Scientific Diagrams of the High Middle Ages

Astronomical and Cosmological Diagrams in Latin Manuscripts of the Eleventh to Thirteenth Centuries

Kathrin Müller

Throughout the Latin Middle Ages, knowledge in the fields of astronomy and cosmology was based on texts and images, namely diagrams. The latter were capable of showing not only the structure of the cosmos and models for the movement of the stars, but also the principles of the world’s formation. The stock of diagrams that stemmed mainly from late antique treatises on the cosmos, the heavens, and the stars was enriched over the centuries. By the twelfth century, scholars had an abundance of diagrams at their disposal.

However, the process of change that Western Europe underwent in the course of the High Middle Ages affected its whole body of knowledge. First, the reconsideration of the Platonic inheritance and then the reception of philosophical and scientific treatises newly translated from Greek and Arabic changed critical inquiry and the objects of knowledge. In cosmology and astronomy, the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic order of things modified the traditional Platonic concepts of bodies and movement, space, and time. Together with the texts, the diagrams changed.

This research project investigated the changes in the visualization of astronomical and cosmological knowledge, focusing on the interrelationship of both text and script with the diagram. It supposed that, together with the concepts and models shown, the epistemological status and function of the diagrams transformed, too. It also addressed the problem of visually deciphering a cosmos that was thought to be the revelation of the omnipotent God.

Funding Institutions

Gerda Henkel Stiftung, Düsseldorf (until 12/04)
Evangelisches Studienwerk Villigst e.V., Schwerte (from 01/05)