Tycho Brahe, Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata, 1610

The October rare book of the month is Tycho Brahe’s Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata, printed in Frankfurt in 1610. It was originally printed in Prague in 1602/3. We feature this book as part of the exhibition, ‘Rudolfine Prague’, on display in the library from October to December 2016. The exhibition has been created by the Senior Library Assistant, Lenka Geidt.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was invited to the court in Prague by Rudolf II (1552-1612) in 1599, at the behest of Rudolf’s court physician, Tadeáš Hájek z Hájku (Latinised as Hagecius). Brahe was a Danish astronomer, born “into a noble family” in Knudstrup. He became interested in astronomy at the age of 13, upon viewing a partial eclipse of the sun. In 1562 he started studies in law at Leipzig, but also demonstrated an interest in studying astronomy. He left Leipzig in 1565, travelling in Germany, before returning to Denmark in 1571. On 11 November 1572, “he saw a new star in the constellation of Cassiopeia”, which was the first ‘New Star’ (i.e. supernova) “to have been recorded in the West”. He subsequently published an account of his observations in 1573, entitled De nova stella.

In 1574 he was presented the island of Hven by King Frederick II of Denmark, and in 1576 he set up the Uraniborg observatory on the island. The observatory contained a basement laboratory, which allowed Brahe to continue his interest in alchemy. The observatory was financed by the Danish crown and as such, in 1597 he was forced to leave, as the new king (Christian IV) was unwilling to continue financing it. Thus it was that by 1599 he reached Prague and became imperial mathematician to Rudolf II, and remained in Prague until his death in 1601.

Brahe published a number of works during his lifetime, using his own printing press, and thus controlling the print runs, which meant that, although the runs were large, the circulation of his works remained small, as the press was not run on a commercial basis. Middle Temple library only holds works printed posthumously, and none of the works printed by Brahe in Hven. The Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata is recognised as his principal work. Brahe started writing it while still at Uraniborg, but it was completed in Prague and issued posthumously. It contains an analysis of “the movement of the sun and moon and an account of the location of 777 fixed stars”, including a detailed analysis of his 1572 observation of the supernova. It is based on a geo-heliocentric model for the sun, moon and Saturn. The second volume, or part, to the work “had been privately printed and privately distributed at Uraniborg in 1588 under [the] title: De mundi aetherei recentioribus phaenomenis liber secundus.” A proposed third volume was never published. Both works were edited and prepared for publication by Johannes Kepler after Brahe’s death. He also wrote the appendix.

The title page shows Robert Ashley’s (1565-1641) signature and motto, ‘nulla maior est jactura scienti quam temporis’. The latter very rarely appears on Ashley’s books, but translates loosely as ‘for the wise man, no loss is greater than that of time’, and appears to be from Adam Siber’s Poematum Sacrorum (Basel, 1565-66). Ashley had a strong interest in astronomy and scientific instruments; there are over 100 books on astronomy printed up to 1641 in the collection. The library has nine works in total by, or about Brahe, of which five have been positively identified as belonging to Ashley.

Renae Satterley (r.satterley@middletemple.org.uk), Librarian

October, 2016