Michael Scot and The Warburg Institute

Written by Eleonora Andriani |
Eleonora Andriani holding the draft edition and partial transcription of the Liber quatuor distinctionum by Hans Meier.
When the Warburg Institute Library left Germany in 1933, six people came over with it; among them, was the erudite medievalist and former librarian at the Institute, Hans Meier. While studying in Hamburg, Meier had started an edition of the Liber quatuor distinctionum, which is now freely accessible in the Library. The Liber quatuor distinctionum is the first and most substantial section of the Liber introductorius, a three-part introduction to astrology by Michael Scot (d. 1235?); Arabic-Latin translator, philosopher and scientist). It consists of three books: the Liber quatuor distinctionum, the Liber particularis, and the Liber phisionomie, preceded by a general preface, the Prohemium, to the whole work.
In this blog post, Eleonora Andriani, who was an Occasional Student at the Institute,  reflects on the legacy of Hans Meier at the Institute and his efforts to publish an edition of the Liber quatuor distinctionum. Her reflections extend to the enduring impact of his research, which has continued to influence her own edition of the Prohemium to the Liber introductorius, the focus of her PhD.


Michael Scot, Liber introductorius in the Warburg Library. Classmark: FAH 1437

To Hans Meier (1900-1941), a friend I wish I could have met.

In 1922, Richard Georg Salomon, historian and Professor of History, first in Hamburg and then at the Kenyon College in Ohio, recommended Hans Meier to the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg as “…a very reliable student, who was to write a copy of a very extensive unpublished treatise…,” namely, the Liber quatuor distinctionum of Michael Scot. Since the early 1920s, Meier was part of the library staff and in 1926 was appointed research assistant while working on his PhD dissertation. In his years of service to the library, both in Hamburg and London, he became known for his scientific talents and his full commitment to everything from the intellectual to the practical.

From the personal and institutional correspondence of scholars at the Institute, Meier emerges as an extremely meticulous student and academic. To avoid falling short of his self-imposed standards, Meier would defer submissions, which included his PhD thesis. When Meier finally passed his PhD summa cum laude on the 27 July 1929, it was of great relief to both Aby Warburg and especially to Fritz Saxl, who described Meier as “…the best friend he would ever have.”

Meier’s edition of the first part of the Liber quatuor distinctionum was “…finished and handwritten with the entire critical apparatus…” by the beginning of May 1928. Franz Alber, factotum and the library’s secretary at the time, was in charge of typewriting it. The occasion was welcomed as a fundamental breakthrough that finally reaped the rewards of five years of hard work. We read in Meier’s obituary:

“He had worked for the Institute for nearly twenty years, coming to it when he was still at university. His interests in palaeography, medieval history, and humanism were by then already clearly defined. During those university years, he transcribed for us the whole of Michael Scot’s Liber introductorius.[1] As a student new to this kind of research, he could not have carried the work through without unusual qualities of uncompromising devotion. It was his pride as a palaeographer to produce a thoroughly faithful copy from the first line to the last, and after years of application he achieved his aim. This was his temper as a scholar. Accuracy and completeness were his ideals.”

When Meier was killed in a London air raid in 1941, he apparently had with him most of the transcription of the Prohemium of the Liber introductorius; only a few pages of this draft edition survived and are today, kept with the rest of Meier’s transcription here at the Warburg Institute. The four volumes of this material also include some proof sheets of the draft edition corresponding to the first part of the Prohemium, up to the beginning of f. 4rb in the base manuscript, i.e. München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 10268. These pages were set in type by B.G. Teubner Verlagsgesellschaft in 1928, and therefore soon after Meier accomplished his task.

When Meier was killed in a London air raid in 1941, he apparently had with him most of the transcription of the Prohemium in the Liber introductorius; only a few pages of this book survived and are today, kept with the rest of Meier’s transcription here at the Warburg Institute.

On the night of the air raid, which resulted in Meier's death and the loss of the material intended for the completion of the edition, material that Meier intended to use for the completion of the third volume of the Bibliography of the Survival of the Classics was also destroyed. Unfortunately, this series was never completed. To add to the devastation, the only duplicate of the Library's author catalogue, kept for reference purposes at the National Central Library, fell victim to a German bombing during the same bombing raid.  

