In Defense of Chaucer’s Astrolabe

Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe has not, historically, won the hearts of many academics—much less the hearts of undergraduates making their first forays into medieval literature. The text is a manual supposedly meant to explain the construction and use of the astronomical tool known as the astrolabe. Most interest in Chaucer’s Astrolabe has focused on its preface, where the author professes to write for his ten-year-old son “Lyte Lowys” (“little Lewis,” l. 1) but also speaks to a much more highly educated audience. In this preface, Chaucer makes claims about medieval education, science, and languages that help us piece together a medieval worldview. Few have ventured beyond these opening lines, however, to understand the mechanics of the astrolabe itself. The task is well worth the effort—Chaucer’s Astrolabe, for all of its technicality, can help us understand the role of science in more traditionally “literary” works like The Canterbury Tales.

The “Chaucer” Astrolabe, England, c. 1326 © The British Museum
The “Chaucer” Astrolabe, England, c. 1326 © The British Museum

The medieval astrolabe was used by teachers, students, travelers, and astrologers to locate themselves in time and space. The legendary (but likely spurious) story goes that Ptolemy’s camel stepped on his celestial globe and, seeing it flattened on the ground, the Greco-Egyptian polymath was struck with the idea that the celestial sphere could be mapped in two-dimensional terms (Hayton 4). In actuality, the astrolabe developed gradually over the course of centuries—it is a testament to the mixture of ancient Greek, Jewish, and Islamic thought that created the intricate texture of medieval Western science. The astrolabe made particular strides under the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, for instance, where it was used to schedule Islam’s five daily prayers. Using geometric principles, it can calculate the time, the date, the position of the sun, and the spread of constellations that the user can expect to see on any given night.

The last of these functions, I like to think, contributed to the intricate sequence of astrological references that threads through The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer frequently matches up a point in time he mentions in his text with the location of the corresponding zodiac sign. The most famous example comes in the initial lines of the Tales’ “General Prologue”: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” (“At the time that April’s sweet showers have pierced March’s drought to the root,” l. 1-2). Chaucer gives us the approximate date, and follows up soon after with the time of day and the corresponding sign: “and the yonge sonne/ Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne” (“and the young sun has traveled halfway through the Ram [that is, Aries],” l. 7-8). One can imagine Chaucer using his astrolabe to map out the astrological scenes that matched up with the settings of his text.

The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 913, fol. 29r
The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 913, fol. 29r

The surviving manuscripts of Chaucer’s Astrolabe show that its early readers experienced it alongside not only scientific texts by astronomers like Abu’Mashar, but also intermingled with poems like the popular French Romance of the Rose—the Astrolabe therefore challenges us to reconsider the divide between the “literary” and the “technical.” In a future post, I will walk step-by-step through my students’ saga to build and use astrolabes this semester. In the meantime, suffice it to say that the experience helps the modern reader to imagine medieval texts within the spatial, visual, and cosmological terms with which their initial audiences would have understood them.

My thanks to Amanda Bohne and Juliette Vuille for their stellar insights and advice.

Erica Machulak
PhD Candidate
English Department
University of Notre Dame


Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1926.

Hayton, Darin. An Introduction to the Astrolabe. © 2012

Lindberg, David. The Beginnings of Western Science. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

North, J.D. Chaucer’s Universe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

The Wanderer

A map of the world, showing the various cold, temperate, and hot zones; Macrobius, Commentary on the Somnium Scipionis; Germany, 10th cent.; Oxford, Bodleian Library, D’Orville MS 77, f. 100r

The latest in the Chequered Board‘s ongoing series of poetic translations is one of the most famous, and most haunting, poems in Old English literature.

The Wanderer, contained in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501), is one of a group of nine Old English poems known as the elegies, poems characterized by “a contrasting pattern of loss and consolation, ostensibly based on a specific personal experience or observation, and expressing an attitude towards that experience.”1 In The Wanderer, a litany of loss which extends throughout nearly the entirety of the poem comes to an abrupt halt in its final lines. These concluding moments assure the reader that it shall go well for those who seek consolation with the “father in heaven,” returning to the opening lines of the poem in which we are confronted with a lone traveler seeking to find some kind of favor or honor with his maker. The poem seems to give us resolution, though not one to be enjoyed in the present.

Early in college, long before I had remotely considered the idea of becoming an Anglo-Saxonist, I gave my heart to a very different poem, T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I loved the poem’s frustration with futility, its questions left unanswered, and its dips into existential crisis. The poem impressed me with its lament for the mundaneness of life and concern with ever-passing time: “I shall grow old… I grow old… / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (ll. 120-121). The speaker of The Love Song is keenly aware of his status and absurdity – “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker” (l. 84), “Almost, at times, the Fool” (l. 118) – and also of the difficulty of conveying meaning in the modern world – “That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all” (ll. 109-110). The poem leaves us in the dreamscape of mermaids singing on the sea, “and we drown” (l. 131). It is not a happy poem.

