Ancient and medieval diagrams

When John E. Murdoch published his Album of Science: Antiquity and the Middle Ages in 1984, no one could have foreseen that big picture books on high-quality paper -- reproducing images of the parchment manuscripts by means of under-sized, grey-scale screen-printing -- would soon be obsolete.

Murdoch, a US academic who died in 2010, was an outstanding figure in history-of-science studies. He employed what might be called an anthropological approach, believing that if you immersed yourself in the mind-set of old diagrams, investigating what they showed and how they worked, you would gain insight into the intelligence and research methods of early scientists.

The diagrams above comprise a diagram of the planets in Reg. lat. 123 (top;  Murdoch 249) and a test drawing (probatio) in Pal. lat. 1581 (centre; Murdoch 014) at the BAV.

Today, it would be feasible to publish all Murdoch's 473 images online and in colour at a fraction of the cost of a book project. A new list which I have just begun will connect up Murdoch's out-of-print book with online databases of codices, providing links to high-colour versions of many of the album's grey examples. The list is on my website or I can share it with you on request as an MS Excel file.

Not all the diagrams chosen by Murdoch were abstract. The third image (below, Murdoch 228) is from the Leiden Aratea, a late antique visualization of the stellar constellation Andromeda (copied in France in the ninth-century, now VLQ 79 at Leiden). The printed version in the book illustrates how unsatisfactory black and white screen-printing was to present such images:

Leiden University Library has digitized the Aratea and you can see online (folio 30v) what the book lacks:

As Murdoch notes, the artist was not particularly accurate in the positioning of the golden stars. Anatomy had priority over astronomy.

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