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Geoffrey Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe

Geoffrey Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe
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  Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe JennaMead* Universityof Tasmania Abstract Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe   has occasioned varied responses fromreaders and scholars. John Lydgate’s reference, in the Fall of Princes , identified whatbecame the critical terms for reading Chaucer’s translation of an instruction manualfor using an astrolabe addressed to his “sone” Lowys.  Astrolabe   survives in moremanuscripts than any other Chaucer text with the exception of The Canterbury Tales ;the Variorum  edition of the text was published in 2002 and in the last five yearscritical attention has increasingly refocused on the text. Scholars have consideredpatterns of readership from extant manuscripts and details, such as the subheading“Brede and Milke for Children,” have reshaped critical analyses.  Astrolabe  ’s languageand pedagogical strategies have also been reconceptualized in recent readings. Thenature of “science” in the late fourteenth century has always been part of  Astrolabe  ’scritical frame but the cultural valency of astrology has moved into sharper focusproducing a more sophisticated analysis of the vernacular context of Chaucer’s onlyscientific prose text. In the “Prologue” to Book I of the Fall of Princes ,“Iohn Ludgate Monkeof the Monastery of seynt Edmundes Bury,” records of his “maistir Chaucer”(1, line 246) that . . . to his sone,that called was Lowis,He made a tretis, full noble & off gret pris,Vpon thastlabre in ful notable fourme,Sette hem in ordre with ther dyuysiouns,Mennys wittis tapplien and confourme,To vndirstone be ful expert resounnsBe domefieng off sundry mansiouns,The roote out-sought at the ascendent,Toforn or he gaff any iugement. (9, lines 293–301) 1 Lydgate began writing around May 1431 and his reference to the Treatise on the Astrolabe   (hereafter  Astrolabe  ), in the context of an onomasticon of Chaucer’s works, is usually regarded as the earliest evidence for Chaucer’sauthorship (12). 2 The details of Lydgate’s allusion to  Astrolabe   have also setthe terms for the text’s critical reception: the naming of “Lowis” and hisidentity as Chaucer’s “sone”; the orderly formal marking of the text into © Blackwell Publishing 2006 Literature Compass 3/5 (2006): 973  –  991, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00368.x  “dyuysiouns”; its pedagogical function of instructing “mennys wittes”; itsreliance on formalized techniques of knowledge or “ful expert resounns”;the use of technical vocabulary in words like “ascendent,”“root,” and“mansiouns”; the ambiguous suggestion of an interest in judicial astrologyin “domefieng” and, perhaps a pun in “any iugement.” Lydgate’s praise of and respect for his “maistir Chaucer” evidences another aspect of  Astrolabe  ’sreception in which Chaucer is acknowledged as an early but expert technicalwriter; 3  though it is also precisely this combination of canonical poet andtechnical writer that has occasioned some scorn among readers such as EzraPound who opined with splenetic vigour, in an essay first published in Make It New   (1934), that Italian poetry would have gained by following [Dante’s] traces, and our ownwould be less a mess if Chaucer had so closely considered technique instead of uselessly treating the Astrolabe. (qtd. in Brewer 334) For Pound – drafting this particular essay between 1910 and 1931 (Eliot149, n1) as part of his thinking on Modernist poetics –“technique”inChaucer was properly poetic rather than “a certain nombre of conclusionsapertenyng to”“a suffisant astrolabie . . . compowned after the latitude of Oxenforde”(lines 10–11, 9). 4  Further, Pound implies a sense of paternalresponsibility that Chaucer owed, as poet and forebear, to the metricaltradition of which subsequent poets in English would be the inheritors.Instead,  Astrolabe   comprises a prologue (lines 1–86) and two parts inwhich Part I (98–371) is a description of mechanical parts and functions of the instrument – an astrolabe is “an instrument formerly used to take altitudesand to solve other problems in astronomy” ( OED  ) – and Part II (372–1564)describes a series of 46 “conclusions” or computations performed with theinstrument. The text is incomplete in all its surviving forms: the Prologuedivides the text into parts and names their content: 1. The first partie of this tretys shal reherse the figuresand the membres of thyn astrelabie . . . 2. The secunde partie shal techen the worken the verry practikof the forseide conclusiouns, as ferforth and as narwe asmay be shewed in so small an instrument portatif aboute . . . 3. The thirde partie shal *contene diverse tables of longitudesand latitudes of sterres fixe for the astrelabie, and tablesof the declinacions of the sonne and tables of longitudes of citees and townes, and tables as well for the governaunce of a clokke as for to fynde the alititude meridian, and manyanothir notable conclusioun after the kalenders of thereverent clerkes Frere J. Somer and Frere N. Lenne.4. The fourthe partie shal ben a theorike to declare themoevyng of the celestiall bodies with the causes . . . 