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THE MOST IMPORTANT ASTRONOMICAL WORK PUBLISHED IN ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND A LANDMARK OF COPERNICAN ASTRONOMY

DIGGES, Thomas. Alae seu scalae mathematicae coelorum, quibus visibilium remotissima coelorum theatra conscendi, & planetarum omnium itinera novis & inauditis methodis explorari … . London, Thomas Marsh, 1573.

4to [20.1 x 14.2x cm], (48) ff., with a full-page figural woodcut of Cassiopeia, a full-page woodcut of the arms of William Cecil, a full-page woodcut of the arms of Digges, numerous woodcut diagrams in the text, woodcut initials. Bound in vellum, title gold stamped on spine, good tooled board edges. Some wear to top board edges; sympathetically washed. Occasional minor worming, occasional minor spotting and browning; very faint inscription on title page, minor contemporary annotations to a few leaves. Early manuscript diagram to D1. Generally a tall and good copy.

$48,500

Rare first edition of Thomas Digges’s Alae seu scalae (1573), the most important astronomical work published in 16th-century England and a landmark in the Copernican Revolution. Writing shortly after the surprising appearance of the famous ‘new star’ of 1572 (later known as ‘Tycho’s supernova’), Digges sets out here to examine the phenomenon with an observational rigor unsurpassed for the time. Using a 10-foot cross-staff likely developed by Richard Chancellor (d. 1556) and John Dee (1527-1609), he made measurements of unusual precision. Indeed, “recent radio astronomy [focusing on the supernova remnant SN 1572] has shown that Digges’s observations were the most accurate then made” (Oxford DNB).

Digges was the first Englishman to seriously address the Copernican theory beyond the anecdotal remarks of his predecessors, affirming its probable truth and “proclaiming it far superior to the old hypothesis … No one in Europe had shown greater eagerness to put the new heliocentric system to the test of observations and experiments” (Johnson, p. 158) than Digges in this work. His “insistence in his Alae seu scalae mathematicae upon the need for experimental observations as a basis for determining the true structure of the universe by scientific methods, and his unwillingness to rest content with the purely metaphysical speculations of both ancient and modern philosophers, had great influence in guiding the course of English science” (Johnson, p. 169). Tycho Brahe was so impressed by the Alae that he devoted over 30 pages to it in his Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata of 1602, “the foundation on which Kepler, and later Newton, built their astronomical systems” (Sparrow).

“By far the most important addition which Digges made to Copernicus […] was his assertion that the heliocentric universe should be conceived as infinite, with fixed stars located at varying distances throughout infinite space […] Digges had the courage to break completely with the older cosmologies by shattering the finite outer wall of the universe” (Johnson, p. 164). The Elizabethan world likely encountered notions of Diggesean infinity filtering through more popular works of literature. P. D. Usher sees its influence expressed in such prominent literary artifacts as Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1599-1602), where, for example, the “Diggsean” Hamlet laments, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king / of infinite space,” where Claudius is named for Claudius Ptolemy and Rosencranz and Guildenstern, murdered by Hamlet, personify Tychonian geocentricism (see the various writings of P. D. Usher).

The name of Thomas Digges remains “most familiar within the history of science as the first advocate of Copernicanism in England. However, he appears in many more narratives than that of Renaissance astronomy and cosmology. He is to be found in accounts of navigation, ballistics, surveying and harbour engineering, as well as military strategy and administration, and parliamentary politics. In many of these accounts he is portrayed as a key figure in the development of the tradition of mathematical practice in England” (Johnston, p. 67). Digges studied mathematics and astronomy under his father, Leonard Digges (c. 1515-59), and with the polymath John Dee, whom Digges called in the preface to the Alae his ‘second parent’ in mathematics and astronomy.

OCLC U.S.: Yale, Library of Congress, Stanford, Illinois, Linda Hall Library, Oklahoma, and the U.S. Naval Observatory.


* STC 6871; Houzeau and Lancaster 2694; Taylor 46; R. S. Luborsky and E. M. Ingram, A Guide to English Illustrated Books, 1536-1603, no. 687; F. R. Johnson, Astronomical Thought in Renaissance England: A Study of the English scientific Writings from 1500 to 1645, pp. 161-210; F. R. Johnson and S. V. Larkey, “Thomas Digges, the Copernican System, and the Idea of the Infinity of the Universe in 1576,” The Huntington Library Bulletin, no. 5 (1934), pp. 69-117; S. Johnston, “Like Father, like Son?: John Dee, Thomas Digges and the Identity of the Mathematician,” in John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in Renaissance Thought, pp. 65-84; A. Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, pp. 34-9; R. Taton and C. Wilson, eds., Planetary Astronomy from the Renaissance to the Rise of Astrophysics: Tycho Brahe to Newton, pp. 22-3; P. D. Usher, “Shakespeare’s Support for the New Astronomy,” The Oxfordian, vol. 5 (2002), pp. 132-46; R. Westman, The Copernican Question: Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order, pp. 266-80; P. D. Usher, “Shakespeare’s Cosmic World View,” Mercury, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 20-3; P. D. Usher, “New Advances in the Hamlet Cosmic Allegory,” The Oxfordian, vol. 4 (2001), pp. 25-49.

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