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The Pro-Vice-Provost’s View

By Paul Ayris, on 20 August 2019

Medieval Mysteries from UCL Special Collections

Today’s meeting of the UCL Rare Books Club took a fresh and insightful look at UCL’s medieval scientific manuscripts. An outstanding scholar, Professor Charles Burnett from the Warburg Institute, gave a masterly personal commentary on many of the items on display.

Professor Burnett is here seen describing his favourite item on show, MS. Lat. 15, described in some detail in D.K. Coveney, Descriptive catalogue of the manuscripts in the Library of University College (London, 1935). It consists of 33 leaves and 1+2 fly leaves. The MS. is a palimpsest, which means that the original text has been erased and over-written. The original text is still visible on some folios.

The contents are in handwriting thought to date from the 14th century and the text is accompanied by diagrams in red or red and black.  The MS. contains various texts, and the one most discussed by Professor Burnett was Johannis de Sacrobosco, Tractatus de Sphera. This main text constitutes one of the most famous fundamental tracts on astronomy and cosmography being circulated from the 13th to the 17th centuries. It is based on Ptolemy and discusses the terrestrial globe, the rising and setting of stars, and the orbs and movements of planets.  Johannis De Sacrobosco (otherwise John of Holywood, or Halifax), is thought to have been born in Yorkshire and he settled in Paris around 1220. He was a mathematician and astronomer. He wrote texts on arithmetic, astronomy and cosmography. He died either in 1244 or in 1256 (see the UK Archives Hub here). The manuscript was formerly in the Graves collection, no. 3496, bequeathed to the Library in 1870. John Thomas Graves (1806-1870) was a mathematician and Professor of Jurisprudence at University College London, whose collection included manuscripts dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries, relating mainly to mathematics.

My own personal favourite, being a church historian of the English church, was the Perspectiva Communis of John Peckham, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury 1279-92, being a treatise on optics. He was a prolific author of treatises on science and theology. This manuscript dates from the 15th or 16th centuries and is MS. Lat. 31, bound  (perhaps from the first) with two printed works, the Arithmetica of Jordanus Nemorarius, edited by Jacques le Fêvre (Johannes Higman and Wolfgang Hopyl, Paris, 1496), and the Geometria speculatiua of Bradwardine (Paris, 1495) (see AIM25 here). The manuscript also formed part of the library of John Thomas Graves, and was formerly Graves no. 3950.

The session today was well attended by UCL staff, students and external visitors. As Professor Burnett remarked, the medieval holdings of UCL Special Collections deserve a wide and appreciative audience.

Paul Ayris

Pro-Vice-Provost (UCL Library Services)

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