John Bainbridge Historiography

16 October, 2017 - MA Coursework

Setting John Bainbridge’s An Astronomicall Description of the Late Comet in its historiographic context is less a matter of recounting an obvious and lively argument than one of collecting and assembling disparate bits. There are no books, journal articles, or dissertations centered around Bainbridge, none with his name in the title. Bainbridge is thus relegated to play minor roles in several astronomical and cosmological issues of the time. His 1618 treatise on the comet marks one of the first instances of the use of a telescope to observe a comet (the first, by Kepler, had occurred only a few months prior, September 6th, on one of that year’s earlier comets). Bainbridge also cryptically argues for heliocentrism at a time, though well after Copernicus, in which heliocentrism was still hotly contested (only two years prior De Revolutionibus had been placed on the list of banned books by the Catholic Church and Galileo had been issued his “cease and desist” order). The treatise condemns “vulgar astrologie” yet somehow half its pages are devoted to a “moral prognostick” which employs, among other methods, a kind of iconology of the constellations (“celestial hieroglyphicks”). It unrelentingly attacks Aristotelianism. It utilizes new cartographic projection techniques to track and display the path of the comet through the celestial sphere and demonstrate its relationship to the position of the sun. It makes and graphically-diagrams parallax measurements demonstrating the comet’s supralunary position at a time, though some forty years after Tycho and the 1577 comet, when the meteorological/cosmological status of comets was still debated. It was written in English and overtly expresses its desire for a larger audience. And, finally, it earned Bainbridge the first Savilian Professorship of Astronomy at Cambridge and is thus representative of Henry Savile’s scholarly orientation and plays a role in the modern formulation of English university education built around endowed professorships.

In a sense, there is no historiography of John Bainbridge, one can only be contrived, not described. There are historiographies of the roles of the telescope, cartography, heliocentrism, astrology, and the university in astronomy in 17th century England, and Bainbridge plays small parts in each of them. This historiography, then, is more akin to scrapbooking than what we might otherwise expect. The accumulation of Bainbridge’s piecemeal participation in each of the above elements of 17th century English astronomy magnifies his influence beyond the particularity of his idiosyncratic contributions in each and renders him worthy, though wanting, of historians’ attention. Mordechai Feingold, something of a Bainbridge expert, if such a thing exists, bluntly brings this into focus. For Feingold, Bainbridge was a “gifted astronomer” whose works “have not received the attention they merit.” This single simple sentence, in a manner of speaking, is the historiography of John Bainbridge.

Since there is no “John Bainbridge debate” about An Astronomicall Description. I want to go through debates about its constituent components insofar as they insert Bainbridge into other debates, beginning with models of the universe. According to Phyllis Allen in “Scientific Studies in the English Universities of the Seventeenth Century” Bainbridge was a Ptolemaic. According to Barbara Shapiro in “The Universities and Science in Seventeenth Century England” Bainbridge “espoused the Tychonic version of the heliocentric theory.” Though this is a seeming self-contradiction, we will assume by that she meant geo-heliocentrism. Donald Yeomans, in Comets: A Chronological History of Observation,  Science, Myth, and Folklore, deduces from An Astronomicall Description that Bainbridge displays a “clear preference for a heliocentric cosmology. For Francis R. Johnson, in Astronomical Thought in Renaissance England, in Johnson’s reading of An Astronomicall Description Bainbridge only hints that he favored the heliocentric hypothesis. From reviewing Bainbridge’s lecture notes, Nicholas Tyacke in “Science and Religion at Oxford before the Civil War” states Bainbridge “positively recommended” the heliocentric hypothesis. Complicating the issue further still, Bainbridge’s Astronomicall Description is hardly explicit on the matter, Johnson chose his words carefully in calling it nothing more than a “hint.” This is what Bainbridge says on the matter:

I can hardly keepe within the sphaere of this little Treatise, and scarsely refraine from the Samian Philosophy of Aristarchus in the earths motion, were it not I feared another Aristarchus his broach: and that I must reserue these mysteries for a more learned language.


