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

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

Buried Alive?

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Late medieval anchorhold at All Saints Church, King’s Lynn, Norfolk; photo by Megan Hall

Have you heard of medieval anchoresses? Most people haven’t. Anchoritism was a fascinating (and odd) phenomenon that happened all across Western Europe and has roots in the early Christian desert hermit tradition. An anchoress was a laywoman who wanted to withdraw from secular life and live instead in solitude, enclosed in a small room attached to an exterior wall of a church or castle, devoting the rest of her earthly life to Christian devotion and such works of service as she could perform from her cell (embroidering liturgical cloths is one example). She would have required a patron or an income from landholdings or other source to support her needs, such as food, water, and clothing. Among women this phenomenon was first documented in England in the twelfth century and became an increasingly popular choice that continued well into the sixteenth. Several handbooks were written for these women, at first in Latin and then in English. Arguably the most famous is the Ancrene Wisse, composed in the early thirteenth century, of which an impressive seventeen manuscripts survive.

This lifestyle choice seems very strange to us today. Who among us would choose to confine herself to a one-room cell for the rest of her life? Wouldn’t you get claustrophobic, or addled by cabin fever, or die from lack of exposure to sunlight? Wouldn’t you just get bored? Not to mention the deeper and off-putting mythologies that have grown up about anchoresses: rites of the dead were said over them at enclosure, they were bricked into their cells, they dug their graves in their cell floors with their hands a little bit every day, they never saw anyone, and their cells were always on the north side of the church so they’d suffer more from cold (they were just that penitential).

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A bishop blesses an anchorite as she enters her cell; Pontifical, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century; BL Lansdowne MS 451, f. 76v

Perhaps the most chilling myth is that anchoresses were all walled up in their cells, like Fortunato in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” In fact, while sometimes the exterior door of the cell was bricked in, that was not always the case. Further, the ceremony happened with great solemnity and was a voluntary commitment on the part of the anchoress. Various medieval pontificals, service books for Church bishops, record these rites. The office in the fifteenth-century pontifical of Bishop Lacy calls for the door of the cell to be built up. Others, like the sixteenth-century pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge directs the anchoress’s door to be firmly shut from the outside. The image above, from an early fifteenth-century Pontifical held at the British Library, accompanies an enclosure rite that begins “Ordo ad recludendum reclusum et anaco/ritam,” or “Ordo for enclosure of a recluse and anchorite.” The bishop makes the sign of the cross above an anchoress entering her cell before enclosing her.

As part of the research for my dissertation-in-progress, a study of lay English women’s literacy in the thirteenth century, I’m visiting a number of medieval English churches that hosted anchorholds (or are rumored to have done so) and chronicling it on my blog. Two of the sites still retain their medieval anchorholds, one pictured at the top of the post and the other below. Interestingly, both have exterior doors.

The Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street, Durham: the late medieval anchorhold is pictured at the far left, sporting a door and a window; photo by Megan Hall
The Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street, Durham: the late medieval anchorhold is pictured at the far left, sporting a door and a window; photo by Megan Hall

There is, of course, much more to be said about the exterior fabric of these cells and what has changed over the course of five or six hundred years than is room for here. Nonetheless, the evidence demonstrates that anchoresses’ access to the world was a more complex matter than myth would have you believe.

Megan J. Hall
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

 

Sources

The Pontifical of Bishop Lacy: Exeter, Cathedral Library of the Dean and Chapter, MS 3513
The Pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS F. vi. 1
F. M. Steele, “Ceremony of Enclosing Anchorites,” in Anchoresses of the West (London, 1903), pp. 47-51.
Rotha Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (London, Methuen 1914).

National Vine-Pruning Month

It will probably come as a surprise that August is ‘Spinal Muscular Atrophy Month’. However, you might be aware that April is National Poetry month, June LGBT pride month, and September Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Our long list of commemorative months, each designed to weigh on national thought, strongly gives the impression that months have allegorical meaning and that we should shape our daily lives according to them. One might say the Middle Ages had its own version of this phenomenon, as people routinely looked to the order of the natural world for spiritual guidance and direction. The Labors of the Month were hugely popular pictorial representations of certain agricultural duties for each month, like you see here. They are found throughout the Middle Ages in architecture, sculpture, stained glass, and books. Books of Hours, a very popular type of book in the Middle Ages containing prayers to be said throughout the day, frequently exhibited the Labors of the Month in their calendars.

Egerton3277 f2r The Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, 2nd half of the 14th century;  London, British Library, Egerton MS 3277., f. 2r

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Almanac, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century; London, BL Harley MS 2332, f. 3v

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Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320; London, BL Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 73v

Though all from the same country from the 14th-15th centuries, the images above show distinct designs for the month of March. In the Labors of the Months, March was generally represented by men pruning vines for the coming spring (Hourihane 2007: lvi). In Egerton 3277, the image is actually placed inside the initials KL for ‘Kalendas’, making it a so-called ‘inhabited initial’, as the image ‘inhabits’ the letters. The images in Harley 2332 and Royal 2 B VII, however, take up a large portion of the page. Unlike many medieval Labor scenes, each of the three presented here focus on the action of pruning, not the landscape in which it occurred. This suggests that the featured vine-pruning bears reflective, allegorical significance and that this image is not simply an artful representation of agricultural life. In fact, as scholar Matthew Reeve has noted, these types of images likely stressed the coming ‘perpetual religious service in the vineyards of the Lord’ (2008: 130). Some literary works of the period like Piers Plowman might even indicate knowledge of the meaningfulness attached to such labors.

It is important to remember that Books of Hours were not for the farmer or vine-trimmer. Rather, they were a privileged possession for those wealthy enough to even own a book, let alone one ornately decorated. If not for religious contemplation, then, it is of some wonder why the upper classes were so fascinated with images of backbreaking agricultural labor.

So, the next time you are informed that July is National Ice Cream month, know that here ice-cream stands on the shoulders of vine-pruners, and that humanity’s penchant for iconic monthly guidance is a long-standing tradition and probably here to stay.

Axton Crolley
Ph.D. Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Multimedia Reading Practices and Marginalia: Medieval and Early Modern

See also:
Hourihane, C., Time in the Medieval World: Occupations of the Months & Signs of the Zodiac in the Index of Christian Art (Princeton UP, 2007)

Reeve, M., Thirteenth-Century Wall Painting of Salisbury Cathedral (Boydell, 2008)