Monks read the Sphere

My last three August posts have been about versions of Sacrobosco’s Sphere used in university teaching. But the Sphere was used in other educational settings as well. One of these settings was monasteries.

Probably the most famous fictional medieval monastic library is the Labyrinth Library described by Umberto Eco in his wildly popular novel The Name of the Rose (1980), a murder mystery set in an Italian monastery in 1327. In the novel, the library is huge, full of books on all subjects, a vast treasure trove of knowledge. But the library is also carefully hidden, its knowledge assiduously guarded lest it lead the faithful away from God. Now the first part of this description – that a monastic library might have books on all kinds of subjects and that it might be a rich repository of collected wisdom – is historically accurate. The second part – that books were hidden away because knowledge was perceived as dangerous to faith – is not. The notion that monks banned certain books or left them to disintegrate into dust because they were afraid of the contents has more to do with our own modern preconceptions about the tense relationship between science and religion than it does with the intellectual and spiritual world of medieval monks and nuns. Many monks and nuns were interested in “secular” subjects like astronomy and medicine, and saw no contradiction between this interest and their religious vows.

The Name of the Rose (1986), discovery of the Labyrinth Library

As Alison Ray points out, “most monasteries were flourishing centres of learning” in the Middle Ages. Although few medieval monastic libraries have survived into the 21st century, we can get an idea of the number and kind of books they owned by looking through library inventories. And it turns out that Sacrobosco’s Sphere was widely used in monasteries to teach monks astronomy. There were copies of Sacrobosco’s Sphere in monastic libraries all over Europe – at the Cistercian monastery of La Real on the island of Majorca, at a Carmelite house in Florence, at the Franciscan Convent of St. Antony in Padua, at a Franciscan cloister in Grünberg, Germany, and at multiple monastateries in England, including Leicester Abbey, Peterborough Abbey, Reading Abbey, Evesham Abbey and Ramsey abbey.

Sometimes copies of the Sphere are linked to individual monks. John of Erghome left 306 books to the Austin Friars of York, including multiple copies of Sacrobosco’s Sphere. John Erghome was educated at Oxford in the 1370s and may have studied theology at Bologna as well. He became prior of the York house in 1385. at the end of the 15th century, Johannes de Vilanis, sacristan and infirmarian, donated his book collection, including a copy of Sacrobosco’s Sphere, to the monastery of Saint-Martin-des-Champs in Paris.

Most of these copies are listed in inventories as part of larger manuscripts, usually containing other texts on astronomy, astrology and mathematics. The copies at Peterborough and Leicester were bound with Sacrobosco’s Algorismus. A second copy at Leicester was bound with the Algorismus, as well as a commentary on Euclid, treatises on the astrolabe and quadrant and other astronomical works. At Evesham, the Sphere was bound with a commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics and Aristotle’s Topics. The copy at Austin was part of a manuscript containing an unusually rich set of astronomical and mathematical texts, including Sacrobosco’s Algorismus, works of Bede, treatises on the quadrant and astrolabe, a Theorica planetarum, tables of Arzachel (Al-Zarkali or Ibn Zarqala, 1029–1087), Haly Abbas (Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Majusi, 930–994), and 2 works by Thebit (Thābit ibn Qurrah, ca. 826-901).

Henry of Sinrenberg’s commentary on the Sphere, Bruge MS 524, fol. 27.

Although most of the copies of the Sphere listed in medieval monastic inventories are no longer extant, I’ll end with two unique Sphere manuscripts that were once kept in monasteries.

The first is a manuscript that is now in the Public Library of Bruges. It is a text dated October 19, 1346, written by an Augustinian friar, Henry of Sinrenberg and completed at Ghent. It contains a commentary on Sacrobosco’s Sphere addressed to Elias de Gualdo of the province of Spoleto and other Augustinians in the convent at Milan. (Lynn Thorndike, p. 37)

The second manuscript belonged to the French King Charles V. It contains a set of astronomicsal and msathematical texts, including Sacribosco’s Sphere. In 1371, the king gave it to his confessor Pierre de Viliers for the library of the Dominican convent in Troyes. It is currently in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Both of these manuscripts, as well as the the many listed in inventories that are no longer extant, demonstrate that the Sphere was used in monastic schools to teach astronomy. Monasteries, no less than universities were sites of learning.

Cosmic section from MS once owned by Charles V.


Alan Coates, English Medieval Books: The Reading Abbey Collections from Foundation to Dispersal (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999)

Wilhelm Dersch, “Die Bücherverzeichnisse der Franziskanerklöster Grünberg und Corbach” Franziskanische Studien 1 (1941): 438-478.

Karsten Friis-Jensen and James M. W. Willoughby (eds.), Peterborough Abbey (London: The British Library in association with the British Academy, 2001).

J. N. Hillgarth, Readers and Books in Majorca 1229-1550 (Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1991), 2 vols.

K. W. Humphreys, The Library of the Carmelites at Florence at the End of the Fourteenth Century (Amsterdam: Erasmus Booksellers, 1964).

K. W. Humphreys (ed.), The Friars’ Libraries (London: British Library, 1990).

K. W. Humphreys, The Library of the Franciscans of the Convent of St. Antony, Padua at the Beginning of the Fifteenth Century (Amsterdam: Erasmus Booksellers, 1966).

R. Sharpe, J.P. Carley, R.M. Thoson and A.G. Watson (eds.), English Benedictine Libraries. The Shorter Catalogues (London: The British Library in association with the British Academy, 1996)

T. Webber and A.G. Watson (eds.), The Libraries of the Augustinian Canons (London: The British Library in association with the British Academy, 1

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