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Medieval Encounters 23 (2017) 3–7 Jewish, Christian and Muslim Culture

in Confluence and Dialogue


Hic Sunt Dracones—Astrolabe Research Revisited
Silke Ackermann
Museum of the History of Science, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AZ, UK

Hic sunt dracones (Here be dragons) is said to be the phrase commonly used
on medieval maps to indicate blank areas that are awaiting further exploration
and are thus somewhat dangerous. In fact it is not—there appears to be only
one globe that bears this phrase on the eastern coast of Asia,1 but neverthe-
less the expression has taken on a life of its own, understood in a variety of
Hic sunt leones (Here be lions) is used with a similar connotation by brother
Jorge, the evil monk in The Name of the Rose when he is referring to danger-
ous knowledge and again, now in the ambiguous sense, by the main character
and hero of the book, Franciscan brother William of Baskerville when he finds
Africa on a map in the library.2
It is this same William of Baskerville who, portrayed by Sean Connery in the
Hollywood movie, brought an astrolabe to the attention of a wider public—a
sort of outreach, if you like. Because it is he who in one of the key scenes of
the movie furtively reaches for an astrolabe in his bag to take some readings
(what those are we are never told),3 anxious not be seen to use this instrument
introduced from the Islamic—and thus heretical, according to the church

1  Lenox globe, c. 1503–1507, New York Public Library, New York, NY, USA.
2  Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1983), 421.
3  “The Name of the Rose” (Columbia Pictures, 1986) by Jean-Jacques Annaud.

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, ���7 | doi 10.1163/15700674-12342241

4 Ackermann

Astrolabes have lions and dragons aplenty, in fact a whole menagerie of

them—the lion as part of the zodiac, amongst the star-pointers and in astro-
logical contexts; the dragon equally appears amongst the constellations, often
figuratively on the rete, in astrological contexts and to explain eclipses.
But equally research on the astrolabe has lots of lions and dragons in the
non-tangible sense. In spite of more than 150 years of scholarly work there re-
main many unchartered territories or those where only the coasts have been
explored. A commented and illustrated inventory of all surviving astrolabes
that goes beyond a mere list4 is still outstanding, in spite of a number of long
ongoing projects.5 In the second decade of the twenty-first century one would
wish for an online astrolabe portal that enables the user to search an always
increasing database by period and region, maker and date, current (or last
known) location, with hyperlinks to photos, descriptions, relevant publica-
tions and ongoing scholarly discussions and research projects. A database that
facilitates interdisciplinary research in a wide variety of contexts in respect to
one of the most fascinating instruments that has ever existed—be it art or phi-
lology, craftsmanship or technology, ethnology or sociology, economy or law,
politics or religion—or a mixture of any of the above.
The more we know, the more we are aware how little we know. What were
the legal implications of using an astrolabe in the second half of the thirteenth
century? What prices were paid for astrolabes in Renaissance Italy and was it
possible to make a living based on this? How are astrolabes deployed in films
and literature in the second half of the twentieth century and how do the au-
diences “read” these? What did a Nuremberg citizen know about astrolabes in
the first half of the sixteenth century? Did women make, use, and teach the use
of astrolabes in the Islamic World?
This Special Issue of Medieval Encounters cannot answer all these questions,
of course, but it intends to fill some of the blank areas—to tame at least a few
dragons (or lions), so to speak.
Petra Schmidl’s article is clear evidence once again (if it was needed) how
useful it would be to have the aforementioned astrolabe portal to be able to
(re)examine the instruments in detail and to (re)evaluate earlier research

4  Derek de Solla Price and Sharon Gibbs, Computerized Checklist of Astrolabes (New Haven, CT:
Yale University, 1973).
5  Alain Brieux and Francis R. Maddison, Repertoire des facteurs d’ astrolabes et de leurs oeuvres
(forthcoming; at the time of writing and following the death of both authors there are indi-
cations that the Repertoire may actually soon be published); David A. King, A Catalogue of
Medieval Astronomical Instruments to c. 1500 (forthcoming, see
instrument-catalogue.htm). An extract of the online list is given in this issue.

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Astrolabe Research Revisited 5

claims. She shows convincingly that close examination of the actual evidence
can lead to surprising conclusions—and that astrolabes do not only have the
obvious moving parts, but do move themselves (and evidence for this motion
is evident on the astrolabes) as knowledge is in motion between the Arabic
and Latin speaking worlds.
The necessity of learning to “read” objects in the same way as textual and
pictorial sources is demonstrated admirably by John Davis. Based on compari-
sons with two illuminated manuscripts, the “Milemete Treatise” and a copy of
the “Secretum Secretorum,” Davis puts forward an intriguing historical contex-
tualisation of the famous “Sloane Astrolabe” in the British Museum, the largest
and most important of all medieval English instruments, as a teaching tool for
Prince Edward of Windsor who was soon to become King Edward III, likely
to have been commissioned, c. 1326, by his tutor Richard de Bury. He suggests
that two other medieval astrolabes, now in Liège and in the London Science
Museum, are believed to be closely associated with the Sloane instrument and
derived from it. A tour de force after which quatrefoils, wyverns, or saints’ days
on astrolabes will never again be allowed to be seen as mere decoration.
The importance of textual evidence and the innumerable sources that have
not even been tapped yet, let alone edited and translated, is demonstrated
clearly by three articles in this issue. Johannes Thomann discusses, edits, and
translates four hitherto unpublished Arabic texts of the ninth century CE on
the construction and use of astrolabe-like instruments for showing the condi-
tions of eclipses. These texts appear to be the earliest technical descriptions of
eclipse computers in any language.
Josefina Rodríguez Arribas deploys her excellent command of Jewish sourc-
es on the astrolabe to make accessible Bonetus de Latis’s (Jacob ben Emanuel
Provenzale) treatise on the astrolabe ring (1492/1493), an intriguing and appar-
ently unique object that, according to at least one eye-witness account, was
not just a mind game, but did, indeed, exist in physical form. The treatise was
highly regarded among Bonetus’s contemporaries and the instrument depict-
ed in Bonetus’s booklet can be considered, as she states, to be one of the last
contributions of Jewish culture to the history of the astrolabe.
By comparing Kūshyār ibn Labbān’s (tenth century CE) Book of the Astrolabe
with Athīr al‐Dīn al‐Abharī’s (d. 1262 or 1265) Treatise on Knowing the Astrolabe,
Taro Mimura shows that both presupposed their own astrolabes when writing.
He concludes that many Arabic treatises on the astrolabe had their novelty at
least guaranteed by the uniqueness of a specific astrolabe that each author
used as his basis.
False certainties can be more damaging than no certainty at all. This
is especially true in the context of the dating of astrolabes by “scientific”

