Looking at the Stars


Looking at the Stars through an Entangled Manuscript Tradition:
the Astronomical Text of Alfonso el Sabio - its Arabic Sources and the Romance Codices

Research Project funded by Sapienza University in 2019 (Medium Projects)

1. Abstract

The variegated cultural program of Alfonso X is characterized by a strong interest in the scientific areas, specifically in astronomy, also thanks to the recovery and translation of texts performed at his court. The Libro del saber de astrología (henceforth, the Libro) is an example of the quoted interest: it is a collection, in Castilian, of treaties on scientific subjects, including the study of the so-called "fixed stars", the heavens and instruments. There is a general agreement concerning the dependence of the Libro on a large number of Arabic sources. Despite its vastness, the Libro has been studied only discontinuously: the only complete critical edition is Rico y Sinobas (1863-1867), which does not include fragmentary witnesses. Nonetheless, the Libro is not only a crucial compendium of the astronomical lore of its time, but also an indirect witness of the Arab-Islamic scientific tradition, which is worthy of a complete discussion. For these reasons, there is a reinvigorated interest in the Libro by the historicists of Science.
This project aims to study the tradition of the Libro on a varied series of aspects: the sampling of its witnesses in their different versions; the investigation of Arabic sources by detection of intertextual cross references. Thus, the focus will be on the translation methods adopted among the scribals at Alfonso X's court, and the comparison of stellar coordinates and of the magnitude scale of the Alphonsine Tables, also by detecting and considering the inhomogeneities of the original data. Our intention is to shed light on the cultural milieu of the Libro and to achieve an advancement both in textuality and in history of Science in Romance and Arab-Islamic framework, taking advantage of convergences between classically distant disciplines. The output of the project will be the publication of the proceedings of an international congress and a website will illustrate the development of the work.

2. Research Group Members

3. National and International Research Frameworks

The Libro de saber de Astrología is a collection of astronomical treatises, put together at the end of 13th century within the court of Alfonso X, ruler of Castilla y León. It is divided into sixteen treatises. The Alfonsine Tables have an indipendent textual tradition, despite the fact they are often associated with the Libro.
Despite being well-known to scholars and, most importantly, a fundamental work to understand both the Alfonsine cultural milieu and the importance of astronomy in this framework, its fortunes in the criticism are alternating and irregular. Among the goals of this project, there is:
1) the study of the text from a linguistic and philological point of view;
2) the setting of a paradigm of cooperative study for such an entangled manuscript tradition;
3) the investigation of the places of production of knowledge in Alfonsine Spain.
Alfonsine astronomy is indeed a conspicuous and an interdisciplinary research topic - both these attributes being commonly included in the recent ERC projects. As a matter of fact, the most recent trend for research projects is to dedicate a constantly increasing attention to the textual data and to their history - from an historical and linguistic point of view.
An outstanding example of this trend is ALFA, a CNRS ERC project which began in 2017, aiming at reconstructing the condition of knowledge within the Alfonsine milieu, concerning the mathematical calculus methods. One of the keys for the success of the ALFA Project was the inclusion of astrophysicists as internal  members of the team together with experts in the history of the text(s). This inspiring example pushed us to include, in our team, members coming from a different background with different field of expertise(s) (see the section 2).
Our present research project aims not only at analysing the Libro and its possible sources, focussing in particular on the linguistic and textual aspects, but also at thinking broadly about the contexts of power as places for the systematization (if not production) of texts and knowledge. Considering these two main strands of research, it seems relevant to point out the Italian hegemonic position for literary studies and textual criticism. On the other hand, the history of science and of the scientific thought, were recently broadened in order to include two further subjects: the translation framework and the diplomatic meeting as a circumstance for the debate on knowledge and their use as an alterity marking. These new developments of the scientific debate are duly taken into account in this research, as well as the real objects - the astrolabes - of both Eastern and Western manufacture.
The "Libro de saber de Astrología" is therefore a fundamental work not only to understand the history of astronomy and of the related technologies, nor just for the peculiarity of the discursive tradition of scientific treatises, but, most importantly, to understand the rich and complicated relations between knowledge, power and alterity.
There is a long-standing tradition of studies on the medieval scientific texts in Italy: among the most recent, we note "ReMediA", a repertoire of ancient medical science, available online on gattoweb.ovi.cnr.it, the GattoWeb website of OVI-CNR, edited by Ilaria Zamuner and Elena Artale. On the other hand, outside Italy - especially in Germany and France - the focus on the scientific medieval text is less prominent while more attention is given to the early modern era and to the history of science.

