Beware the Rheticus’s prophecy!

Prophecies were ‘bestsellers’ not only in the Middle Ages but also in early modernity. More than year ago I started to work on a commentary to the edition of the manuscript copy of Jan Latosz’s Przestroga (A Warning), the only surviving witness to this astrological and chronological dissertation published in Cracow in 1595. At some point I had to postpone my work as I encountered a puzzling passage which required some time to solve it.

Tu na tym miejscu zdało mi się przypomnieć prognosticon zacnego onego Doktora Rhetykusa, które prawie in ore omniu[m] jest, bo wszytkim w Polszcze wiadome, które ponieważ ex parvis initiis i dosyć słabego gruntu swój początek wiedzie, gdyż ex simplici interrogatione, a to quaestione swe ma fundamenta takie i tak się iści sprawa, powodzenie jego, począwszy od króla Augusta, królów polskich aż do tego czasu. Cóż rozumieć możemy o tych, które ex causis necessariis naturalibus pochodzą? Prawdziwe być nie mają? Praktyka takowa Retykowa wypełniła się już na trzech królach polskich …


It happened to me here to remind about the prognostication of the good Doctor Rheticus, which is on everyone’s lips and is known to everyone in Poland. Although its origins and ground are modest and weak as it is a result of simple interrogation, it has some foundations and the fates of the kings of Poland starting from the king [Sigismundus] Augustus [predicted in it] happen to fulfil. What should we understand, then, about those which come from the necessary natural causes? Should they be considered true? The Rheticus’s practice has already came true for three Polish kings …


Latosz's reference to Rheticus in a 17th-century copy of his Przestroga of 1595 (MS Warsaw, National Library, 6631 III, fol. 20v, fragment; source: Polona)

Latosz’s reference to Rheticus in a 17th-century manuscript copy of his Przestroga of 1595 (MS Warsaw, National Library, 6631 III, fol. 20v, fragment; source: Polona)

In the next sentence Latosz provided brief characteristics of the first three elective kings of Poland, Henri de Valois, Stephen Báthory and Sigismund III Vasa so it seemed that my astrologer was actually paraphrasing a text known back then as a work of Rheticus. The first book I turned to to check this was Ludwik Aleksander Birkenmajer’s monumental study on Nicolaus Copernicus which is a real treasure trove of Copernicus- and Rheticus-related archival bits and pieces. It turned out that indeed, there is something like Rheticus prognostication on the elective monarchs but the text edited by Birkenmajer and taken from a manuscript miscellany held at the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow seemed to be slightly different from the one Latosz referred to as the latter gave descriptions in different order. Birkenmajer mentioned that there are also some other copies of Rheticus text which are located, among others, in the Ossolineum Library (now divided between Wrocław and Lviv) and in Vatican so I decided to take this lead. Unfortunately, consulting the scans from these libraries made it even worse as these copies also seemed to be substantially different from the samples given by Latosz in 1590s and by Birkenmajer in 1900.

First, I thought it was just a mere accident but then I referred to Karl-Heinz Burmeister’s three-volume thorough account of Rheticus’s biography and works and it turned out that things were even more complicated than I initially thought. Not only these few manuscripts mentioned by Birkenmajer turned out to be merely a drop in the bucket of the corpus of witnesses to Rheticus text but, as it turned out, they had very little in common with the text Burmeister published as the prognostication on the kings of Poland. The piece published by Birkenmajer and those I found in Ossolineum in Wrocław and in Stefanyk National Scientific Library of Ukraine in Lviv were rather laconic in comparison to the elaborate horoscope edited by Burmeister.

