celestial portents that were being reported almost daily across the empire. Some of these monsters had become commonplace, such as the fiery stones raining down from the sky or the sets of conjoined twins.[2] In a dozen or so chapters Grünpeck enumerated the various monsters and explained how they were most often signs from God showing His displeasure at the German people’s and especially the German princes’ disregard for traditional hierarchies and deference to authority, i.e., to Maximilian.


  1. More on Grünpeck’s relationship with the French Disease and his two pamphlets on it here. ↩

  2. Since the mid–1490s Sebastian Brant had deployed the conjoined twins a number of times in broadsheets and pamphlets.  ↩

Another Byzantine Wind Diagram

A 16th-century copy of a Byzantine wind diagram from BN Grec 2493, fol. 165v.

This Byzantine wind diagram, also titled “Diagram about thunder, storms, rainstorms, and earthquakes,” closely resembles the previous Byzantine Wind Diagram. Both come from latter 16th-century manuscripts. This particular copy was never finished—the elements are missing from the center of the diagram, the “παναχῆ” is also missing in this copy.[1] Once again, we see the aspects in the inner circle, the second square is meteorological phenomena, the 12 winds, the signs of the zodiac, south and north poles, and the captions indicating from the right and left parts of the cosmos.

As with the other codex, Royal MS 16 C XII, this codex (BN Grec 2493) contains three texts on the astrolabe—the catalog entry identifies them as Philoponus’s, an anonymous text,[2] and Gregoras’s along with scholia on that last work—and a variety of anonymous astronomical diagrams. The codex also includes texts by Theon of Alexandria.


  1. The image is b&w, so I can’t tell what color inks are used, but the division of inks between the different words also resembles that used in the other diagram. That is, the title, the caption along the perimeter, the poles, the signs of the zodiac, and the four aspects appear to be in a different (red?) ink.  ↩

  2. I suspect this is the text typically attributed to Ammonius, but I haven’t had the time to confirm that suspicion.  ↩

Byzantine Diagram of Planetary Aspects

A manuscript table of planetary aspects in a codex of Greek mathematical works (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Phill. 1553).
A manuscript table of planetary aspects in a codex of Greek mathematical works (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Phill. 1553).

A sixteenth-century copy of a Byzantine diagram showing the basic astrological configurations of the planets: “Table of the whole circle of the 12 zodiac signs and how it is divided into aspects.”[1] The table gives the degrees between the planets in each aspect, the symbol used to indicate that arrangement, and the distance in signs between planets in a given aspect.

The table of planetary aspects with some basic translations.
The table of planetary aspects with some basic translations.

Imagine looking down on the circle of the zodiac, the various aspects are illustrated in the following diagram.

The basic planetary aspects illustrated on the zodiac.
The basic planetary aspects illustrated on the zodiac.

This table of planetary aspects is in ms. Phill. 1553 in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Phill. 1553 is a sixteenth-century codex that includes various Greek mathematical texts by both classical and Byzantine authors, e.g., Ptolemy’s harmonics along with a commentary, excerpts from Ptolemy’s Syntaxis, and the common trio of astrolabe texts—Philoponus’s, Ammonious’s, and Gregoras’s (as well as a scholia on the last work).


  1. More mechanically, the word σχηματισμούς translates as “configurations,” but here it means aspects, that geometric relationship that planets can have to each other.  ↩

Digital Manuscripts

Elly over at Medieval Robots revels in how digital humanities are making medieval and early modern material available to broader audiences (see her “How Early Modern Animal Jetpacks Went Viral). I too am delighted to see digital resources making so much material available both for scholarly use and for the interested audience. Recently the Vatican has started making its collection of Latin manuscripts available (maybe they’ve been there for a long time, but I just learned of them): Manoscritti digitalizzati. Let’s hope they continue adding to the few hundred that are already posted.

Killing a few minutes looking through these manuscripts I came across a great copy of Rabanus Maurus’s encyclopeia, “De rerum naturis” from 1425 (Pal. lat. 291). There are wonderful illuminations throughout. A few caught my attention.

The chapter on portents opens with this great illustration of different prodigious creatures—a dog-headed person, a cyclops, monopod a Sciopod (thanks to Elly at Medieval Robots for reminding me what these creatures are called), headless people with faces in their chests—all pretty standard from the encyclopedia tradition, especially Pliny’s Historia naturalis (for a nice collection of monstrous race images, see Rensodionigi’s Flickr collection).

A standard set of prodigious creatures found in many encyclopedias (Pal. lat. 291, fol. 75v).
A standard set of prodigious creatures found in many encyclopedias (Pal. lat. 291, fol. 75v).

I don’t recall previous seeing, however, a small male figure with rather prominent, erect genitalia floating in a sort of cloud:

An aroused prodigious creature (detail Pal. lat. 291, fol. 75v).
An aroused prodigious creature (detail Pal. lat. 291, fol. 75v).

I also like the beasts, some of which seem to be hungry (and since when did unicorns and elephants not get along>):

A unicorn skewers and elephant; a canine-looking creature with a beaver’s tale seems to be eating itself while another is finishing off a human hand, and the legs of a bird-like creature are sticking out of an alligator (Pal. lat. 291, fol. 86v).
A unicorn skewers and elephant; a canine-looking creature with a beaver’s tale seems to be eating itself while another is finishing off a human hand, and the legs of a bird-like creature are sticking out of an alligator (Pal. lat. 291, fol. 86v).

And, of course, the obligatory zodiac:

The zodiac (Pal. lat. 291, fol. 109v).
The zodiac (Pal. lat. 291, fol. 109v).

Whether you are a scholar doing research or an interested person looking for something amusing, there’s no end to the fun you can have looking through these manuscripts.