Friday, 23 September 2022

History of Science and Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (II)

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by all the member states of the United Nations. They represent a call for action by all countries —developed and developing— to, among other aims, improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth. The RUTTER project aligns with key aspects of the Declaration, goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda, which promotes a world of cultural diversity, and its appreciation, “to foster intercultural understanding, tolerance, mutual respect and an ethic of global citizenship” (par.36).

Creating an open platform giving access to collections which preserve interconnected histories, of value to many cultures, RUTTER contributes “to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies” (par.15).

Our digital library will be a gender-inclusive endeavour, thus furthering Goal 5, target 5.b, to “Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women.”

From a fundamental point of view, given the nature of the collections we cover, and how we will be promoting the study of different languages with scholarly equality, we will align with par. 36 of the Declaration, “to foster intercultural understanding, tolerance, mutual respect and an ethic of global citizenship and shared responsibility.”

The map above, from the project “CenterNet-An international network of digital humanities centers”, highlights the existence of teams and projects involving digital humanities all over the world. DH work tends by nature to form international networks, breaking geographic and cultural barriers, driven by the desire to learn and to share knowledge. Because our editions will be online, free to access, and with a multilingual interface, we will in fact bring languages and discourses from developing countries as equal interlocutors into the world-wide forum that the internet has become. — We’ll give details about our methods in the next post in this series. [S. Munzi and J. Acevedo]

Friday, 16 September 2022

From the “leap day before the calends of March” to the 29th of February – Part II

Pilots and navigators of the 15th and 16th centuries needed the Sun’s Declination Tables to determine their daily position on ocean voyages, using the reading of the sun’s altitude values they got from the astrolabe or quadrant.

As the Julian calendar had a cycle of 4 years, three common and one leap year, the most rigorous Tables had to be quadrennial. The calculations were made by astronomers from astronomical tables such as the Tables of the place of the sun from Abraham Zacuto’s Almanach perpetuum (Leiria, 1496). Astronomers calculated and sailors learned to read and use; sometimes they copied them for their notes or seaman’s books, other times they used printed editions that began to appear in Portuguese, as in the Évora Nautical Guide (Guia Náutico de Évora) (Lisbon, ca. 1516).

The four-year Tables presented the 1461 days of the four years of the Julian cycle. There, the month of February of the “leap year” actually has 29 days, but without the dating format and Roman numerals by Calends, Nones and Ides, only with the series of days of the month written in Arabic numerals. In most handwritten documents — Livros de marinharia, Atlas and Códice Bastião Lopes - we find the quadrennial Tables of the Sun’s declination. Let's look at the “Treaty of the Sphere” section in Évora Nautical Guide, printed in Portuguese:

This Guide includes the values of the “Place of the Sun” and “Solar Declination”. On the 23rd of February of the leap year (1st column, 3rd row), it indicates the place of the leap year (lugar do bis.) and the vigil of Saint Matias, but the last day of the month is the 29th (1st column, 9th row), without a Sunday letter , only with the values of the place of the sun and the declination of the sun (9th row, columns 4th to 7th). In traditional Julian calendars, the leap day took the place of 24th of February, Saint Matias’ day moved to the 25th of February, and the month retained its count of 29 days.

Here, the day itself 29th of February is writen, but without a Sunday letter (or, if we want we could repeat the Sunday letter from the previous day, ‘c’). Only the values in degrees and minutes of the ‘Place of the Sun’ and the ‘Declination of the Sun’ are displayed. The “leap place” of the traditional Julian calendar, which repeated the 24th of February, no longer makes sense because the “added day” is now the 29th of February, as we use it today in the most diverse calendars, printed in diaries or electronically. [José Madruga]

Friday, 2 September 2022

History of Science and Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (I)

What’s the link between the Rutter project and sustainability? You will find out in this series of three posts.

At our project we draw directly from early modern scientific manuscripts, bringing them to light from half-forgotten shelves, showing their relevance, and making them available worldwide as much as possible.

Touching the sources themselves is key for an honest and fresh look into the past, for a real understanding, instead of a projection of our views, and this work can be exciting and fascinating, but it is hard work indeed, and it imposes limitations as far as open science and accessibility are concerned. Some typical scenarios are:

  • Only one or just a few copies exist of a specific manuscript work, physically located in one/few libraries;
  • The texts are hard to read unless the reader has a certain degree of expertise in paleography;
  • The texts are written in the languages of the 15th-17th centuries;
  • Some texts are considerably long, making it difficult to quickly retrieve information on specific topics.

