European Middle Ages and
the age of the Renaissance

Astronomy in Europe from the 10th to 17th century

Renaissance and Reformation awoke European astronomy from a thousand-year slumber. During these times, the Sun was finally placed in the center of our Solar System, astronomers used telescopes to peer deeper into the sky and European sailors got to see southern constellations for the very first time.

The primary focus of this site is not astronomy, but Star Lore, which is folklore based upon stars and star patterns. We try to create a collection of mythical stories about stars and constellations from all over the world. However, to better understand the myths and legends of stars and constellations, a brief history of the development of our modern constellations might be helpful. This is by no means a scientific paper on the history of astronomy, but merely an illustrated collection of highlights of that history, along with some links to what we think are reliable sources on the subject.

While Europe was shrouded in medieval times, the Islamic world experienced its Golden Age.

For the first five millennia AD the most active places to practice astronomy were in Persia and the the Middle East, and later in the Moorish part of the Iberian peninsula.

However a small number of events in medieval Europe deserve mentioning.

Bits of the history of Medieval European Astronomy

Leiden Aratea (816)

In AD 4, Roman general and poet Germanicus wrote a Latin version of the Phenomena, an introduction to the constellations written by Greek poet Aratus in the third century BC.

An illuminated copy of Germanicus' treatise was created in the region of Lorraine around 816. It was acquired by the Leiden University Library around 1690.

The work contains some of the first artistic depictions on paper of the Greek constellations. Following this one, there has been a number of other illustrations Germanicus' treatise.

You can check out the complete Arathea in our Star Lore Art section.

Source: Wikipedia

Draco, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor
Source: Wikimedia

The Supernova of 1006

Between April 30 and May 1, 1006, in the constellation now known as Lupus, a supernova appeared. Most likely, it was the brightest supernova in recorded human history.

The northernmost report of the event was kept in the annals of the Abbey of Saint Gall in Switzerland. The Annales Sangallenses Maiores report:

A new star of unusual size appeared; it was glittering in aspect and dazzling the eyes, causing alarm. In a wonderful manner it was sometimes contracted, sometimes spread out, and moreover sometimes extinguished. Nevertheless, it was seen for three months in the extreme limits of the south, beyond all the constellations which are visible in the sky.

Sources: Wikipedia,

Annales Sangallenses Maiores
Source: Brian P. Schidt

St. Emmeram Astrolabium (ca. 1065)

From about the death of Ptolemy to the 13th century, the center of astronomy was in the Arabic/Islamic world.

One notable exception was Saint Emmeram's Abbey in Bavaria. In the middle of the 11th century, William of Hirsau was Saint Emmeram's abbot. During his time, the well-educated abbot was considered the unsurpassed master of the Quadrivium, (the four subjects or arts: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).

Abbot William composed learned treatises on astronomy and music and constructed various astronomical instruments such as a sun-dial which showed the variations of the heavenly bodies, the solstices, equinoxes and other sidereal phenomena.

The most famous subject of his studies was a stone astrolabe, constructed around 1065. The stone disk displays a meridional cut in reference to the latitude of Regensburg, Bavaria with circles and lines typical for an Astrolabe.

The backside shows Greek poet Aratus of Soli kneeling in front of an Astrolabe. Aratus' poem Phaenomena was one of the bases of William of Hirsau's astronomical calculations.

The St. Emmeram Astrolabium is the only one of its kind preserved and one of the oldest astrononical tool in pre-Renaissance Europe.

Sources: Wikipedia, RDK Laboratory, Stefan Wintermantel: Abt Wilhelms Himmelsstadt

St. Emmeram Astrolabium
Source: Stefan Wintermantel

Halley's Comet and the Battle of Hastings (1066)

In England, the 1066 sighting of Halley's Comet was thought to be a bad omen for Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who died at the Battle of Hastings, defeated by Norman King William the Conqueror.

The very first picture of the comet is represented on the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.

Source: Wikipedia

Halley's Comet on the Bayeux Tapestry
Source: Wikipedia

Tarabellum & Vexillum (ca. 1225)

In his position as science adviser and court astrologer to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Scottish mathematician and scholar Michael Scot created the first new constellations since the time of Ptolemy.

