A Treatise on the Astrolabe

A Treatise on the Astrolabe, regarded as the oldest English 'technical manual', ie. a description of a scientific device - the astrolabe, was composed in years 1391-92 with some additions made in 1393 and later. Even though the original has been lost, the text has survived in as many as at least twenty two manuscripts, the majority of which come form the 15th century (Skeat 1900).

One of the manuscripts includes a subtitle "Bred and mylk For Children" added by the scribe not without a sense of humour and indeed the work can be considred a form of a primer on astronomy. It was addressed to 10-year-old Lewis, apparently the author's own son (Reidy 1987: 1092). Having observed the boy's "abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns" and his eagerness "to lerne the tretys of the Astrelabie", Chaucer gave him the instrument and wrote a manual to teach the child to use the device. Throughout the treatise there appear warm, and sometimes perhaps amusing to the modern reader, remarks urging the child to concentrate and try to understand things well, for instance "Tak kep of these latitudes north and south, and forget it nat" or "Understond wel this rekenyng" and "Forget not thys, litel Lowys".

As Chaucer himself mentioned in the Prologue, the Treatise was largely a translation from and a compilation of other astronomical works. Since the great majority of scientific writing was done in Latin at that time, he intended to come up with a simpler English work in order to facilitate the process of learning for a 10-year-old (unfortunately, the actual outcome of his efforts has never been known, though). According to Reidy (1987: 1092), the source of some fragments od Part I was Johannes de Sacrobosco's De sphaera from the 13th century and most of Part II was based on Compositio et operatio astrolabii by an 8th-century Arabian philosopher Messahala, the latter work being the greatest source for the Treatise on the whole.

The work was to consist of six sections but only three (the prologue, the first and the second part) have been completed. The first part describes in quite a detail the different components of the astrolabe and the second one discusses the various uses of the instrument concerned (see astrolabe). In all probability the greater part of Supplementary Propositions added to Part II are not Chaucer's (Benson 1987: 22).

The text used for the present study is from The Riverside Chaucer, Benson, L.D. (ed.), Third Edition (1987, Boston: Houghton Mifflin). This edition was collated by John Reidy from different manuscripts but its basis was a Bodleian Library MS Bodley 619.

The text (from other editions; the one specified above hasn't been found in the net) is available under the following URLs:


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