5. The 5 partie shal be an introductorie after the statutesof oure doctours, in whiche thou maist lerne a gret partieof the generall rewles of theorik in astrologie . . . (lines 53–80) 974.Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe  ©    Blackwell Publishing 2006 Literature Compass 3/5 (2006): 973  –  991, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00368.x  This scheme suggests Chaucer intended a compendious work, in terms of its intellectual, technical, and even physical dimensions. 5  Astrolabe   is however without any formal conclusion and simply ends, in the Variorum  edition, atConclusion 46 with the line “be it nyght or day, et cetera” (line 1564).Even this ending is deceptive since the Variorum  editor includes in Part IIConclusions 40–6 previously regarded either as spurious or of at least doubtfulauthenticity. Though there is a palpable sense of the breadth of the project:that in learning “sciences touching nombres / and propocions” (2–3), theuse of “a suffisant astrolabie / as for our orizonte” (6) and “a certain nombreof conclusions / apertenyng to the same instrument” (10–11) Lyte Lowysis participating in a highly elaborated formation of knowledge. 6  Chaucer’stext survives in 32 manuscripts – three are in private hands and the remainder in library collections – and 16 printed editions – five dated to the 16 th ,two to the 17 th , four in the 19 th  and the remainder to the 20 th  centuries.No manuscript is contemporaneous with  Astrolabe  ’s proposed date of composition:Eisner argues that 1391 is “plausible as a starting date . . . butit is not a hard fact and should not be written in stone”( Variorum  17).Significantly,  Astrolabe  “survives in more manuscript copies than any of Chaucer’s other works, except for the Canterbury Tales ” and recently another fragment has been identified by Catherine Eagleton in Royal College of Physicians MS 358 (161).Eisner gives a comprehensive and judicious survey of the extantmanuscripts and editions ( Variorum  40–100) but, generally, they divide intotwo groups depending on the number and content of conclusions in PartII and a variant spelling of a technical term as “zenith” or “signet.” In themajority of instances,  Astrolabe   is bound in with other texts – astrological,medical, diagnostic, zodiacal, mathematical, and often including diagrams,tables, and images – enabling scholars to suggest how the text may havebeen situated by its readers. Indeed, Edgar Laird argues persuasively that  Astrolabe   itself – and not simply the codices or miscellanies into which it isbound – is a compilatio , an assemblage, put together out of materials that were themselves assemblages,and it was, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, subject to some further assembling and disassembling as it was reproduced in manuscript. (“GeoffreyChaucer” 145) Chaucer then is, as he represents himself in the Prologue,“but a lewde /compilator of the labour of olde astrologiens” (lines 49–50). Ashmole 393,for example, contains five manuscripts on astrology, astronomy and/or medicine “confusedly bound together” of which only the  Astrolabe   fragmentis in English while the remaining texts are in Latin;Ashmole 360 is amiscellany of eight items comprising arithmetic, geomancy, astronomy,artificial memory, and a seventh item which is itself a miscellany of religiousand medical texts bound in with a copy of Sacrobosco’s De Sphaera ;Rawlinson D.3, on the other hand, is a very beautiful ms, in a highly stylizedhand, that contains the text of  Astrolabe   only without diagrams but with  ©    Blackwell Publishing 2006 Literature Compass 3/5 (2006): 973  –  991, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00368.x Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe .975  handsomely decorated capitals and rubrics ( Variorum  48–51, 76). RalphHanna makes a different argument but focuses on the same diversity of msscontents by observing that “medieval books, in their contextualization of works, demonstrate quite other interests, ones more readily assimilable toour concept theme   than to our concept  genre  ” (9).The mss are diverse in most respects including size, decoration,completeness (sometimes there are spaces left blank for diagrams; not all msscontain the prologue), annotation, accuracy, and materials (parchment, paper, or a combination, printed book) so there is no one typical format or mise en page  ; hands include formal (varieties of Anglicana formata), secretary, andcursive that suggest both professional and non-professional copying; statesof preservation are also varied though generally fair to good (CUL Dd.12.51,frustratingly, has been damaged by water, rubbing, and fading). A majorityof mss are identified as copied in South East Midlands or London dialectsand this is not surprising given the concentration of interest in astrology andastronomy around Oxford and the prevalence of scribal activity in London;interestingly, perhaps as many as seven mss are identified as showing WestMidland, North West, North East, and Northern forms; only one ms seemsto have been copied by a scribe whose dialect was South West Midland.Printed editions begin with  Astrolabe  ’s inclusion in William