This classical-humanist cryptography does suggest a preference for heliocentrism — Aristarchus of Samos was the first known to propose heliocentrism. Now here we have a real dispute, or at least the appearance of one — none of these authors are in direct conversation with one another. They appear to make contradictory claims, but because some of them fail to specify to what point in Bainbridge’s life or in what venue they are describing Bainbridge’s cosmological opinions, it is difficult to dispute them. This “controversy” illuminates many of the inherent deficiencies of a contrived historiography: the literature utilized here regarding Bainbridge’s cosmology is distributed uniformly all the way from 1937 to 1991; the authors do not directly address one another; they fail to provide their claims with the requisite specificity for reconstructing an argument out of them. The conversation surrounding Bainbridge’s disposition to astrology is even sparser.

Sara Schechner, previously Sara Schechner Genuth, in both her “From Monstrous Signs to Natural Causes” and Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology is the principle explicator of Bainbridge’s uneasy relationship to astrology. She places Bainbridge in an astrological context in which celestial phenomena, rather than influencing the lives of individuals in specific ways, serve as sources of legitimation for large-scale religious and political phenomena. She highlights Bainbridge’s attention to the five comets during ten years of Luther’s preaching, the 1558 comet, and the 1577 comet for their recognition of Protestant triumphs,, placing Bainbridge in a school of prognosticators of positive omens as opposed to the common eschatological tendencies of the times. James Doelman in “The Comet of 1618 and the British Royal Family” substantiates this reading and makes sure to correct Yeoman’s claim that Bainbridge did not believe comets could be used as portents. Schechner also establishes a framework for cometary astrology with which to evaluate Bainbridge. For Schechner there are three means by which to prognosticate with comets: their conjunction with other celestial bodies, their passage through the zodiac and other prominent constellations, and their passage through astrological houses. Bainbridge used the first two. These distinctions are important for clarifying Bainbridge’s negative disposition to established forms of astrological practice. Perhaps most interesting is the second method of iconological prognostication, according to which constellations a comet passes through or toward which its tail points. Bainbridge calls this “according to celestial hieroglyphicks.” Though Schechner devotes three pages to this iconological astrology, she mentions no other practitioner who utilized it and only states that it originated from Pliny’s Natural History (Book II, Ch. 23). The only other mention of this form of prognostication comes from William Burns’s “An Age of Wonders” which states, and only in a footnote, that William Greene in his Memento’s to the World and John Gadbury also used the color and shape of the comet, as well as the signs in which it appeared, to prognosticate. Historians’ difficult grasp of Bainbridge’s stance on astrology stems from Bainbridge’s own confused position. He deplored “vulgar astrolgie” and made prognostications in the same sentence. That Bainbridge was confused about the definition of astrology is probably an unacceptable conclusion. More likely, he isolated his disdain to judicial astrology and nativities in particular, resenting their mingling with mathematical astronomy and implicit dependence on geocentrism. This explanation is mutually supported by Henry Savile’s appreciation for Bainbridge’s work evidenced in the professorship he bestowed upon Bainbridge (1620) almost immediately after An Astronomicall Description was published.

In the statutes Savile established for his professorships at Oxford, the appointees were, in no uncertain terms, prohibited from teaching or performing judicial astrology. Historical study of  Savile’s professorship serves as another historiographic conduit we can use to examine Bainbridge’s Astronomicall Description. When Savile chose Bainbridge to be the first Savilian Professor of Astronomy, he was young and only recently in possession of his doctorate, and this treatise was the only thing he had published. If we carefully understand Savile’s demands stipulated for his endowed professors and assume he saw in An Astronomicall Description the satisfaction of those demands, then we can perhaps understand some of Bainbridge’s motives and insinuations through this lens; several historians have attempted this. Besides their prohibition of judicial astrology, the Savilian statutes insisted on a mixture of textual and practical studies, which Bainbridge’s Astronomicall Description, with its use of the telescope and measurement of parallax would more than satisfy. Webster assumes Bainbridge’s Astronomically Description was solely responsible for his appointment. Yeoman’s admits it was it least partially responsible. Feingold disputes this, however. After paying lip service to Wood’s claim, in line with Webster, that An Astronmicall Description earned Bainbridge the professorship, Feingold dispenses it. He claims that this cannot have been the reason because we know from their correspondence that Bainbridge communicated his observations to Savile shortly after the appearance of the comet, while it was still visible. This might only be plausible if Savile were solely concerned with Bainbridge’s measurements. We know, however, that Savile’s search-criteria for his professorship extended well beyond simple measurement; he also especially desired a professor who could teach the ancients and “moderns” alongside one another.