Meier’s edition, which was intended to be published as Volume 15 of the Studien der Bibliothek Warburg, remained unpublished. Besides these four volumes, the Warburg Library preserves Meier’s original drafts and proofs and some extra notes in a box kept on reserve. The information in this folder ­– such as notes on the manuscripts witnesses, excerpts of letters of Gregory IX and Honorius III in which the two popes recommend Michael Scot as a very distinguished scholar, notes on Scot based on Bernardino Baldi’s Cronica de matematici, notes on Vincent Beauvais’s Speculum Doctrinale – indicate that the material was meant to be used for a general introduction to the critical edition. The publication of the edition preceded by an introduction was indeed a matter of discussion within the Institute, as we infer from a letter of Gertrud Bing to Saxl dated May 1928, and a letter from Hans Liebeschütz to Saxl dating from June of the same year. The decision was taken not to produce a general introduction to the work, but rather to add to Meier’s edition a collection of essays on Michael Scot, resulting from the joint efforts of various scholars connected to the Institute.[2] This plan too would eventually fail.

Fritz Saxl excitedly tells Aby Warburg (from Madrid) about a 15th-century illuminated manuscript by Scot.

On 8 October 1945, four years after Meier’s death, an Italian philologist and literary critic, Giuseppe Billanovich, wrote to Saxl concerning a new series that would edit Latin texts on subjects such as religion, philosophy, literature, history, and science. The series, entitled Bibliotheca, aimed to gather contributions from the most eminent scholars in those fields. Billanovich asked Saxl whether he was willing to prepare an edition for the Bibliotheca. Saxl replied that he was sincerely interested and assured him that the Warburg Institute would endorse the project, but at the time, was not able to suggest possible texts or editors. On 14 May 1946, Saxl wrote to Billanovich again stating that he could not find, among his collaborators, anyone able to take part in the project, but that he was eager to make the partial transcription of Munich, MS. Clm 10268, available to the board of the Bibliotheca – that is, of the Liber quatuor distinctionum by his lamented friend, Meier. Billanovich responded positively, but despite his initial confidence, he could not find anyone willing to work on this transcription and once again, Meier’s work failed to see the light.

The 'Liber Introductorius' of Michael Scot / by Glenn Michael Edwards. Classmark: FAH 1437.

Almost thirty years later, a young PhD student from the University of South California, reached out to the Warburg Institute looking for Hans Meier’s transcription of the Liber quatuor distinctionum; his name was Glenn M. Edwards and he was preparing an edition of the Prohemium to the Liber. On 3 March 1975, he wrote to the Institute at the advice of Marie-Thérèse d’Alverny and a week later, Joseph Trapp, then a librarian at the Institute, answered by briefly acquainting him with the situation of Meier’s material, as well as welcoming him to see drafts of the work at any time.

WIA, GC, from Trapp, Joseph Burney to the Division of Fellowships of the National Endowment for the Humanities, 30/07/1979.

From a letter of Edwards dating to 1979, we know that he was at the Warburg Institute from November 1975 to July 1976, examining Meier’s notes; that he had edited the Prohemium of the Liber introductorius as his doctoral dissertation; and that he was planning to complete his work by the spring of 1980, and begin to work on the sources used by Michael Scot. In the letter, he explains that he looked forward to returning to the Warburg, and that he was applying to the National Endowment for the Humanities fund in order to do so in the 1980-81 term and that he was applying to the National Endowment for the Humanities for funds. He asked Trapp to help him out by allowing him to use the facilities of the Warburg Institute. Trapp not only agreed but also wrote a recommendation letter to support Edwards, to whom he was grateful, we learn from their correspondence, for his having helped the staff put Meier’s material in order during his stay. [3]

When Edwards failed to obtain the funds he needed, he asked Trapp whether the Institute would be interested in examining his text for possible publications. Despite sincere interest in Edward’s work, Trapp could not commit the Institute due to its modest publishing funds. In 1985, Edwards published a seminal article concerning the redactions of the Liber quatuor distinctionum, and in 2008, died without having accomplished his life project of publishing Michael Scot’s Prohemium.

Handwritten transcription and partial collation of Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm 10268, f. 11va.

Michael Scot and the Warburg Institute Today

When, in December 2015, I started my PhD project, which consists of an edition of the Prohemium to the Liber introductorius, I was barely aware of Meier’s story. What I did know, was that there was no other institution better equipped for the study of this treatise than the Warburg Institute. Hans Meier produced a draft edition of the Liber quatuor distinctionum, which remains the most substantial of the existing partial editions of Michael Scot’s work. Glenn M. Edwards, who worked on the edition of the Prohemium before me, spent some time at the Warburg and planned to return to it, aware of the Library’s impact on his research. Since then, the bond between Michael Scot and the Warburg Institute has grown stronger.

What I did know, was that there was no other institution better equipped for the study of this treatise than the Warburg Institute.

