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An astrolabe is a medieval computer used to tell the time and date, and to locate stars.
Pronounced ‘Astro-Labe’ – this is a medieval computer with many functions such as telling the time and date, and locating stars. It is a brass disc with moving parts, 295mm in diameter. It hangs from a brass ring, and a “net” with star pointers, rotates over an engraved grid of coordinates (altitude and azimuth) in the sky. On the back, calendars allow the user to convert between calendar days (January-December, with important saints’ days in each month) and zodiacal days (Aries-Pisces). These calendars show the sun’s position in the sky, against the background of fixed stars, at any time of year. Once you know this, you can tell the time by measuring the height of any star in the sky (using the “alidade” that rotates on the back of the astrolabe). You can also use the alidade to measure the height of a building.
Medieval people saw God in every aspect of the world around them, and when they wanted to learn more about the universe, they saw it as learning more about God’s Creation and getting closer to the mind of God.
The astrolabe calendar was marked with saints’ days because most people knew what day it was in relation to religious feasts.
We don’t know exactly who produced it, but it would probably have been a craftsman working for a scholar, or an educated, wealthy patron. Astronomy was a popular and important science in medieval times and astronomers were able to measure the size of the earth and predict the orbits of the planets with amazing precision, simply by observing their movements in the sky. Many astronomers owned their own astrolabe, though they would usually have been simpler than this one, or made of wood.
It is a portable multifunctional computer – so the closest modern equivalent is probably a smartphone. Like a smartphone, it had lots of clever functions in a small package. People could use them to learn new things about the universe. They were models or maps of the sky and symbolized high-level understanding as well as looking good – people would show them off to their friends, as you might your new smartphone today!
Astrolabes were particularly useful for Muslims, because they could be used to find the direction of Mecca, in which Muslims face when praying. So it’s clearly linked to the qibla compass many Muslims use today (though lots use a smartphone for this too now)! The Whipple Museum has several Islamic astrolabes.
Are there links to current religious practices or a modern equivalent?
It is a portable multifunctional computer – so the closest modern equivalent is probably a smartphone. Like a smartphone, it had lots of clever functions in a small package. It’s also clearly linked to the qibla compass many Muslims use today
Christian belief was central to life in medieval England. People saw God in every aspect of the world around them, and when they wanted to learn more about the universe, they saw it as learning more about God’s Creation – getting closer to the mind of God.
All formal education took place in religious institutions: church schools, monasteries and (religious) universities. The astrolabe calendar was marked with saints’ days because most people knew what day it was in relation to religious feasts.
But the choice of which saints to mark on the astrolabe calendar was partly a personal choice. The maker chose saints who appealed to him for religious reasons. For instance St Botolph, a popular saint in East Anglia, was the patron saint of travellers – maybe the person who had this astrolabe made needed to travel a lot.
The visualization explains the working and background of the planispheric astrolabe and allows users to experiment with it by adjusting rete and index.
This page provides a very brief definition of planispheric astrolabe principles.
Excellent information on Astrolabes, including instructions for building (and using) your own!
An opportunity to learn more and find out about the different parts of an astrolabe.
Written for his ten-year-old son, this treatise describes the parts of the astrolabe and things it can be used for.
Suitable for advanced GCSE and A’-level students and includes some trigonometry. Provides a thorough background to the subject, with a specific section on astrolabes and instructions on building your own.
Intermediate-advanced book (aimed at a general adult audience), which discusses the religious significance of science.