Finding maths in the RCP library: some 16th century rare books

You might expect the RCP library only to contain medical books, but for the pre-1800 titles at least, that’s definitely not the case. Ever since the college’s foundation in 1518 it has been collecting books, and the library has reflected the requirement that its physicians be ‘groundedly learned’, ie knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects and not only medicine.

When William Harvey (1578–1657) gave his collection of books and objects to the college in the 1650s, his rules for his Musaeum Harveianum stipulated that

Besides medical books we consider those to be especially useful and suitable for this Museum, which deal with Geometry, or Geography, or Cosmography, or Astronomy, or Music, or Optics, or Natural History, or Mechanics, or include Voyages to the more remote regions of the Earth.

‘Groundedly learned’

The core of the RCP’s rare books collection as it stands today was given to the college in 1680. That was the year that Henry Pierrepont, Marquis of Dorchester (1606-1680) died. Dorchester was not a physician, but rather a lawyer. He was certainly ‘groundedly learned’, with a taste for book collecting, and he was friends with many of the college’s fellows. He was event made the RCP’s very first honorary fellow in 1658. After Dorchester’s death in 1680, his family gave his library of approximately 3,200 books to the college. This was a particularly welcome gift because Harvey’s library had been almost entirely destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Fireworks, fortifications and the art of dance

Dorchester’s library was arranged into four broad sections: mathematics, law, medicine and philology (meaning literature and history), and the books are still shelved in these groupings today.

The ‘mathematics’ section of Dorchester’s library is – to modern eyes – remarkably diverse. It was common practice in the medieval period and later to consider music and astronomy as part of maths, but Dorchester’s collection still looks very broad. On the shelves are works of geography, handbooks to firework-making, diagrams of military fortifications and military strategy, and even one or two dancing manuals.

Gl' Ordini della militia Romana. Giovanni Franco, published Venice, 1573.
L’art et instruction de bien dancer, published Paris, c1495 | Orchesographie. Jehan Tabourot, published 1597.

However, there are also plenty of classical mathematical texts. More than 30 books are editions of, commentaries on, or summaries of the works of the Greek geometrician Euclid (active around 300 BC).

Some of the copies of Euclid’s works in the Dorchester Library.

Reading Euclid

The Reading Euclid project at the University of Oxford is studying the reception of Euclid’s Elements of geometry in Britain and Ireland up to 1700. It was a pleasure recently to welcome Yelda Nasifoglu from the project team to examine our early modern Euclids. While she was here, two of the books caught my eye.

Each book is a Sammelband: a collection of different texts bounds together as one volume. The first contains three short works or compilations on geometry, perspective and proportions all printed in Paris around the year 1510. Curiously, all of the texts are attributed to bishops or archbishops of the 13th and 14th centuries: Thomas Bradwardine, archbishop of Canterbury (1290?–1349), John Peckham, archbishop of Canterbury (d.1292), Albertus de Saxonia, bishop of Halberstadt (d.1390) and Nicholas Oresme, bishop of Lisieux (c1320–1382). The full contents are:

It wasn’t the coincidence (perhaps deliberate assembly?) of the collection of bishops that caught my attention, but rather the visual appearance of the books. Each of the three is a fine example of early 16th century printing, decorated with a woodcut title page, woodcut illustrations to the text, or both.

Geometria speculativa. Thomas Bradwardine, published Paris, 1511.
Perspectiva communis. John Peckham, published Paris, c1510.
Tractatus proportionum. Three works by Albertus de Saxonia, Thomas Bradwardine and Nicole Oresme, published Paris, c1512.

There is a lengthy inscription on the back of the second title page, but we do not know who left this annotation, nor the identities of any of the book’s owners before Dorchester, so the question of who was reading these short works of geometry is left open.

The second book contains four different printed works:

It is the last of the four that caught my eye. It’s a Jewish calendar compiled by the German scholar Sebastian Münster, printed in Hebrew and Latin characters.

Kalendarium hebraicum. Sebastian Münster, published Basel, 1527.

There are two owners’ names inscribed on the title page: ‘L Chambres’ and ‘David Goubard’. Either Chambres, Goubard, or another unknown person has left annotations in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as calculations relating to the calendrical and information in the printed text.

Kalendarium hebraicum. Sebastian Münster, published Basel, 1527.
Kalendarium hebraicum. Sebastian Münster, published Basel, 1527.
Kalendarium hebraicum. Sebastian Münster, published Basel, 1527.

I’ve not managed to identify ‘L Chambres’ for certain. He may be the Leonard Chambers who studied at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1561, and was vice-master of that college and later a prebend of St Paul’s Cathedral. David Goubard was a translator of astronomical works, active around the year 1633. He is known to have owned other books, including three incunabula (books printed before the year 1501), all on astronomical or astrological topics, now kept at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and Lambeth Palace Library. It’s not clear whether idea of these, or a later owner, brought the other three works together with the Jewish calendar.

Unanswered questions like these are a constant companion when investigating the history of rare books. The RCP rare books collections – whether mathematical or not – are a rich source of evidence, sometimes tantalising, of book use from the earliest days of printing throughout the early-modern era.

Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian

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