Liberal Arts and Education
SCA 1 (France, 1400): Adelard of Bath, Regulae Abaci (On the abacus), parchment, 18 fols., 399 x 311 mm, 2 cols., 42 lines.

Since the third millennium BCE, people have used the abacus as a calculating tool to solve difficult mathematical problems. Even today, the abacus is still used in primary schools to teach arithmetic to young children. This manuscript contains a treatise on the use of the abacus, the Regulae abaci (On the Abacus), written by the twelfth-century English scholar Adelard of Bath (c. 1080 - c. 1152). Adelard translated many important Arabic works on astronomy and astrology into Latin. These translations, in addition to Adelard’s own publications, were very popular in medieval schools and universities.

This manuscript once formed the last part of a composite manuscript containing Alchandreus’ De astrologia and Boethius’ De aritmethica and De musica. These four texts were used to study the “quadrivium”: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. This copy of the Regulae abaci was decorated by an illuminator known as the Virgil Master, who worked at the court of Jean de Berry from the 1390s to the 1410s. He added many pen-flourished initials and a beautifully historiated initial1 on fol. 1r. The scribe has also added a form of decoration by extending the ascending and descending the strokes of some of the letters of the first and last line of every page.

(Medieval Manuscripts in Dutch Collections, n.d.)


  1. Medieval scribes recognized that readers may need some help finding their way throughout the book or within the texts they contained. Over time, a number of tools were invented to this end. What type of reading-aids can you find in this manuscript? Give three examples.
  2. Manuscripts were used by a variety of readers, including scholars, students, members of religious houses (monks, nuns), courtiers, and individuals with a professional background (notaries, physicians, merchants, etc.). Observe the material features of this manuscript and speculate what background the reader of this book will have had. Focus on either the first reader (for whom it was first produced) or a later one, for example based on later annotations to the text. What material features support your speculative claim?


  1. Medieval Manuscripts in Dutch Collections.