Byrhtferth’s diagram: microcosm and macrocosm

Among the many wonderful things on display at the recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library was the intriguing image known as Byrhtferth’s diagram. The version of the diagram on display was from the British Library’s own manuscript collection (Harley MS3667). Although stunning, it is somewhat incomplete: St John’s College, Oxford, has a slightly different version (MS 17).

The diagram in the British Library manuscript

Byrhtferth, generally known as Byrhtferth of Ramsey, was a Benedictine monk and scholar, and author of a substantial amount of writing, both in Old English and in Latin. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography assesses him as “one of the most learned and prolific authors of the late Anglo-Saxon period.

Little is known of his life, and even the dates of his birth and death, around 970 and 1016 respectively, are uncertain. He was certainly for most of his life a monk at Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire, known as a centre for scholarship and possessing a good collection of books. His writings included historical and religious works, biographies of saints and Anglo-Saxon nobles, and computus, arithmetical tables and instructions, particularly for calculating dates of religious festivals. He is best known for his Enciridion, literally Manual, which may regarded as a kind of scientific textbook, giving an introduction to the materials of the computus.

The diagram in the St John’s College MS

It is in the Enciridion that Byrhtferth gives us his diagram, fully known as the ‘Diagram of the Physical and Physiological Fours’. It is a visual summary of how he thought the celestial world, the seasons, and the elements were related, and related to the human condition: the macrocosm reflected in the microcosm. The diagram links the points of the compass (east, west, north, and south), the elements (earth, air, fire, and water), the seasons (spring, summer, autumn, and winter), and the human aging process (childhood, adolescence, youth, and old age). The repeated four-fold divisions impresses on anyone looking at it, how strongly the diagrammer felt about an underlying unity of structure in the cosmos. There is, of course, much more to the diagram than that, and it has been the subject of sustained and scholarly analysis; see, for instance, the exposition by Peter Baker.

Byrhtferth was not, of course, the originator of the idea of unity, particularly a four-fold unity, within the cosmos. It began in the world of ancient Egypt and classical Greece, and was adopted widely in the mediaeval period, before being discarded as superstition in the advent of modern science. William Dampier, writing in 1944 in his classic Shorter History of Science (Cambridge University Press), gives a typically cutting criticism, when he refers (page 44) to “the fantastic idea of the cosmos as macrocosm and man as microcosm… the mediaeval mind seems to have been fascinated with this analogy. Pictures supposed to represent it are continually seen in mediaeval art… The sun, stars and planets, kept moving by the four winds of heaven, are related to the four elements of earth and the four humours of man. Drawings derived from the confused imaginings, I am told, still decorate certain almanacs beloved of the ignorant.”

Well, yes. But the idea of the link between the microcosm and the macrocosm has never really fallen out of fashion, and emerges in a variety of guises, from Leonardo’s ideas of analogies between the human and the cosmos and his Vitruvian man to current physical ‘Theories of Everything’. Byrhtferth’s image gives us a mediaeval picture of a intellectual quest for links and congruences between different parts of the universe which never seems out of fashion. Perhaps it is neither too anachronistic nor too New Age to imagine that investigating the idea that information may be a unifying concept across various domains is continuing the efforts of people like Byrhtferth to find a unity in the cosmos.

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