Manuscript copies of books by Nicole Oresme

A few days ago, while I was browsing the shelves at the math library, my attention got caught by a title in Latin: De Proportionibus Proportionum/Ad Pauca Respicientes. It was a critical edition and translation by E. Grant [1] of two books by a certain Nicole Oresme, a 14th century French cleric and academic.

As far as I can tell, the contents of Oresme's books is interesting only to historians of mathematics. De proportionibus proportionum means On ratios of ratios. The topic seems to be a pre-Galilean attempt to derive the laws of motion, with digressions on irrational numbers that are rationals raised to rational powers.

The second of Oresme's books has no "official" title (Ad pauca respicientes, which means Concerning some matters,is merely the opening sentence). It deals with planetary motions and other astronomical matters. In particular, Oresme argues that standard astrology is baloney because the planetary periods are almost certainly incomensurate. He also observes that the number of stars in the heavens is unlikely to be a perfect cube, because among the integers there are fewer cubes than non-cubes. There must be many similar jewels buried in there; but the archaic perspective, mathematical language, and writing style do not make easy reading.

Leafing through the book, however, I stumbled upon the comment

This codex was ... borrowed in 1556 by Dr. John Dee, and ...
As it turns out, that is the only reference to `Dr. John Dee' in the whole book. Anyway, since I had the book checked out, I thought of scanning and posting a few samples of the source manuscripts reproduced therein.

Those manuscripts are copies of Oresme's books, made by several anonymous scribes, mostly in the 14th and early 15th centuries. I presume they are typical examples of medieval "scientific" texts. They show, in particular, the extent to which Latin was abbreviated in such texts. It makes the prosppect of identifying the VMs language from its letter and word statistics rather problematic, to say the least.

Grant's book reproduces 11 whole pages from 7 different manuscripts. Here are samples of five of those pages. Grant's transcription, with all abbreviations spelled out, follows each sample.


[1] Nicole Oresme, De proportionibus proportionum and Ad pauca respicientes. Edited with introductions, English translations, and critical notes by Edward Grant. The University of Winsconsin Press (1966).

Last edited on 97-09-07 by