British Science Week 2021: Astronomy and Astrology in the Cottonian Collection

British Science Week 2021: Astronomy and Astrology in the Cottonian Collection

11 March 2021

How have the stars and planets been understood, imagined and interpreted over the last two thousand years?

Man in the Moone

As part of British Science Week 2021, we’re exploring this question through some of the books in our historic Cottonian Collection. They date from the time of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer who's often called the 'father of modern science'.

At the end of 2020, people got out their telescopes to see an astronomical phenomenon: ‘the great conjunction’ of Jupiter and Saturn, last observed at night over 800 years ago. It was first noted in 1623, a little over a decade before the astronomer Galileo Galilei first observed our solar system’s two giant planets through a recently developed telescope.

The work of Galileo, as well as that of German astronomer, mathematician, and astrologer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Polish mathematician, astronomer and clerci Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543), inspired a little-known work that is often considered the first science fiction novel. It’s titled ‘Man in the Moone’ and was written by a man called Francis Godwin. He published it in 1638 under the pseudonym Domingo Gonsales.

The novel describes the adventures of an exiled Spaniard who invents a fantastic flying machine powered by wild swans - as shown in this image. They fly him to the moon in less than a fortnight! Once there he lives among the utopian society of the ‘Lunars’ before returning to earth only to be arrested as a magician.

Curiosity about life on the moon is echoed in other literary works found in the Cottonian Collection's library, especially those by Edmund Spenser (CB561 and CB750) and Lodovico Aristo (CB762).

‘Man in the Moone’ by Domingo Gonsales (Francis Godwin), 1638 from The Box's Cottonian Collection (CB650)


‘My Verse brings down from Heav'n,
design'd to show Celestial secrets to the World below’

In Galileo’s era, knowledge of the stars was changing due to development of lenses that could be used to better view the stars. Until then, astronomers relied on observations made with the naked eye and compared them with centuries-old observations recorded through ancient Greek and Roman texts.

One ancient Roman author known as Marcus Manilius penned one of the earliest known works on astrology in the form of a poem called the ‘Astronomicon’. For the author and his audience the movement of celestial bodies affected humans, political and natural events on Earth. One’s fate was divinely mapped and could be read by observing the stars.

Astronomy (the study of the universe) was equally connected to astrology (how planets and stars affect events on earth), mathematics, philosophy and theology. Comets, for instance, weren't just fascinating astronomical phenomena but also signs of extraordinary events, such as the comet that was seen after the assassination of Julius Caesar.

The 'Astronomicon' considered theses histories, the origins of the universe, constellations and the zodiac and their observed and potential impact on the earth. With charts and diagrams, the ancient poem offered the possibility of learning what fate had in store by tracking the movement of the planets and stars. The text re-gained popularity in the 1500s. The copy we hold in the Cottonian Collection is in the original Latin and was published in Paris in 1679.

‘Astronomicon’ by Marcus Manilius, 1679 from The Box's Cottonian Collection (CB1166)

Comets and Cook

Comets also feature in the work of William Whiston, a mathematician and theologian who was deeply influenced by Isaac Newton. The Cottonian Collection has more than 10 works by Whiston, one of which is called 'A New Theory of the Earth'. Published in 1696, it described the connection between astronomical and biblical events, mainly that the great flood was caused by a comet passing close to earth. Simultaneously, astronomer Edmund Halley predicted the reoccurrence of a visible comet, named after him, appearing every 75 years.

Though Whiston’s astronomical and theological ideas were sharply criticized by his peers, his lasting legacy was his support for developing methods for finding longitude while navigating the sea. It helped establish the Longitude Act of 1714 which resulted in a method that relied on calculations based on lunar distance in 1766. Using this method, royal astronomer Nevil Maskelyne was one of many to journey around the world to observe the next predicted transit of Venus, a phenomena that occurs every 243 years.

‘A New Theory of the Earth’ by William Whiston, 1737 from The Box's Cottonian Collection (CB489)

Another person who made that journey was Captain James Cook who was commissioned to travel to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus in 1769. A page from his log book was given by Cook’s widow to William Cotton II, who pasted it between the pages of a printed volume of journals describing his travels to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. You can see this very page on display in our '100 Journeys' gallery when The Box re-opens.

Log book page pasted within Cook’s ‘A Voyage towards the South Pole’, 1777 from The Box's Cottonian Collection (CB527)

With thanks to Terah Walkup, Art Curator