4. Objectives, State of the Art, Methodology

This project aims at reaching a number of goals, related to the Libro del saber de astrología and its sources, which is the core of the research, but also to other associated areas of interest such as the history of ideas and the cultural history. The starting point is the analysis of the Libro from a textual and linguistic perspective, focussing, in particular, on the investigation of the existing manuscript witnesses and the outlining of its textual tradition. This first, essential, step will be followed by a second phase during which the relevant textual and linguistic aspects of the Libro will be sampled and analysed, according to the following area of interest: scientific lexicon; the yield of the syntax in translations (with a special attention to formulas and to the aspects identifying a specific discursive tradition); marginalia and interlinear glosses. Moreover, we plan to investigate the scale of stellar magnitudes within the tables and to validate the homogeneity of the observations in the Arabic sources, in light of the modern astronomical investigation. Indeed, we believe that the Libro, especially in its less-studied section (namely, the collection of treaties on astronomical instruments) might be an abundant lexical reservoir for the linguistic study, and could potentially be very productive in terms of new acquisitions, both for the Arabic and Romance domains - particularly with respect to Spanish and Italian.
The collected data - concerning both linguistics and textual tradition – will be crucial in order to reach the goals of the project. More specifically it will consist in: a) the analysis of the Arabic sources concerning astronomy basics and construction of the instruments; b) outlining the tool of scientific translation in a comparative perspective, as a way to achieve new knowledge in different environments and periods. Our inquiry will follow three specific lines: 1) the role of knowledge in a political context characterized by a strong centralization of the power – such as the court of Alfonso X of Castile; 2) the stimulating role of sovereignty and political power for a cultural programme; the use of knowledge as an alterity marking. In this sense, the project takes advantage of the expertise of scholars from different disciplinary areas, for a potentially unprecedented point of view on this specific text.
Aiming at publicizing the results of the research, we plan to convene an international conference, the proceedings of which will be published afterwards. Moreover, the creation of a digital platform dedicated to the project, would be an ideal complement to the paper volume, as it would include the images of the manuscripts, which will be sampled and tagged in the TEI standard. It will also include a wiki (based on the “Wikimedia” open-source) devoted to detailed information on each instrument and to scientific terminology; the text in a digitized and query-able form and links to museums and collections holding medieval Arabic astrolabes.

The text of the Libro is an important example of the textual production of the Alfonsine court, which was truly a cultural melting pot, from religious poetry to legal texts, including astronomical treatises, which marked the beginning of scientific prose in Castilian. Such a cultural effort is understandable, from a political point of view, considering the important role of astrology in the cultural background of a king, and by the composition of his court - on one side, cosmopolitan, but, on the other, also strongly centralized. In this sense, the multilingual nature of the Libro makes it an unicum but also a meaningful and complex example that contradicts the idea of a uniform and centralized court prose (see Bituè, 2013). This might be the reason of the scarce interest devoted to its text so far. The majority of the studies devoted to Alfonsine translations have actually been focused on the Libro de la ochava esfera and on Alfonsine tables, whilst the second section on scientific instruments suffered from a discontinuous attention.
The only critical edition of the complete opera is the Libros del saber de Astronomía del Rey Alfonso X de Castilla by Rico y Sinobas (1863-1867), but it is not entirely accurate (starting from the title that was decided by the editor). A sizable advancement in the study of the Libro, acknowledged within the literature, was brought by the researches by Anthony Cárdenas – including his unpublished 1974 PhD thesis “A study and edition of the Royal Scriptorium manuscript of El libro del saber de astrología by Alfonso X, el Sabio”, to which we have access. From a lexical perspective, an important work is that by O.J. Tallgren “Los nombres árabes de las estrellas y la transcripción alfonsina: ensayo hispanoárabe fundado sobre un cotejo personal de los manuscritos (con seis facsímiles y dos mapas celestes)” (1925) but the comparison is restricted only to the names of the stars. The most recent works focused on the translation and his use in the linguistic politics of the king Alfonso X of Castile are:
- Belén Bistué,
Collaborative Translation and Multi-Version Texts in Early Modern Europe, Farnham Ashgate, 2013;
- Laura Fernández Fernández,
La octava esfera. El Ms. 1197 de la Biblioteca Nacional de España, Madrid, Club Bibliófilo Editorial - BNE, 2016.
- Laura Fernández Fernández,
Textual and Pictorial Multilingualism in Alfono the Learned's Libro del saber de astrología: Between Theroretical Necessity and Aesthetic Erudition, in Multilingual and Multigraphic Documents and Manuscripts of East and West, edited by G. Mandalà and I. Pérez, Piscataway, Gorgias Press, 2018, pp. 385-406.
- Ruggiero Pergola,
Politica linguistica e traduzione secondo Alfonso X, "Lingue Linguaggi" 13 (2015), pp. 235-244;
- Julio Samsó,
Las traducciones astronómicas alfonsíes y la aparición de una prosa científica castellana, "Revista de estudios Alfonsíes" 6 (2008-2009), pp. 39-51.
Very recently also the illustrations of the
Libro have been studied in some detail:
- Laura Fernández Fernández,
Astrolabes on Parchment: The Astrolabes depicted in Alfonso X's Libro del Saber de astrologia and Their Relationship to Contemporary Instruments, "Medieval Encounters" 23 (2017), pp. 287-310.
However, Fernández Fernández - who limited her research to the illustrations - writes: "Deeper research into Islamic illuminated manuscripts and their connection with real instruments, with analysis of artistic features, could help us to find new topics of reflection and advance our understanding of the development and spread of medieval science" (p. 310). This statement gives strength to our research proprosal - since not only the illustrations but also the text of the Libro appear to be particurlarly fruitful in the light of the Arabic-Islamic tradition. Moreover, the comparison with the Arabic-Islamic instruments - preserved in various museums in Italy and abroad - would allow a quick comparison between the text(s) and the scientific knowledge in use.
In this respect the research will ideally stretch even further including also a comparison of the textual data with Western astrolabes - contemporary and later ones - which can be considered as a concrete witness of the cultural, particularly scientific, transfer between East and West.
Finally, considering the previous scientific literature and the lack of a proper classification of the manuscript witnesses of the
Libros del saber, among the main goals of the project is to create a detailed list of all the codices recording its text – complete or not – and to produce a sampling of its multilingual switching. Moreover, it is seems important to stress that our study of the literary and linguistic tradition(s) of the Libro, rather than aiming at a textual criticism, tackles historical-reconstructive issues, by trying to clarify questions about the readership of these manuscripts by the general public. In this sense, the framework of these problematics are the history of reading and the production and transfer of scientific knowledge.
Last, but not least, if one considers the most recent discoveries and in production studies - e.g. the forthcoming volume by E. Kwakkel and F. Newton,
Medicine at Montecassino. Constatine the African and the Oldest Manuscript of his 'Pantegni', Turnohout, Brepols (Speculum Sanitatis - SSM 1); the discovery of a 15th century Irish translation of Ibn Sina's Canon of Medicine into the spine of a 16th Latin manuscript - our research proposal can be considered as a first step for a wider project aiming at reconsidering the contacts between the Arabic-Islamic scientific culture (astronomical, medical, mathematical) and Europe through texts and actual objects that pertain to a shared material culture production.

