Euclid’s Elements of Geometry holds a unique position among scientific texts, and for good reason. Historically, it is second only to the Bible in the number of editions or printings – by the end of the seventeenth century this fundamental mathematical text had appeared in over two hundred and fifty different guises. Alongside editions in the original Greek, Arabic, or Latin, the main languages of transmission, there were others translated into modern languages such as Italian, French, German, and English.
But it was not only linguistically that the text varied. There were also differences both in content and format. Many editions, especially the more popular ones, comprised only the first six books, while others directed at more scholarly audiences included the remaining seven as well as the added books (XIV and XV). Equally, the number and order of propositions could differ tremendously. And size was important, too. Some editions of the Elements were weighty scholarly tomes that would grace any library shelf, while others were small enough to fit comfortably into the reader’s pocket.
Having evolved over more than three and a half centuries since the institution’s beginnings, the Royal Society Library has an extraordinarily rich collection of Euclid editions, and its holdings were among the first investigated by the Oxford-based Reading Euclid project, examining the importance of Euclid’s Elements for early modern mathematical culture in Britain and Ireland. A major output of this project is Seeing Euclid, a networked exhibition involving over twenty institutions and highlighting the legacy of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. The Royal Society Library’s contribution to this collaborative project is now open for viewing.
How to visit (by Rupert Baker, Royal Society Library Manager)
You can see the Royal Society’s Euclid display from now until 28 June and then, after a break for our Summer Science Exhibition and new Fellows week, there will be a second chance from 16 to 31 July. Opening hours are the same as for the Library: 10:00-17:00 Mon-Fri. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be happy to register you as Library readers and show you further Euclid material in our collections, including this unusual 1828 book with embossed geometrical figures ‘for the use of blind persons’. Other mathematical treasures are also available.
The three items in our Euclid display case are:
(centre) A thirteenth-century manuscript of the Elements, with detailed geometric diagrams in the margins, presented to the Society by the antiquary Peter Le Neve FRS in 1718.
(left) A 1510 printed edition from Venice, containing the first new Latin translation of the Elements since the invention of printing and featuring these beautiful marginal illustrations on the opening page:
(right) An Italian edition printed at Urbino in 1575, and acquired in 1614 by the great book collector Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, whose ‘Bibliotheca Norfolciana’ (Norfolk Library) is one of the foundations of our current Royal Society collection. Here’s a close-up of his ownership inscription on the title page:
You can read more about the Royal Society’s mini-exhibition on the Seeing Euclid website, and take a look at the project contributions of other libraries in London and the UK, some of which are open to public visitors. Happy Euclid hunting!