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Written in the Stars

Posted On May 28, 2019 | 14:10 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Alberto Bardi examines astronomical manuscripts and cross-cultural exchanges in Byzantium

Alberto Bardi, who joins the Polonsky Academy for Advanced Studies at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute as a postdoctoral research scholar this fall, was a fellow in Byzantine Studies. His recent research report, “Astronomy in Byzantium: Workshop of Entangled Cultures,” introduced an international network of 14th-century scholars who shaped the development of astronomy.

Q&A with Alberto Bardi

Why were certain uses of astronomy considered dangerous in Byzantium?

We’re used to thinking of religion as a private realm and astronomy as something related to NASA observatories. But we cannot think about religion, astronomy, and politics in Byzantium through the lens of modern categorizations, otherwise we risk charges of propagandizing or revisionism, two things a genuine scholar should always avoid.

Basically, astronomy in Byzantium was part of a broader system of knowledge and education, a system ultimately designed to contribute to preserving the balance of civilization. That is why some Byzantine scholars attacked the practice of astrology. Astrology, very briefly, is the art of interpreting the astronomical computations of the planetary positions. By means of established common reference systems of astrological knowledge, which encompass every aspect of life, the relationships between these planetary positions are used to predict or justify events, including births, deaths, and every kind of human behavior.

Scholars have argued that Byzantine elites were fond of the practice of astrology, but Byzantines did not consider their Orthodox faith as a mere private matter. If you believe everything pertaining to human activities is connected to the stars, this places human beings in a deterministic system where free will and God’s providence are absent. That is, you introduce the notion that human beings lack all responsibility for their own actions. Needless to say, this is destabilizing and damages society as a whole. For this reason, some Byzantine scholars rejected astrology as an ungodly activity that was against the interests of the collective good and would lead to perdition and madness.


How did astronomy connect late Byzantium with distant lands—from Mediterranean empires to the Islamic world and Western Europe?

Exchanges of scientific knowledge between different communities were fairly common in the Middle Ages. For my part, I am tracing occurrences of Arabic and Persian words in Byzantine Greek astronomical manuscripts, examining how their use changed in the course of the 14th century. Studying these discoveries will enrich our knowledge of Byzantine astronomy and Byzantine exchanges with other contemporary civilizations. My article documenting the very first results of this research was published in the Journal for the History of Astronomy.


And how did the cross-cultural knowledge of Byzantine astronomy make it to Western Europe?

In this instance we have an emblematic case. Scholars have argued that Nicolaus Copernicus—the first early modern scholar to propose that the sun is at the center of the universe—could have been inspired by some of the planetary models produced by Islamic astronomers. But how would he have encountered Islamic astronomy? Probably in translations from Arabic provided in Greek manuscripts, brought into Italy by Byzantine scholars—we know that a significant number of Greek astronomical manuscripts were brought into Italy during the first half of the 15th century. The sources I am examining will shed new light on the Byzantine impact on debates about astronomy and cosmology in European humanism and the Renaissance. Some of the results of my scholarship on these topics have already been published in the Journal of Islamic Studies.


Julia Ostmann is Postgraduate Writing and Reporting Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, Postgraduate Digital Media Fellow.