From the astronomical library of Mary, Queen of Scots

Jacques Bassantin’s Astronomique discourse par Jacques Bassantin Escossois

First edition of the Scotsman James Bassantin’s (c. 1500–68) copiously illustrated, large-format compendium on calculating planetary positions. From the library of Mary, Queen of Scots, bound in Paris with her crowned initial, and with all the illustrations in fine contemporary hand-colour.

The text of the Astronomique discours is arranged in several ‘treatises’ of increasing complexity, beginning with information about understanding sine tables and trigonometry, moving to the application of these principles to the terrestrial and celestial spheres and to the interaction of planets, and closing with a lengthy section concerning practical problems of the heavens (the majority of the work’s volvelles are contained here). While Bassantin gives the reader much information in textual and tabular formats, his illustrations provide the bulk of the didactic force and do so without sacrificing beauty (for example, its armillary sphere supported on the back of Atlas, its handsome volvelle of the constellations of the northern hemisphere, the glowering moon-faces in discussions of eclipse, the fine metalwork form of its paper instruments).

The correct collation of the volvelle parts to this 1557 first edition has long been a matter of debate among bibliographers, with Mortimer calling for 36, although most otherwise well-preserved, extant copies retain between 33 and 35 parts. The present volume is one of only a very few known to contain all 36 parts.

James Bassantin

James Bassantin studied at the University of Glasgow and seems to have taken pride in his Scottish heritage even as his work took him to the continent (for example, he prominently identifies himself as “Escossois” on this work’s title page and lists 8 Scottish towns in his tables of longitude and latitude). Bassantin eventually settled in France as a teacher of mathematics, first at Lyon and then in Paris. His revised edition of Jacques Foucard’s Paraphrase de l’astrolabe (1555) shows him to have been familiar with the most recent advances in German and Italian mathematics and astronomy.

Bassantin returned to Scotland in 1562 and on route discussed with Sir Robert Melville the current political tensions in the Isles, predicting that there would be “at length captivity and utter wreck” for Mary, Queen of Scots, at the hands of Elizabeth, and that the kingdom of England would eventually fall to the crown of Scotland (comments preserved by Sir James Melville, Robert’s brother, in Memoirs of his own life, p. 203; see also DNB). Bassantin’s astrological acumen seems to have appealed to the superstitious James VI (James I of England and Ireland) who kept in his library this copy of the Astronomique discourse inherited from the collection of his mother Mary (“de la royne”: see Warner, p. lix).