Edward Sherburne’s Sphere of Marcus Manilius (1675) will be studied as a Primary Source in the HPS Part II undergraduate course this year.[1]


The text of the Sphere is a versified translation of the first book of Marcus Manilius’s 5-part astrological treatise Astronomicon, probably written in Rome in the first century CE. Sherburne’s publication, with an original Appendix that includes a catalogue of eminent ancient and modern astronomers, provides an interesting case study of the place of astronomy in gentlemanly society in seventeenth-century England, making it an ideal source for students of the history of science in the early modern period.[2]

As ever, the detail of that general picture is greatly enhanced by the evidence of a particular copy of the book, so, as Library staff busily prepare to support this and other taught courses in the Department with the start of term rapidly approaching, we take a moment to look at some of the features of the Whipple copy of Sherburne’s Sphere of Manilius that may help to bring this Primary Source to life.

pastedownThe Library acquired this copy at the sale of the private library of the Earls of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle in 2005.[3] The sale attracted a lot of public attention as it brought to widespread notice for the first time the riches of a collection built up by generations of the Parker family. This was particularly distinguished by the scientific interests and patronage of father and son Thomas and George, 1st and 2nd Earls of Macclesfield respectively, who spanned the period from the latter half of the seventeenth to the second half of the eighteenth centuries.[4] The books acquired for the household during this time remained largely undisturbed at Shirburn in subsequent years, so evidence of contemporary use is especially valuable.

Among the contributors to intellectual life at the castle was William Jones (1675-1749), resident maths tutor to both Thomas and George Parker. By virtue of his connections in the field Jones secured for Shirburn the library of a notable mathematical pedagogue of the previous generation, John Collins (1625-83). Collins had extensive connections with the book trade, and is credited by Edward Sherburne as having seen several important mathematical works through the press.[5]

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Sherburne’s Sphere is an impressive folio volume, with illustrations that would have required careful supervision through the press, perhaps with assistance from Collins himself. Besides a striking and richly symbolic full-page frontispiece engraved by Hollar there are 11 engraved plates on separate leaves bound in the book.[6] All occur in either Sherburne’s Preface or Appendix, since Manilius’s text is not illustrated (beyond decorative borders and initials), though the use of multiple types sizes to distinguish between the verse text and accompanying commentary on each page would have kept the compositors and proof readers busy.

A manuscript note in the Whipple copy provides a brief index to the illustrated plates, describing the astronomical ‘schemes’ they depict, and, where relevant, indicating the source of the illustration, e.g.

“C. The appearance of the Sun, from Kircher ………………………….. p. 166”

In each case, Kircher, Grimaldi and Hevelius’s work is discussed in Sherburne’s text on the surrounding pages.


Comparison of the engravings in Sherburne with the original sources cited shows that they are close copies, though the versions in Sherburne are not signed, so we cannot attribute them. In the case of the map of the moon from Hevelius’s Selenographia the Sherburne version includes the corner decorations from the original plate, including the legend attributing it to Hevelius with the date 1645. But the plate mark on Grimaldi’s ‘Figura pro nomenclatura et liberation lunari’ a few pages later clearly shows that the outer edges of the original have been masked out, presumably because the content wasn’t relevant to Sherburne’s purpose. We would need to compare multiple copies of the Sphere to determine whether the uneven edges of the mask match or whether there are variations across the edition. Plenty to follow up here for a bibliographically minded Primary Source student…

We can’t be sure of the author of the manuscript note, but it’s plausibly an aide memoire for an early reader of Sherburne at Shirburn, guiding them quickly to illustrations of key astronomical features as envisaged by leading authors of the day.

Anna Jones

[1] http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/students/timetable/partii/primary-source

[2] http://www.sites.hps.cam.ac.uk/library/sherburne/

[3] Despite the similarity of names, there is no direct connection between Edward Sherburne (1616-1702) and Shirburn Castle. Sir Edward pursued his poetic interests alongside government service, including as Clerk to the Ordnance Office during the Civil War. Hugh de Quehen, ‘Sherburne, Sir Edward (bap. 1616, d. 1702)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25359, accessed 20 Sept 2016]

[4] R. Gaskell & P. Fara, ‘Selling the silver: country house libraries and the history of science’, Endeavour 29,1 (2005), 14-16.

[5] Edward Sherburne, The Sphere of Marcus Manilius, pp 116-117.

[6] See R. Horry, ‘The mind of the frontispiece: myth, meaning and motivation in Sherburne’s ‘Manilius’ (unpublished dissertation, 2003).