A post from Shady Characters

Pilcrows in the service of science: a Shady Characters field trip

This is the second in a series of five posts on Field Trips. Start at PART 1, continue to PART 3 or view ALL POSTS in the series.

At the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh on the city’s Blackford Hill, in the depths of its oldest building, is a locked, climate-controlled room. That room is a library, and it houses the world’s most important collection of antiquarian books on astronomy.

I’ve been working up at the observatory* for the past few months and, recently, I was lucky enough to be given a guided tour of this priceless collection of scientific books. Here, then, are a few of the highlights of that tour — chosen by dint of the notability of their punctuation, of course — that take in medieval manuscripts through to Renaissance printed books. I hope you enjoy perusing them as much as I did!

Pilcrows in Alhazen [965-1040]: De aspectibus. (c. 1250)
Alhazen [965-1040]: De aspectibus (c. 1250). (Image courtesy of the Crawford Collection at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.)

This handwritten book, a Latin translation of an Arabic treatise on optics written around 1000, shows the pilcrow in two different roles. First, and most obvious, each note is introduced by a tall, snake-like pilcrow; second, in the text itself, paragraphs are separated by a two dots and a gallows-shaped pilcrow, like this: ‘•Γ•’.

What is perhaps most striking about this page is the material it is made from: look carefully and you will be able to discern a dimpling, or grain, in its surface, a sign that it is made from animal skin parchment. The skin has been scraped so thin that it is almost translucent — this is “vellum”, properly speaking, or fine calfskin parchment — and the writing on the reverse of the leaf is clearly visible. In some cases, in fact, oiled parchment was used for window panes, letting light in even as it kept out the draughts.

Jordanus Nemorarius [1225-1260]: De ratione ponderum. (c. 1290). (Image courtesy of the Crawford Collection at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.)
Jordanus Nemorarius [1225-1260]: De ratione ponderum (c. 1290). (Image courtesy of the Crawford Collection at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.)

This late thirteenth-century manuscript, on the subject of what we would now call “mechanics”, is a great example of the scribe’s craft. Again, it is made of vellum; initial letters are picked out in contrasting red and black ink; the introductory paragraph in each section is enlarged to draw the eye; and the margins are littered with diagrams related to the text. Hidden among the text are a number of Tironian ets (⁊), early Roman “and”-signs shaped like barred, Germanic 7s.

Nicholas Copernicus [1473-1543]: De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1st. edition) (Nuremberg, 1543). ‘On the revolution of the heavenly bodies’.
Nicholas Copernicus [1473-1543]: De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1st. edition) (Nuremberg, 1543). ‘On the revolution of the heavenly bodies’. (Image courtesy of the Crawford Collection at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.)

This is a lovely, lovely printed book. A first edition copy of Nicholas Copernicus’s influential De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, or “On the revolution of the heavenly bodies”, it is remarkably well-preserved for a four-hundred-and-seventy-year-old book. Running heads, chapter numbers, chapter titles, justified text and line-end hyphens (looking like mathematical equals signs) are all present and correct, and the typeface is almost startlingly readable. And the ampersands! The page is liberally sprinkled with them, and they are fine specimens indeed.

Footnotes in Johannes Kepler [1571-1630]: Harmonice mundi. (Linz, 1619) ‘Harmony of the world’
Johannes Kepler [1571-1630]: Harmonice mundi (Linz, 1619). ‘Harmony of the world’. (Image courtesy of the Crawford Collection at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.)

This page, taken from Johannes Kepler’s 1619 Harmonice mundi, or ‘Harmony of the world’, shows the asterisk at work as a reference mark, linking the main text to a marginal note. Notes linked to the text by symbols like this first appeared as early as the twelfth century, though Kepler’s book is somewhat behind the times: the first footnote proper, where the note lay at the bottom of the page rather than in the margin, had appeared some fifty years earlier.

In this work, Kepler used ratios derived from the movements of the planets to construct musical scores (as shown here), and proposed his third law of planetary motion, which related the period of a planet’s orbit to its distance from the sun.

Many thanks to Rob Tweedie for arranging our visit to the Crawford Collection, and to Karen Moran for her engaging and informative tour. You can read more about the Crawford Collection and some of its most important books in this document hosted at the Royal Observatory’s web site.

It is very much up, believe me
The chapter number here is rendered as “Cap. XI.”, standing for capitulum or “little head”, from which the pilcrow takes its shape. 

17 comments on “Pilcrows in the service of science: a Shady Characters field trip

  1. Comment posted by Brian on

    Gorgeous! Such beautiful books.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      They really were. Despite having spent the best part of the past year writing about old books, it was still a pleasure to be able to see some in person.

  2. Comment posted by Riccardo on

    Interestingly, to me, the symbols marking the notes in the first document look more similar to § than ¶.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      I can see what you mean! My interpretation of them as pilcrows is down to M. B. Parkes’ Pause and Effect, which mentions a kind of right-angled “gallows” style of pilcrow like those in the first document.

  3. Comment posted by Dick Margulis on

    Nice report. Love the Copernicus image. It’s a thoroughly modern book in all respects. One quick note: manu (hand) + script (written). “Handwritten manuscript” is, um, . . . ;-)

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Dick — I take your point! Duly corrected.

    2. Comment posted by Jamsheed on

      I was going to make exactly the same point about the Copernicus. I don’t know Latin at all, otherwise I could easily imagine sitting down with the book and reading it almost like any contemporary book. Lovely stuff.

  4. Comment posted by Bonnie on

    Very interesting, but I took a detour at “oiled parchment windows,” and tried to find photographs of some, to no avail. I guess they all disintegrated before the camera was invented.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      It’s frustrating, isn’t it? I’ve read about oiled parchment window panes a number of times and yet none of the descriptions of them have been illustrated.

  5. Comment posted by Susan Schoch on

    fascinating history, and how wonderful to see these texts, which I will never likely have the opportunity to view in person. lucky you, Keith!

  6. Comment posted by Korhomme on

    You lucky chap!

    A bit OT, a sort of knight’s move; Copernicus’s ‘Revolutionary’ ideas described the rotation of planets around the sun, contrary to the general belief at the time. His theory gradually gained the ascendent, despite Galileo’s problems with the church. And so the word ‘revolution’ came to have an additional meaning; not just the idea of ‘rotation’, but also the successful overthrow of the old order, and it’s replacement by a new one. If we think of Lenin or Castro as ‘revolutionaries’, well, Copernicus was the very first revolutionary.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Really? I’d never heard that before, but the idea that “revolution”, as a term for a paradigm shift or an overthrowing of the old order, comes from Copernicus’s theory of heliocentricity is a neat one. Thanks for the note!

  7. Comment posted by Randolph Watkins on

    Lucky you, indeed. Thank you for letting us take a mini tour, and for using proper, high quality photographs! Just stunning.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Not at all! I was worried that the photographs might not be up to much (I took them with a smartphone, and not one that is renowned for its image quality), but they’ve turned out reasonably well, if a little dark.

  8. Comment posted by Robert on

    What do you think about writing an article about e caudata?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Robert — that’s an interesting idea. It’s a little outside Shady Characters’ remit, but it might well be worth a look. Do you have any good sources I should take a look at?

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