Soon I came to realize that all scholars who were referring to Rheticus’s prognostication over the past hundred years were playing a blind man’s buff. Every one of them, after seeing few manuscripts, took for granted that the other copies were pretty much alike so if someone examined a late seventeenth-century simplified copy consisting of schematic list of kings he or she simply assumed that other witnesses, known from catalogue descriptions, are exactly the same. I also suppose that even Burmeister himself did not bother to consult all the manuscripts he included on his list of witnesses as some of the copies from Gdansk were considered lost at the moment when he published his study. However, in one thing Burmeister was right, i.e. in giving the privileged position to the manuscript that is now located in the University Library in Wrocław and which provides the most plausible version of Rheticus’s text. Unlike many other manuscripts related to this prognostication, it contains elements of astrological apparatus, including the precise time for which the horoscope was erected as well as an astrological diagram showing the positions of planets at the moment of interrogation. All these elements together with the elaborate characteristics of kings make it look like a work of a genuine sixteenth-century astrologer. The only tiny problem related to this manuscript is the fact that it comes from the eighteenth, not the sixteenth century…

The most reliable witness to Rheticus's horoscope - MS Wrocław, University Library, Akc. 1949/594, fol. 56v, fragment

The most reliable witness to Rheticus’s horoscope – MS Wrocław, University Library, Akc. 1949/594, fol. 56v, fragment

As much as I wanted to believe that Burmeister made the right choice, there were still few question that required some answers. Why should we believe that the 18th-century manuscript should be treated as a key witness to the tradition of text dating back to the second half ot the 16th century? What happened to the Rheticus’s autograph? What are the origins of the prognostication as such? Is it possible to reconstruct the process of textual transmission from the Wrocław MS to the dwarfed copies I saw at the beginning of my investigation? Finally, what about other texts that appear to be somehow linked to Wrocław MS but their form does not resemble even the dwarfed, simplified copies?

While I have no idea what happened to Rheticus’s autograph the answer to the question about the origin of the Wrocław MS and the prophecy as such seems to be quite plausible. The manuscript used by Burmeister is an 18th-century copy of papers of Andreas Dudithius, Catholic bishop, Antitrinitarian and diplomat in the service of Maximilian II. The original papers were lost at some point but before this happened some local historian aware of the importance of Dudith copied them and surrounded with some factual annotations. As to Dudith himself, his connections with Rheticus are quite well documented. Their paths have crossed in Cracow when the first served as imperial envoy and intelligencer and the latter pursued his career of physician and astrologer and got close to the local centres of power. During their stay in Cracow, Dudith has created a circle of erudites interested in astronomy and Rheticus was one of its members. It is quite possible, then, that Dudith was one of the first readers of the horoscope. Although, as Gábor Almási has shown, Dudith was not very much keen on astrology – in fact, he was rather sceptical about it – he was an experienced politician, so it is also possible that he was the actual originator of the whole astrological enterprise or that he quickly incorporated it into his own political and diplomatic agenda. Even if he wasn’t behind the creation of the horoscope and the prognostication was either made of pure curiosity or commissioned by the royal court, it is quite reasonable to assume that Dudith played a significant role in disseminating the text by means of correspondence and there are some fragments in letters to and from him that clearly show that he introduced some astrological pieces into the Central European information exchange network. Being a representative of the Habsburg emperor in the capital of a country which was about to experience a political change, Dudith must have fell back on all possible means to win favor of Polish nobility and secure the election of the Habsburg candidate to the Polish throne.

As my interest in the history behind the Rheticus’s prognostication grew bigger, I kept looking for some other witnesses to this text and started consulting them, either in person or by means of microfilms and digital copies. Soon it turned out that some of them generally confirm the contents of the Wrocław MS although none of them contained the astrological chart and their astrological layer was heavily corrupted. In the meantime, the pool of manuscripts started to reveal some other curious aspects. For instance, soon it turned out that the prognostication was translated not only into German, what has been noted by Burmeister, but also into Polish and while the German version, most likely linked to the city of Gdansk, was consistent in all copies, the Polish had few very distant variants.

