History of Science Museum: Collection Database Search

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Special Exhibition Label: 'Geek is Good' (15 May - 2 November 2014)

The Astrolabe and Beyond

The cut-out shape on the front of an astrolabe is the rete. It has pointers for the stars and an off-centred circle for the sun. Manuscript copies of Chaucer’s treatise on the astrolabe include diagrams with a rete design matching the small astrolabe shown here. Note the dog’s head at the bottom, the tip of whose snout represents the Dog Star in the sky.

Chaucer’s poetry is full of extremely detailed astronomical references. His depth of understanding has led scholars to attribute a second more advanced anonymous Middle English treatise to him. The Equatorie of the Planetis describes an equatorium, which provides the positions of the planets. These are extremely rare instruments; the Museum’s example dates from the 15th century.

The larger astrolabe at the back is for the latitude of Oxford and must have been made by or for an Oxford scholar of the 14th century. Oxford was famous in Europe for its mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. One of its most renowned philosophers was known across Europe by the nickname The Calculator.

MHS inv. 49359 (small English astrolabe, c. 1370)
MHS inv. 49847 (equatorium)
MHS inv. 47901 (Oxford astrolabe, c. 1350)

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