Though G. J. Toomer in his Eastern Wisedome and Learning only emphasizes Savile’s interest in the ancients — it happens to serve his purpose — and Barbara Shapiro claims Savile’s statutes “would not have insured the teaching of the newest in astronomical and mathematical knowledge,” we have from several other sources the importance Savile placed on the moderns in addition to the ancients, most fundamentally Ptolemy’s Almagest. Francis Johnson lists Copernicus by name. Tyacke makes sure to quote Savile, who prescribes only “modern writers” in general, without specify which. Mordechai also adds the generic “moderns” to the ancients, and notes that Bainbridge fulfilled this mandate throughout his life. If we may circle back to the issue of cosmology, the fact that Savile was so impressed with Bainbridge’s ability to balance ancient and modern astronomies, and perhaps entrusted Bainbridge to teach Copernicus, might shed light on Bainbridge’s cosmological insinuations in his Astronomicall Description.

In some sense, this style of historiography is a rather feeble attempt to force a conversation onto disparately-engaged historians. Though I have only wandered a little around the conversations about heliocentrism, cometary astrology and the Savilian Professorship, there are also Bainbridgean scraps littered about the conversations surrounding the telescope, parallax, cartographic projection, and other domains. There is no “school of thought” when it comes to Bainbridge or his Astronomicall Description, much less “schools” whose changes, interactions, and disputes can be catalogued and narrated as a reader might expect from an historiography. But there might still be merit in ferreting out these scraps about Bainbridge. Mordechai Feingold bemoans Bainbridge’s relative invisibility in the literature, telling us “it is only by way of his letters and notebooks that the merits of his work and the identity of the men with whom he associated can begin to be appreciated.” Since I am unable to access his papers at Trinity College Dublin, I am left with my only recourse: to comb through the indices of the secondary literature only tangential to his endeavors and accumulate his statements, friendships, and opinions one reference at a time.


Allen, Phyllis, “Scientific Studies in the English Universities of the Seventeenth Century.” Journal of the History of Ideas 10, no. 2 (April 1949): 219-253.

Bainbridge, John, 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 amonst the celestiall Hieroglyphicks, 2nd Ed. London: Edward Griffin, 1619.

Battistini, Matilde, Astrology, Magic, and Alchemy in Art. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007.

Bowden, Mary Ellen, “The Scientific Revolution in Astrology: The English Reformers, 1558-1686.” PhD diss., Yale University, 1974.

Burns, William, “An Age of Wonders: Prodigies, Providence, and Politics in England, 1580-1727.” PhD diss., University of California, Davis, 1994.

Doelman, James, “The Comet of 1618 and the British Royal Family.” Notes and Queries 54, no. 1 (March 2007): 30-35.

Feingold, Mordechai, The Mathematicians’ Apprenticeship: Science, Universities and Society in England, 1560-1640. New York: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Genuth, Sara Schechner, “From Monstrous Signs to Natural Causes: The Assimilation of Comet Lore into Natural Philosophy.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1988.

Gunther, R. T., Early Science in Oxford Volume II. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920.

Heidarzadeh, Tofigh, “Theories of Comets to the Age of Laplace.” PhD diss., University of Oklahoma, 2004

Hutchison, Keith, “Towards a Political Iconology of the Copernican Revolution.” In Astrology, Science and Society: Historical Essays, edited by Patrick Curry. Wolfeboro, N.H.: Boydell Press, 1987.

Johnson, Francis R., Astronomical Thought in Renaissance England: A Study of the English Scientific Writings from 1500 to 1645. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1937.

O’Sullivan, William, “Ussher As a Collector of Manuscripts.” Hermathena 88 (Nov. 1956): 34-58.

Schechner, Sara J., Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.

Shapiro, Barbara J., “The Universities and Science in Seventeenth Century England.” Journal of British Studies 10, no. 2 (May 1971): 47-82.

Toomer, G. J., Eastern Wisedome and Learning: The Study of Arabic in Seventeenth-Century England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Tyacke, Nicholas, “Science and Religion at Oxford before the Civil War.” In Puritans and Revolutionaries: Essays in Seventeenth-Century History presented to Christopher Hill, edited by Donald Pennington and Keith Thomas, 73-93. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Webster, Charles, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform, 1626-1660. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1976.

Yeomans, Donald K., Comets: A Chronological History of Observation, Science, Myth, and Folklore. New York: Wiley, 1991.


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