The analysis of these texts did not allow me to reconstruct the precise devolution of the text, from the inextant archetype (substituted by the Wrocław MS) to the most corrupted versions – there were simply too many differences between them to decide which one should be superior to another, especially if they all come from the second half of the seventeenth century and from different locations. The process of collecting all witnesses allowed me instead to do other thing, i.e. to analyse the process of condensation of the original horoscope into the form of a popular prophecy which had very little to do with the text that was authored by the disciple of Copernicus. One of the aspects of this process was the simplification of the text: first, the astrological apparatus was abandoned, then some of the characteristics got abridged, and the latest versions of the prophecy, although their titles still echoed the original horoscope, consisted merely of a list of two- or three-word characteristics of future kings of Poland. Another aspect is the fading memory of Rheticus as the author of the horoscope or, as you like, the elective prophecy. Latosz was able to refer to the author of Relatio prima thanks to the fact he was well aware of the astrological traditions of Cracow and he did this in 1590s, only two decades after Rheticus’s death. But these details must have fell into oblivion or simply seemed irrelevant to the members of nobility who continued to copy this text into their miscellanies until early eighteenth century. When one takes a look at all versions of the title she will immediately notice a long parade of names that have very little to do with Rheticus and one of the late 17th-century copies of the heavily abridged Latin text of the prophecy names ‘some Greek’ as the author, while another copy mentions ‘Doctor Clitricius”. There is some wisdom in it as, up to a point, ‘Rhetici’ and ‘Graecii’ or ‘Clitricii’ sound alike, but this manuscript, like many others, shows that the general astrological provenance of the text and the aura of secret knowledge were much more important to the users of this text than the actual identity of its author.

Rheticus disguised as a Greek in MS Warsaw, National Library, 6647 II, fol. 267v; source: Polona

Rheticus disguised as a Greek in MS Warsaw, National Library, 6647 II, fol. 267v, fragment; source: Polona


Rheticus as ‘Doctor Klitricius’ in the Polish version of the prophecy, MS Warsaw, National Library, 6634 III, fol. 207r, fragment; source: Polona

What is the reason, one might ask, why we should beware the Rheticus’s prophecy? Since the expiry date for this horoscope expired long ago there is nothing to worry about on the astrological level, yet on the scholarly one there is. It is a common problem for all scholars who are trying to stabilize the text to decide when to cease their pursuit of further copies, especially if there is no central manuscript. In result of my chase I managed to collate the Wrocław MS with other witnesses to the longest version of the horoscope, complicating thus basic edition created by Burmeister. I also edited some variants of this text that document other stages of its degeneration and language versions. And in general I feel that the results of my toils are legible and shed some critical light on the to date claims about the Rheticus’s text. Yet, even now, when my two articles on the topic – one discussing the origins of the horoscope and the Dudith’s involvement, the other focused on the manuscript tradition – have been sent to the press and will appear later this year, I keep thinking about other possible copies of the prophepcy that should have been included but I was not aware of their existence. So even if there is nothing baleful in the horoscope as such, studying it may lead to a kind of textual anxiety which may urge one to check compulsively manuscript catalogues in hope of tracing another witness to the text and to keep leafing through hundreds of pages of uncatalogued manuscript miscellanies in search of just one more copy of this incredibly popular text.

On card catalogues

The yesterday’s post at Folger Library’s Collation brought back some memories of all the card catalogues I have studied back and forth over the past years, starting from the catalogue rooms of the Jagiellonian Library and the Czartoryski Library in Kraków through many other collections. I completely agree with Abbie Weinberg’s diagnosis and I also believe that the traditional card catalogue can be a powerful research tool which in some cases may prove to be much more useful or inspiring than its brand new, completely digital, glimmering online version and there are probably many other researchers who can confirm this. In this post, I would like to illustrate Abbie’s remarks with two catalogue anecdotes related to my own research.

