The Aratea in Aberystwyth is a fascinating witness to the major monasteries of the Post-Carolingian Kingdom of West Francia, where the knowledge of astrology and the science of astronomy were kept alive. As the oldest scientific codex kept in the National Library of Wales, Ms. 735C is a didactic manuscript and attests the monks' and clerics' keen interest in studying the great cosmos, combining the already established knowledge of the constellations with their own observation of the stars.
The constellation pictures, the planet orbits, and the signs of the zodiac are represented with elegantly flowing pen strokes, full of vibrant life and dynamism. With the positions of the individual stars marked in red, mysterious celestial creatures illustrate the constellations moving across the heavens at night.
The manuscript, as it is today, consists of two sections: the first (ff. 1-26) copied around 1000, is thought to originate in the Limoges area of France (milieu of Adémar de Chabannes [989-1034]?) and contains several celestial maps and an incomplete text of the Germanicus Aratea with the scholia Basileensia; the second section (ff. 27-50) dates from later in the 11th century and contains the four Books of Hyginus’s Astronomica without illustrations.
The Aratea of Germanicus
The Aratea represents a compendium of texts on astronomy. It mainly contains the Latin translation of the Phainomena composed by the Greek poet Aratus of Soloi in the version written by Claudius Germanicus († 19 AD).
In his “Appearances” Aratus determines the position of the fixed stars in the cosmos, describes the constellations, the circles of the sphere and the Milky Way. He distinguishes between the fixed stars and the planets having a motion of their own.
Until the end of the 12th century, the Aratea manuscripts were the only source for any Western treatise on the constellations. The sections of the didactic poem reproduced here are supplemented by explanatory comments on mythological tales about the stars and constellations and completed by a number of short texts.
Constellations Infused with Life
The pages have a consistent layout. Each section of the Aratea of Germanicus and the Late Antique comments is followed by a pen drawing of the respective constellation washed in green, orange-red or brown. The figures are frequently shown from the back, thereby suggesting that they were conceived as representations of the celestial globe.
Within the constellations, the positions of the stars are marked by point rosettes. Moreover, the book illuminator clearly made an effort to depict the mythological narrative associated with the constellations. Thus, Hercules is swinging his club against the serpent, while his left arm is protected by the skin and head of the lion he had slain before.
A Medieval Monastic University
A major monastery already in the Carolingian period, Fleury Abbey counted among Europe’s leading educational institutions in the 10th and 11th century, attracting monks and clerics from everywhere. Especially around the turn of the millennium, Fleury was the most important centre of astronomical studies, sustained, among other things, by a comprehensive library housed in a separate building.
A great number of manuscripts can either be directly linked to Fleury or at least appear to be influenced by it. In addition, the abbey maintained an intensive exchange with other monasteries in France and Latin Europe in general. Hence, as to the place of origin of the Aratea manuscript, Limoges has also been taken into consideration.
Under the Magnifying Glass: Mapping the Stars and Constellations
The manuscript begins with a unique sequence of celestial maps preceding the text of the Aratea. As apparent from their diverging iconography, they were made by a different illustrator than the one responsible for the constellation pictures.
While attesting to a strong cosmological interest in the structure of the universe as a whole, the maps represent an effort to advance astronomy as an exact science. Thus, the sequence of the maps begins with an illustration of the two hemispheres showing a largely uniform distribution of the constellations.
The planetary orbits are placed in the centre of the circle of the zodiac, while the actual planets appear as busts in small medallions. There are no marked differences between the planets (except for the head of “Luna”, the Moon, covered with a veil), so that their names have to be gleaned from the inscriptions added.
The positions of the planets indicated here do not add up to any conceivable planet configuration. However, since the zodiacal band is aligned with the four cardinal points, the constellation of Aries appears in the East. The constellations are arranged anticlockwise. This planet diagram is notable for the inserted orbits of the Sun, Venus and Mercury intersecting with one another. Thus the design allows for an indefinitely varying sequence of these planets.
The codex was rebound in the early 17th Century, maybe in a London workshop. The initials 'T. M.' of the blind-tooled decoration might have belonged to the bookbinder.