Nomen omen: The Sphere of Life and Death in England, c. 1200 - c. 1500

Jo Edge

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis analyses the ‘Sphere of Life and Death’, present in 55 known manuscripts of English provenance, c. 1200 - c. 1500. The ‘Sphere’ is an onomancy, which claims to predict the future by the numbers that correlate to the letters of an individual’s name. While the early medieval ‘Sphere’ (to c. 1125) has been studied in some depth, very little attention has been given to the later medieval examples. The sheer number, and varied contexts, of surviving manuscripts containing the ‘Sphere’ show that it was a very popular prognostic in late medieval England, and is worthy of full-scale study. This thesis hopes to fill this gap in the scholarship and demonstrate that the ‘Sphere’ was used by a wide cross-section of medieval society.

This thesis is in three sections. Section 1, on the cultural and legal background, has five chapters: the first provides definitions of terms and places the ‘Sphere’ in the context of divination, prognostic and onomancy. The second chapter looks at the appeal of such a device. The third outlines the ancient and early medieval origins of the ‘Sphere’, while the fourth provides typologies and ownership of the late medieval ‘Sphere’. The fifth chapter centres on the status of the ‘Sphere’ as illicit divination. Section 2 focuses on specific manuscript contexts in which the ‘Sphere’ is found as a way of establishing its readership: literate physicians, the aristocracy and gentry, scholars and monks. Section 3 examines the ‘Sphere’ in the period c. 1500 – c. 1700. It analyses the manuscripts and printed books owned and copied in this period. It ends by looking at the intellectual context of the ‘Sphere’ in the early modern period by examining the justifications for and condemnations of its use produced during this time.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Horden, Peregrine, Supervisor
Award date1 Feb 2015
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015

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