medieval encounters 23 (2017) 3–7

6 Ackermann

methods—methods, that is, that are a historical contradictio in se with the data
available at the time of production. Giorgio Strano competently examines, and
then dismisses these methods, reminding scholars that “measuring the star
positions on the rete requires one to adopt the same coordinate system used
during the Middle Ages.” Indeed, it does, and Strano thus introduces an alter-
native approach tested on six medieval astrolabes that has shown remarkable
results, but simultaneously opens up a new set of questions. But those “and
many other questions reveal that the new approach to the astrolabes data is
not a dead end, but a long path of which only the first few steps have been
taken.” Face your dragons, one might say.
Knowledge of stereographic projection is at the heart of astrolabe construc-
tion. Based on her thesis, Flora Vafea shows that the stereographic projection
of the celestial globe onto the plane of its equator is an essential pre-requi-
site of the construction of the planispheric astrolabe in order to preserve and
transfer all the functions of the globe. Whilst the representation of the celestial
coordinates on an astrolabe is more abstract and further removed from the
three-dimensional model of the celestial sphere that a globe represents,
the resulting instrument can be used for more accurate measurements. Its
functionality thus goes far beyond that of the more didactic role of the globe.
The relationship between the less common stereographic projection from
the North Pole (resulting in so-called southern astrolabes) and early astro-
nomical clocks showing time confusingly in an anti-clockwise motion, is ex-
plored by Günther Oestmann, who is able to confirm that the knowledge of
variations of the stereographic projection and special astrolabe constructions
must have reached Europe from Islamic areas (probably Spain) in the twelfth
century, thus providing essential knowledge for the construction of astrolabe
clock dials.
Four papers in this issue focus on the rich culture of scientific exchange
and instrument production in medieval Spain. How little we know even about
seemingly basic workshop practices and division of labour in the Middle
Ages is lamented by Azucena Hernández. She discusses the only signed and
dated Latin astrolabe known to have survived from medieval Spain and pro-
poses an identification for “Petrus Raimundi, a member of the House of the
King of Aragon” in the context of a whole dynasty of kings supporting scien-
tific research, focusing mostly on its practical dimension: the construction of
scientific instruments. But whether Petrus Raimundi was involved in the con-
struction of the instrument or in its commission remains, for now, an enigma.
Emilia Calvo investigates some features of the treatise on the lámina univer-
sal, an astronomical instrument devised by ʿAlī ibn Khalaf, an eleventh-century
Andalusī mathematician and astronomer who belonged to the scientific circle

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Astrolabe Research Revisited 7

of the qādī Sāʿid al-Andalusī. The text is preserved only in the thirteenth-
century Old Castilian Alfonsine translation.
Miguel Forcada explores a number of texts written in al-Andalus between
the twelfth and the early fourteenth centuries that mention Ibn al-Zarqālluh
or the “Toledan astronomers.” These texts express scholarly reactions to the
contributions of the circle of astronomers of eleventh-century Toledo—and
the textual evidence reveals attitudes ranging from a somewhat naïve admira-
tion to harsh criticism.
Not the physical instruments themselves, but “astrolabes on parchment” are
the focus of Laura Fernández Fernández’s study of four texts relating to the
construction and use of astrolabes in the Libro del Saber de Astrología (LSA)
commissioned by Alfonsio el Sabio in the second half of the thirteenth century
with a particular focus on the fine and ample illustrations. She concludes that
the drawings were designed in close contact with real instruments as well as
the use of illustrated manuscripts. Here, too, we find that we are nowhere near
completely chartered territory due to the lack of a catalogue of illuminated
astrolabe manuscripts that would facilitate this research, especially in the light
of the use of earlier sources from the Islamic world and the collaboration of
Muslim and Jewish scholars in the creation of the astrolabe chapter of LSA.
The study of astrolabes has tended to be largely centred on the role, manu-
facture, and use of the instrument in the classical world, the Middle East, and
Europe, with a focus on the Mediterranean. That the trajectory did not only go
west around the first Millennium, but also east towards India is a far less well
understood story. This has been Raja Sarma’s research focus for many years
and few can claim to have such a thorough understanding of this part of the
world. Here he argues that a huge astrolabe, which was completely reworked
at a later stage with Sanskrit legends, was in fact originally produced between
1648 and 1658 by Ḍiyāʾ al-Dīn Muḥammad of Lahore for the Mughal Emperor
Shāh Jahān. One could hardly imagine a more stunning manifestation of the
dynamic development of a much earlier tradition.
The present issue endeavours to shed further light on what remains one of
the most intriguing areas of instrument research. It is also meant to encourage
others to tackle those areas where we would still claim hic sunt dracones.

medieval encounters 23 (2017) 3–7