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The Medieval Encyclopaedia: Science and Practice

The story of the Creation, Temptation, and Fall lamented the loss of harmony between God, nature, and man. Medieval science sought to restore this harmony by encouraging a holistic view of the world. The all-embracing knowledge of physical and spiritual realities was advocated in encyclopaedic compilations as well as in highly specialised texts.

Bestiaries presented information about animals, real and imaginary, in the light of Christian moralisation. Treatises on music and arithmetic focused on the harmony of creation. History inspired prognostication. Maps combined geography with mythology. Medicine drew on astrology and alchemy. Scientific manuscripts reveal the multifaceted use of images as text markers, paedagogical illustrations, incentives for careful reading, mnemonic aids, and visual interpretations.


Manuscript

Boethius, De arithmetica, De musica
England, Canterbury, Christ Church, first third of the twelfth century

The sciences of the quadrivium - arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy - examined the numerical harmonies of God’s creation. The sixth-century Christian philosopher Boethius provided subsequent generations with a definition of the quadrivium and the standard textbooks on two of its branches, arithmetic and music. The copy of De musica in this volume opens with a delicately tinted full-page drawing. It shows Boethius in dialogue with Pythagoras, Plato, and Nichomacus, transmitting the science of the ancient authorities to the Christian world.

Cambridge University Library, MS Ii.3.12, fol. 61v

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Manuscript

Bestiary
England, probably Lincolnshire, c.1200

This is one of the best-known Bestiaries. It opens with fully illuminated scenes from the lives of lions, but the majority of its illustrations are ink drawings. The unerring confidence of the draughtsman is impressive and the expressions of the creatures graphically convey their character. With its accounts of animals and mythical creatures, the Bestiary was not simply a record of natural history. It was a deeply religious book. Like the Bible, God’s creation, the natural world, was believed to be divinely encoded with different levels of meaning to be discovered by patient reflection. Animals were understood as prophecies, reminders of biblical events, or examples of behaviour to be imitated or avoided.

Cambridge University Library, MS Ii.4.26, fol. 1v

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Manuscript

Jean Corbechon, Des proprietez de choses
France, Paris, c.1415

Garbed in an academic robe, the physician holds up a urine glass, his badge of office and main diagnostic tool. The miniature introduces the book on medicine in the most popular medieval encyclopaedia, Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ thirteenth-century De proprietatibus rerum (On the properties of things). Jean Corbechon’s French translation of 1372, commissioned by Charles V of France, was favoured in court circles. This, one of the most sumptuous surviving copies, was illuminated for Amadeus VIII, Count of Savoy (1383-1451) and grandson of the celebrated manuscript collector Jean Duke of Berry. It was the work of the Boucicaut Master (active c.1400-1415), one of the leading illuminators in early fifteenth-century Paris.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 251, fol. 54v

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Manuscript

John de Foxton, Liber cosmographiae
England, 1385-1408

This illustrated compendium of popular science was probably penned by its author and compiler, John de Foxton (c.1369-1440). An unbeneficed chaplain in Yorkshire, as Foxton was for most of the period of compilation of the book, would not have intended such an elaborate compilation for his own use, but for that of a generous patron. The illustrations range from astronomical tables drawn up by Foxton himself to elaborate figures of the temperaments and the planets. Mars (shown here) wears the armour called camail, Scorpio, and the sign of Aries, the ram. His expression, gesture, and sword suggest anger. At his feet are his children, stricken by war.

Trinity College, MS R.15.21, fols. 44v-45

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