At the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh on the city’s Blackford Hill, in the depths of its oldest building, is a locked, climate-controlled room. That room is a library, and it houses the world’s most important collection of antiquarian books on astronomy.
I’ve been working up at the observatory* for the past few months and, recently, I was lucky enough to be given a guided tour of this priceless collection of scientific books. Here, then, are a few of the highlights of that tour — chosen by dint of the notability of their punctuation, of course — that take in medieval manuscripts through to Renaissance printed books. I hope you enjoy perusing them as much as I did!
This handwritten book, a Latin translation of an Arabic treatise on optics written around 1000, shows the pilcrow in two different roles. First, and most obvious, each note is introduced by a tall, snake-like pilcrow; second, in the text itself, paragraphs are separated by a two dots and a gallows-shaped pilcrow, like this: ‘•Γ•’.
What is perhaps most striking about this page is the material it is made from: look carefully and you will be able to discern a dimpling, or grain, in its surface, a sign that it is made from animal skin parchment. The skin has been scraped so thin that it is almost translucent — this is “vellum”, properly speaking, or fine calfskin parchment — and the writing on the reverse of the leaf is clearly visible. In some cases, in fact, oiled parchment was used for window panes, letting light in even as it kept out the draughts.
This late thirteenth-century manuscript, on the subject of what we would now call “mechanics”, is a great example of the scribe’s craft. Again, it is made of vellum; initial letters are picked out in contrasting red and black ink; the introductory paragraph in each section is enlarged to draw the eye; and the margins are littered with diagrams related to the text. Hidden among the text are a number of Tironian ets (⁊), early Roman “and”-signs shaped like barred, Germanic 7s.
This is a lovely, lovely printed book. A first edition copy of Nicholas Copernicus’s influential De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, or “On the revolution of the heavenly bodies”, it is remarkably well-preserved for a four-hundred-and-seventy-year-old book. Running heads, chapter numbers,† chapter titles, justified text and line-end hyphens (looking like mathematical equals signs) are all present and correct, and the typeface is almost startlingly readable. And the ampersands! The page is liberally sprinkled with them, and they are fine specimens indeed.
This page, taken from Johannes Kepler’s 1619 Harmonice mundi, or ‘Harmony of the world’, shows the asterisk at work as a reference mark, linking the main text to a marginal note. Notes linked to the text by symbols like this first appeared as early as the twelfth century, though Kepler’s book is somewhat behind the times: the first footnote proper, where the note lay at the bottom of the page rather than in the margin, had appeared some fifty years earlier.
In this work, Kepler used ratios derived from the movements of the planets to construct musical scores (as shown here), and proposed his third law of planetary motion, which related the period of a planet’s orbit to its distance from the sun.
Many thanks to Rob Tweedie for arranging our visit to the Crawford Collection, and to Karen Moran for her engaging and informative tour. You can read more about the Crawford Collection and some of its most important books in this document hosted at the Royal Observatory’s web site.