Charles Burnett’s research on the transmission of texts from the Arab to the Latin world paved the way for a new approach to detecting the sources of Michael Scot and proved vital for many scholars working on his writings. Warburg and Saxl’s interest in the illustrations of Michael Scot’s manuscripts lives on in the Iconographic Database at the Institute, which includes more than 900 images related to this topic, on which Rembrandt Duits has written an essential contribution.[4] In April 2005, the link between the Institute and the study of Michael Scot was so clear that a crucial workshop titled “Michael Scotus – Übersetzer und Philosoph am Hof Friedrichs II” was held at the Institute. This workshop, organised in collaboration with the Wissenskultur und gesellschaftlicher Wandel of Frankfurt, gathered some of the most eminent scholars of medieval philosophy working on Michael Scot and the other intellectuals at the court of Emperor Frederick II. The speakers were Silke Ackermann, Anna Akasoy, Dieter Blume, Charles Burnett, Gad Freudenthal, Gundula Grebner, Dag Nikolaus Hasse, Matthias Heiduk, Danielle Jacquart, Aafke van Oppenraay, Iolanda Ventura and Oleg Voskoboynikov. However, this is far from an exhaustive list of the scholars working on Michael Scot who stayed at the Warburg. One cannot fail to mention that amongst such scholars were Isabelle Draelants, Kristen Lippincott, Barbara Obrist, Sophie Page, and David Juste. For most of them, the Warburg still represents a crucial centre for the study of Michael Scot’s life and work. It is not uncommon to meet them in the corridor or have a cup of tea with them in the common room, chatting about what is new with Frederick’s II’s famous astrologer. I must admit that socialising in the common room was sometimes as vital to my research as being somewhere in the Library shrouded in silence and surrounded by books.

The main manuscript on which I relied for the transcription of the Liber introductorius (the same used by Meier) posed many palaeographical problems and several linguistic difficulties. Meier’s transcription has proved invaluable in solving some of these problems and greatly expedited by progress. It should be noted, however, that Meier’s transcription would have been almost impossible to consult without Edwards’s organisation of eleven spring-back folders of drafts that were initially incomplete and uncorrected. This has been of immense help.

Beyond the silent traces of the past lies the invaluable progress made in this field by professors, students, fellows, and visitors of the Warburg Institute, who compare their research to their predecessors and establish new arguments. We can say with some confidence that Liebeschütz’s goal to join forces with, and participate in the same interests that animated the debate of the early scholars of the Institute – not least with those of its founder, Aby Warburg – has been achieved.

Eleonora Andriani is the scientific director of the PATHS project (Philological Approaches for Texts in the History of the Astral Sciences) from 2023. She is a special editor for the Journal of the History of Science ISIS and a member of CHAMA and CETEFIL. Currently, she's a Research Guest at the Ptolomaeus Arabus et Latinus project in Munich. 

With a background in Classics, she earned her doctorate in medieval philosophy in 2019, focusing on Latin texts in astral sciences, from the 13th to the third quarter of the 15th century, as well as magic, and divination. She was an Occasional Student at the Warburg Institute (2016-2018) and a research assistant at the Thomas-Institut (2015-2016). From 2020-2022, she researched Alfonsine astronomy in Europe as part of the ALFA project and later worked on the SourcEncyMe project at the IRHT in Paris. 



[1] The Liber introductorius is the collective name for the trilogy of books written my Michael Scot. Until the 1990s, confusion around the structure of the work, led many scholars refers to the Liber quatuor distinctionum as the Liber introductorius, which is why various documents related to Meier's draft edition, as well as the Warburg Library's own reference names Meier's work as an edition of the Liber introductorius.

[2] WIA, GC, Bing, Gertrud to Saxl, Fritz 3/05/1928; WIA, GC, Liebeschütz, Hans to Saxl, Fritz 16/06/1928: ‘ich glaube, daß daher, weil man wie Sie auch schreiben, eine allgemeine Einleitung nicht ohne fortlaufenden Sachkommentar in die Ausgabe bringen kann. Ein solcher durchlaufender Sachkommentar muß aber durch alle Teile gehen, wenn er natürlich auch Schwierigkeiten offen lassen kann [...] Ich möchte daher vorschlagen, daß wir neben Meiers Ausgabe mit vereinten Kräften einen Band Untersuchungen zu M. Scotus vorbereiten’.

[3] WIA, GC, from Trapp, Joseph Burney to the Division of Fellowships of the National Endowment for the Humanities, 30/07/1979; WIA, GC, from Trapp Joseph Burney to Edwards, Glenn Michael, 1/06/1979 and WIA, GC, from Trapp, Joseph Burney to Edwards, Glenn Michael 26/10/1981.

[4] R. Duits, ‘Celestial Transmissions. An Iconographical Classification of Constellation Cycles in Manuscripts (8th-15th Centuries)’ in Scriptorium 59, 147-202; see also Images of the Pagan Gods: Papers of a Conference in Memory of Jean Seznec, ed. R. Duits and F. Quiviger, London-Turin 2009.