A week or more ago, I started writing up a fairly hefty post on John of Sacrobosco’s famous “De Sphaera” (which is one of the books Nicole Oresme translated into French, adding his commentary). I was particularly interested in the diagrams that appear in many of the manuscripts, and so began with Lynn Thorndike’s account “The Sphere of Sacrobosco and Its Commentators”, which describes the drawings found in three specific “De Sphaera” manuscripts:

* Oxford, Bodleian, Canon. Misc. 161, fols. 9r-19r
* Princeton University, Garrett MS 99, fols. 124ra-136vb [‘a’/’b’ means 1st/2nd column] [may have been sold to Garrett by Wilfrid Voynich!]
* Cambridge, University Library Ii.III.3, fols. 25r-35v

“Most excellent!”, I thought (thankfully silently) to myself, and so went off to try to find copies of any of the three to illustrate the post. Which… proved impossible, despite trying quite hard. And so the help I’d really like is – if anyone can find such a thing, which I have singularly failed to do – a link to an online illustrated copy of John of Sacrobosco’s “De Sphaera“.

Note that because I’d like to specifically compare these diagrams with the (slightly different) diagrams that appear in Nicole Oresme’s French translation (of which, oddly, I have a good number of illustrated copies), I’m focused on illustrations of the original Latin version that appear in the context of the text.

All That I Have

No prizes for guessing the subheading reference: but all that I have so far isn’t a great deal.

Firstly, there’s BNF MS Latin 7197 that Ellie Velinska kindly linked to a few days ago: this was (mostly) copied by 15th century Zurich physician Conrad Heingarter, and the De Sphaera is on ff.39-50, e.g. this from fol. 39r:

Unfortunately, Heingarter seems to have been copying from a largely unillustrated manuscript, because that was the only diagram there. 🙁

The other interesting set of De Sphaera illustrations is from the fascinating and beautiful Estense “De Sphaera” manuscript. However, the PDF of this available online only includes the drawings, not the drawings in their textual context. (Note: technical description here.)

Can anyone help? All tips and suggestions gratefully received! 🙂

34 thoughts on “Request for help: an illustrated copy of Sacrobosco’s De Sphaera online?

  1. Charlotte Auer on November 15, 2017 at 1:35 am said:

    Just a few, but I’m not sure about illustrations. I should have more. Let me have a look in my own digital library, (tomorrow).


    You should probably search for Konrad von Megenberg who translated de sphaera, and as far as I know there is an illustrated copy in Vienna.

  2. J.K. Petersen on November 15, 2017 at 2:08 am said:

    Sacrobosco, Sphaera Mundi Morgan MS. M 722 caught my attention when I was writing up the history of zodiacs because it has certain features in common with the figures in the VMS roundels. Specifically… Virgo is female, sitting, with folds in her dress, the fish are long-nosed, with double-dorsal fins (like VMS Pisces), the bull and ram are walking left on bumpy terrain and each has that foreleg lifted, and the scales (Libra) are alone (not held by a standing figure).

    It doesn’t match the VMS in every respect, there’s no two-legged crossbowman, Gemini is classical style (nude twin boys) and it’s a scorpion, not a lizard-scorpion, but one gets the sense that both the VMS and Sacrobosco interpretations may have had something in common somewhere in their not-too-distant history, because the walking-left-leg-raised-ruminants-on-terrain/long-nosed fish/alone-scales/sitting-female-Virgo all-in-the-same-zodiac were less common than other combinations.

  3. Nick,
    Sorry I haven’t a moment to check this for results before mentioning –
    the British Library Catalogue of DIgitised Manuscripts might help – though the search function there is a bit iffy
    Might be an idea to start with Catalogue of Illuminated manuscripts, then get the item’s number and see the whole thing (maybe) through the first site.
    Then Perhaps see what’s on offer for Sacrobosco at the internet archive – not for what is written, but bibliography and list of mss.
    After that DMAPP is a neat way to go straight to the digitised collections of any of .. I guess between 100-200 (maybe more) libraries with digitised collections.
    So once you know the library that has a manuscript copy, DMAPP will take you to it to see if it’s available online (not all are free).

    And of course there’s the W&C collection, though all in b-and-w.

    Personally, I’d look as mss listed in the bibliographies of specialist papers and studies, whether online or off-. But that’s just me.

    As a last resort (like ‘read the manual’ 🙂 – which mss does Thorndike list for Sacrobosco?

    Hope this helps.

