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‘I found this written in the other book’: Learning Astronomy in Late Medieval Monasteries

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 June 2019

Seb Falk*
Girton College, Cambridge
*Girton College, Huntingdon Rd, Cambridge, CB3 0JG. E-mail:


Recent histories have challenged narratives of a late medieval decline in monastic scholarship. This article extends that work to the natural sciences, showing how monks could learn astronomy and mathematics through their scholarly labour of reading, copying and glossing. Although the processes of learning are often poorly documented, and are often conflated with teaching, it is possible, through close reading of annotations and reconstruction of mathematical processes, to get a glimpse of an individual in the moment of acquiring scientific skills. Focusing on a piece of adaptive copying carried out by an English Benedictine monk c.1380, this article explores the devotional motivations underlying his work, and argues that it was through such copying and compilation that he acquired the expertise necessary to invent an astronomical instrument some years later.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 2019 

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1 Chaucer, Geoffrey, A Treatise on the Astrolabe, Prologue 11–13, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Benson, Larry (Oxford, 1987), 662Google Scholar.

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11 Carey, Hilary, Courting Disaster: Astrology at the English Court and University in the Later Middle Ages (Basingstoke, 1992), 41–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar; O'Boyle, Cornelius, ‘Astrology and Medicine in Later Medieval England: The Calendars of John Somer and Nicholas of Lynn’, Sudhoffs Archiv 89 (2005), 122Google ScholarPubMed, at 14–15.

12 On this issue, see Cunningham, Andrew, ‘The Identity of Natural Philosophy: A Response to Edward Grant’, Early Science and Medicine 5 (2000), 258–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Edward Grant, ‘God and Natural Philosophy: The Late Middle Ages and Sir Isaac Newton’, ibid. 279–98; Andrew Cunningham, ‘A Last Word’, ibid. 299–300.

13 Wilkins, David, ed., Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae (London, 1737), 595Google Scholar; Léotaud, Alban, ‘The Benedictines at Oxford, 1283–1539’, in Wansbrough, Henry and Marett-Crosby, Anthony, eds, Benedictines in Oxford (London, 1997), 2036Google Scholar, at 25–6.

14 Joan Greatrex, ‘From Cathedral Cloister to Gloucester College’, in Wansbrough and Marett-Crosby, eds, Benedictines in Oxford, 48–60, at 54–6.

15 Knorr, Wilbur R., ‘Two Medieval Monks and their Astronomy Books: MSS. Bodley 464 and Rawlinson C.117’, Bodleian Library Record 14 (1993), 269–84Google Scholar.

16 Walsingham, Thomas, Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani, ed. Riley, Henry T., 3 vols, RS 28 (London, 1867–9)Google Scholar, 2: 433 (my translation).

17 Léotaud, ‘Benedictines at Oxford’, 27–8.

18 Walsingham, Gesta abbatum, ed. Riley, 3: 410–11; Clark, Monastic Renaissance, 15.

19 Walsingham, Gesta abbatum, ed. Riley, 2: 182.

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21 London, BL, Cotton MSS Claudius E.IV, ‘Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans’, fol. 201r; Nero D.VII, ‘Book of Benefactors’, fol. 20r.

22 Wallingford, Richard of, ‘Tractatus albionis’, in North, J. D., ed., Richard of Wallingford: An Edition of his Writings, 3 vols (Oxford, 1976)Google Scholar, 1: 340 (my translation).

23 BL, MS Cotton Nero C.VI, fol. 149r; Walsingham, Gesta abbatum, ed. Riley, 2: 207.

24 Oxford, Bodl., MS Laud Misc. 657, fols 2r–45r; MS Ashmole 1796, fols 118r–159v; Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 144, fols 44r–78v; North, ed., Richard of Wallingford, 2: 127–30.

25 Walsingham, Gesta abbatum, ed. Riley, 2: 207 (my translation); BL, MS Cotton Nero C.VI, fol. 149r (my translation). On Gloucester College and John Whethamsted, see Léotaud, ‘Benedictines at Oxford’, 28.

26 Bodl., MS Laud Misc. 657, fol. 1v (my translation).

27 Rand, Kari Anne, ‘The Authorship of The Equatorie of the Planetis revisited’, Studia Neophilologica 87 (2015), 1535CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Cambridge, Peterhouse, MS 75.I. The attribution was proposed by Derek Price, ed., The Equatorie of the Planetis (Cambridge, 1955); see also Schmidt, Kari Anne Rand, The Authorship of the Equatorie of the Planetis, Chaucer Studies 19 (Woodbridge, 1993)Google Scholar; eadem, ‘Authorship revisited’.

29 North, ed., Richard of Wallingford, 2: 130; James Clark, ‘Intellectual Life at the Abbey of St Albans and the Nature of Monastic Learning in England, c.1350–c.1440: The Work of Thomas Walsingham in Context’ (DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 1997), 142.

