Kings, Princes, Poets, Astronomers

The Middle Ages is often portrayed and popularly perceived as a time when scientific knowledge made few advancements–or was even rejected outright. In many times and places, however, science was not only tolerated, but celebrated. Astronomical and mathematical knowledge was needed in such Christian activities as the calculation of Easter (a complex process I can’t even pretend to understand), while in the Islamic world, close observation of the heavens led to important improvements in devices such as the astrolabe.

Although largely the preserve of specialists, astronomy in the Middle Ages sometimes attracted the attention of the ruling elite, as an activity that showcased their learning and demonstrated their patronage of cultural pursuits. In this post, I want to introduce you to two lesser known political figures whose astronomical activities have been preserved for us.

A coin of Sisebut, with the king depicted at centre. (Wikimedia)

A coin of Sisebut, with the king depicted at centre. (Wikimedia)

The first is Sisebut, Visigothic king of Spain from 612-621 C.E. A militarily active king during a time of tensions with Byzantium, Sisebut was also a close associate of one of the great intellectuals of his age, Isidore of Seville.

Working from classical sources, Isidore produced several famous works, the most popular of which was his Etymologies–an attempt to systematise all knowledge. At Sisebut’s urging, however, he wrote another volume, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things) concerned with astronomy, the seasons, and other celestial and terrestrial phenomena.

If this were the only text testifying to the intellectual and personal relationship between Sisebut and Isidore, we might assume that the king had only a passing interest in showcasing his cultural credentials through patronage.

10th century Anglo-Saxon copy of De Natura Rerum, with a diagram of the seasons, held by the British Library.

10th century Anglo-Saxon copy of De Natura Rerum, with a diagram of the seasons, held by the British Library.

Rather wonderfully, though, we know that Sisebut himself wrote back, creating a Latin poetic treatise on the causes of eclipses. In it, he lays out an explanation of eclipses scrupulously avoiding superstitious beliefs, demonstrating his competency as a ruler in the classical mould. (He also wrote a hagiographical work in Latin, a Life of St Desiderius, showcasing the diversity of his literary interests.)

Our second figure is Ulugh Beg, a Timurid prince who became the governor of Samarqand in 1409. As the grandson of Timur and eldest son of Shahrukh, we might expect him to have had an ambivalent relationship with intellectuals. During the reign of Timur, for example, many experts in the arts and sciences were brought to Samarqand to glorify the Timurid enterprise; Shahrukh, though, struggled with criticisms of his regime from learned circles.

The lavish exterior of Ulugh Bey's madrasa in Samarqand, taken by an early 20th c. Russian photographer. (Wikimedia)

The lavish exterior of Ulugh Bey’s madrasa in Samarqand, taken by an early 20th c. Russian photographer. (Wikimedia)

Ulugh Beg, however, spent the following three decades of his life as a tireless patron of learning, and of astronomy in particular. His foundations included a madrasa (1417) and an observatory known as the Gurkhani Zij (1428), both on a monumental scale. In this way, he not only nurtured astronomers, but also participated himself in cutting edge observations.

Replica constellation globe from the Istanbul Museum of Islamic Sciences. The Ottomans were influenced by developments from Samarqand's observatory.

Replica constellation globe from the Istanbul Museum of Islamic Sciences. The Ottomans were influenced by developments from Samarqand’s observatory.

 

Because of the size of the instruments (measured in 10s of meters), he was able to make substantial improvements in the position of stars–many of which had not been recalculated since the time of Ptolemy. These measurements were published in a star table called the Zij-i Sultani, which was consulted by scholars in Europe for centuries afterwards.

Although we might consider Ulugh Beg the more influential and successful of our two astronomer princes, both demonstrate that the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge, as well as the patronage of intellectuals, could be an important aspect of mediaeval rulership. Their curiosity and accomplishments certainly deserve to be more widely known and remembered.

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