Collections Highlight – Tycho Brahe

Sarah and Lynsey interview Jane Pirie, Rare Books Cataloguer at the Special Collections Centre about one of her favourite rare books.

Can you tell us about your job?

My main job is cataloguing, which means putting all the details about a book onto the University’s electronic catalogue so that people can search for it. They can search by the author or by the title, by who owned the book, where the book was published, or by who printed it. Provenance (the history of who owned a book) is very important in rare books, as you can see when knowledge was transferred from one person to another. We’re creating a book provenance database at the moment.

I’m also very interested in the bindings of books.

Tell us about your favourite book.

First of all, it’s not my favourite book because I like them all! I found it really hard to think of a favourite book. I chose this one by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, because it’s got an interesting story behind it and also because it is one of Duncan Liddel’s books and I’m cataloguing his library.

Duncan Liddel was a mathematician, astronomer and physician. He was born in Aberdeen in 1561 but when he was 18 he left to be educated on the continent. He went to various universities in what are now Poland and Germany. He gave his library to Marischal College in his will, and he also endowed a chair of mathematics and 6 bursaries. He was one of the original benefactors of Marischal and his library really forms the start of Marischal Library. He gave around 300 books, which was a lot for the time.  Because he was at the forefront of maths and astronomy it was a very important library.

This book looks interesting from the start, because it’s bound in a sheet of old music. It gives you no clue as to what’s inside it! The music is believed to be a gradual or an antiphony manuscript (part of the Catholic mass), and it’s generally assumed that because of the Reformation a lot of these religious texts were no longer used and that is why they ended up as book covers. About 10-20 of Liddel’s books are bound in this scrap vellum. Most of his books are not specially bound but are bound in what’s known as limp vellum and it is like the paperback of the day. But it’s really hard wearing and it’s lasted for nearly 450 years – much better than our paperbacks.

Now this book is by a Danish astronomer called Tycho Brahe. Tycho Brahe was an incredibly wealthy nobleman. It is reckoned that at one point he had 1% of the whole of the Danish wealth. And he is a really interesting person! He had several false noses made out of gold and silver, because he got his nose sliced off in a duel when he was a student – supposedly over who was the better mathematician. He was very hot-headed. He had his own court, with a dwarf jester, and he had a pet elk. He sent the elk on a diplomatic mission instead of himself, and the elk drank too much beer, fell down some stairs and broke its neck. I just think that having a pet elk and sending it to places instead of yourself is really unusual!

Tycho Brahe set up his own observatory on an island in Denmark called Hven, where he carried out meticulous observations of the movements of the planets, using quadrants and sextants. His observations are extremely accurate and they were done without a telescope. However, he came to the wrong conclusion. At this point Copernicus had published his theory of the planets in which the sun was at the centre of the solar system and all the planets moved round the sun – which was against the teachings of the church and Aristotle. However Tycho Brahe didn’t agree with Copernicus and he had his own system, which is called the geo-heliocentric system. There’s actually a picture of it in here. He has the earth at the centre with the sun and moon moving round the earth, and then the other planets moving round the sun. Tycho Brahe’s system worked better than the Aristotelian system which had the heavens fixed, but it obviously doesn’t work as well as the Copernican system which was correct. There’s a page with Tycho Brahe’s planetary diagram.

Lots of people went to visit Tycho Brahe in his observatory. James VI of Scotland went to see it and also Duncan Liddel who went in 1587. Liddel was the first person to teach all three theories of planetary motion – Aristotle, Tycho Brahe and Copernicus. But later on in his life Tycho Brahe wanted to sue Duncan Liddel for plagiarism. He claimed Liddel was teaching his theory without crediting Tycho Brahe, and there was a big spat. I think Liddel was really quite put out that Tycho Brahe accused him, because they had been quite friendly. But Tycho Brahe seems to have accused lots of people of plagiarism and pinching his ideas, and according to all his students, Liddel did acknowledge Tycho Brahe.

