British Museum blog

Looking for a time machine: astrolabes in medieval Jewish society


Josefina Rodríguez Arribas, researcher

Astrolabes are the medieval equivalent of the kind of handheld technology we’re all very accustomed to in the twenty-first century. They were instruments you could use to find your way, tell the time, track the movements of the sun and stars, and were – still are – complex, and incredibly impressive.

As the researcher working on a project with the British Museum and the Warburg Institute to study these fascinating objects, my recent trip to Israel was not the first time I’ve been there in search of medieval astronomy and astrology. However it was the first time I have returned with a database of about 140 Hebrew manuscripts dealing with astrolabes: a treasure trove of texts describing and explaining how to build or use these instruments in their almost two thousand years of history. In other words, texts written mostly in Hebrew and a few in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic with Hebrew script) between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries by Jews from around the world (astrolabes remained in use until the nineteenth century in Islamic countries).

These manuscripts are not all physically in Israel – most of them are in libraries and private collections around the world, as are the few surviving Jewish instruments. However, the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem hosts the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, in which we can look for and read microfilms of practically all the Hebrew manuscripts in the public and private collections of the world.

Comparing manuscripts

Comparing manuscripts

An amazing resource, and very convenient. I can sit in the manuscripts reading room, in the basement of the National Library in Jerusalem, and let my eyes go from a Sephardic script of the thirteenth century to an Askenazi of the fifteenth or a Byzantine of the sixteenth century, all of them explaining how an astrolabe works.

These texts were written and copied by Jews spread over three continents, in countries and cities so close or so distant as Vienna, Istanbul, Egypt, Yemen, Lisbon, Baghdad, Mantua, Benevento, Syracuse, Senegal, and more. Most of them were also copied many times throughout the centuries, some in years as decisive for the history of the world or the history of the Jews as the year 1453 (the fall of Constantinople into Turkish hands) or the year 1492 (edict of expulsion of Jews from Spain), when many codices and manuscripts were destroyed or lost for many reasons.

These handwritten texts are like a time machine encapsulating in their parchment, paper, ink, writing, binding, and list of owners, information about the authors and the readers, the Jewish communities where they were produced and the patrons who paid for them. So the transcription, translation, and study of these texts is going to provide us with decisive information about the degree of scientific knowledge and familiarity with certain scientific instruments of many Jewish communities from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and even later.

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8 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. thanbo says:

    Are the IMHM mss., which you show yourself reading on a computer screen, available in major Jewish libraries (JTS, YU), or only in J’lem?

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    • J. Rodriguez says:

      These manuscripts are in libraries all around the world and a few of them are in public and private libraries in Israel. In the IMHM one can examine the microfilms of these manuscripts in situ. What I am looking at on the screen of my computer is a digital copy of one of these microfilms that I ordered from the IMHM. I hope this answers your question.

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      • thanbo says:

        IOW, no. If you want access to these mss, it’s just like it always was – either you go to the IMHM, or you buy a copy. There isn’t digital access to the database from major research libraries. It’s just that IMHM serves as a clearinghouse, so you don’t have to directly interact with ms. owners in other countries.

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    • J. Rodriguez says:

      Thanbo, the names are for something and we should pay attention to them: this Institute is called the Institute of ‘Microfilmed’ Hebrew Manuscripts (IMHM) not the Instituted of ‘Digitized’ Hebrew Manuscripts, and a microfilm (a reel) is certainly not a digital format.

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  2. lja says:

    Are you going to prepare an exhibition about this?

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    • J. Rodriguez says:

      That would be great! We have several events in mind for this research and we are working to get the best of it. What I can say now is that there will certainly be some public event related to the project ‘Astrolabes in the Medieval Jewish Society’ in the near future.

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  3. Simon Shane says:

    With Prof. Ackerman’s departure has the project run out of steam and is that the reason for the BM’s exit from it?

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    • This project on medieval Jewish astrolabes has always been a collaborative project led by Charles Burnett at the Warburg Institute. Although Silke Ackermann has taken up a new job in Germany, which means she can no longer be directly involved with the project, Medieval Jewish Astrolabes has far from run out of steam and new research is still being carried out for the project by Josefina Rodriguez Arribas at the Warburg Institute.

      Dr J D Hill, Research Manager, British Museum

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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