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Significant Scots
John Holybush

HOLYBUSH, JOHN, a celebrated mathematician and astronomer, better known by the Latin terms, de Sacrobosco, or de Sacrobusto, occasionally also receiving the vernacular appellations of Holywood and Hallifax, and by one writer barbarously named Sacerbuschiux. The period when this eminent man flourished is not known with any thing approaching even to the usual certainty in such cases, and it is matter of doubt whether he existed in the 13th or 14th century. Nor is his birth-place less dubious; as in many other instances during the same period, England, Scotland, and Ireland have contended for the honour—the two former with almost equal success, the last with apparently no more claim than the absence of certain evidence of his belonging to any other particular nation. When a man has acquired a fame apart from his own country, and in any pursuit not particularly characteristic of, or connected with his native land, the establishment of a certainty of the exact spot of his birth is of little consequence, and when easily ascertained, the fact is only useful for the purpose of pointing out the particular branch of biography (as that subject is generally divided) to which the individual belongs, and thus preventing omission and confusion. Entertaining such an opinion, we shall just glance at the arguments adduced by the writers of the two nations in defence of their respective claims, and not pretending to decide a matter of such obscurity, consider it a sufficient reason why he should be a fit subject for commemoration in this work, that no decision can be come to betwixt the claimants. It will be very clear, where there are doubts as to the century in which he lived, that he is not mentioned by any authors who did not exist at least a century or two later. In an edition of one of his works, published at Lyons in 1606, it is said," Patria fuit quae nunc Anglia Insula, olim Albion et Brettania appellata." Although the apparent meaning of this sentence inclines towards an opinion that our author was an Englishman, the sentence has an aspect of considerable ignorance of the divisions of Britain, and confounds the England of later times, with the Albion or Britannia of the Romans, which included England and Scotland. Leland and Camden vindicate his English birth, on the ground that John of Halifax in Yorkshire forms a translation (though it must be admitted not a very apt one) of Joannes de Sacrobosco. On the other hand Dempster scouts the theory of Leland with considerable indignation, maintaining that Halifax is a name of late invention, and that the mathematician derived his designation from the monastery of Holywood in Nithsdale, an establishment of sufficient antiquity to have admitted him within its walls. M’Kenzie repeats the assertions of Dempster with a few additions, stating that after having remained for some years in the monastery, he went to Paris, and was admitted a member of the university there. "Upon the 5th of June, in the year 1221," Sibbald in his manuscript History of Scottish Literature [Hist. Lit. Gentis Scot. MS. Adv. Lib. P. 164.] asserts, that besides residing in the monastery of Holywood, he was for some time a fellow student of the monks in Dryburgh, and likewise mentions, what M’Kenzie has not had the candour to allude to, and Dempster has sternly denied, that he studied the higher branches of philosophy and mathematics at the university of Oxford. Presuming Holybush to have been a Scotsman, it is not improbable that such a circumstance as his having studied at Oxford might have induced his continental commentators to denominate him an Englishman. M’Kenzie tells us that he entered the university of Paris "under the syndic of the Scots nation;" for this he gives us no authority, and we are inclined not only to doubt the assertion, but even the circumstance that at that early period the Scottish nation had a vote in the university of Paris, disconnected with that of England—at all events, the historians of literature during that period are not in the habit of mentioning a Scottish nation or syndic, and instead of the faculty of arts being divided, as M’Kenzie will have it, "into four nations, France, Scotland, Picardy, and Normandy," it is usually mentioned as divided into France, Britain, Picardy, and Normandy. That Holybush was admitted under a Scottish syndic, was not a circumstance to be omitted by Bulaus, from his elaborate and minute History of the University of Paris, where the mathematician is unequivocally described as having been an Englishman. There cannot be any doubt that Holybush became celebrated at the university for his mathematical labours; that he was constituted professor of, or lecturer on that science; that many of the first scholars of France came to his school for instruction; and that if he was not the first professor of the mathematics in Paris, he was at least the earliest person to introduce a desire for following that branch of science. M’Kenzie states that he died in the year 1256, as appears from his tombstone. The author of the History of the University of Paris, referring with better means of knowledge to the same tombstone, which he says was to be seen at the period when he writes, places the date of his death at the year 1340. The same well informed author mentions that the high respect paid to his abilities and integrity, prompted the university to honour him with a public funeral, and many demonstrations of grief. On the tombstone already referred to, was engraved an astrolabe, surrounded by the following inscription: --

"De Sacrobosco qui computista Joannes,
Tempora discrevit, jacet hic a tempore raptus.
Tempora quil sequeris, memor esto quod morieris;
Si miseres, plora, miserans pro me precor ora."

The most celebrated work of Holywood was a treatise on the Sphere, discussing in the first part the form, motion, and surface of the earth—in the second those of the heavenly bodies, and, as was customary before the more full revival of philosophy, mingling his mathematics and astronomy with metaphysics and magic. Although the discoveries displayed in this work must be of great importance, it is impossible to give any account of their extent, as the manuscripts of the author seem to have lain dormant till the end of the 15th or beginning of the 16th century, when they were repeatedly published, with the comments and additions of able mathematicians, who mingled the discoveries of Holybush with those which had been made since his death. The earliest edition of this work appears to have been that published at Padua in 1475, entitled "Francisci Capuani expositio Sphaerae Joannis a Sacrobosco." In 1485 appeared "Sphaera cum Theoricis Purbachii et Disputationibus Johannis Regiomontani contra Cremonensium Deliramenta in Planetarum Theoricas," being a mixture of the discoveries of Holywood, with those of George Purbach, (so called from the name of a town in Germany, in which he was born,) and Regiomontanus, whose real name was Muller, two celebrated astronomers and mathematicians of the 15th century. During the same year there appears to have been published a commentary on Holywood by Cichus Ascolanus. In 1507, appeared an edition for the use of the university of Paris, with a commentary, by John Bonatus. In 1547, an edition was published at Antwerp, with figures very respectably executed, and without the name of any commentator. Among his other commentators, were Morisanus, Clavius, Vinetus, and many others of high name, whom it were useless here to enumerate. Some late authors have said that Melancthon edited his Computus Ecclesiasticus; of this edition we have not observed a copy in any library or bibliography, but that great man wrote a preface to the Sphaera, prefixed to an edition published at Paris in 1550. Besides these two works, Holybush wrote De Algorismo, and De Ratione Anni. Dempster also mentions a Breviarium Juris, which either has never existed, or is now lost. M’Kenzie mentions a Treatise de Algorismo, and on Ptolemy’s Astrolabe, fragments of which existed in MS. in the Bodleian library. In the catalogue of that institution the former is mentioned, but not the latter.

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