Medieval astronomical manuscript acquired by the University of Pennsylvania

By Louisa Shepard

More than 500 years ago, thin wheels of parchment and paper, known as volvelles, were attached to the pages of a thick tome on astronomy, held with bits of wax and string.

Curator Nicholas Herman demonstrates the rare features of an astronomical manuscript dated to 1481 that was recently acquired by the Penn Libraries. Photo by Louisa Shepard / University of Pennsylvania

Amazing then to see the volvelles turn, carefully coaxed by the measured touch of Nicholas Herman, curator of manuscripts for the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, part of Penn Libraries.


“They are extremely fragile. It is remarkable they are intact,” Herman says. “They are original. They have survived since 1481.”

The astronomical treatise and tables, rare especially for the notations and drawings in the margins, was recently acquired from a monastic community in Missouri. With no formal title, it is now known by simple library designation, Codex 1881.

“It is such a great scientific manuscript with such terrific diagrams about the movement of the earth, the moon, and the sun,” Herman says. “It is rare because it is so well illustrated, it is in very good condition, and it is on paper, which is very fragile. Most manuscripts from the period are on parchment, animal skin, which is much more durable.”


Herman describes the book in detail in a Schoenberg Institute blog post that includes a video demonstration.

“It fits very well with our collection,” says Herman. “Our manuscripts show practical knowledge, knowledge from antiquity carried through to the Middle Ages, and this is a great manuscript to further strengthen that aspect of our collection.”

Penn alum Larry Schoenberg and his wife donated their collection of 287 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, valued at more than $20 million, to the Penn Libraries in 2011.


The book has two main texts, written by two authors in the 12th and 13th centuries and then copied into this manuscript centuries later. Together, the texts illustrate the transfer of scientific knowledge from ancient sources, via the Islamic world, to Europe. In addition to these two astronomical treatises, the book also includes a set of Alfonsine Tables, which can be used to compute the positions of the sun, moon, and planets relative to fixed stars.

Especially interesting is a page written in Hebrew, with the letters in Latin above that script, placing the book at a specific time within a Jewish community in Germany.

Students and faculty, such as those in History and Sociology of Science, will have many research opportunities with this book, Herman says. “What’s interesting are the additions and annotations and changes and diagrams that were added in the wide margins and how text was used and interpreted and filtered down through time,” he says.


The manuscript will be digitized this summer and placed online as a full document, free and open to the public on the Library’s OPenn website, and Penn in Hand.

Our thanks to Louisa Shepard and the University of Pennsylvania for this article. 


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