  4. PS – not sure what it contains, exactly but i a footnote the authors of a journal article write:

    We have used the online bibliography compiled by Roberto de Andrade Martins of the Group of History and Theory of Science, University of Campinas (Unicamp), Brazil: http://www.ghtc.usp.br/server/Sacrobosco/Sacrobosco-ed.htm (accessed 7 Feb. 2013).

    Article is:
    Kathleen M. Crowther and Peter Barker, ‘Training the Intelligent Eye: Understanding Illustrations in Early Modern Astronomy’, Isis, Vol. 104, No. 3 (September 2013), pp. 429-470. footnote on p.431

  5. For Garrett MS 99, I guess you have already looked here:


    The printed catalogue (2 vols.) by Don Skemer might be worth a look. The BL should have a copy.

  6. I quickly found one example (MS Pal.Lat.1400), but I am sure there are many:


  7. Rene: thanks for Pal Lat 1400, perfect. The problem with De Sphaera is that many of the mss have no diagrams at all, and I must have been on a losing streak. :-/

  8. Diane: thanks for the Isis article. 🙂

  9. JKP: thanks for the link and discussion, very helpful indeed. It often feels as though we are one ms away from understanding these drawings, if only we could find it… 🙂

  10. Charlotte: thanks for the link. I’ll also be sure to check out Konrad von Megenberg, very interesting! 🙂

  11. Nick, you missed a period before ‘edu’ in the Princeton link.
    It has three illustrations of the Garrett MS.

  12. Rene: now fixed – that’s what happens when you try to moderate comments on your smartphone too early in the morning. :-/

  13. Josef Zlatoděj Prof. on November 15, 2017 at 11:08 am said:

    Hello my very good friend.
    It’s good you write, and you need help. From here I am. So, of course, I’ll help you.
    Manusscript is not astrology !!!

    When you are able to read what is written in the picture. You’ll find out. So you have to know the key so you can read the manuscript. That means code. You are trying to the first to tell the word what manuscript carries on its pages for the message. But it is late. The first is me.
    Of course, I’m a very modest scientist. So I’m trying to help you. Because I see that is does not work well for you. I can move you a lot forward. What do you, as a scientist, say ? I’m waiting for you to get up and I’ll bring you to light.

  14. Josef: clearly, one person’s light is another person’s darkness. :-/

  15. Josef Zlatoděj Prof. on November 15, 2017 at 12:35 pm said:

    Very good my big friend.
    Light is very important. I did a very analysis of the text. And he found out.

    Under the candle, it is the greatest darkness !!

    Part of code. About 80 percent. Success and translation of the manuscript. It’s hidden. In numbers.
    Which are : 408 .

    That means : 4 = 8. The number 4 is read as number 8.
    ( Jewish substitution. 4 = D,M,T. 8 = P,F).
    Where number 4 is, you have to read, P or F.
    Therefore, the letter V,U,X,W is not written in the manuscript !!
    The character F is also read as – V. ( example, german, word ” Von ” = ” Fon “.)

    In the Middle Ages, the German language was the official language. That’s the only phonetic sign ( character ).

    The word is used in the manuscript – 4olt. It reads correctly : post.
    This means -mail and/ or letter. ( Czech language).
    What I wrote to you at the moment, of course, it is also written in the manuscript.

    🙂 And now PIO6.
    P = 6. F = 6. P = V,U,W,X. 🙂

  16. john sanders on November 15, 2017 at 12:38 pm said:

    J.Z. Prof. Why keep us ants in darkness. You somethink got to say; for crying out loud say it man, just say it; then we all can piss in your goddam pocket an give praise to the great scientific mind of our times.

  17. Ellie: thanks very much for the link to BNF MS Franc 612 (which I’ll return to another time), but it’s Latin De Sphaera mss I’m currently looking for…

  18. Josef Zlatoděj Prof. on November 15, 2017 at 1:20 pm said:

    J.S .Ants. I do not hold you in the dark. 🙂
    I’m just finding out who can think logically. And who of you is a scientist. This is important to me.

    Of course, the manuscript also has deceptive characters. And you must remove it from the text. ( deleting a deceptive character ! ). Show yourself. Show that you know and you can think. Then I will praise you.