Strangely, The Wanderer, written perhaps a thousand years before Eliot penned his Love Song, strikes some of these same chords. The poem begins with the image of a lone traveler with calloused hands, wandering over the seas and on land with a burdened mind. While Prufrock fears the future, the speaker of The Wanderer grieves for a past in which he enjoyed the company of kinsmen and the secure status of servitude to a lord. Images of a golden past, along with the faces of friends, “float” away from the speaker, and he reflects upon the death of all things of this world, offering a rather ordered catalogue of unfortunate events produced by a failing world. To say the least, it is not a happy poem. But it is extremely powerful poetry responding to the same concerns with which modern poets wrestle. Its world of mead-halls and thanes and warrior-glory is inexplicably also our world of suffering and futility and stagnation.

My main goal in offering this translation is to do some measure of justice to the beauty and depth of the original. I have stayed as close to the original language as possible, hopefully creating a work which sounds poetic to the modern ear while retaining some of its strangeness. C.S. Lewis famously wrote of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.”2 Whether or not one believes these words are true of The Lord of the Rings, I hope you will agree that they are true of The Wanderer. The world of The Wanderer may be grey and rimmed with frost, but it is also a world of exquisite beauty, a world where the grief of the human soul is laid bare – the soul fully exposed in all of its wretchedness, yet not wholly defeated.

Maj-Britt Frenze
PhD Student
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

1 S.B. Greenfield, “Old English Elegies,” in Continuations and Beginning: Studies in Old English Literature, ed. Eric Gerald Stanely (London: Nelson, 1996), 143.
2 C.S. Lewis, in Time and Tide, August 14, 1954, and October 22, 1955. Reprinted in Lesley Walmsley, ed., C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (London: HarperCollins, 2000).

Letter? I ‘ardly know ‘er: The unknown language (and letters) of Hildegard von Bingen

Although inventing a language might seem like a purely modern phenomenon, nearly a thousand years ago, the Benedictine Abbess, lecturer, composer, and visionary, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) created her own language, the Lingua Ignota.

The Lingua Ignota can be found about halfway through the Riesen Codex (Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek, Hs. 2, ff 461v-464v), also called the Giant or Chain Codex, a compilation of Hildegard’s theological writings that were collected near Hildegard’s death. The Lingua Ignota can also be found in the manuscript formerly known as the Codex Cheltenhamensis (Berlin, MS Lat. Quart. 674, ff. 57r-62r) (Higley, 145).

Apart from a sentence long introduction, the Lingua consists of a glossary of around 1000 words arranged hierarchically. Hildegard begins with the words for God and the angels, then proceeds to human beings, other animals, plants, and so on.

First page of the “Lingua Ignota”. For each word, the Latin gloss sits above Hildegard’s word. Click on the image to blow it up. (Used with the permission of the Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek RheinMain)


An inner page of the glossary. For each word, the Latin gloss sits above Hildegard’s word. Click on the image to blow it up. (Used with the permission of the Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek RheinMain)

A sample of some of Hildegard’s words:

  • Aigonz – God
  • Aieganz – Angel
  • Inimois – Human
  • Korzinthio – Prophet
  • Peueriz – Father
  • Maiz – Mother
  • Sciniz – Stammerer
  • Kaueia – Wife
  • Ornalz – The hair of a woman
  • Milischa – the hair of a man
  • Pusinzia – Snot
  • Zizia – Mustache
  • Fluanz – Urine
  • Fuscal – Foot
  • Sancciuia – Crypt
  • Abiza – House
  • Amozia – Eucharist
  • Pereziliuz – Emperor
  • Bizioliz – Drunkard
  • Haischa – Turtle Dove

There are elements of German (particularly the use of the “z”) and Latin in Hildegard’s vocabulary. There is also German influence in her use of compound words. For example, her word for grandfather is Phazur which is the root of Kulzphazur, ancestor. Likewise most of her words for trees end in –buz, probably “bush”. Sarah Higley also identifies grammatical gender in Hildegard’s words, which roughly corresponds to the gender of those same words in either Latin or German (Higley, 103-4). Finally, her words are intended to be euphonic. When applicable, for example, the final two syallbles of her words form a trochee. This gives her language a bouncy, sing-song feel.

Along with her own language,  Hildegard created an alphabet.


The alphabet is in the left column, beneath the block of text. Click on the image to blow it up. (Used with the permission of the Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek RheinMain)

The alphabet shows some possible influence from Greek (or even Cyrillic) in the letter-forms for B, C, and M. The letter-forms for R ,U, X & Y have some resemblance to Roman Cursive. These letters also have some resemblance to the symbols of the zodiac.

So, why did Hildegard create this language? Although she never explicitly said why, it should not be understood outside of her theology, based in part on the limits of language. As Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language define the limits of my world”. If our language is limited, it will hinder our experience and appreciation of the divine. Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota thus may be an attempt to redeem our fallen language so that in the world it shapes, the natural holiness of all things (even urine and drunkards) will be manifest.

Works Consulted

Bingen, Hildegard von. Scivias. Trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop. New York: Paulist, 1990.

Higley, Sarah Lynn. Hildegard of Bingen’s Unknown Language: An Edition, Translation, and Discussion. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Mayer, Martin. “The Wiesbaden (Giant) Codex.” Hochschule RheinMain Landesbibliothek. Hochschule RheinMain Landesbibliothek, n.d. Web. 22 July 2015.