5. Research Innovation and Potential for Knowledge Advancement Beyond the Current State of the Art

The project is highly innovative, since it aims at filling a gap in the current framework of scientific studies dedicated to the Alfonsine literature, as the Libro has not been studied since 150 years. To date, the only critical edition is that by Rico y Sinobas (1863-1867), which was only based on complete manuscripts. The reconstruction of the textual history of this text, which will start from the analysis of all the available witnesses - we are aware of some 12 codices - will shed light on:
A) the Arabic sources (which will be addressed in a comparative way)
B) the translation methods of multilingual texts within the Arabic-Islamic and Spanish civilization during the 13th century;
C) the state of the studies dedicated to the history of science, with particular attention given to the magnitude scale of the Alfonsine tables.

Beside the fact that, to date, a complete critical edition of the of the Libro does not exist, studies dedicated to its technical terminology related to the construction of the instruments are also lacking. Yet, this technical vocabulary represents a consistent part of the Libro. Oiva J. Tallgren (1878-1941) in his "Los Nombres árabes de las estrellas y la transcripción alfonsina" (already mentioned) offered a study of the transcriptions of the Arabic names given to the stars, as they are described in the Book of the eighth sphere. However, the possibility of significant lexicographic acquisitions seems considerable higher studying the Libros del saber and its Arabic sources.
Cárdenas argued that the nature of the Alfonsine treaty was still relatively unknown and that the related studies "[...] continue to propagate errors and misconceptions[...]" (Cárdenas, 1974, p. XV). 45 years later, it seems that the state of the acquisitions did not advance.
Some scholars, e.g. Bistué 2013, strongly argue that the main difficulty in dealing with of the Alfonsine treatise lies in its multilingual nature. Those who studied the text, actually focused on the evolution of a unitary language (Spanish) and on the influence that other languages had on it (e.g., Arabic). This approach led to the lack of interest for the multilingual nature of the text itself - which is especially apparent in the description of the figures in Latin, Arabic, Greek and Castilian.
It is our intention to exploit this, apparently problematic, peculiarity of the Libro through the synergy of the different members of the team and their respective areas of expertise: Arabic and Arab-Islamic history, Romance philology, astronomy and history of astronomical instruments. The strength and innovativeness of the project relies in the multi-disciplinary approach to the text and can be expanded further. Who were the beneficiaries of this treatise? What is the reason of the little success of the text - especially the part on the construction of instruments - despite being crucial for the history of the discipline? Which were the intellectual limits of the scholars? Answering to these questions, that is one of our goals, will bring the study of the multi-layer textual analysis of the "Libros del saber" to a wider and deeper level of knowledge.
The project will lead to considerable advancements in the studies related to the linguistic and textual history of the scientific treatises written in vernacular with oriental influence. This kind of texts will be analysed within the framework of a wider perspective of studies, which is that of the conveyance of scientific knowledge and of the history of ideas





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