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Early modern astronomy/cosmology

Nick Jardine


  • S. A. Jayawardene, Reference Books for the Historian of Science, Science Museum Publications, London 1982, is valuable for this and most other areas of history of science.
  • Dictionary of Scientific Biography is crucial, of course, as is Poggendorf, Biographisch-literarisches Handwörterbuch zur Geschichte der exakten Wissenschaften. Also look in Isis annual bibliographies under 'Astronomy/astrology: early modern'.

Journals: The key journal in this field is Journal for the History of Astronomy. A useful resource is the series Acta historica astronomiae, most volumes of which are in the Whipple Library.

Finding books and articles

  • Houzeau and Lancaster, Bibliographie Générale de l'Astronomie, 1882-1889; reprint, London 1964.
  • Lalande, Bibliographie Astronomique, 1803, reprint, Amsterdam 1970.
  • Zinner, Geschichte und Bibliographie der astronomischen Literatur in Deutschland zur Zeit der Renaissance, 2nd ed., Stuttgart 1964.
  • G. Grassi, Union Catalogue of Printed Books of the XVand XVI Centuries in Astronomical European Observatories, Rome 1977.
  • M. Caspar and M. List, Bibliographia Kepleriana. Ein Führer durch das gedruckte Schrifttum von Johannes Kepler, Munich 1998; J. Hamel, Bibliographia Keperiana, Verzeichnis der gedruckten Schriften von und über Johannes Kepler, Munich 1998.
  • H. Baronowski, Bibliografia Kopernikowska, I, 1509-1955, Torun 1958 (reprinted New York 1970); II, 1956-1971, Torun 1973; III, 1972-2001, Torun 2003.
  • D. Hellman, The Comet of 1577: Its Place in the History of Astronomy, New York 1944 (repr. 1971); this has a comprehensive listing of books and pamphlets relating to the comet.

Finding manuscripts

  • E. Poulle, Les sources astronomiques (textes, tables, instruments), Turnhout 1981.
  • Zinner, Verzeichnis der astronomischen Handschriften des deutschen Kulturgebietes, Munich 1925 (in manuscript room of the UL); despite the title it covers most of Europe.
  • O. Gingerich, An Annotated Census of Copernicus' De revolutionibus, Leiden 2002 (fascinating material on marginalia in copies of De rev).

Reading manuscripts

  • A. Cappelli, Lexicon abbreviaturarum: dizionario di abbreviature latine e italiane, Milan 1967.

Interpreting specialised terminology

  • G. Tonelli, A Short-Title List of Subject Dictionaries of the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries as Aids to the History of Ideas, London 1971, is very useful indeed.
  • Goclenius, Lexicon philosophicum, 1613, reprint, Hildesheim 1964.
  • Le Boeuffle, Les noms latins des astres et constellations, Paris 1974; Astronomie, astrologie, lexique latin, Paris 1987.

Getting to grips with the discipline

Don't just concentrate on 'heroes of the Scientific Revolution'. You will need to know what went on in universities, courts and popular domains: for some leads see R. S. Westman, 'The Astronomer's Role in the Sixteenth Century: A Preliminary Study', History of Science, 18 (1980), 105-147 (a classic); N. Jardine, 'The Places of Astronomy in Early Modern Culture', Journal for the History of Astronomy 29 (1998), 49-62. The historiography is still mostly good old-fashioned intellectualist and internalist, with little attention to the social practices, institutional bases, and practical applications of astronomy. However, there is important more recent work on the practice of astronomy/astrology at the court of Wilhelm the Wise of Hessen-Kassel: see B. T. Moran, 'Christoph Rothmann, the Copernican theory, and institutional and technical influences in the criticism of Aristotelian cosmology', Sixteenth Century Journal 13 (1982), 85-98, and J. H. Leopold, Astronomen/Sterne/Geräte: Landgraf Wilhelm IV. und seine sich selbst bewegenden Globen, Luzern 1986. There has also been intensive recent study of the astronomical practices of Tycho Brahe and his associates: V. E. Thoren, The Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho Brahe, Cambridge, 1990; J. Christianson, On Tycho's Island: Tycho Brahe and his Assistants 1570-1601, Cambridge 2000 (good on the day-to-day activities at Tycho's 'observatory'; J. Christianson et al., eds., Tycho Brahe and Prague, Frankfurt am Main, 2002; A. Mosley, Bearing the Heavens: Tycho Brahe and the Astronomical Community of the Late Sixteenth Century, Cambridge 2007 (excellent on the types and patterns of communication in early-modern astronomy).

