Finding maths in the RCP library: some 16th century rare books | guest post by Katie Birkwood

Guest post by Katie Birkwood, rare books and special Collections, Librarian Royal College of Physicians

You might expect the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) library only to contain medical books, but for the pre-1800 titles at least, that’s definitely not the case. Ever since the college’s foundation in 1518 it has been collecting books, and the library has reflected the requirement that its physicians be ‘groundedly learned’, ie knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects and not only medicine.

When William Harvey (1578–1657) gave his collection of books and objects to the college in the 1650s, his rules for his Musaeum Harveianum stipulated that

“Besides medical books we consider those to be especially useful and suitable for this Museum, which deal with Geometry, or Geography, or Cosmography, or Astronomy, or Music, or Optics, or Natural History, or Mechanics, or include Voyages to the more remote regions of the Earth.”

‘Groundedly learned’

The core of the RCP’s rare books collection as it stands today was given to the college in 1680. That was the year that Henry Pierrepont, Marquis of Dorchester (1606-1680) died. Dorchester was not a physician, but rather a lawyer. He was certainly ‘groundedly learned’, with a taste for book collecting, and he was friends with many of the college’s fellows. He was event made the RCP’s very first honorary fellow in 1658. After Dorchester’s death in 1680, his family gave his library of approximately 3,200 books to the college. This was a particularly welcome gift because Harvey’s library had been almost entirely destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Fireworks, fortifications and the art of dance

Dorchester’s library was arranged into four broad sections: mathematics, law, medicine and philology (meaning literature and history), and the books are still shelved in these groupings today.

The ‘mathematics’ section of Dorchester’s library is – to modern eyes – remarkably diverse. It was common practice in the medieval period and later to consider music and astronomy as part of maths, but Dorchester’s collection still looks very broad. On the shelves are works of geography, handbooks to firework-making, diagrams of military fortifications and military strategy, and even one or two dancing manuals.

Black and white engraved illustration of Roman military formations Gl' Ordini della militia Romana. Giovanni Franco, published Venice, 1573.
Gl’ Ordini della militia Romana. Giovanni Franco, published Venice, 1573. © Royal College of Physicians
L’art et instruction de bien dancer, published Paris, c1495 | Orchesographie. Jehan Tabourot, published 1597.
L’art et instruction de bien dancer, published Paris, c1495 | Orchesographie. Jehan Tabourot, published 1597. © Royal College of Physicians

However, there are also plenty of classical mathematical texts. More than 30 books are editions of, commentaries on, or summaries of the works of the Greek geometrician Euclid (active around 300 BC).

Some of the copies of Euclid’s works in the Dorchester Library.
Some of the copies of Euclid’s works in the Dorchester Library. © Royal College of Physicians
Reading Euclid

It was a pleasure recently to welcome Yelda Nasifoglu from the Reading Euclid project team to examine our early modern Euclids. While she was here, two of the books caught my eye.

Each book is a Sammelband: a collection of different texts bounds together as one volume. The first contains three short works or compilations on geometry, perspective and proportions all printed in Paris around the year 1510. Curiously, all of the texts are attributed to bishops or archbishops of the 13th and 14th centuries: Thomas Bradwardine, archbishop of Canterbury (1290?–1349), John Peckham, archbishop of Canterbury (d.1292), Albertus de Saxonia, bishop of Halberstadt (d.1390) and Nicholas Oresme, bishop of Lisieux (c1320–1382). The full contents are:

It wasn’t the coincidence (perhaps deliberate assembly?) of the collection of bishops that caught my attention, but rather the visual appearance of the books. Each of the three is a fine example of early 16th century printing, decorated with a woodcut title page, woodcut illustrations to the text, or both.

Woodcut mathematical illustrations
Geometria speculativa. Thomas Bradwardine, published Paris, 1511. © Royal College of Physicians
Woodcut mathematical illustrations
Perspectiva communis. John Peckham, published Paris, c1510. © Royal College of Physicians
Woodcut border around a title page printed in red and black
Tractatus proportionum. Three works by Albertus de Saxonia, Thomas Bradwardine and Nicole Oresme, published Paris, c1512. © Royal College of Physicians

There is a lengthy inscription on the back of the second title page, but we do not know who left this annotation, nor the identities of any of the book’s owners before Dorchester, so the question of who was reading these short works of geometry is left open.