Tycho Brahe died in 1601. It’s believed that he died after a banquet where the king of Denmark was present and the reason for his death is that he felt it would be rude to get up to go to the toilet and consequently died of a bladder infection. But it gets even better! In 1901 the poor bloke was exhumed and samples taken showed very high mercury levels in his hair. And in 2010, a Danish university obtained permission to exhume his body again, to analyse his bones to see if he was poisoned with mercury. The person they think might have done it was Tycho Brahe’s student in Prague, Johannes Kepler who published the final theory on planetary motion. Tycho Brahe hid his results from Kepler, so they wonder if Kepler bumped him off in order to get his results! I think it might not have been anyone, because Tycho Brahe had some medical knowledge and he may have treated his own ailments with mercury. Or there might have been mercury in one of his false noses! Another person who’s in the frame for his murder as well is King Christian IV of Denmark, because Tycho Brahe is supposed to have had an affair with his mother. But it’s all conjecture and theory.

Do you have a favourite page in the book?

There’s a page with Liddel’s notes, about a comet that Tycho  Brahe observed in 1577. The comet was seen to move, and that of course went against the teachings of Aristotle because the heavens were supposed to be fixed.  The diagrams on the page assess the position of the comet and prove that on a subsequent night it had moved.  In fact, Tycho Brahe also witnessed a supernova as well, which is a very rare thing, and again that was a revolutionary idea because a supernova was a new star appearing and that went against the theory of the planets being fixed.

In a lot of Liddel’s books you can hardly read the type for the amount of notes he puts on them, but in this one he hasn’t written very much in at all except for the one page about the comet. His writing’s very difficult to read. Although Liddel went on to be a doctor, which paid so much more than being a mathematician or an astronomer, I think his first love really was astronomy. He didn’t publish any works on maths or astronomy but he seems to have been very, very gifted.

Duncan Liddel always signs his books, usually at the front. He usually writes D. Lid and then always writes “Scot” or “Scotus” meaning from Scotland. Duncan Liddel seems to have been given quite a lot of his books and there’s a lot of nice dedications. They often played on his name, writing things like “my little Duncan has left me” and that kind of thing – so quite affectionate.

A lot of these people studied alchemy, so Liddel was possibly an alchemist as well.  He was terribly interested in the works of Paracelsus, the physician, who was again an alchemist. Even Newton was an alchemist. They were all trying to find gold from base metal – it was like Blackadder!

More on Tycho Brahe

I should say actually that the book was published and printed on Tycho Brahe’s island – he had his own printing press. So they don’t know whether the 1st edition of the book on the comet was formally published, or whether he just gave it to people as a gift. It was extremely unusual for the time, to be wealthy enough to have your own printing press.

Tycho Brahe was also extremely mean to his tenants and in his observatory he had a dungeon where he put tenants who misbehaved. He married a peasant woman, eventually acknowledging their marriage, but all his children were considered illegitimate because she was a peasant and he was a nobleman. For a nobleman like Tycho Brahe, writing books was seen to be a bit ‘common’ and his family didn’t like him being an astronomer. They wanted him to be lawyer, originally. Tycho Brahe seems to have been very conscious of his status as a nobleman and somebody like Duncan Liddel, who was essentially a travelling scholar, was looked down on a bit.

So you see you’ve got all this from one book. This is what makes my job really interesting, I think. If you look at this book: it’s in Latin, it’s full of figures and it looks hard to read, but there are all these really interesting, human stories behind it. Lots of books turn out to be really, really interesting when you don’t expect them to be.

 So your favourite part of the job is the human stories?

Yes, and I like finding out about all the people. In my job I have to do a lot of research.

Do you have to know Latin to do your job?

I can read a bit of Latin, although I don’t speak it. Most of Duncan Liddel’s books are in Latin. So yes, to do this job you have to have some Latin.

Thanks Jane, for a fascinating insight into such an extraordinary character from history!

This collections highlight post is a Book Week Scotland special. Find out more about our Book Week Scotland celebrations on the Special Collections Centre website.

STOP PRESS! Since we interviewed Jane, the first results of the analysis of Tycho Brahe’s body have been published. Read all about it here.



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