Last August, I visited the City Library in Elbląg (Elbing) hoping to find some annotated volumes that could show some forms of reception of early modern chronological controversies. Over the years I have developed a long check list of names and subjects which I try to verify methodically in almost every library I visit. When I was preparing for my trip to Elbląg, I checked their online catalogue, noted down all the shelfmarks that I needed and sent them in advance to the library so that at least some portion of the books would be waiting for me on Monday morning. On the first day I saw a trolley filled with volumes that I ordered and I was getting ready to have a look at them when the librarian instructed me that they have also some other volumes by the authors I am interested in. It turned out that the online catalogue does not provide full information about their holdings as there is a number of titles that can be found only in the traditional card catalogue. The reason for this lies in the fact that in the process of cataloguing of the special collections somebody made a decision to include ONLY the items that were bound as the first positions of Sammelbände and to skip other titles. If one would base her research only on the online catalogue and would never get in touch with the librarians she would never know that one of the composite volumes contains a brochure on comets by Bartholomew Keckermann with an dedication in author’s hand (call no. Pol.7.II.2419–2426) or to discover the heavily annotated collection of early sixteenth-century astronomical prints by Johannes Sacrobosco, Johannes de Glogovia and Andreas Perlach, followed by a set of notes by some anonymous sixteenth-century student (call no. Pol.6.II.211–216). Imagine that you are interested in preparing a census of Keckermann’s works in European libraries or you are chasing annotated copies of Perlach’s textbook that are scattered around the world (as Darin Hayton did in his magnificent recent study of astrology at the court of Maximilian I) – without the (unofficial) knowledge of discrepancies between the card and online catalogues and consulting the card catalogue (or asking the librarians to do this on your behalf) you would probably overlook a number of titles hidden deep in the stacks. In this case the analogue card catalogue remains the basic reservoir of knowledge about the full contents of the Elbląg collections – consulting the online catalogue may bring you results as the following:

BKeckermann APerlach

(The necessity of consulting the card catalogues, either on site, or in digitized form or mediated by some incredibly patient librarian leads obviously to another issue, that is the limits of this kind of research and the criterion for saying stop at some point, but this is a topic I would like to keep for another occasion.)

Another anecdote is related to my personal pursuit of books annotated and/or owned by Peter Crüger. As I explained in one of older posts, the biggest (and, historically speaking, natural) repository of Crüger’s books is the Gdańsk Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences, although a number of his libri annotati can be found in few other locations. In order to make sure that there are no other titles in Gdansk that could contain Crüger’s marginalia, I travelled there a number of times and spent ca. 20 working days browsing the traditional card catalogue and leafing hundreds of volumes. Yet doing one’s research in the special collections of the Gdansk Library is not that simple. Its card catalogue is a kind of a historical monument which documents efforts made by generations of German and Polish librarians who worked at this institution over the past two centuries, organizing its vast and rich holdings into thematic clusters and creating tools for finding volumes. This multigenerational nature of the catalogue makes it a unique material object in its own right. The drawers are filled with cards made of various kinds of paper, some of them very thin and fragile, some quite thick. The handwriting on the cards (I don’t recall seeing a single typewritten card!) is sometimes really awful so if you recognize your author but do not remember or do not know the title of his work, it is nearly impossible to decipher it and write down on the order slip. Once you get the author, title, year of publication and the shelfmark, it is good to check the latter against the subject catalogue which has the form of a series of monumental handwritten volumes and contains annotations by postwar librarians who left information about possible war losses. Between the card catalogue room and the bookshelf filled with tomes of the subject catalogue begins the real adventure as one needs to learn the whole system and begin to work his or her way through the collection. Although a catalogue, with its alphabetical order, clear system of shelfmarks and well-organized rows of cards put in drawers may seem to be a simple tool it has also some mysteries and secrets. For a majority of volumes that I saw in Gdansk (and, as I said, I saw quite a lot of them) this worked quite smoothly. But with time the system started to reveal some discrepancies that can be understood or explained only by a librarian who has a lot of experience in tracking down the volumes between the stacks. This is actually a matter of transmission of expert hermetic knowledge which cannot be learned in the university classrooms where the future librarians are trained but can be gained only through practice. During my last visit to Gdańsk, in early December 2015, I decided to have a look at the copies of Heinrich Pantaleon’s works. At some point I received two titles I have ordered (Chronographia Ecclesiae Christi of 1568 bound with works by Clemens Schubert, shelfmark Lb 1131 2o, and Martyrum historia of 1563 bound with the 1559 Basel edition of John Foxe’s Rerum in Ecclesia gestarum … pars prima, shelfmark Uph. fol. 116). Neither of them contained annotations in Crüger’s hand so I made some basic notes about the volumes and returned them quickly at the circulation desk. To my amazement, it turned out that there is a problem with another copy of Chronographia Ecclesiae Christianae (Basel: Nicolaus Brylinger, 1551) as the librarians cannot recognize the shelfmark (XX C fol. 252). First, they suspected that I miscopied the shelfmark, so we went to the card catalogue room, I showed the card and for the next two hours I could observe a number of Gdańsk librarians of various generations walking between the two catalogues and the stock, discussing the possible explanations of this problem. It turned out that nobody has ever seen this kind of shelfmark and that I accidentally digged up some archaeological layer of the catalogue which was completely forgotten. The most plausible explanation would be to assume that in the process of recataloguing of the collection somebody must have forgotten to change the shelfmark on the card or to prepare the new one and that this singularity is a kind of fossil documenting earlier stages of the development and organization of this collection. This, however, did not explain the fact that the subject catalogue did not contain references to this particular copy of Pantaleon’s work and, again, it is possible that it was lost either long before the introduction of the current system of shelfmarks (which is actually a work of German librarians inherited and maintained by their Polish successors) and hence the book never received the new shelfmark.

