Jo Edge – The medical context of the Sphere of Life and Death in late medieval England


Event Date: 26 May 2012
Royal Holloway, University of London
11 Bedford Sq
London WC1E 6DP

The Department of History Royal Holloway University of London presents:

Medical Prognosis in the Middle Ages


Jo Edge (RHUL) – The medical context of the Sphere of Life and Death in late medieval England

The Sphere of Life and Death – also commonly known as the Sphere of Pythagoras or Sphere of Apuleius – is a divinatory device originating in ancient Greece, which reached the Middle Ages via computistical manuscripts. It was used to predict the outcome of a variety of events, most commonly whether a sick person would live or die. The operator is instructed to assign numbers to the letters of an individual’s name, add the number of the day of the moon and usually the number assigned to the planetary weekday on which the patient first fell ill. The total is then to be divided by 30 (sometimes 29). This remainder is then sought in the centre of the device. If it is located in the top half, the patient will live, if in the bottom half, he will die. This kind of divination by numbers is more generally known as ‘onomancy’, and the Sphere is by far the most commonly surviving example of this genre. Despite existing in over 200 manuscripts of European provenance from throughout the Middle Ages – with over 100 of those from England alone – very little scholarship has been carried out on the later medieval examples of the Sphere.

This paper will argue that the Sphere was a useful prognostic device that could have been used by a wide variety of medical practitioners. On one hand, it appealed to university-educated physicians, as it circulated in several late medieval English manuscripts alongside learned medical texts. At the same time, it is clear that anyone with basic numeracy and literacy could have used a Sphere. It was a simple way of reaching a definite answer as to a patient’s fate, which perhaps explains why examples appear in common-place books, and manuscripts containing popular medical tracts. This may also explain the increasing vernacularisation of this device as the Middle Ages came to a close. The Sphere, therefore, is an example of a device which does not fit wholly into the categories of ‘learned’ or ‘empirical’, and raises the broader question of how far we can continue to see these categories as mutually exclusive.



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