University of Glasgow


Part of the Library and University Services

Please note that these pages are from our old (pre-2010) website; the presentation of these pages may now appear outdated and may not always comply with current accessibility guidelines.

Book of the Month

June 2001

Euclid's Geometry 

France: c. 1480

Sp Coll MS Gen. 1115

This month's book has been chosen as one of the items to be displayed on Friday 15 June in the exhibition Information Services through the Ages organized by  the Library Special Collections Department and the University Archive Services as part of the Information Services Open Day. It is a fifteenth century manuscript of Euclid's Elements in Latin with other texts mainly on geometry.

front flyleaf: early pressmarks

Glasgow University was founded in 1451. Although we do not know for sure, this manuscript was possibly used in early teaching at the University. Certainly, it is a typical example of the kind of textbook that would have been used as part of the medieval curriculum.  While there is no record of how the manuscript was acquired by the Library, it does bear early University press marks on the front flyleaf: Ff.3. n.5, and another earlier Glasgow mark, now crossed out and obscured, but possibly beginning with a 'G'.

folio 8r: beginning of Euclid's elements 


The main item in the manuscript (folios 8-172v) is a copy of Euclid's Elements, translated out of Arabic into Latin by the English scholastic philosopher Adelard of Bath. Its colophon states that it was finished being written out  on 4 December 1480. This manuscript copy therefore predates the first printed edition, produced in Venice by Erhard Ratdolt in 1482, by just two years. 

The oldest textbook on geometry still in use today, the Greek mathematician Euclid originally compiled this work in c.300 BC. A brilliant refinement of earlier mathematical knowledge, the Elements has retained its importance since antiquity. Its success can be attributed to its simple structure where each theorem follows logically from its predecessor. Pythagoras' theorem, one of the most famous geometric proofs, is in fact due to Euclid: it is stated as proposition 47 in Book I.

Euclid was studied as part of the arts degree in the medieval curriculum. The course consisted primarily of philosophy, particularly drawing upon the works of Aristotle; to begin, the students would study logic and rhetoric before progressing to mathematics, arithmetic and geometry, the physical sciences such as astronomy and optics, and ethics. Euclid was the fundamental text in the study of geometry, although only the first six books were usually required. 

Although books were the basis for teaching, these were expensive and sometimes to difficult to obtain; medieval text books, therefore, tended to be owned by the masters. Teaching centred upon the public dictation of texts in lectures, with commentary by the master and debate by the students upon the matters raised. 

opening: folios 35v & 36r

The manuscript was written in France. Although a workmanlike creation, it is still beautifully produced, with gold leaf initials prefacing each main part, smaller initials provided alternately in blue and red to begin sections of text, coloured paragraph markers  to break up sections of text, and capital letters filled with pale yellow ink to highlight sentences. Such features would have been used by the medieval reader to help navigate around the book which lacks modern apparatus such as an index and table of contents.
folio 35v: detail 

folio 36r: detail

As in most copies of Euclid, the text is enhanced by numerous marginal illustrations. These are an integral part of the work and perform a practical function in explaining and demonstrating the arguments put forward by the text. Executed with care and precision, alphabetical letters cross reference the parts of each diagram to relevant sections in the text.
The manuscript was written by one scribe throughout. Propositions and proofs are differentiated by the use of two scripts, as can be seen here. The propositions are written in a higher grade textura style script, and the proofs in a much smaller current cursiva.

Evidence of use by readers is shown here by a variety of 'nota' symbols, employed as mnemonic aids by readers to help retrieve noteworthy  information quickly. Marking the text here are three of the popular 'pointing hand' devices, as well as one abstract 'flower' symbol.

folio 42r: detail

Many of the other texts found in the volume are particularly concerned with squaring the circle. The other works (not all of which are complete) are: a tract on circumferences (173r-175v); Thomas Bradwardine Geometria (175v-177); Euclid Optica (177v-188); Pseudo-Euclid Catoptrica (188v-193); Alhasen De speculis comburentibus (193v-197v); Apollonius Pergaeus De Pyramidibus (197v-198v); Pseudo-Euclid De gravi et levi (199); Archimenides De Canonio (199v-201r); Elementa Jordani super demonstrationem ponderum (201); Archimedes De mensura circuli (202r-203v); a paraphrase of another version of Archimedes De mensura circuli (203v-207v); Campanus de Novara De quadratura circuli (208r-209); a version of the Quadratura per lunulas (209v-210); Quadratura circuli secundum (210-214v); 23 propositions and proofs (214v-222v); directions to make an astronomical instrument followed by a table Auges planetarum anno 1450 completo, shown here (226-229v). 

folio 229v

folio 3v: flyleaf annotations

The flyleaves of the manuscript at both the beginning and end of the volume have been used extensively by early readers to make various notes and jottings of diagrams. This is a common phenomenon in books of this age, produced at a time when paper was a scarce and expensive commodity. As well as notes pertaining to the texts, the annotations include a prophecy about Joan of Arc sent to Charles VII in 1429, and a diagram to forecast the length and outcome of an illness. This diagram is illustrated here, with Christ (Vita) standing on the devil (Mors).

This manuscript will be on display in the level 12 seminar room (next to the Special Collections Reading Room) between 10am and 4pm on Friday 15 June as part of a Special Collections/Archives exhibition on the theme of Information Services through the Ages. Special Collections staff will also be on hand throughout the day to answer any queries you may have about our services. Behind the scenes tours of the Special Collections book stack will take place at 10.30 am and 2.30 pm. 

Early printed editions of Euclid's Elements in Special Collections include: two copies of Ratdolts' first edition (Venice: 1482) Sp Coll Hunterian By.2.12 and Sp Coll BD9-c.5; two copies of the first edition printed in Greek, edited by Simon Grynaeus (Basel: 1533) Sp Coll Mu55-c.8 and Sp Coll Hunterian R.4.15; see also Sp Coll BD7-b.1 (Venice: 1505); Sp Coll Ea5-a.4 (Venice: 1509); Sp Coll Hunterian R.3.4 (Venice: 1517); Sp Coll Ea5-a.10 (Paris: 1544) and Sp Coll Ea5-a.11 (Basel: 1546).


Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page

Julie Coleman June 2001