Although my desire to see the volume was never fulfilled, I learned an important lesson on different level: even such a prima facie simple tool as card catalogue requires interpretation and expert knowledge. This knowledge remains tacit and inactive for most of the time, but on special occasions like this missing copy of Pantaleon, has to be activated and this is only possible thanks to the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another. And just like old books, catalogues sometimes also require an archaeological approach and toolbox.

A Warning, part 1, or: Read the catalogues!

Jan Latos (or Latosz, known also under Latinized name as Joannes Latosinus, 1539-1608) is perhaps one of the most controversial and mysterious figures in the debate around calendar reform that took place in early modern Poland-Lithuania at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. He openly questioned the astronomical foundations of the reform introduced by the pope Gregory XIII and propagated by Christoph Clavius and thus he got into real trouble. He was first banned to speak freely in 1580’s and for several years he focused on regular astrological practice. At some point in the 1590’s he decided to reexamine the reformed calendar and ignored the ban. In turn he got expelled from the Academy of Cracow and was ridiculed by the Jesuit preachers in their brochures and public sermons, becoming also immediately a synonym of a backwardness and obscurantism. In the modern secondary literature Latosz is usually presented as an example of a scholar who did not have observation techniques and mathematical tools precise and sharp enough to verify the calculations proposed by more advanced astronomers and architects of the calendar reform yet at the same time was stubborn enough to maintain he was right. This attitude lead him to a paradoxical situation in which he found an ally and patron in the person of the Orthodox duke Konstanty Wasyl Ostrogski who was fervent defender of the Orthodox tradition and probably treated Latosz as an useful asset to his own political agenda. Latosz got lost somewhere in the middle of the road between the two calendars: he did not stick to the Julian calendar by all means as he was aware of its errant mechanism yet at the same time he could not accept the reform of 1582. Thanks to Ostrogski’s support he found shelter in the town of Ostróg and become a professor at the local academy but he was also accused of converting secretly to the Orthodox faith or at least being in the Orthodox Churche’s favour.

