Incredibly Rare First English Astronomy Book, Published 467 Years Ago, Sells for Thousands

Incredibly Rare First English Astronomy Book, Published 467 Years Ago, Sells for Thousands
(SWNS)
By SWNS
11/3/2023
Updated:
11/3/2023
0:00

A 467-year-old astronomy book—which was the first ever to be written in English—has fetched 10,000 pounds (approx. $12,000) at auction.

The “incredibly scarce” first edition of “The Castle of Knowledge“ by Welshman Robert Recorde was found in an old box of books by antiques experts. It was the first astronomical text to be published in English in 1556 and is believed to be the oldest surviving example of its kind in existence.
The historical book—published before famous Italian astronomer Galileo was even born—went under the hammer at Hansons Auctioneers in England on Wednesday, Nov. 1. It sold for 10,000 pounds to a private international buyer.
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Jim Spencer, head of books at Hansons, said: “I was thrilled to see the book achieve the price it deserved.

“It was an amazing discovery, the most important scientific text I’ve ever handled. It’s the first astronomical treatise to be published in English.

“The book was printed 467 years ago, before many of the major astronomers had even been born, including Galileo (1564–1642), who’s described as the father of observational astronomy, Kepler, Huygens, Newton, and Herschel.

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“The vendor consigned a large box full of antiquarian books, and this one jumped out at me with its allegorical woodcut title page and charming illustrations. It felt special. A little research quickly revealed its significance and scarcity.

“The author, Robert Recorde, invented the equals sign, so the equation I proffer for this auction is: important book = big price.

“I could only find one other copy sold at auction. It fetched 74,200 pounds ($90,000) at Bonhams in 2007. The same book previously sold at Sotheby’s in 1971. Admittedly our copy was not so well-preserved, but it was just incredibly rare.”

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Experts say the book is important for three reasons including being the oldest surviving original English astronomy book, rather than a translation.

It is one of the first English astronomy books to mention Polish astronomer Copernicus’s “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), and the heliocentric system. Copernicus (1473–1543) formulated a model of the universe that placed the sun rather than Earth at its center.

In addition, Recorde not only refers to ancient Greek philosopher Plato but also to fellow Greek philosopher Proclus so had access to Neoplatonic source material.

“Recorde was a brilliant Welsh academic, physician, and mathematician whose name should be more widely known,” Mr. Spencer said. “As well as inventing the equals sign (=) he introduced the pre-existing plus (+) and minus (−) signs to English speakers in 1557. And yet many people have not heard of him, partly perhaps because of his tragic end. He died in jail.”
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Recorde was born around 1512 in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, and studied at the University of Oxford in about 1525. After choosing medicine as a profession, his studies continued at the University of Cambridge in 1545. He later returned to Oxford and taught mathematics.

He also worked in London as a physician to King Edward VI and Queen Mary, to whom some of his books are dedicated.

He was controller of the Royal Mint but after being sued for defamation by a political enemy, he was arrested for debt and died in the King’s Bench Prison, Southwark, in 1558.

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