Literature & Scholarship

Johannes Schöner—Neither Medieval nor Modern

Johannes Schöner will never be a household name, but it’s nice to see him get some attention in John Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox.

John Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox
John Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox

Schöner attracted Hessler’s attention less for his own work than his compliations of material, which included the now famous 1507 Waldseemüller map of the world. Hessler seems to have combed through Schöner’s various Sammelbänden to reconstruct how Schöner put together his intellectual world, from how he read maps and learned to build globes to how he studied the stars. An excerpt from Hessler’s book concludes:

More generally, however, by looking closely at what Schöner thought important enough to preserve in these collections of mathematical, geographical, astrological, and astronomical information, and how he might have utilized it in his work, we will gain deep insights into the epistemological revolutions that occurred at the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth. The years between the amazing discoveries of Columbus and Copernicus saw the beginnings of the birth of modern scientific thought and in the chapters that follow we will see Schöner fully engaged in the intellectual transitions from the science of Aristotle and the geography of Ptolemy, to that of Copernicus and Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521). The dates of the materials that Schöner compiled are mostly from 1475 to 1540 and represent a cross-section of central scientific materials from pre-Copernican science. Each of these books and manuscripts is interesting in its own right but taken together they provide a case study for the use and transmission of scientific information in the Renaissance through the eyes of a contemporary consumer of these materials. Schöner’s toolboxes are nothing short of encyclopedic and his use of them helps us understand in a unique way how our modern scientific worldview came into being.

John Wilford reviews A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox in Why is America Called America?. Wilford finds the book generally lucid and facinating, except those pesky parts of the technical chapters that “appear to be written more for the author’s academic peers than for many laypeople.”

In the excerpt and more markedly in the review Schöner becomes an important transitional figure in the development of modern science. Both associate him with modern geography—an understandable point considering this book began in the Waldseemüller map of the New World— and link him to Copernicus and Copernicanism. The reviewer seems to overstate things when he says:

Nothing in the book points up more clearly Schöner’s pivotal place in a world in transition from the medieval to the modern than his residual interest in astrology and his awakening curiosity when he apparently heard reports of a new theory being formulated by a Polish Catholic cleric.

Schöner’s interest in that “new theory being formulated by a Polish Catholic cleric” probably owed more to his interest in astrology and making astrological prognostications than the modernity we see in Copernicus’s theory. Along with his prognostications and calendars, Schöner also wrote books on astrology before and after Copernicus’s De revolutionibus was published, notably his Opusculum Astrologicum in 1539 and De iudiciis nativitatum Libri Tres in 1545. Schöner might also have been the author of a horoscope cast for Copernicus. Judging from the table of contents, Hessler spends some time assessing Schöner’s astrology.

Copernicus’s horoscope attributed to Schöner (photo of BSB Cod. lat. Monac. 27003 from R. Westman, The Copernican Question, p. 116).
Copernicus’s horoscope attributed to Schöner (photo of BSB Cod. lat. Monac. 27003 from R. Westman, The Copernican Question, p. 116).

Schöner’s interest in astrology shouldn’t diminish our interest in him, but it should, perhaps, prompt us to wonder about the labels “modern” and “medieval” and the work they do for us (on the force of the medieval label, again see Elly Truit’s posts).

Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox looks like it will be interesting and a nice complement to Monika Maruska’s dissertation, “Johannes Schöner — ‘Homo est nescio qualis’.”

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