In my quest for primary sources that constitute the basis of my research I cultivate the belief that even if we do not know what is the exact current location of some manuscripts or unique prints, in case of large number of them it is still reasonable to assume that they will be revealed some day and we will have to rewrite all these footnotes that tell stories about “unknown locations” and “lack of extant copies” of works that could be of great significance to our research if only they had survived the fire, war, flood, robbery and other calamities. In case of Latosz, as only few copies of his works survived until nowadays and his major work on calendar reform, which was supposed to be presented at the papal court in Rome, went missing probably already in the 16th century and most likely never even arrived to the Vatican. While some of his works are still available in a considerable number of copies (this is the case of his Latin Prognosticon of 1594 dedicated to Rudolf II), few of them are known in unique and damaged copies (this is the case of his two astrological prognostications preserved in the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków), and some of them are considered to be irretrievably lost.

This list of irretrievably lost sources might be a bit shorter if we all read carefully the catalogues published by the librarians. By the last September I assumed imprudently that I knew the catalogue of the manuscripts of the National Library in Warsaw pretty well, my list of manuscripts manuscripts I should examine in the next two years of my project is complete and I had the idead what should be done with those I had seen so far. Oh how wrong I was! And how haughty! At some point in early October I took the seventh volume of the catalogue in order to browse the index in search for some name or term I do not even remember right now when to my inexpressible surprise I noticed a familiar name. This was the name of Jan Latosz and it lead me to the “discovery” that the National Library is in the possession of a seventeenth-century copy of the text of Latosz’s Przestroga (A Warning or A Caution), a short astrological and chronological treatise that was originally published in Polish in Kraków in 1595. I immediately ordered the microfilm and checked once again whether the three copies known before 1945 and now considered to be lost have still this status. It turned out that none of these three copies, nor any copy unknown to the pre-war bibliographers was revealed and apparently the manuscript from the National Library is the only witness to this text.

I put aside the list of manuscripts I was goint to examine in the fall semester and delved into the 24 folio pages of the alleged copy of Latosz’s work. With every page my interest grew bigger and bigger and so did my certainty that this document is a credible source for the reconstruction of Latosz’s astrological and chronological views. And I do not even know when I started transcribing its fragments in hope that I will make use of some excerpts, then decided to transcribe the entire text (as you know, part of me is a scribe). As for now I have prepared an article in which I gave the Warsaw manuscript an introduction to the scholarly audience. It was accepted by Terminus, a Kraków-based journal on classical reception and Old Polish studies and should appear soon. I have completed the transcription of the entire manuscript yet it still requires some revisions from the point of view of historical ortography and punctuation. In the nearest future, hopefully this winter, I am going to prepare a critical edition that will be preceded by an introductory essay in which I am going to discuss the ideas presented by Latosz in his treatise and consider some hypotheses on the late, mid-seventeenth-century reception of a text that by any possible rule should have been forgotten by then.

In the second part of the Warning Story (I guess this time it will be a diptych), I will write something more about the contents of the manuscript and a number of questions it raises. As for now, I would like to leave the readers with two things.

The first one is a moral: even if you are sure that everybody is right about the existence or non-existence of a certain source and you trust their authority, go and check it yourself. And read the catalogues from cover to cover. Always. (This may seem as stating the obvious but when one thinks that the whole army of historians, including the author of an entry in the Polish Biographical Dictionary who certainly did a meticulous survey, overlooks the existence of a certain manuscript, perhaps it is worth reminding.)

The other thing is a picture of the opening page of the manuscript. Since the Warning by Latosz is an astrological work which contains [spoiler alert!] some apocalyptic predictions, I thought that the ominously looking photograph of the microfilm of the manuscript will do the job as conclusion:

Jan Latosz, Przestroga, title page of the 17th-century manuscript copy of a printed work (Warsaw, National Library, MS 6631 III)

Jan Latosz, Przestroga…, title page of the 17th-century manuscript copy of a 1595 print (Warsaw, National Library, MS 6631 III)