The second book contains four different printed works:

It is the last of the four that caught my eye. It’s a Jewish calendar compiled by the German scholar Sebastian Münster, printed in Hebrew and Latin characters.

Title page printed in Latin and Hebrew
Kalendarium hebraicum. Sebastian Münster, published Basel, 1527. © Royal College of Physicians

There are two owners’ names inscribed on the title page: ‘L Chambres’ and ‘David Goubard’. Either Chambres, Goubard, or another unknown person has left annotations in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as calculations relating to the calendrical and information in the printed text.

Inscription by David Goubard
Kalendarium hebraicum. Sebastian Münster, published Basel, 1527. © Royal College of Physicians
Inscription by L Chambres
Kalendarium hebraicum. Sebastian Münster, published Basel, 1527. © Royal College of Physicians
Mathematical calculations in the margin of a printed book
Kalendarium hebraicum. Sebastian Münster, published Basel, 1527. © Royal College of Physicians

I’ve not managed to identify ‘L Chambres’ for certain. He may be the Leonard Chambers who studied at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1561, and was vice-master of that college and later a prebend of St Paul’s Cathedral. David Goubard was a translator of astronomical works, active around the year 1633. He is known to have owned other books, including three incunabula (books printed before the year 1501), all on astronomical or astrological topics, now kept at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and Lambeth Palace Library. It’s not clear whether idea of these, or a later owner, brought the other three works together with the Jewish calendar.

Unanswered questions like these are a constant companion when investigating the history of rare books. The RCP rare books collections – whether mathematical or not – are a rich source of evidence, sometimes tantalising, of book use from the earliest days of printing throughout the early-modern era.

Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian

Katie’s post is also on the RCP website at

100th copy

“Reading Euclid” recently inspected its hundredth copy of the Elements, and we’ve now recorded more than three thousand separate items in our summaries of the marks that early modern readers left in these books. With visits to London and Cambridge planned, we’re well on our way to our goal of seeing a representative sample of the early modern copies of the Elements surviving in Britain.

Most of the copies we’ve seen so far are held in Oxford libraries, although their earlier homes have been all over Britain. We’ve seen copies owned by university professors, teachers and students, by doctors, lawyers, merchants and even a saint (Thomas More). Some of the most fascinating copies come from the university context, where we’ve seen evidence of students copying annotations from a teacher’s book into their own. We’ve also seen a fascinating series of notes relating to a proposed new edition of the text: a group of scholars copied in textual variants, amended the Latin translation and compiled thousands of cross-references and commentary items, as well as providing algebraic equivalents for some of the theorems. Sadly that project came to nothing.

The books give a real sense of how the cultural profile of mathematics was changing in the early modern period, and how people’s use of texts and ownership of books was changing too. Those two processes led to a huge range of ways of engaging with the Euclidean text, and we’re beginning to discern some of the patterns and the ways that worked. Now for the next hundred copies!

Project milestone

The Reading Euclid project recently passed the milestone of having worked through fifty copies of Euclid’s Elements as part of the search for annotations and other marks made by readers. Principal Investigator Benjamin Wardhaugh writes:

We’re just a few months into our project on reading Euclid in Early Modern Britain and Ireland, and we’re eventually hoping to work through two or three hundred copies of Euclid’s Elements. We’ve now completed the first fifty, and recorded our two thousandth mark made by an early modern reader. A few patterns are starting to emerge.

Most of the books have been written in by their early readers: not just bookplates, signatures, names and dates, but also detailed – even obsessive – corrections of the mathematics and the language in which it’s expressed. I’ve now seen about twenty-five thousand printed pages, and around one in ten of those pages bears readers’ marks of some kind. Wrong labels are corrected, missing lines are added to diagrams and missing steps are inserted into proofs. More adventurous readers – or those whose responsibilities included teaching – marked up the book in still more detail, selecting and rearranging, supplementing one edition of the Elements with passages from another, or copying in long explanations and discussions from other geometrical works.

What we’re starting to see is a rich and fascinating world of reading and studying, that can help us understand how mathematics was learned in the early modern period. It’s background to the scientific changes of the seventeenth century and the revolutions that shook mathematics in that period. There’s lots more to do, but I’m optimistic about what we’re finding out.

