John Bainbridge – An Astronomicall Description of the late Comet

6 October, 2017 - MA Coursework

The 1619 Edward Griffin-published version of John Bainbridge’s An Astronomicall Description of the late Comet’s paratext is composed of a title page, a dedication, some kind of latin poem written by the author and disobedient to metrical rules, errata, and a planisphere (supposedly of the author’s own “invention”)..

From the title page: the full title of the work is An Astronomicall Description of the late Comet from the 18. Of Nouemb. 1618. To the 16. Of December following. With certaine Morall Prognosticks or Applications drawne from the Comets motion and irradiation amongst the celestiall Hieroglyphicks. By vigilant and diligent observations of Iohn Bainbridge Doctor of Physicke, and louer of the Mathematicks. “Hieroglyphics” and “Iohn Bainbridge” in the title is rendered in small caps with increased letter-spacing for emphasis, “Iohn Bainbridge” for obvious reasons, but “Hieroglyphicks”, I think, to distinguish Bainbridge’s moral prognostications (using iconography) from “vulgar astrologie.” At the bottom of the page lies the publishers imprint (London, by Edward Griffin, for John Parker, in 1619). Between the title and publishing information is placed a circular seal with the Hebrew “YHWH” circumscribed by cloud at the top overlooking a small earth in the center of the seal. Above the earth figure, but below “YHWH” are stars, the symbols for Mars, Mercury, and Saturn, and a comet. The positions of the planetary symbols presumably correspond to the positions of these planets during this comet’s (of 1618/19) appearance because the comet was, for a time, in conjunction with Mercury and in this seal the comet is positioned directly adjacent to Mercury’s symbol. Transecting the earth icon at the center of the seal, possibly either representing the equinoctial line or the ecliptic is a line that divides the seal in half. The bottom portion contains this from Isaiah Chapter 40: “Lift vp your eyes on hie, and behold who hath created these things.”

Next the Epistle Dedicatorie: At the head of the dedication is a fleur de lis (presumably for its royal associations) in the center adorned on all sides by filigree foliage. Winding through this filligree is a banner formed into paisely swirls containing either meaningless shapes or text too minute and imprecisely-rendered by the photocopy to be legible. The text is dedicated “To the Imperiall Maiesty of Great Britaines Monarch James &c.” I do not know what the etcetera stands in place of, as I do not know the honorific standards of the 17th century, but presumably James is supposed to be trailed by innumerable superfluous titles, the inconvenience of which is avoided with “&c.” Before addressing the text of the dedication, its initial is difficult to make out, but on its left a human figure, perhaps bearded, sits with what seems like some kind of text opened on his lap. He seems to be in the Garden of Eden for the vine overhanging the person with a snake coiled around its base; the man is, however, clothed.

The dedication to King James opens with a quote in Greek from Aristides ( Aristides of Athens?, a 2nd century Christian writer). I was unable to translate the quote but from context it advises that we should worship God with temples, but honor noble personages with book dedications. That the quote is rendered in Greek may have been merely a humanist habit, or it may have served to create a more exclusive address only to those literate in Greek (the rest of the text, being written in English and from statements of the author is directed more inclusively at a non-academic audience). After quoting Aristides, Bainbridge sets out to remind the king that he recently wrote in support of the monarchy and in the union of the two kingdoms (Scotland and England, James was the king of the former before ascending to the English throne) and in acknowledgement of the divine providence in such a union, and, implicitly, such a monarch. Bainbridge’s reference to his previous writing not only serves as a nice piece of sycophancy, but segues into the astronomical topic o,f the treatise. In Bainbridge’s estimation, since he published in support of the king and the union, “heaven”, as a metonym for God, sent the comet under discussion to manifest His zeal (shared, of course, by Bainbridge) for King James. Bainbridge closes the dedication by asking the king to “project the beames of your sweete, and gracious influence both on it, and the Author . . ..,” with “beames” drawing a metaphor between the radiance of the comet and his majesty himself: “. . . as the glorious Sunne of Heaven with his resplendence enlightned this (otherwise obscure) Comet: So your Majestie our terrestiall Phoebus would vouchsafe to illustrate.” This, as becomes apparent from the main text, extends the metaphor linking the radiance of the king and the comet to also include the sun (in Bainbridge’s physics, the head of the comet acts as a mechanism of light refraction and condensation, and the tail of a comet is, one and the same, the rays of the sun made visible. The mention of Phoebus (Apollo) compounds the metaphor, having been identified with the titan Helios.

Next comes a bit of latin verse penned by Bainbridge I was unable to translate or get the gist of (20 lines), but it is titled “Serene Majesty of Britain// χαιρε Coeleste.” I could find no entry for χαιρε in any online Greek dictionary.

The final item of the paratext is the planisphere. In modern parlance a planisphere is a simple device for determining what stars will be visible on a given day of the year by rotating two disks around the same axis. The planisphere in this treatise is a kind of two-dimensional projection of the heavens onto a grid (latitude and longitude) composed of orthogonal vertical lines representing the x-axis (longitude, starting from the ecliptic) and concentric curves marking the y-axis (latitude). The planisphere contains the path of the comet according to Bainbridge’s observations, the direction of the comet’s tail at four positions along its path, and the “hieroglyphics” of six constellations (Virgo, Libra, the Serpent, the Crown, Arctophylax, and Ursa Major. Nearly perpendicular to the path of the comet (~81 deg. angle according to Bainbridge) is the equinoctial line. There are two interesting idiosyncrasies about the ecliptic (x-axis) that I cannot decipher: (1) the scale of the latitude running along the ecliptic is neither consistently ascending or descending, nor ascending in both directions from the center, but increasing, in increments of 5, up to 30deg and then resetting (perhaps marking the dodecatemories?); and (2) the zodiac signs are marked along the ecliptic, with markings for Scorpio, Libra, and Virgo, but they do not line up with their respective hieroglyphs — the sign for Scorpio is under the Libra hieroglyph and the Libra sign is under the Virgo hieroglyph. Also marked on the ecliptic/x-axis is four positions of the  with transects from these sun icons through the heads of the comets and collinear with the comet’s tails, demonstrating the relationship between tail direction and sun position. Along the line of the comet’s path is a scale marking the time of the comet’s appearance to Bainbridge (Nov. 18 to Dec. 16), with an icon marking the comet’s position presumably for each observation Bainbridge made. This planisphere could serve as a frontispiece. It graphically represents almost the entire contents of the astronomical section of the treatise (only parallax is left out), though diagrammatically rather than metaphorically. The hieroglyphs serve a dual purpose. They allow the reader to place the comet in a recognizable night’s sky, but they also serve a prognostic purpose: the position of the comet relative to a section of a hieroglyph is symbolically indicative of the astrological meaning of the comet. The representation of tails likewise serves a similar dual purpose: in addition to their aforementioned orientation away from the sun, their pointing to various celestial components carries astrological significance.

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