A good way of finding out about the concerns of astronomers is to brush up your Latin and then browse in their correspondence: e.g. Tycho Brahe, Opera omnia, ed. by J. L. E. Dreyer, Copenhagen 1913-29, vols v-vi; Johannes Kepler, Gesammelte Werke, various eds, Munich 1938-, vols 13-18; Christoph Clavius, Corrispondenza, ed. by U. Baldini and P. Napolitani, never published, but privately distributed in 1992 and there is a copy in the Whipple Library.

Astronomical doctrines

Primary sources

Start with Ptolemy, not just Almagest, but also Tetrabiblos (ed. and transl. F. B. Robbins, Loeb Classics, London 1980); Regiomontanus' Epitome of the Almagest and Peurbach's Theorica planetarum. For the technical content of standard astronomy in the 16th Century look at E. Reinhold, Theoricae novae planetarum (Wittenberg 1542; rev. ed., 1553), and C. Clavius, In Sphaeram Ioannis de Sacro Bosco commentarius (1571 and many later editions). Also see E. Rosen, Three Copernican Treatises, 3rd ed., New York 1971. J. Bennett and D. Bertoloni Meli, Sphæra mundi. Astronomy Books in the Whipple Museum 1478-1600, Cambridge 1994 (on sale in the Library!) is both a beautiful book, and an excellent guide to the Whipple Library's magnificent holdings of early-modern astronomy books.

Secondary sources

Astonishingly, J. L. E. Dreyer, A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler, 1st ed. Cambridge 1906, 2nd ed. New York 1953, remains the basic text. Useful guides to early modern planetary theory/cosmology are M. A. Hoskin (ed.), The General History of Astronomy, vol. 2, Part a: Tycho Brahe to Newton, Cambridge 1989, which includes copious references to further literature, and J. North, The Fontana History of Astronomy and Cosmology, London 1994, chs. 10-13. There are good articles on 'Cosmography', 'Astrology' and 'Astronomy' in The Cambridge History of Science, Vol. 3, Early Modern Science, ed. by K. Park and L. Daston, Cambridge 2006. Important more specialised studies include: W. H. Donahue, The Dissolution of the Celestial Spheres, New York, 1981; J. M. Lattis, Between Copernicus and Galileo: Christoph Clavius and the Collapse of Ptolemaic Astronomy, Chicago 1994; M.-P. Lerner, Le Monde des sphères, II, La Fin du cosmos classique, Paris, 1997; W. G. L. Randles, The Unmaking of the Medieval Christian Cosmos 1500-1760, Aldershot 1999; M. Bucciantini, Galileo e Keplero. Filosofia, cosmologia e teologia nell'Età della Controriforma, Turin 2003; M. Bucciantini et al., Mechanics and Cosmology in the Medieval and Early-Modern Period, Florence 2007.

Battle of the world systems

Old habits die hard, and much of the secondary literature of the last 30 or so years has concentrated on the conflict of world systems – Ptolemaic, Copernican, Tychonic. Important works include: R. S. Westman, ed., The Copernican Achievement, Berkeley 1975; Schofield, C. J., Tychonic and Semi-Tychonic World Systems, New York 1981; E. Rosen, Three Imperial Mathematicians: Kepler Trapped between Tycho Brahe and Ursus, New York 1986; O. Gingerich and R. Westman, The Wittich Connection: Conflict and Priority in Late Sixteenth-Century Cosmology, Philadelphia 1988; O. Gingerich, The Eye of Heaven. Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, New York 1993; E. Rosen, Copernicus and his Successors, ed. by E. Hilfstein, London 1995; M. A. Granada, El debate cosmológico en 1588. Bruno, Brahe, Rothmann, Ursus, Röslin, Naples 1996; J. R. Voelkel, The Composition of Kepler's Astronomia nova, Princeton 2001; M. A. Granada, Sfere solide e cielo fluido. Momenti del dibattito cosmologico nella seconda metà del Cinquecento, Naples 2002; N. Jardine and A. Segonds, La Guerre des astronomes. La querelle au sujet de l'origine du système géo-héliocentrique à la fin du XVIe siècle, six volumes planned, first two volumes, Paris 2007. There is, in addition, a vast literature on Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo.

Astronomy, poetry and rhetoric

J. D. Moss, Novelties in the Heavens. Rhetoric and Science in the Copernican Controversy, Chicago 1991; F. Hallyn, The Poetic Structure of the World. Copernicus and Kepler, transl. by D. M. Leslie, New York 1993; T. J. Reiss, 'Kepler's Dream' in The Discourse of Modernism, Ithaca 1982, 140-167; I. Pantin, La Poésie du ciel en France dans la seconde moitié du seizième siècle, Geneva 1995.

