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A Humanist History of Mathematics? Regiomontanus's Padua Oration in Context

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 67, Number 1, January 2006
pp. 41-61 | 10.1353/jhi.2006.0002

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Journal of the History of Ideas 67.1 (2006) 41-61

Regiomontanus's Padua Oration in Context

James Steven Byrne

Princeton University

In the spring of 1464, the German astronomer, astrologer, and mathematician Johannes Müller (1436–76), known as Regiomontanus (a Latinization of the name of his hometown, Königsberg in Franconia), offered a course of lectures on the Arabic astronomer al-Farghani at the University of Padua. The only one of these to survive is his inaugural oration on the history and utility of the mathematical arts. Regiomontanus tells his audience that the purpose of the oration is to

relate first the origin of our arts, and among which nations they first began to be cultivated, in what way they were at last translated from various foreign tongues into Latin, which of our ancestors were famed in these disciplines, and to whom in our lifetimes recognition should be granted.

To this end, he offers a history of the quadrivial arts (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and other important mathematical disciplines from antiquity to his own time, praises their utility, and exhorts his audience to revive the languishing study of mathematics at Padua. Astrology, a discipline with which Regiomontanus himself was closely associated, is singled out for particular praise.

Traditionally, Regiomontanus's Padua oration has been seen through the lens of its rather obvious humanism. In particular, the Padua oration has come to be understood as the rhetorical embodiment of the fifteenth-and-sixteenth-century revival of ancient (Greek) mathematics. Just as this revival is inextricable from the rise of humanism, so Regiomontanus has come to be seen as an exemplar of humanist mathematics. It is the aim of this paper to examine the Padua oration in the context both of contemporary humanist rhetoric and of Regiomontanus's own intellectual background in order to argue that, while the oration is stylistically consistent with humanist norms, the vision of mathematics presented in it is also deeply grounded in the university mathematical curriculum and in Regiomontanus's own reading of mathematical texts.

Regiomontanus was educated primarily at the University of Vienna (he was also briefly at the University of Leipzig), where he enrolled in 1450, completed his baccalaureate in 1452 and became a master in 1457. He remained at Vienna until 1461, when the death of his friend and teacher Georg Peurbach prompted him to travel to Italy with his patron, Cardinal Bessarion. In Regiomontanus's day Vienna was probably the most important of the German universities, rivaled only by Prague, whose prestige had declined after it was stripped of its theology faculty in the aftermath of the Hussite Wars. The curriculum at the University of Vienna was modeled after that of Paris, and Parisian scholars played a major role both in its founding in 1365 and in its re-establishment (this time with a theology faculty) in 1384.

Most importantly for the purposes of this paper, the Viennese mathematical curriculum of Regiomontanus's day included all of the traditional authorities taught at Paris in the fourteenth century. For arithmetic and algebra, various "algorisms" (prose or poetry instructions for carrying out arithmetical operations that often also included a small amount of number theory) were the basic texts, supplemented in the fourteenth century by the Quadripartitum numerorum of Jean de Murs. Jordanus de Nemorare's De numeris datis and al-Khwarizmi's Algebra were common sources for those engaged in more advanced studies (i.e., they were not normally the subject of ordinary lectures, but were readily available to interested students, and would perhaps have been the subject of occasional extraordinary lectures). Euclid's Elements, supplemented by the commentaries of Pappus and Campanus, was the central text for geometry, and a number of medieval texts on practical and speculative geometry were in circulation as well. For astronomy, the Sphere of Sacrobosco and the Theorica planetarum were the most commonly used teaching texts, sometimes supplemented by al-Farghani's Elements of Astronomy (the subject of Regiomontanus's Padua lectures). Advanced students could read numerous more specific treatises by Arabic and Latin authors. For optics, the Perspectiva communis of John Peckham was the most common basic text, with texts by Witelo and Roger Bacon...



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