Thomas Digges (c. 1546–1595) and the reception of Copernican theory in early modern England

19.12.2023 | 19.12.2023

dr Barbara Bienias, Institute for the History of Science, Polish Academy of Sciences

In 1576, Thomas Digges – Elizabethan mathematician, astronomer, and statesman – published the first English (augmented) translation of the excerpts from Book I of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus (1543). A Perfit Description of the Celestiall Orbes was appended to hisfather’s immensely popular A Prognostication Everlasting and was accompanied by adiagram depicting the Sun positioned at the centre of the universe with the unbounded sphereof scattered stars. The publication went through at least eight editions by 1605.

Our aim is to explore the potential influence of Digges’s work on the reception andrepresentation of Copernicus’s theory in early modern England. Among the analysed sourcesis a pamphlet against ‘the disciples of Copernicus’, published in one of Arthur Hopton’s (c.1580–1614) prognostications. In his essay, Hopton employs vocabulary and structureremarkably akin to those used by Digges in A Perfect Description. There are alsoreverberations of Digges’s translation in the almanacs of early supporters of Copernicantheory, such as Thomas Bretnor (c. 1570–1618).

We will explore the tradition (especially textbook tradition) to which Digges’s diagramalludes, and we will investigate whether his unique representation could have influenced othercosmological diagrams disseminated in England.

This case study is also a work in progress on the nature of cosmological diagrams in earlymodern England with respect to textbooks, academic lectures, student notes, andcommonplace books. It raises broader questions: How did visual astronomical concepts travelthroughout early modern Europe? How did the print market influence the spread of theseideas?


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