James Lattis, University of Wisconsin, Madison

title.none: Laird and Fisher (eds. and trans.), Pelerin de Prusse

identifier.other: baj9928.9611.008 96.11.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: James Lattis, University of Wisconsin, Madison,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Laird, Edgar and Robert Fischer, eds. & transs. Pélerin de Prusse on the Astrolabe: Text and Translation of His Practique de Astralabe. Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1995. Pp. vi, 115. $. ISBN: ISBN 0-86698-132-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.11.08

Laird, Edgar and Robert Fischer, eds. & transs. Pélerin de Prusse on the Astrolabe: Text and Translation of His Practique de Astralabe. Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1995. Pp. vi, 115. $. ISBN: ISBN 0-86698-132-2.

Reviewed by:

James Lattis, University of Wisconsin, Madison

This fine book is another from Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies (MRTS) of Binghamton, NY. MRTS deserves praise and appreciation for its often fulfilled ambition of bringing worthy scholarship (and often crucial primary sources) to light at reasonable cost--a mission now forgotten by some prestigious presses. For many years now MRTS has steadily produced laudable contributions to the world of books, and we can only hope that it continues. In like spirit, Edgar Laird and Robert Fischer have poured their labor into a study important for early modern science and literature. Peter Drinkwater, the British student of sundials and related texts, has rightly decried "the modern tendency to exhort the Pupil to 'Behold and Marvel' rather than to 'Understand and Emulate.'" Laird and Fischer offer us the opportunity to transcend mere appreciation and become immersed in the literature of the astrolabe, to emerge with new understanding of the instrument itself, its significance for astrology and astronomy in the fourteenth century, and the relationships between astronomy and astrology.

Pelerin de Prusse was an obscure cleric who served Charles V as court astrologer. Drawing on the Arabic astrolabe treatise attributed to Messahalla (known in Europe via the Latin translation of John of Seville), Pelerin created a French astrolabe text, Practique de astralabe, some 30 years before Chaucer produced his better known English text on the same subject, Treatise on the Astrolabe. In fact, the parallels between the astrolabe treatises of Pelerin and Chaucer are a primary theme of the study of Laird and Fischer. (Even the possibility that Chaucer read Pelerin's text arises, but Laird and Fischer remain unconvinced; see p. 14, n. 52.) They meticulously cross-reference Pelerin's text to Chaucer's and explore differences in the way the two authors use their primary source, namely Messahalla. The astrolabe itself is, of course, a central focus of this study. Pelerin's text provides information on the construction and use of this important scientific instrument, which in the fourteenth century was then entering a phase of great importance for western scientific development.

The volume begins with a 29-page introduction, which summarizes what we know of Pelerin, and sets a context for the his treatise. It very briefly sketches the place of astrology in the court of Charles V and discusses French scientific treatises of the time. It discusses, again very briefly, Messahalla's astrolabe treatise, then compares the structure of Pelerin's Practique with Chaucer's work. Some linguistic notes and documentation of the manuscript sources complete the introduction. The English translation of Pelerin's Practique, accompanied on facing pages by the French text, runs 47 pages including notes, which follow in a separate section. Three appendices, a good bibliography, and an index of terms follow the text of the Practique. Appendix A reprints and translates the Latin version of the section of Messahalla's treatise from which both Pelerin and Chaucer derived much of their texts. Appendix B gives an all-too-brief exposition of the parts of a typical astrolabe and contains the only astrolabe illustrations in the volume. Appendix C offers excerpts in text and translation of Pelerin's astrological treatise Livret de eleccions. This bonus text is very valuable, because it adds a previously unpublished piece to the source materials available for fourteenth-century astronomy and astrology.

Pelerin wrote his treatise to serve as an introduction to the use of the astrolabe. So it is not entirely surprising that the modern reader will find it to be a perfectly serviceable guide to the instrument (assuming familiarity with the basic terminology of spherical astronomy). As Laird and Fischer point out, Pelerin's noble readership could be assumed to have an astrolabe available, and in fact, with an astrolabe in one hand and the treatise in the other (as the author intended), a modern reader can follow the operations without difficulty. On the other hand, the modern reader is probably less likely than Pelerin's contemporary to have an astrolabe handy, and familiarity with the nomenclature of the astrolabe itself and the celestial geometry may be a problem too. Therein lies one of my few complaints about the volume. Namely that the text of Pelerin's Practique is completely lacking in explanatory diagrams. Even a handful of simple diagrams (in addition to the ones in Appendix B) illustrating the basic operations and portraying the celestial geometry of the problems would have been an enormous aid to those not already conversant in the material. And it is true that "The parts and uses of the astrolabe, described by Pelerin himself, have been described by modern scholars so often and so well that it is unnecessary to describe them again in full here." (p. 13.) Yet the reader receives no help at this point in finding some of those excellent descriptions, except to attempt to cull them from all the other bibliographical entries. A few pages devoted to fundamentals (despite repeating material found elsewhere) and accompanied by illustrative graphics would have made this book more self-sufficient and even better than it is.

Students of fourteenth-century French will find this edition interesting because, as the authors observe, Pelerin "had no stable tradition of French technical prose in which to work. On the contrary he was helping to invent one." (p. 23.) This work also offers much for scholars interested in the roles of astronomy and astrology within courtly culture, in the practice of astrology in the court of Charles V, in the development of scientific instrument treatises, and in the process of transmission of texts from the Arabic to Latin and then into vernacular languages. This work is an important addition to the primary sources of early modern science available to scholars.