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Boethius’s Astronomy: Did it Exist? October 4, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

Beach has always had a thing about Boethius (obit 525). Boethius penned the great Consolation of Philosophy, a strangely affecting study of human priorities, while waiting for his execution. Boethius hovers between Neo-Platonism and Christianity: he is, in some senses, the missing link between the two religions. Then Boethius also  wrote books that do not survive: always a strong recommendation, and among these is his Astronomy.

The proof that the Astronomy once existed are four fold.

First, in a letter, Cassiodorus – the most difficult Latin writer ever born? – claims that thanks to Boethius the west can read (i.e. has seen translated from the Greek): inter alia Euclid’s Geomoetry and Ptolemy’s Astronomy.

Second, there are several medieval catalogues that refer to works on astronomy associated with Boethius.

Third, there are some very doubtful references to Boethius’s Astronomy in two letters of the early medieval writer Gerbert.

Fourth, Boethius in his Arithmetic states that he intended to write an Astronomy.

Boethius’ Astronomy is one of these works that might have made a difference. It would, in fact, have given us (and the Middle Ages) a straightforward guide to classical thinking on the heavens without having to surrender the field to Firmicus and other dunces. But, as the careful reader will have noted, the ‘proofs’ above are about as weighty as dead leaves. Indeed, as the great Jim Tester noted (123) the Astronomy‘s existence is ‘an unanswerable question, with the balance in favour of the Noes rather than the Ayes’.

After all, Cassiodorus, in the reference cited before, seems to have been speaking generally of the communication of knowledge from Greek to Latin, something that Boethius did in all his works and that characterised his opus. Medieval catalogues err (constantly) particularly about authors. Gerbert is, as Beachcombing noted, ‘doubtful’. And Boethius promised many things that he did not achieve: he was an ambitious man whose life was cut horribly short. He was likely hacked to death with a sword on his master’s orders after a prolonged imprisonment.

What seems at first a case then of a burning library book might in the end be nothing more than an entry in an invisible library: a ghost summoned up by greedy medievalists and star-mad monks.  Still in the last fifty years unexpected plums have been fished out of monastic libraries. Perhaps, in the near future, a scholar will be leafing through a manuscript from Verona when… We can but hope.

Any other now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t books? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com