30 This is also more or less the conclusion drawn by Rand, ‘Authorship revisited’, 12–13.

31 Bodl., MS Laud Misc. 657, fol. 21r (my translation).

32 Ibid., fol. 22v (my translation).

33 Peterhouse, MS 75.I, fol. 71v.

34 Bodl., MS Laud Misc. 657, fol. 10v.

35 Corpus Christi, MS 144, fol. 59v; North, Richard of Wallingford, 2: 181.

36 Bodl., MS Laud Misc. 657, fol. 11r (my translation).

37 Ibid., fol. 45r (my translation). The circle of iomyn (from the Arabic for ‘day’) was a part of the Albion used to convert between mean and true time.

38 Ibid., fols 43r–44r.

39 Richard of Wallingford, ‘Tractatus albionis’ 3.36, in North, ed., Richard of Wallingford, 1: 380 (my translation).

40 Collated with Richard of Wallingford's collected works in Bodl., MS Ashmole 1796, fols 40v–55v. Arzachel's tables and canons were also there (now Dublin, Trinity College, MS 444); his saphea treatise is not represented in surviving manuscripts or catalogues from the monastery, but it may well have been there, since it was a popular companion work for the sorts of instrument treatises that interested the St Albans monks.

41 Bodl., MS Laud Misc. 657, fol. 43r. Al-Battānī’s zīj was translated into Latin twice in the twelfth century; there is no record of his work at St Albans, but he is cited in the Albion, where Richard of Wallingford gave an indication of his reputation by placing him alongside Ptolemy: Al-Battānī, Opus astronomicum, ed. Carlo Nallino (Milan, 1899), 57–8; Richard of Wallingford, ‘Tractatus albionis’ 3.24.

42 Richard of Wallingford, ‘Tractatus albionis’ 2.10.

43 Bodl., MS Laud Misc. 657, fol. 42r; Corpus Christi MS 144, fol. 78v (the only other perfect copy); BL, MS Harley 80, fol. 54r; MS Harley 625, fol. 164r; Bodl., MS Ashmole 1796, fol. 159r; see Sebastian L. D. Falk, ‘Improving Instruments: Equatoria, Astrolabes, and the Practices of Monastic Astronomy in Late Medieval England’ (PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 2016), 172.

44 Bodl., MS Laud Misc. 657, fol. 45r (my translation).

45 Ibid., fol. 39v.

46 Richard of Wallingford, ‘Tractatus albionis’ 2.18, in North, ed., Richard of Wallingford, 1: 324–5.

47 Bodl., MS Laud Misc. 657, fol. 42v.

48 Walsingham, Gesta abbatum, ed. Riley, 2: 380–1.

49 Ibid. 1: 258.

50 Ibid. 2: 416; for the date of Westwyk's arrival at Tynemouth, see Rand, ‘Authorship revisited’, 7.

51 Bodl., MS Laud Misc. 657, fol. 42v. In Book 2 of the Almagest Ptolemy provided tables of rising times (equivalent to oblique ascensions) for a range of latitudes. These may be computed from the right ascensions (explained in Almagest 1.16), which were found by a method mathematically equivalent to the modern formula: sin α = tan δ × cot ε, where α is right ascension, δ is declination and ε is the obliquity of the ecliptic (the formula for declination also incorporated obliquity). The size of the obliquity also underlies the ascensional difference γ, for which Ptolemy outlines a method equivalent to the modern formula: sin γ = tan δ × tan φ, where φ is the observer's latitude. The oblique ascension can be found by subtracting γ from α: see Olaf Pedersen, A Survey of the Almagest, rev. Alexander Jones (New York, 2011), 96–7, 110–13.

52 The methods of analysis are explained in Seb Falk, ‘Copying and Computing Tables in Late Medieval Monasteries’, in Matthieu Husson, Clemency Montelle and Benno van Dalen, eds, Editing and analysing Numerical Tables: Towards a Digital Information System for the History of Astral Sciences, Ptolemaeus Arabus et Latinus (Turnhout, forthcoming 2019). They are based on Benno van Dalen, ‘Ancient and Mediaeval Astronomical Tables: Mathematical Structure and Parameter Values’ (PhD thesis, University of Utrecht, 1993), 67, 185.

53 Seneca, On Crowds 7.8, in Epistles, vol. 1, transl. Richard Gummere, LCL 75 (Cambridge, MA, 1917), 34. The popularity of Seneca at that time is discussed by Grace Wilson, ‘“Amonges Othere Wordes Wyse”: The Medieval Seneca and the “Canterbury Tales”’, Chaucer Review 28 (1993), 135–45.

54 Peterhouse, MS 75.I, fol. 73v.

55 A virtual model of the equatorie, created by Ben Blundell and Seb Falk following Westwyk's instructions, can be found online at: <>.

56 Richard of Wallingford, ‘Tractatus albionis’ 3.42, in North, ed., Richard of Wallingford, 1: 389 (my translation).