Tarabellum (the Drill) and Vexillum (the Flag) were the only constellations created in the 1,400 year time span between the era of Ancient Greece and the Age of Discovery.

They were popular up until the 16th century but were not considered by the IAU.


Michael Scot; Wikipedia

Tractatus de sphaera mundi (ca. 1230)

Scholar, monk and astronomer Johannes de Sacrobosco (ca. 1195 – ca. 1256) was a teacher at the University of Paris. He is considered the most important astronomer in pre-Renaissance Europe and was most influential in the introduction of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system to medieval Europe.

Around 1230, de Sacrobosco wrote an astronomy textbook, the Tractatus de sphaera mundi (On the Sphere of the World), using Ptolemy's Almagest, and merging it with additional ideas from Islamic astronomy.

Source: Wikipedia

Copy of De Sphaera Mundi
Source: Wikipedia

The Alfonsine Tables (1252)

In 1080, a group of of Arabic astronomers in Toledo, Spain. created the Toledan Tables astronomical tables with calculations of the movements of the Sun, Moon and the planets relative to the fixed stars.

In the mid-thirteenth century, king Alfonso X of Castile ordered a team of scholars, known as the Toledo School of Translators to translate the tables into Castilian.

Under the leadership of Spanish-Jewish astronomer Isaac ibn Sid, the tables were not only translated but updated to astronomical data starting on January 1, 1252, the date of the coronation of the King. with that, European astronomy for the first time stepped out of the shadow of it mighty Islamic predecessors. For the next three hundred years, the Alfonsine Tables set the standard for astronomy in Europe.

Sources: Wikipedia, Tabule astronomice Alfonsi Regis

Page from Alfonsine Tables
Source: Wikipedia

Books of Wisdom of Astronomy (1276-1279)

The Alfonsine Tables are rightfully called the "Birth Certificate of European Astronomy," but they were not the only accomplishment of the Toledo School of Translators.

Between 1276 and 1279, King Alfonso X, justly called Alfonso el Sabio (Alfons the Wise) commissioned three scientific collections. The only one that survived with the full original text intact is the Libros del saber de astronomía, the "Books of Wisdom of Astronomy".

It is a group of technical books on astrolabes and other astronomical instruments, translated and compiled by the the Rabbi of the Synagogue of Toledo, Yehuda ben Moshe, one of the most accomplished astronomers and translators of his time.

Sources: Wikipedia, World Digital Library

Books of Wisdom of Astronomy
Source: World Digital Library

Bits of the history of European Renaissance Astronomy

A first Concept of a rotating Earth (1377)

French philosopher Nicole Oresme wrote Livre du ciel et du monde (Book of Heaven and Earth). in which he discussed early ideas of a rotating earth, writing that all the movements that we see in the heavens that are computed by the astronomers would appear exactly the same as if the spheres were rotating around the Earth.

Source: Wikipedia

The Vienna School of Astronomy (1407)

In 1407, Austrian philosopher and astronomer Johannes von Gmunden received a doctorate from the University of Vienna. In 1437, he published Ephemeris for the planets, in 1439, he authored the first printed calendar.

Von Gmunden and Heinrich von Langenstein, rector of the Vienna University are considered the founders of the Vienna School of Astronomy - one of the most influential institutions during the transition of astronomy as a science in the 15th and 16th century.

Von Gmunden and von Langenstein were later followed by Austrian astronomer Georg von Peuerbach and German astronomer Regiomontanus, who both laid some essential groundwork for the Copernican Revolution.

Source: German Wikipedia

De Docta Ignorantia (1440)

German philosopher and astronomer Nicholas of Cusa, the Prince-Bishopric of Brixen discussed Oresme's theories in his in his essay De Docta Ignorantia (Of Learned Ignorance).

The Catholic Encyclopedia writes, that his ideas "... evince complete independence of traditional doctrines, though they are based on symbolism of numbers, on combinations of letters, and on abstract speculations rather than observation. The earth is a star like other stars, is not the center of the universe, is not at rest, nor are its poles fixed. The celestial bodies are not strictly spherical, nor are their orbits circular. The difference between theory and appearance is explained by relative motion. Had Copernicus been aware of these assertions he would probably have been encouraged by them to publish his own monumental work."