  19. Don’t know if you’ve seen LJS 26 (Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania)?


    There’s a very brief online presentation of the manuscript here:

  20. Out*of*the*blue on November 15, 2017 at 11:52 pm said:

    It seems to me that we are looking at (at least) two different types of diagrams for the structure of the cosmos. More commonly there is the planetary model with a central earth surrounded by concentric circles for the orbits of the moon, sun, planets and so on. This model, however, is not particularly relevant to the discussion of the VMs – Oresme comparison because all of the planetary detail has been omitted from those illustrations. What we have in the Oresme representation, and potentially in the VMs, might be called a three-part cosmos. It is one that consists of a central earth, a surrounding field of stars, and an outer boundary established by a cloud band. Or, in the case of the VMs, the nebuly line serves as the most rudimentary example of a cloud band.

    An illustration with certain similarities to this three-part representation of the cosmos can be found in the “Holkham Bible Picture Book” , c. 1327-1335, from England. (BL Add MS 47682). It was posted to the voynich.ninja by MarcoP.

  21. Just thought to try the slack way – first looked up on G/gle
    Sacrobosco AND sphaera
    went to images.
    Lots of mss illustrated e.g.


    George Puerbach, Sphaera of Sacrobosco (Theorice Novae Planetarum), 1230. Stillman Drake Collection.

    or am I teaching a bird how to fly?

  22. Diane: there are thousands of isolated images, but I was interested in drawings in their original context.

  23. Nick – yes, that’s slower work, of course. But when pictures are correctly labelled, with the name of the holding library and shelf-number. DMAPP will take you to that library and ,, if you’re lucky.. the whole thing can then be seen online.

    Slow work, true.

    Anyway, best of.

  24. DMAPP should be DMMAPP (Digitised Medieval Manuscripts app.) – but I’m sure you knew that. Others might like a link.

  25. Josef Zlatoděj Prof. on November 17, 2017 at 9:26 pm said:

    Hello big buddy. Nick.
    I know you are interested in the page 52v manuscript.
    Want to write what’s written there ?? ( 52v picture – 8 = 6 ).
    I greet. And you write.

  26. Josef Zlatoděj Prof. on November 18, 2017 at 12:46 pm said:

    Hello big buddy. Nick.
    You do not want to know. What is written on page 52v ????
    So why would she wonder why ? Are you afraid of something ? That you will not be first ? Do not worry. The first is me.

  27. Nick,
    Couple of questions –
    1) do you think Thorndike never saw the Vms or photostats of it?
    if he didn’t – then
    2} is it like Thorndike to offer confident opinion about something he’s never seen?
    3) if he had seen it, or photostats of the diagrams then (since even now he is the most-often cited reference for Sacrobosco’s Treatise on the sphere) do you think he could have missed noticing similarities between them?

    4) are you looking for something other than similar diagrams?

  28. Diane: Thorndike said plenty about Newbold’s Voynich theory in 1929 (it’s in JSTOR – http://www.jstor.org/stable/1838571 ), and given that he also seems particularly forthright in his opinions about the manuscript itself, it seems safe to assume that yes, he did see it or copies of it. But how much of it he saw isn’t known: to my knowledge, nobody has yet looked through Thorndike’s papers to find out, which is a shame.

  29. Sorry – missed yr last comment (it went below the sidebar list so fast – lucky you).

    I found more than that review article when researching the ‘Spell-binder’ series of posts, but I daresay you’ve read those too. I took Thorndike’s comment about a ‘worthless manuscript’ to be about the manuscript, and still do. Also given Thorndike’s undisguised loathing of Wilfrid and of Bacon-related nonsense, I was most impressed by the fact that from his vast knowledge of medieval manuscripts Thorndike was apparently unable to say anything like “Bosh – its a much later composition than Bacon’s time” or…” rubbish if you say it’s English. It doesn’t look English to me, but… [any other place]” Or – not Bacon’s work – obviously Sacrobosco.

    But he didn’t. Why not – when he’d have given his eye-teeth to have the whole Voynich-Bacon-science tale sunk asap.

    I think.. but you probably don’t need to know what I think. I do envy your having the whole set of Thorndike’s m.o. So jealous.

  30. Diane: it’s easy to speculate about what Thorndike did or didn’t think or see, but until someone takes the time to have a look at his staggeringly compendious papers and correspondence and find out, it really could go in any direction.

    And I haven’t got a copy of HoMaES Volume I, there’s only so much money I can throw in the direction of the bookfinder.com community. :-/

  31. Nick,
    I’m kind of expecting you’ve seen it, but just in case –
    There’s a list of the important mss which Thorndike consulted for his book
    The Sphere of Sacrobosco and its commentators.


  32. Diane: yes, that’s the list I worked my way through without any success. 🙁 🙂

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