A Reluctant Innovator: Graeco-Arabic Astronomy in the Computus of Magister Cunestabulus (1175)


In: Early Science and Medicine

This article is dedicated to the obscure Computus of Magister Cunestabulus (England, 1175), which offers a unique spotlight on the way the twelfth-century ‘Renaissance’ in mathematical astronomy impacted the Latin computistical tradition. Armed with an unusually broad array of sources newly translated from Arabic, among them Ptolemy’s Almagest, Cunestabulus applied his advanced knowledge in the service of traditional Latin learning and established Church doctrine, defending the non-existence of Antipodeans in the southern hemisphere as well as the astronomical foundations of the ecclesiastical computus. His intricate explanation of the error underlying the Julian calendar, which was based on the Arabic theory of the ‘access and recess of the eighth sphere’, makes for a technically sophisticated and conceptually intriguing case of Graeco-Arabic science being used for apologetic ends in twelfth-century Latin writing.


  • 3

     P.J. Willetts“A Reconstructed Astronomical MS from Christchurch Library Canterbury,” The British Museum Quarterly30 (1965) 22-30; Jennifer Moreton “The Compotus of ‘Constabularius’ (1175): A Preliminary Study” in Langage sciences philosophie au XIIe siècle ed. Joël Biard (Paris 1999) 61-82.

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  • 15

     CunestabulusComputus 39. The chapter is discussed in C.P.E. Nothaft Dating the Passion: The Life of Jesus and the Emergence of Scientific Chronology (200-1600) (Leiden 2012) 146-54. On the wider background see Peter Verbist Duelling with the Past: Medieval Authors and the Problem of the Christian Era c. 990-1135 (Turnhout 2010).

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  • 16

     See C.P.E. Nothaft“An Eleventh-Century Chronologer at Work: Marianus Scottus and the Quest for the Missing 22 Years,” Speculum88 (2013) 457-82.

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  • 17

     See GerlandComputus 1.24-26 ed. Lohr 143-59 and the commentary on pp. 403-9.

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     GerlandComputus 1.27 ed. Lohr 159.

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     See HaskinsStudies 103-10 157-64 191-3; Charles Burnett “Abd al-Masīḥ of Winchester” in Between Demonstration and Imagination eds. Lodi Nauta and Arjo Vanderjagt (Leiden 1999) 159-69; Burnett “‘Ptolemaeus in Almagesto dixit:’ The Transformation of Ptolemy’s Almagest in Its Transmission via Arabic into Latin” in Transformationen antiker Wissenschaften eds. Georg Toepfer and Hartmut Böhme (Berlin 2010) 115-40; Dirk Grupe “The ‘Thābit-Version’ of Ptolemy’s Almagest in MS Dresden Db.87” Suhayl 11 (2012) 147-53.

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  • 24

     On this point see Richard Lemay“Gerard of Cremona,” in Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography27 vols. (Detroit 2008) 15:174 and Paul Kunitzsch “Gerard’s Translations of Astronomical Texts Especially the Almagest” in Gerardo da Cremona ed. Pierluigi Pizzamiglio (Cremona 1992) 71-84 at pp. 80-3 who distinguishes two versions or manuscript classes of Gerard’s Almagest. In the absence of a critical edition it is not possible to tell which of these versions Cunestabulus may have used.

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  • 32

     MacrobiusCommentarii in Somnium Scipionis 2.5.22-36 ed. James Willis 2nd ed. (Stuttgart 1970) 113-6; Martianus Capella De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii 6.604-608 8.874 ed. James Willis (Stuttgart 1983) 211-2 331.

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  • 45

     PedersenThe Toledan Tables 3:906.

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     PedersenThe Toledan Tables 4:1542-66. That the model of De motu was designed to work with the Toledan Tables was conclusively demonstrated by Raymond Mercier “Accession and Recession: Reconstruction of the Parameters” in Casulleras and Samsó From Baghdad 1:299-347.

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