Source: Wikipedia
Celestial spheres in
Livre du ciel et du monde
Source: Wikipedia

Von Gmunden's Calendar
Source: Wikipedia

Nicholas of Cusa
Source: Wikipedia

The Almanach Perpetuum (1478)

The astronomer who made sure that Henry the Navigator's ships found their way along the West-African coast was rabbi Abraham Zacuto, royal astronomer at the court of King John II of Portugal. The king promised his brother Henry all proceeds from the West-African trade, and the navigator put the astronomer to work.

Zacuto developed a new Astrolabe - one that could actually be used on ships, not just ashore.

In 1478, Zacuto provided navigators with 65 detailed astronomical tables called Ha-ḥibbur ha-gadol (Hebro for The Great Book). The tables were an 1473 update of the Alfonsine Tables. In its Latin translation, it was called Tabulae tabularum Celestium motuum (Book of Tables on the celestial motions) or short, the Almanach perpetuum. One of the truly revolutionary aspects of the Almanach perpetuum were the first accurate table of solar declination, allowing navigators to determin their latitude by the sun in the southern hemisphere, where Polaris, the North Star is not visible.

Source: Wikipedia, Library of Congress

Page from Almanach Perpetuum
Source: Wikipedia

Epytoma in almagesti Ptolemei (1496)

In 1460, Austrian astronomer and mathematician Georg von Peuerbach (1423 – 1461) and his student and friend Regiomontanus (1436 – 1476) started working on a new translation of Ptolemy's Almagest. At the time of Peuerbach's death a year later, they had completed six volumes.

Regiomontanus completed the work, which finally contained 13 volumes, but did not get it published during his lifetime. He did, however publish Peuerbach's earlier work, Theoricae Novae Planetarum, a lecture script on the teachings of Ptolemy, Al-Battani and Al-Farghani in 1474.

The 13 volumes of Epytoma in almagesti Ptolemei were published in 1496 and both works became an important part of the groundwork that eventually led to the Copernican Revolution.

Sources: Wikipedia, Wikipedia, University of Vienna and

Front page of Epytoma in Almagestum Ptolemaei

Almanach nova plurimis annis venturis inservientia (1499)

In 1493, German priest Johannes Stöffler (1452 – 1531) built a celestial globe for the bishop of Konstanz. Stöffler was a self-taught mathematician and astronomer and a skilled and popular maker of mathematical and astronomical instruments.

After spending 30 years as a priest, he became the first ordained professor for mathematics and astronomy at the University of Tübingen.

In 1499, working together with fellow priest Jakob Pflaum, he published the Almanach nova plurimis annis venturis inservientia.

Stöffler's Globe at
Landesmuseum Württemberg
Source: Wikipedia
The Almanach was designated as a continuation of the ephemeris of Regiomontanus. It recorded the daily positions of the planets for a period of 33 years.

The Almanach had a large circulation, underwent 13 editions until 1551 and exerted a strong effect on Renaissance astronomy.

In 1513, Stöffler wrote a book on the construction and use of the astrolabe.

Calendarium romanum magnum (1518)

Stöffler's perhaps most important achievement was a proposal for a calendar revision, to fix the date of Easter Sunday which after seven centuries of use of the Julian calendar (which didn't have leap years) was no longer in tune with the courses of the Sun and Moon.

Almanach, 1522 edition
Source: Wikipedia
Calendarium romanum
Source: ETH Bibliothek
Stöffler's Calendarium became one of the foundations of the Gregorian calendar, which was introduces in 1582.

Sources: Wikipedia, University of Oxford, C. Philipp E. Nothaft: The astronomer Johannes Stöffler and the reform of Easter

Regiomontanus posthumously (1512)

German mathematician and astronomer Regiomontanus lived from 1436 to 1476. As mentioned above, Regiomontanus worked on an extensive translation of Ptolemy's Almagest.

But evenly important, his contributions to astronomy were instrumental in the development of Copernican heliocentrism in the decades following his death. In 1512, a woodcut, showing Regiomontanus' concept of a heliocentric solar system was published.

Source: Wikipedia

Regiomontanus' rendering of the planets circling the sun.
Source: Wikimedia

Europe's first printed star chart (1515)

In 1515, famous German painter Albrecht Dürer, with the help of two astronomers, created two woodblocks for the first printed star charts in the West. (The world's very first printed star chart was manufactured in China in 1092).

