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Chaucer Review 34.4 (2000) 410-415

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A Previously Unnoticed Manuscript of Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe

Edgar Laird

A culturally and historically interesting fact about Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe is that it survives in more manuscript copies than any other of his works except the Canterbury Tales. 1 The number of manuscripts (thirty-one) suggests a large readership; their diverse characters and qualities suggest a varied one. 2 In none of them, however, does the work present a convincing appearance of completeness, and it has been generally assumed that Chaucer never finished writing it. 3 But because of apparent scribal efforts to move the treatise along toward completion, or at least the appearance thereof , it remains unclear just how far Chaucer himself progressed and how much of the treatise as it now stands is due to scribes or anthologists. 4 At present a near-consensus holds that Chaucer is responsible for at least the Prologue, all of Part I, and "conclusions" 1-40 of Part II. 5 Yet it is also noted that the manuscripts begin to "break down in their consistency and quality" at conclusion II.39 and that the "best manuscripts" break off in mid-sentence in II.40. 6 The diverse ways in which the manuscripts end suggest breaks in composition following II.36 and II.37; likewise II.38-40, which present a good deal of textual difficulty, seem to have been free-floating fragments, independently composed and intended for insertion once an appropriate context had been provided. 7 The manuscripts thus raise a number of issues in the neighborhood of Astrolabe II.37-40, and it is therefore gratifying to come across a hitherto unnoticed fragment of the treatise that contains precisely those sections. The purpose of the present notice is to report the fragment's existence, calling attention to a few special points of interest attaching to it.

The fragment occurs, unattributed, at fols.231v-234r of Trinity College, Cambridge MS R.14.52 (hereafter called simply Trinity). This manuscript, the contents of which have been described in considerable detail by Linne Mooney, 8 is a large and rather impressive collection of medical, technical, [End Page 410] and scientific texts in Middle English, dating from near the end of the fifteenth century. 9 The Astrolabe fragment in Trinity consists of Astrolabe II.37, 40, 39, and 38--in that order. It is not identical to the corresponding sections of the "best" manuscripts favored by recent editors and designated by the sigla Dd1, Bl1, and Rl1. 10 In the following paragraphs are brief comments on the conclusions in the Trinity fragment, taken in Trinity's order.

Astrolabe II.37 is on "equation of houses," that is, the measurement and division of the sky for astrological purposes. It is the second of two conclusions on this topic in the Astrolabe. Consequently, whereas in more nearly complete copies of the treatise II.37 begins, "Another maner of equaciouns," in Trinity it begins "A maner equacioun." The other conclusion on this topic (Astrolabe II.36) may have been omitted here because its source, Pseudo-Messahalla's Compositio et operatio astrolabii II.37, had already been translated as part of another treatise in the Trinity manuscript, at fol.225v. Alternatively, Astrolabe II.37 may have been selected here because of a greater interest, at this point, in astrological "elections," for which the method of equating houses in II.37 is better adapted than that in II.36. 11 In either case, equation of houses was as North says, "one of the most difficult of the arts of the astrologers," and Astrolabe II.37 shows that Chaucer had mastered it. 12 Anyone desiring a solution to the problem, in English, could do no better than to take it from Chaucer.

Astrolabe II.40, on ascensions of planets in signs, requires some computation. Most manuscripts, however, omit the numbers involved, some leaving a blank space for them to be filled in and some not doing so. The manuscripts that do carry numbers (and...


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