Sacrobosco’s Sphere in Portugal and Spain

As part of my larger project on the history of Sacrobosco’s Sphere in Europe (and beyond), I’m working on translations of the Sphere into various vernaculars. There were more translations of the Sphere into Spanish and Portuguese in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than into all other European vernaculars combined. So far I have found ten printed translations into Spanish or Portuguese between 1510 and 1650. By contrast, there were two French translations, two Italian, one German and two or three English (the third is actually a translation of one of the Spanish translations). Many of these translations went through multiple editions, but that is seven separate translations from the rest of Europe against ten from the Iberian peninsula. This does not include translations that appeared only in manuscript, both before and after the invention of printing.

One reason for the interest in Sphere translations in Spain and Portugal was that the basic astronomical and geographical knowledge contained in this text could be used for navigation, and Spain and Portugal were engaged in voyages of exploration and colonization earlier than the rest of Europe. Astronomical knowledge served vital state interests – and received state support – in a way that it did not in other parts of Europe. Several of the translations that I am studying are what I call “navigational spheres.” They were produced in the first half of the sixteenth century, and they were composed by and for men involved in navigation. They explain the relevance of astronomy to navigation, and they incorporate knowledge gained from voyages of exploration. In some cases, this means that they offer information that contradicts Sacrobosco’s original text. But other spheres, which I call “natural philosophical spheres,” are not connected to navigation. They were produced in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for elite audiences, and their authors made no claims about the use of astronomy in navigation. In fact, three do not claim any utility at all for astronomical knowledge.

Alonso Sanchez-Coello, View of Seville and Guadalquivir river with the Fleet of the Indies, between circa 1576 and circa 1600.

The two groups of spheres – the navigational and the natural philosophical – are quite different in tone, format and content. The translators of the navigational spheres were all personally involved in overseas exploration and colonization. They trained navigators, and made maps and instruments used in navigation. Their texts were aimed at practical men – pilots and navigators who would need to use this knowledge at sea. By contrast, the translators of the natural philosophical spheres had no connections with navigation. They situated astronomical knowledge in a religious and moral context rather than a practical context. Their texts were aimed at elite, highly educated readers. Together, this group of Iberian spheres displays the wide range of meanings and uses that Sacrobosco’s Sphere had in the early modern period, and how within particular geographical locations, these meanings and uses could shift quite dramatically over time.

In the next few weeks (maybe months), I will make a series of posts on each of the Iberian spheres. These posts will consist of description of the translation, and any additional material contained in the text, as well as some of my preliminary thoughts about how each fits into my larger project.

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