Applying Digital Humanities techniques to Iberian and Arabic maritime works opens new ways to approach these early scientific and technical texts and to bypass most of their limitations at once. The transcription of texts into digital formats (XML), following international standards (TEI), with the modernization of the language, makes them actually available from everywhere and to anyone, regardless of sex, nationality, age or race. More about this in the coming weeks, stay tuned! [S. Munzi and J. Acevedo]

Wednesday, 20 July 2022

Surprises Awaiting the Visitors to Simancas Archive

Following our previous post “Father Fernão de Oliveira: a globalization agent of Iberian maritime knowledge”, we could not fail to report our recent excitement when finding sixteenth-century originals mentioning the famous Portuguese nautical expert. The Archivo General de Simancas (in Valladolid, Spain) is one of the main Spanish archives, filled with important documents (not just for Spanish history but for European and World History in general) that still need to be fully researched by scholars. When digging into Simancas’s several funds, you are up for unpredictable surprises.

One of the surprises I had when checking the collection Secretarias de Estado, Estado Portugal was a 1567 letter by D. Fernando Carrillo de Mendonza (the Spanish ambassador in Portugal between 1567 and 1569) to King Philip II (r. 1556-1598), mentioning his conversation with father Fernão de Oliveira. This conversation took place, as mentioned in the previous post, after a French attempt to hire and convince father Oliveira to come to France to serve the Valois in 1566. Carrillo stepped in to prevent Oliveira from departing Portugal to serve France, and instead, he tried to enlist Oliveira for Spanish service.

Carrillo valued so much Oliveira’s knowledge that upon previous order from Philip II, he had spoken directly with the highest Portuguese political authorities (at the time Cardinal Henry and Queen-mother Catherine of Austria) concerning Oliveira’s possible exit from Portugal. Although the Cardinal and the Queen declared that they had spoken with father Oliveira previously, they did not appreciate enough the value of his person, work, and knowledge. But Carrillo was writing to Philip II to inform him that after all that had passed, father Oliveira would not leave for Spain, although he had been to prepared to do so. The letter I found proves that Carrillo knew that his news would disappoint Philip II, as they did. The time for the author of the 1555 Arte da Guerra do Mar (The Art of Sea Warfare) had not yet come to serve in Spain.

This famous excerpt has already been published by scholars Léon Bourdon and Avelino Teixeira da Mota. Aside from the wonderful opportunity to work in an ancient castle and meeting incredible people to assist your research, you will get also a good memory for life. Like when you go hunting or to fish and you never know what you will get, this is what happens when you come to Simancas: at any corner, you might find yourself face to face with a documental surprise relevant to Iberian and European maritime and scientific history during the Renaissance. [Nuno Vila-Santa]

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

From the “leap day before the calends of March” to the 29th of February – I

The traditional Roman calendar consisted of twelve lunar months divided into blocks of Calends (first day of the month), Nones and Ides, with an annual average value of 355 days, and an additional lunar month added according to certain rules. The new year began on the calends of March.

More than 2050 years ago, Julius Caesar decided to reform the Roman calendar to follow more closely the cycle of the seasons; the basis was the best value of the known tropical solar year —365 days and 6 hours— as confirmed by the greek astronomer Sosigenes from Alexandria, then in Rome.

The new Roman annual calendar was about ten days longer than the previous one. The months kept their traditional names, but the number of days in each month was changed, and the beginning of the year moved to the calends of January, the date on which the two consuls elected annually took office. To maintain the average value of the solar year, the new calendar was left with 365 whole days; the six hours missing each year were to be added every four years, forming a whole day. It was also decided that this extra day would be added after the ‘23rd of February’, the 7th day before the calends of March, in the same place where an intercalary lunar month had been traditionally added, before the end of month and year.

Thus, in a leap year, instead of a day ‘24 of February, the 6th day before the calends of March, there were now two ‘24th’ days, or two sixth days, and the additional day was identified by the name ‘second 6th day before the calends of March’ or ante diem bis sextum Kalendas Martias (bis sextum means literally ‘the twice sixth’).

This new calendar, with a cycle of four years and 1461 days (= 365 x 3 + 366 x 1) remained the Roman Empire calendar, was confirmed by Emperor Augustus, and continued in use throughout Europe even after the fall of the Roman Empire.

