Star Catcher

Thanks to Chaucer, I’m developing a fascination with the astrolabe. Astrolabes (star-catchers/capturers) are good to think with. And alone among its medieval-elementary-textbook-of-astronomy peers, Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe has a fascinating introduction. (Well, okay, to be honest, I haven’t read any other medieval texts wholly devoted to basic principles of astronomy.) But Chaucer’s treatise is unique. It is addressed to his ten year old son, “Litel Lowys.” And it is in Middle English, instead of Latin, the language Chaucer’s contemporaries expected to meet when they came face to face with an astronomical textbook.

I am not saying the whole treatise is a thrill. For most people it is extremely difficult to visualize the possible applications of an astrolabe – with the help of the diagrams in the original. Astronomy, even for ten year olds, is pretty heavy on the jargon. For example, what do you make of this?

To knowe the verrey degre of eny maner sterre, straunge or unstraunge, after his longitude; though he be indetermynat in thin Astralabye, sothly to the trouthe thus he schal be knowe.

(To know the true degree of any manner of star, strange or unstrange, after its longitude; though it be indeterminate in your Astrolabe, accurate to the truth thus shall it be known.)

Tak the altitude of this sterre whan he is on the est syde of the lyne meridionall, as nye as thou mayst gesse; and tak an ascendent anon right by som manere sterre fix which that thou knowist; and forget not the altitude of the firste sterre ne thyn ascendent. And whan that this is don, aspye diligently whan this same firste sterre passith eny thyng the south westward; and cacche him anon right in the same nombre of altitude on the west syde of this lyne meridional, as he was kaught on the est syde […]

(Take the altitude of this star when it is on the east side of the line meridional, as near as you may guess; and take an ascendant right away by some manner of fixed star that you know; and forget not the altitude of the first star nor your ascendant. And when that is done, look carefully for when this same first star passes anything the south westward; and catch it right away in the same number of altitude on the west side of this line meridional, as it was caught on the east side […])

Is that clear? Chaucer explains everything quite plainly, but if you’re new to medieval astronomy and astrolabes you are probably still struggling to figure out: 1) which concepts are covered by ascendants, fixed stars, altitudes, and meridional lines, 2) which markings on the astrolabe correspond to the aforementioned concepts, and 3) how to manipulate, position or “read” the astrolabe in relation to what it represents. It isn’t really like reading a map because you hold the astrolabe in the air and line it up with celestial bodies; you take measurements with it. So the device is somewhat mysterious, even when it is explained. It seems capable of just about anything, intricate and alien as it is, metal and heavy, with arcane markings, with moving parts.

But I am forgetting that you don’t have one in front of you – you need the materiality of the astrolabe to fully understand its usefulness for thinking with. Here’s a ~2 min visualization to help you get a sense of the device itself.

Why is this remarkable doohicky useful to think with? Well, in a seminar I’m taking this semester, we’ve been thinking that in some ways the astrolabe is like story. And the comparison provokes fascinating questions: What if we thought of narrative as a kind of modeling device for finding things out? As a machine, functional at the basic level but also capable of more than most of us will ever use it for? As an interface, a thing which represents a version of the mysterious workings of what we cannot really get at directly (the world), a thing with which we can engage? (A character might then be an operation or application that one “runs” to simulate a certain way of being in the world). And importantly, as a machine that simultaneously serves as an art object, which one is initially interested in for its ornate materiality – I mean something like imagery or basic plot – but eventually grows to appreciate as a way of taking “measurements.” *

To be more precise, what if we read The Canterbury Tales like a bunch of litel Lowyses, ten years old and not yet very good at navigating the world, but eager to use all the available navigational tools (and delighted to begin learning at last how they work)?

It might seem a bit perverse to take the Tales, of all works, as some kind of didactic machine. They are deliberately evasive when it comes to evaluating characters and (im)moral actions; they force us to make our own conclusions. But I think the difference between the Tales and an astrolabe is one of degree, and not kind. Chaucer’s treatise is an elementary textbook for using the astrolabe – perhaps we could imagine the Tales as an intermediate “textbook” – or even an advanced one.

I also like to think of the Tales as a teaching machine because of the apparent credulousness of Chaucer the character – who praises characters that are clearly flawed for trivial reasons – as if Chaucer the author was saying, okay, now it’s time for the difficult stuff. In the Treatise it was all about “tak kep, litel Lowys,” “Understond wel that __,” and “Forget nat thys, my sone.” Now it’s time for you to solve the problems on your own, with a different, more versatile, more complex kind of astrolabe. Here are the characters and their stories (the numbers you have to work with) – what do you think the answers are? **

(I realize that to some extent we’ve always been treating story in just this way, but I had never before realized how neatly astrolabe can stand in for story.)


*Taking “measurements” is particularly interesting for narrative if you bring in Karen Barad’s argument in Meeting the Universe Halfway. (Random, I know, but surprisingly relevant.) Barad builds on things the physicist Niels Bohr wrote about the difficulty of separating subject from object in experiments, especially those related to quantum physics – eg a phenomenon is part measurement, part thing-being-measured, not the behavior of an independent physical object – in order to advance a particular kind of socioconstructivism. (She calls it agential realism.) The main interest for me here is the concept of phenomenon: I toy with applying it to literature. If one uses a literary apparatus to measure or observe the behavior of, say, a man in a desperate situation, the result could be called a phenomenon in Bohr’s sense of the word, because the type of apparatus we choose to observe with necessarily influences the result – ie, what we see as reality. Like scientific devices for measurement, stories assume things about the world even as they observe it – “before” they observe it, in a sense.

**For those whose hackles rise at the suggestion that reading/studying literature is somehow about “finding the answers,” I want to make clear that I am more interested in how literature can be used to find things out about life than in finding out how the text works, or what Chaucer thought “the answers” were, or figuring out his real intentions (though all of those things interest me).


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