Robert Ashley’s Euclids | guest post by Renae Satterly

Guest post by Renae Satterley, Librarian, Middle Temple Library

Middle Temple is one of the four Inns of Court, alongside Inner Temple, Gray’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn. The Inns were traditionally responsible for educating barristers and calling them to the Bar. Since the mid-19th century they have been responsible for calling lawyers to the Bar and ensuring continuing professional standards as well as providing scholarships and support to the Bar.

Middle and Inner Temple trace their origins to the Knights Templar. It is not known when the Inns became two separate entities, but it was at some point before 1500. Members generally lived and worked at their Inn, some throughout their whole lives. As such the Inns were cosmopolitan places, especially during the early modern period. Many illustrious men were called to the Bar as honorary members. Some notable members of Middle Temple include Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Martin Frobisher and Henry Atkins, physician to the King in 1604.

‘Ordinary’ members were also significant men of their time. Robert Ashley (1565-1641) is one such member. His bequest of over 3,700 books re-established the library at Middle Temple. Ashley was a lawyer, although by his own admission, not a successful one; he describes the ‘ebbs and tides’ of his law practice. Thus Ashley spent most of his life collecting and reading books- he was a true bibliophile. He also translated six works during his lifetime, from French, Italian, Latin and Spanish. The breadth of his collection is characteristic of the learned men of the Inns of Court, that is to say, far-reaching and covering a wide range of topics. The collection is also interesting for being one of the few of its size to have remained relatively intact in central London, where it originated.

One of the areas of particular interest to Ashley was science- including mathematics, geometry, algebra, music and astronomy. There are two works by Euclid in the collection: Elementorum libri XV (printed in Cologne in 1607) and Elementorum libri XIII (printed in Wittenberg in 1609). There is one other Euclid work in the collection without marginalia in Ashley’s hand, Elementorum libri XV, a two volume work printed in Frankfurt in 1607. However, given the paucity of book acquisitions made by the Inn after Ashley’s death, this set most likely belonged to his bequest as well.

The two books that do have Ashley’s marginal notes in them are shown in the images here; both feature fairly extensive manuscript notes about Euclid on the pages preceding the title page:

Unfortunately Ashley did not leave behind any personal papers or manuscripts, apart from two versions of an original work entitled ‘Of Honour’. One version of this manuscript is at Trinity College Cambridge (R.14.20 664) and the other at the Huntington Library (MS EL 1117). He also wrote an autobiography, Vita (MS Sloane 2131) now held at the British Library.

It is difficult to know how well Ashley would have understood the principles presented in these scientific works, but as a trained lawyer, he had been taught to read and cross-reference works closely. Reading and practising law meant being able to reference a wide range of legal precedents and statutes, from Magna Carta onwards. Many of his scientific books are heavily annotated and cross-referenced to other works.

Researchers interested in the mathematics books in our collection may find this list a useful starting point.

Renae Satterley
Librarian, Middle Temple Library

Printing Euclid, Part 3

Following the 1570 Billingsley edition, today we made a trial print of the first block of text of Proposition 47 in Book 1, i.e. the Pythagoran theorem. We are happy with the results so far though more experimentation will be needed to get an even distribution of ink on the page.

The first rough draught of the diagram, however, turned out more modernist (cf. German expressionism) than early modernist! Now that we are more aware of the challenges involved in working with linoleum, we will be giving it another try.

Printing Euclid, Part 2

In the next instalment of our experiment we began to consider the issue of illustrations. As we sat down to take a stab (rather literally) at the Pythagorean diagram, it soon became obvious just how difficult it must have been to print relief drawings with intersecting lines.

Using linoleum rather than wood for our trial, and lacking the fine skills of an experienced woodcut artist, this seemed an almost impossible task. However one need only to consider Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros (1515), or to give more geometric examples, Renaissance architect Sebastiano Serlio’s architectural illustrations (e.g. in Regole generali di architetvra, 1537) to realise that great precision in woodcutting is indeed possible. But the cost of producing the 400-odd diagrams in Euclid’s Elements by this method would necessarily have been high, making the economics of mathematical printing this period something of a puzzle.

Pythagorean diagram