Medieval Star Gazing

By Jenny Weston

When a person looked up at the night sky in the Middle Ages, what did he think about? Could he find meaning in the stars? Or did he simply appreciate the divine chaos of the cosmos?

Animals star gazing with various astronomical instruments, Burney 275 © The British Library

To better understand medieval perceptions of the stars, we can look to surviving manuscripts that contain astronomical texts and diagrams of the sky. The following image is taken from the Liber floridus, a thirteenth-century manuscript from the Leiden University Special Collections. One can see the artistic representations of star constellations and descriptions of the corresponding zodiac signs (Note: the little round dots are stars—not some kind of medieval outbreak of the plague).

Happy Cows and Ladies Juggling, VLF 31 © Leiden University Library

The Leiden Vossius collection also holds a very special ninth-century astronomical manuscript, which includes full-colour paintings of each constellation as well as a facing Latin description. The following image depicts the star constellation ‘Perseus’, named after the Greek God who beheaded a monster. (Take note of the little wings on his feet, which made him especially fast):

VLQ 79, f. 40-41r © Leiden University Library

Facing Transcription:

Subter utrumque pedem devotae virginis ales

Perseos effigies servate gratae puellae

Moles ipsa uiri satis est testata parentem

Tantus ubique micat tantu[m] occupat ab ioue caeli

Translation:

[Beneath each winged foot of the devoted virgin,

The image of Perseus watches over the beloved girl,

The monster himself, was a sufficient witness to the hero, appearing

So great everywhere, twinkling so far, he occupies Jupiter’s sky].

Just as medieval astronomers in the Latin West were indebted to ancient Greek astronomical traditions (particularly in terms of adopting the zodiac signs), it is neat to see that modern astronomers continue to use the zodiac figures in present-day diagrams. Here we can see the similarities between an eleventh-century diagram of Aquarius and its modern equivalent:

Dijon BM 448 (© IRHT) and a modern depiction

Medieval scholars and scientists were not just interested in the stars, but they also took time to track the movements of the moon. There are a number of surviving manuscripts that include diagrams of the moon’s relationship with the sun and earth, such as this:

Paris, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève ms. 3141 (IRHT)

There are also various different kinds of tables that chart the annual eclipses of the moon (note the date in Arabic numerals at the top of each box, beginning at the year 1389):

Arundel 347 © The British Library

By tracking the lunar eclipses, medieval scientists could better determine the start of the calendar (and, more importantly in the medieval period, the beginning of Easter).

In short, these manuscripts demonstrate a medieval fascination with the cosmos. Relying on the knowledge of ancient Greek scientists, medieval astronomers continued to study the stars and improve their understanding of the universe—a tradition that continues today.

But for now, the next time you look up at the stars, see if you can spot Perseus (and his little winged feet) twinkling in Jupiter’s Sky.

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