Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Roger of Hereford’s Judicial Astrology: England’s First Astrology Book?, by Chris Mitchell

For reasons which will swiftly become obvious, I am quoting the first paragraph of the third chapter rather than the second which is my usual practice:
As discussed in Chapter One, the last analysis of Roger’s Judicial Astrology was Nicholas Whyte’s MPhil dissertation, published in 1991. Whyte relied primarily on two manuscripts from Cambridge University Library, with some additional material from a Bodleian Library manuscript (although he identified several more), while French, who also analysed some aspects of the text, relied primarily on a transcript he had made of one of the Cambridge manuscripts.1 In what follows all twenty-two known extant manuscripts containing all or part of Roger’s Judicial Astrology have been examined, and are summarised below, and are listed in order of relevance to this thesis; A is the oldest extant manuscript and is used as the exemplar in this thesis where possible. A few folios are missing from A, and for those folios, B, which is complete, is used instead. C is also complete, and features in some of the discussions relating to analysing the manuscript. D, E, F, and G are all thirteenth-century copies and are relevant to the development of the stemma codicum discussed later. Remaining manuscripts are listed in order of completeness. A full analysis of the palaeography of the manuscripts is beyond the scope of this thesis, but a brief palaeographical analysis has been undertaken in order to identify, tentatively, the possible location and date of the earlier manuscripts and in order to identify those manuscripts that might be considered to be as close as possible to Roger’s non-extant original. In addition, those manuscripts that contain Roger’s prologue and introduction have a number of tables, some of which contain errors. Examining the manuscripts to see where errors have been copied also provides a route to determining which manuscripts are likely to be closer to the original source. Professor Erik Kwakkel of the University of British Columbia very kindly narrowed down dates for some of the manuscripts for which a palaeographical analysis had been undertaken. These analyses are covered in a later section of this chapter. Finally, an examination of the contents of the manuscripts, together with a brief survey of other texts bound within the same codex, provides some possible information about the reception of Roger’s Judicial Astrology.
1 Whyte, ‘Roger of Hereford’, p.55. Whyte made use primarily of Cambridge, University Library, Ii 1.1, ff.40r-59r and Cambridge, University Library, Gg 6.3, ff.139r-153r with additional material from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Selden Supra 76, ff.3f-19v. French had apparently transcribed Cambridge Ii 1.1, which Whyte referred to.
Long, long ago (well, the summer of 1991) I picked up a lovely project as my M Phil thesis: Roger French, a senior lecturer at the Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science had transcribed a manuscript written by his namesake and ancient neighbour, the 12th-century scholar Roger of Hereford, and wanted to do something with it. I had better knowledge of astronomy than he did, and the basics of Latin, so I picked it up for analysis. It was the most intellectually fascinating thing I have ever done, particularly at the end when I was convinced that Roger had included in the text a birth chart for Eleanor of Aquitaine. But my life moved on from medieval astrology rather rapidly after 1991, and I still regret that to an extent. Not that the other challenges I have faced have not had their points of interest, but there was something peculiarly fascinating about research which wasn't so much pushing back the frontiers of knowledge as mapping more accurately where they used to be.

So I was delighted when a random Twitter search a few years ago turned up the information that Chris Mitchell was writing up the same book by Roger of Hereford as his PhD at Leicester University. You can download his finished thesis from here; and I did, and was happily returned to the summer of 1991 when Roger was my constant companion. There's a bit of a revival of Roger at the moment - the German scholar Alfred Lohr has recently edited his Computus (on the calculation of Easter). One of my ambitions is to give the same treatment to Roger's other work, an explanation of the Ptolemaic planetary theory. But that will have to wait.

Mitchell makes the argument that Roger’s Judicial Astrology (as he calls it, and I think it's better terminology than I used in 1991) should be understood as a teaching manual, pulling together astrological lore from various sources and presenting it for students to learn from. He makes the point that the book is really rather widespread in British manuscript collections, and also to an extent in Europe, so it must have been popular among scholars. (Modern technology means that he was able to order scanned copies of the manuscripts from various European libraries without having to go there himself.)

He very thoroughly identifies the texts whose material Roger synthesised - mostly Arabic originals, which had been translated into Latin only in the late 11th or early 12th centuries. He courteously disagrees with me on several points of analysis, and I'm not going to insist that I got everything right almost 30 years ago when I was 24; his arguments are well structured and convincing in almost every case.

But I think he misses a really relevant question about the importance or otherwise of Roger's work. How important was astrology in the late medieval period? I'm a bit sceptical. There's very little evidence of astrology entering the mainstream of politics or of scholarly discourse in England or northwestern Europe more generally (except when people condemn it). One of the few examples is the fuss around the Great Conjunction of 1186, but Mitchell doesn't mention it. Where are the records of other astrological practitioners? How do they compare with records of, say, medical pr mathematical writers? I'd have liked a bit more context.

And while I agree with all of Mitchell's other points of correction to my 1991 research, I stand by my identification of Eleanor of Aquitaine's natal horoscope. Mitchell argues that the horoscope provided by Roger is only a theoretical exercise, not meant to be linked to any real-life planetary alignment. I would counter that it's a lot of trouble to go to for a fictional example; if Roger was really a practitioner of astrology, he would have had plenty of worked examples to hand; and sure, in theory one might be meant to cast a horoscope for the moment when a question is asked rather than the nativity of the person asking it, but I'm not at all sure how that would work out in practice.

So, more things to pursue when I have time. (Whenever that may be.) But I'm very glad that someone else has picked up the trail of Roger of Hereford, and run much further with it than I was able to.
Tags: bookblog 2020, writer: roger of hereford

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