About 1500 years after Julius Caesar’s reform, Christian calendars followed the same established rules. Note the detail of a calendar in the Ordinary of the Divine Office of the Cistercian Order (BNP, alc. 62, fol. 4v), a 1475 manuscript, with the Christian liturgy inserted in the Julian calendar:

The day added every four years (fifth row) had neither a golden number (1st column) nor a Sunday letter (2nd column), nor a row of its own. Graphically, it was just a red note on the side saying: the sixth [before the Calends of March] is inserted twice here (hic bis sextus inseritur). [José Madruga]

Friday, 1 July 2022

The Living Light (O lume vivo)

“I saw and clearly saw, the living Light, / Which sailor-people hold their Patron-saint, / In times of trouble and the winds’ rude fight, / And sable orcan when man’s heart is faint” (“Vi, claramente visto, o lume vivo / Que a marítima gente tem por santo / Em tempo de tormenta e vento esquivo, / De tempestade escura e triste pranto.”) [English translation by Richard Francis Burton, London 1880]

With these four verses Luís de Camões (Os Lusíadas, 1572) mentioned a curious weather phenomenon which took place during a tempest on his ship while sailing to the East. Such an episode was also described several decades later by William Shakespeare in The Tempest, in connection with the character of Ariel, a spirit with special skills capable of causing storms. Our current explanation is that a bright luminous plasma was generated by an electric discharge in an atmospheric electric field. The intensity of the effect, a blue or violet glow around the object, often accompanied by an audible discharge, was proportional to the strength of the electric field and therefore noticeable primarily during storms or volcanic eruptions. This impressive phenomenon gave rise to a wide variety of explanations, and it was discussed also in more technical maritime literature, like the Arte de navegar published by Simão de Oliveira in 1606.

Oliveira devoted an entire chapter to the “light that appears on certain areas of the ships, after great storms” (Chapter 52). He started by naming this light in many ways, such as S. Frei Pedro Gonçalves, Santelmo, or Corpo Santo. The first of these names referred to Pedro Gonçalves Telmo (hence English “St Elmo’s fire”), the patron saint of sailors, a Spanish catholic priest, born in 1190, to whom various miracles were attributed. The most spectacular was that of Baiona’s big storm, when Saint Telmo asked the winds to stop blowing. Oliveira then went on to explain that this strange event also happened to the ancient sailors, even before the saint was born. The ancients called it Castor and Pollux, when two lights appeared, and Helena when it manifested itself in the form of only one light. Helena was a bad sign, but Castor and Pollux meant happiness.

Finally, Oliveira concluded the chapter by stating that these fires were no sign of a saint, or of a miracle, but were the result of antiperistasis, which was a term used to explain various events, where one quality heightened the force of another opposing, quality. He linked the phenomenon to the ship’s rocking. The ship “sent” —as he put it— “viscous excitements”, that generated the light. Although the author emphasized that such a phenomenon could happen in many other places, like prisons, churches, over sweaty horses or even on the head of strangled prisoners, the textual tradition linked it mostly to maritime contexts. Oliveira’s explanation of the phenomenon had its origins in sailors’ experiences and accounts (oral and written, especially rutters, like D. João de Castro’s texts) of long-distance voyages, where “the living lights” were frequent signals for sailors. [Leonor Pedro & Luana Giurgevich]

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

The chemistry of the Portuguese Empire III: Ascorbic Acid

This is the third post inspired by the book “Napoleon’s Buttons – 17 Molecules that Changed History” by Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreson. While in the first two posts of the series we talked about piperine and eugenol, two molecules that inspired, so to speak, the Age of Discoveries, here we consider ascorbic acid which, or rather the absence of which, almost prevented it.

The functions that ascorbic acid, commonly known as vitamin C, performs in our body are several and important: it is in fact an antioxidant, the precursor of enzymes involved in the immune system and the production of neurotransmitters, and it is essential in the production of collagen and in tissue healing.

But how is this related to oceanic navigation? Humans, as many other animals, are incapable of synthesizing vitamin C and can only acquire it from dietary sources, mainly from fresh fruits and vegetables. If sailors’ eating habits on land were not ideal, they became terrifying onboard, already after a few weeks of navigation. Preserving food in reasonable conditions was practically impossible and the crew had to rely on salty, dried meat and on hardtacks, biscuits made of water and flour and baked to become rock hard. Considering that voyages used to last for months, sailors very soon after their departure started to show symptoms of scurvy, a disease that is caused by vitamin C deficiency.

Not at all a pretty sight, since early symptoms are malaise and lethargy (that made some people think that lazy sailors got sick) then progressing to shortness of breath, but later symptoms are bleeding gums, loss of teeth, susceptibility to bruising, hemorrhaging from mouth and noise, poor wound healing, foul breath, and diarrhea, to finally evolve into fever, convulsions and eventual death. The scarce hygiene, the co-occurrence of other diseases and the general poor health conditions of the sailors, mainly recruited among the lowest social classes, were confounding factors that prevented a serious study of scurvy for a long time. The search for a cure lead to a series of proposals, including bloodletting, an ‘elixir of vitriol’ (a mixture of sulphuric acid and alcohol), salty water, and a number of other ineffective, when not harmful, alternatives.

Today we know that any citrus juice would be enough to avoid scurvy, but in the Age of Discoveries more people died of scurvy than those who died of war, other diseases and shipwrecks combined. [Silvana Munzi]