03.04.17, Page, Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts

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Hilary M. Carey

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.017


Page, Sophie. Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. Pp. 64. ISBN: 0-8020-8511-3.

Reviewed by:
Hilary M. Carey
University of Newcastle

This little book published by University of Toronto Press and, in the UK, The British Library, makes a welcome addition to studies of the pictorial history of astrology. Its format is relatively modest and it appears to be aimed largely at a museum-going audience, but it is no less handy for that. Sophie Page has brought together 53 high quality plates, all in colour, depicting astrological schemes, tables and charts, the symbols of the zodiac and planets, and illustrations of astrologers and their clients going about their business. All the images appear to come from the British Library which is a good indication of the richness of its medieval astrological collections since this is by no means a comprehensive or exhaustive account.

The images include the Anglo-Norman horoscopes attributed to Adelard of Bath by historian John North in Royal App. 85, f.2. This is also the earliest manuscript in the collection. There is also a good sampling of pages from the royal presentation manuscript of the Secreta secretorum owned by Edward III, Add. MS 47680. Readers can also test their eyesight poring over the astrological diagrams relating to the birth of Henry VI and the clients of Richard Trewythian. There are other pages illustrating the rich astrological illumination of medieval calendars, books of hours, and medical texts.

To accompany the images, Page has written a useful narrative which makes extensive reference to the 1450 notebook of Richard Trewythian, Sloane MS 428. Trewythian is actually a little late for most medieval astrology and is more representative of the practice of Renaissance astrologers such as John Dee, or Simon Forman. But Page provides a compact account of the texts and traditions of medieval astrology, something about its social setting, and sufficient information to enable us to identify the broad genres of astrological illumination as practised in English manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

While not wishing to belittle the pleasure of at last having good quality prints of some of these images, it is hard not to be rather disappointed that the author has chosen to interpret her brief quite so narrowly. While there is probably no reason to include footnotes in a work of this type, the text might have included some discussion, however rudimentary, about the iconographic tradition of astrological images. This is readily accessible to London-based scholars through the pictorial collection of the Warburg Institute. It is also unsatisfactory that there is no reference to recent modern studies of illustrated scientific books, such as Peter Murray Jones, Medieval Medicine in Illuminated Manuscripts (London, 1998), John Murdoch, Album of Science (New York, 1992), or Linda Ehrsam Voigt's chapter on "Scientific and Medical Books," in Book Production and Publishing in Britain 1375-1475. These all contain extensive account of illuminations in medieval astrology manuscripts and would have enriched (or initiated) some deeper discussion by Page. Readers of this book will also come away no wiser about the classical and Islamic antecedents of the medieval illuminated astrological manuscript for which one would generally go back to Jean Seznec. This really is a pity because it is important to recognise the considerable conservatism of astrological tradition, in iconography as well as on most points of technical execution. Finally, can there be any excuse for not referring to the major study of illuminated astrological and mythological manuscripts, edited in four volumes by Fritz Saxl, especially the third volume (in English) edited by Harry Bober on manuscripts in English libraries?

Sophie Page has compiled a book which I am glad to have on my shelves, but with a little more trouble it could have served a more useful purpose. I hope that her forthcoming studies of late medieval English astrology will explore the iconographic tradition with a little more enterprise.

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Author Biography

Hilary M. Carey

University of Newcastle