Thynne, The Workes of Geffray Chaucer newly printed with dyuers workes whiche were neuer in print before   (1532) and, with the exception of John Urry, The Works of GeoffreyChaucer   (1721) as the sole printing in the eighteenth century, the text hasbeen variously reprinted to the present day, either as an individually editedtext or included in an edition of the complete works. These printings havetended to follow one of three ms traditions: deriving from William Thynne’sedition, for which the copy text no longer survives but was close toCambridge University Library Dd.12.51; W. W. Skeat’s 1872 edition whichused Cambridge University Library Dd.3.53 as its base text; or James Liddell’sdecision to use Bodley 619 as the base text for his 1898 edition. Eisner’s Variorum Edition  uses Bodley 619 as its base text but relies upon CUL Dd.3.53to introduce diagrams and Digby 72 to present all the Conclusions, includingthose Supplementary Conclusions previously regarded as spurious (48–100).Four extant mss contain the phrase “Brede and Milke for Children” either as a subtitle or in a colophon and, in her notice of Royal College of Physicians MS 358, Catherine Eagleton draws attention to a booklistcontained in Sloane 3548 where  Astrolabe   is referred to as “Milk and Breed”(169). Eisner notes the first recorded comment on this phrase by BryanTwyne (1608) who observes that Geoffrey Chaucer, whom he entitles poet laureate of Oxford, wroteon the astrolabe for the benefit of his son Lewis and that because of the greatclarity of this book it was called “Milk for Children” by the Oxford astrologers.( Variorum  23–4) 7 This phrase, together with  Astrolabe  ’s opening address,“Lyte Lowys mysone I aperceyve wel by certeyne / evidences thyn abilite to lerne sciences 976.Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe  ©    Blackwell Publishing 2006 Literature Compass 3/5 (2006): 973  –  991, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00368.x  touching nombres / and proporciouns” (lines 1–3), Chaucer’s avowed aim“I purpose to teche the a certain nombre of conclusions / apertenyng tothe same instrument” (but only some conclusions since “somme of hemben to harde to thy / tendir age of x yere to conceyve” (19–20)) and hisrationale for an English translation,“for Latyn canst though yit by small, my/ litel sone” (22–3), have established  Astrolabe   as a technical treatise intendedas an instructional manual. Chaucer here is pedagogue, translator and,  pace  Pound, father rather than poet, courtier, and bureaucrat. Thomas J. andKaren Jambeck (1974) mark the shift from earlier modern accounts wherethis aspect of  Astrolabe   is either ignored or disparaged, chiefly on the groundsof what Eisner calls “sentimentalities” about the capacity of children tocomprehend technical or mathematical knowledge ( Variorum  36). In the Jambecks’ reading,  Astrolabe   refutes Philippe Ariès’s previously acceptedclaims that “not until the fifteenth century does there appear an awarenessof the special nature of the child and an educative process suitable to hiscondition:” for within its brief compass there emerges a consistent, thoughtfully conceived,and humanely executed principle of instruction which attests not only Chaucer’sawareness of his son as a child but also his concern for an appropriate pedagogicaldiscipline. (117) Other readers, like Eisner, have noted this strategy of address in thePrologue but have also observed that “while Chaucer may have begunwriting to for Lewis, by Part II Lewis has quietly vanished, much like theFool in King Lear   when he was no longer needed” ( Variorum  15). TheConclusions set out in Part II consistently use the second person singular,the imperative for instruction, plain diction and simple syntactical patterns [S]ette the heved of what signe thy list to knowe hisascendying in the right cercle upon the lyne meridionall,and *wayte wher they almury touchith the bordure,and sette there a prikke . . . (lines 958–60) and the technique of repetition that might be thought appropriate for a young student. Part II also includes supporting hints for handling –“Takethan thin astrelabie with / bothe hondes, sadly and slightly” [i.e. verycarefully] (lines 1018–19) – and clarifying phrases such as “This is to seyn”(1040) but without further address to “Lyte Lowys.”There is perhaps aquestion as to whether all or even most of the extant mss, especially thosein secretary hands of various kinds and often without diagrams, were madefor use by young readers or in the context of children’s pedagogy. And it isalso relevant to note here that not all the extant mss contain the Prologuewhich suggests that, for some readers and/or copyists, the addressee figuredin Lyte Lowys was neither necessary nor advantageous in terms of the text’susefulness.  Astrolabe   does, however, present us with an apparently uniqueinstance of a technical manual whose readership seeks to be inclusive of bothstudent-reader and non-academic practitioner. The structure of  Astrolabe   ©    Blackwell Publishing 2006 Literature Compass 3/5 (2006): 973  –  991, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00368.x Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe .977


Feb 26, 2018
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