Astronomy and theology

K. J. Howell, God's Two Books. Copernican Cosmology and Biblical Interpretation in Early-Modern Science, Notre Dame 2002; C. Methuen, Kepler's Tübingen: Stimulus to a Theological Mathematics, Aldershot 1998; J. Hübner, Die Theologie Johannes Keplers zwischen Orthodoxie und Naturwissenschaft, Tübingen 1975; P.-N. Mayaud, Le Conflit entre l'astronomie nouvelle et l'écriture sainte aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles, six vols, Paris 2005 (an immense and immensely valuable, if somewhat disorganised, collection of the primary sources, with notes and commentaries).

Visual imagery in astronomy

S. K. Heninger, The Cosmographical Glass. Renaissance Diagrams of the Universe, San Merino, CA, 1977; M. Winkler and A. Van Helden, 'Representing the Heavens: Galileo and Visual Astronomy', Isis, 83 (1992), 195-217; V. Remmert, Widmung, Welterklärung und Wissenschaftslegitimerung. Titelbilder und ihre funktionen in der Wissenschaflichen Revolution, Wiesbaden 2005; S. Kusukawa and I. Maclean eds., Transmitting Knowledge. Words, Images, and Instruments in Early Modern Europe, Oxford 2006 (articles by Mosley, Pantin and Remmert); N. Jardine, 'Imagineering the Astronomical Revolution', Journal for the History of Astronomy, 37 (2006), 471-484 (a survey of recent literature on the topic).

Astronomy and methodology

There was extensive debate in the early-modern period on whether knowledge of the true disposition of the heavens (rather than mere predictive efficacy) is an attainable goal for astronomy and, if so, how such knowledge is to be obtained. Secondary literature on this includes, R. S. Westman, 'Kepler's Theory of Hypothesis and the "Realist Dilemma"', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 3 (1972), 233-264; P. Barker and B. R. Goldstein, 'Realism and Instrumentalism in Sixteenth-Century Astronomy: A Reappraisal', Perspectives on Science 6 (1998), 232-258; N. Jardine, 'Scepticism in Renaissance Astronomy: A Preliminary Study', in C. B. Schmitt and R. H. Popkin eds., Skepticism from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Wiesbaden 1987, 83-102; N. Jardine, The Birth of History and Philosophy of Science: Kepler's A Defence of Tycho Against Ursus with Essays on its Provenance and Significance, rev. ed. Cambridge 1988; R. Martens, Kepler's Philosophy and the New Astronomy, Princeton 2000; N. Jardine and A. Segonds, 'A Challenge to the Reader: Petrus Ramus on Astrologia without Hypotheses', in M. Feingold, J. S. Freedman and W. Rother eds, The Influence of Petrus Ramus: Studies in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Philosophy and Sciences, Basel, 2001, pp. 248-266; J. V. Field, 'Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and the Concept of Error', in F. Boockmann et al. eds., Miscellanea Kepleriana, Augsburg 2005, pp. 143-156.

Practical implications

Astrology: Astronomy and astrology are almost inseparable throughout the period: useful introductions are S. J. Tester, A History of Western Astrology, Bury St. Edmunds 1987, and Eugenio Garin, Astrology in the Renaissance: The Zodiac of Life, London 1982; see also Patrick Curry, ed., Astrology, Science and Society: Historical Essays, Woolbridge 1987, and P. Curry, Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England, Cambridge 1989; B. Copenhaver, 'Astrology and Magic' in C. B. Schmitt and Q. Skinner, (eds) The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, Cambridge 1998, pp. 264-300. Remember that astrology was not just a matter of horoscopes, but also dealt with politics, weather, good days for planting crops, laying foundations, attacking enemies, etc. On portents and astrological prognostications: P. A. Zambelli (ed.), 'Astrologi hallucinati': Stars and the End of the World, in Luther's Time, Berlin 1986; O. Niccoli, Prophecy and People in Renaissance Italy, Princeton 1990 (excellent); S. S. Genuth, Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology, Princeton 1997.

On astrology/astronomy and medicine: A. Chapman, 'Astrological Medicine', in C. Webster (ed.), Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century, Cambridge 1979; S. Kusukawa, 'Aspectio divinorum operum: Melanchthon and Astrology for Lutheran Medics', in O. P. Grell and A. R. Cunningham (eds), Medicine and the Reformation, London 1993.

On astronomy and navigation: D. W. Waters, The Art of Navigation in England in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Times, London 1958.

On astronomy and the calendar: F. Maiello, Storia del calendario: la misurazione del tempo, 1450-1800, Turin 1994; G. V. Coyne, M. A. Hoskin and O. Pedersen, eds, Gregorian Reform of the Calendar, Rome 1983.

Astronomical instruments

See B. Jardine, in this collection; a particularly useful resource is G. L'E. Turner and D. J. Bryden, A Classified Bibliography on the History of Scientific Instruments, Oxford 1997.