Cosmotheoria, libros duos complexa, Jean Fernel
The August 2018 rare book of the month is Jean Fernel’s Cosmotheoria, libros duos complexa, printed in Paris in 1528. This book is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it is a very early work on celestial mechanics and astronomy. The Middle Temple Library copy of Cosmotheoria is bound with two of Fernel’s other works: Monalosphaerium (1526) and De proportionibus libri duo (1528).
Jean Fernel was born in 1497 in Montdidier and died in Paris in 1558. He obtained a license to practice medicine at the relatively advanced age of 33, and maintained an interest in mathematics throughout his life. He was the first European to make a “noteworthy modern attempt at measuring the earth” (David Smith, History of Mathematics, volume 2, p.347) and is known to have calculated its circumference to within one percent of the true value. The Cosmotheoria is the second work he published and like his first, Monalosphaerium, was printed by Simon de Colines, who was one of the most renowned of the Parisian printers. He married the widow of the equally celebrated French printer, Henri Estienne. As can be seen above, the title page is beautifully printed, with a woodcut border that depicts the portraits and coats of arms of the France and of the Dauphin. The book was originally printed in 1527 with the title page reprinted to modify the date; the colophon is dated 1527.
Fernel was a professor of medicine in Paris. From 1542 onwards, Fernel’s popularity and fame as a physician grew, when he was appointed “physican to the Dauphin” (Charles Sherrington, The Endeavour of Jean Fernel, p.208). In 1556/7 he became physician to Henry II, King of France. Unlike other physicians of the time, Fernel did not believe in astrology as an adjunct to medicine, nor did he support the widespread use of blood-letting.
Each of the three ‘bound-together’ books by Fernel has an interesting provenance. The De proportionibus libri duo has a contemporary inscription on the title page which reads: ‘Ex dono reverendissimi domi magistri henrici de sancto claro episcopi rossensis’. Henry Sinclair (1507/8-1565) was bishop of Ross and Lord President of the Court of Session in Scotland. He died in Paris in 1565. The Cosmotheoria has a signature or inscription on the bottom right of the title page which has been trimmed off by an inattentive binder.
Both the Cosmotheoria and the Monalosphaerium have a book stamp on the verso of the title page: ‘Ex libris M. Guillermi Lambe. 1530’. This is probably the earliest English book stamp ever recorded, and could be that of William Lamb (1495-1580), philanthropist and the man responsible for the construction Lamb’s Conduit. This conduit was at the north end of Red Lion Street in Holborn and provided clean drinking water for Londoners, albeit running through “lead pipes” (George Clinch, Marylebone and St. Pancras, p. 144). The title page to the De proportionibus libri duo is damaged, with half of it missing, but most likely also had the book stamp on the verso.
While the Cosmotheoria does contain an early reference to ‘America’ in the dedicatory letter to John III, King of Portugal, it does not contain a clear reference to the Saint Lawrence River (Fleuve Saint-Laurent), as some references state. In the passage on America, Fernel talks of a ‘mighty and rich river’ towards the ‘36th degree of Northern latitude’, with a ‘mouth stretching for 28 miles’ emptying into the sea. This river description is based on observations made by the Portuguese explorer João Alvares Fagundes, who explored Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Some take this to mean that Fagundes mistook the 36th degree for the 48th, which would roughly match up to the location of the Saint Lawrence River. It is still not clear whether this is an accurate assessment of Fagundes’s account, because it “remains a matter of speculation” (L.A. Vigneras, Dictionary of Canadian Biography) whether he did, in fact, explore the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence.