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Shaping a European Scientific Scene : Alfonsine Astronomy

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ALFA (Shaping a European Scientific Scene : Alfonsine Astronomy)

Reporting period: 2019-03-01 to 2020-08-31

ALFA is devoted to the study of the history of mathematical astronomy, the art of computing astral positions, as it was practiced in Europe from the end of the 13th century to well into the 16th century. These practices are structured around the Alfonsine tables, a large set of astronomical tables compiled in Toledo under the patronage of Alfonse X of Castile circa 1271 and heir to Arabic astronomical traditions developed in the Iberian Peninsula. Beginning in 1320, the Castilian Alfonsine Tables were recast in Paris, resulting in the Parisian Alfonsine Tables (PAT). This set circulated widely and fostered astronomical activities throughout Europe. What we call “Alfonsine astronomy” was shaped around this set of tables and a significant number of newly produced works, texts explaining the use of tables (canons), texts on astronomical instruments, mathematical and theoretical texts, almanacs, calendars, and ephemerides. Together these materials form the corpus of Alfonsine works, of which there are a few hundred, extant in more than 600 manuscript codices and dozens of printed editions, which comprise the documentary basis of ALFA.

Alfonsine astronomy is arguably among the first important scientific achievements in Europe. It shaped a scene for actors like Bianchini, Regiomontanus or Copernicus. There is however little detailed historical analysis encompassing the full breadth of its development. ALFA seeks to fill this lacuna by studying tables, instruments, mathematical and theoretical texts in methodologically innovative ways, drawing on approaches from history of astronomy, history of mathematics, history of manuscript cultures, and digital humanities.

ALFA integrates these approaches not only to benefit from different perspectives but also to pose new questions from their interactions. Hence ALFA pursues three main objectives in three distinct phases of the project:
* Retrace the development of the corpus of Alfonsine texts from its origin in the second half of the 13th century to the 16th century by examining, on the manuscript level, the milieus fostering it;
* Analyse Alfonsine astronomers’ practices, their relations to mathematics, the natural world, proofs and justification, their intellectual contexts and audiences;
* Build a synthetic narrative showing how astronomers in different milieus with diverse practices shaped, also from Arabic materials, an original scientific scene in Europe.
ALFA is now in the middle of its course. The team has been working mainly on the first objective and is currently initiating its first tasks toward the second.

Working in a deeply collective manner (more than 175 have been presented by 66 differents scholars) we have pursued four main tasks with respect to our first objectives:
1. A survey of Alfonsine manuscripts and texts that considerably enrich and refine the knowledge of this corpus (now around 600 manuscripts, attesting more than 300 works from around a 100 different authors). This survey will be available as an open digital source.
2. Expanded description of about 20 manuscripts analysing the material, graphical and intellectual feature of the sources and revealing different contexts for various types of astronomical practices. This expanded manuscript description will be available as an open digital source
3. Multiple studies and critical editions of some key works of the Alfonsine traditions are in preparation and will be published
4. A first collective book is scheduled for publication with Brepols in 2021.

Initiating the second phase of our project we have created, with partner projects, DISHAS a Digital Information Systems for the History of Astral Sciences. This platform will allow in depth and collaborative edition and analysis of astronomical tables. We have also started a dedicated seminar since 2019 dedicated to the mathematical practices of Alfonsine astronomers
ALFA will shed new light on the intellectual history of the late medieval period as a whole and produce a better understanding of its relations to related scientific periods in Europe and beyond. It will also produce methodological breakthroughs impacting the ways history of knowledge is practiced outside the field of ancient and medieval sciences. Efforts will be devoted to bring these results not only to the relevant scholarly communities but also to a wider audience as a resource in the public debates around science, knowledge and culture.