Dürer's two planispheres were a true merge of astronomy and art as they did not just depict the mythical beings behind the constellations but superimposed these images over the precise location of each constellaltion's main stars.

This masterpiece of celestial cartography paved the way for the great illustrated star maps of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Sources: Ian Ridpath,

Dürer's planispere of the northern hemisphere
Source: Ian Ridpath

New constellations (1536)

In 1536, German cartographer Caspar Vopel published a celestial globe showing two new constellations in addition to Ptolemy's forty-eight.

In Ptolemy's Almagest the asterism Coma Berenices was part of the constellation Leo. The first one to name the asterism was Greek astronomer Conon of Samos (ca.280 – ca. 220 BC).

Vopel's second new constellation was Antinous, an asterism originally belonging to Ptolemy's Aquila. The asterism was first separated by Roman emperor Hadrian, who named it after his favorite beloved Antinous.

Vopel, and after him Gerardus Mercator and Tycho Brahe listed Coma Berenices and Antinous as separate constellations.

Caspar Vopel's globe, 1536

In 1930, when the International Astronomical Union finalized today's 88 constellations, Coma Berenices was officially designated a constellation, while Antinous was re-merged with Aquila.

Sources: Ian Ridpath,


The first printed star atlas (1540)

25 years after the first European printed star chart, Italian astronomer and philosopher Alessandro Piccolomini took stellar cartography to the next level. His star atlas De le stelle fisse (On the fixed stars) did not have any colorful illustrations, but instead it provided precise diagrams of 47 of Ptolemy's 48 constellations - each one on a separate page. Only the very faint Equuleus was missing.

Piccolomini maps included a total of 621 stars - down to magnitude 5. His constellations were presented face-on, as an observer on Earth would see them in the sky. Al-Sufi presented his drawing in both directions, face-on and mirrored (as seen on a globe), the orientation medieval drawings was inconsistent and Dürer used mirror-images.

De la sfera del mondo &
De le stelle fisse, title page
Source:, p. 3

Constellation Scorpius in
De le stelle fisse
Source:, p. 211

Piccolomini's face-on orientation set a standard that was followed from that day forward - with very few exceptions - in all important publications.

He also introduced an - albeit crude and inconsistent - numbering system for the stars in each constellation sorted by their apparent brightness. 63 years later, in the star atlas Uranometria, that system would be perfected as the Bayer designation, consisting of Greek letters in order of apparent magnitude.

Piccolomini may not have inspired any artists, but his star atlas sure was an important - and popular - tool for astronomers. Ian Ridpath provides an excellent description of Piccolomini's work.

The complete De le stelle fisse, published together with De la sfera del mondo (On the sphere of the world) is available at, the star charts are on pages 184 through 230.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath

The Copernican Revolution (1512 - 1543)

Polish polymath and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) did not discover any new stars or constellations, but his work shaped astronomy more than any other before or after him. His study De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) placed the Sun rather than Earth at the center of the universe.

Copernicus hesitated publishing his findings anticipating enormous backlash. But while his masterpiece, the revolutionibus was not published until he was literally on his deathbed, Copernicus had worked on his idea of heliocentrism for more than half of his life.

He first introduced his ideas in 1512, sharing a brief outline of an early version of his revolutionary heliocentric theory in a small circle, writing a paper called Commentariolus (Little Commentary).

Nicolaus Copernicus
Source: National Geographic
Copernicus had completed his work on the Revolutionibus by 1532.

In 1539, one of his students, German astronomer Georg Joachim Rheticus went public with a paper titled Narratio prima (First Account), in which he outlined the essence of Copernicus's theory.

In 1543, shortly before his death, the Revolutionibus was finally printed and published.

Copernicus was not the first one to entertain the idea of a heliocentric world, but this time, the world listened and the first star tables based on the new model of the world were published only eight years after his passing.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia
De revolutionibus
Source: Wikipedia

In the mid-15th century, European sailors started discovering the southern skies, vastly expanding the star maps.

Chronologically, there is a slight overlap between this section and the next, but we tried to keep all the geographical discoveries on one page. For a pure chronological listing, see our Timeline.
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