Fewer than a dozen of the "nearly six hundred" Latin and other quotations in Piers Plowman have remained unidentified into the twenty-first century (1), and one more was successfully traced to its source in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, on the afternoon of 18th September, 2002. It appears in the C Version of the poem at line 32a of Passus XV of the Skeat Parallel Edition (Passus XIV in more recent editions) and reads:
Vultus hujus seculi sunt subiecti vultibus celestibus.

The source is Number 9p of the Centiloquium Phtolomei, or Hundred Sayings of Ptolemy, the Alexandrian Geographer and Astronomer, best known for the Ptolemaic Conception of the Universe, as exemplified in the medieval astronomical clocks in Exeter Cathedral and the nearby church of St. Mary Ottery, which show the sun and moon in orbit around the earth. Added to the Centiloquium is the Commentary of Haly or Eli. The Piers Plowman quotation is more than half way down the right hand column of f 60r of MS Bodley 463 and in the manuscript it reads in full:
Ptholomeus dixit - Vultus hujus seculi sunt subiecti vultibus celestibus - et immo sapientes qui imagines faciebant stellarum introitum in celestes vultus inspiciebant - et tunc operabantur quod dicebant

Henry Coley, the respected seventeenth century English mathematician and astrologer, published the Centiloquium "Englished" in the second edition of his book A Key to the Whole Art of Astrology (1675-6, Ashmole 150):
In generation and in corruption earthly formes are subordinate to the coelestials; wherefore they that frame images do then . make use of them, by observing when the planets do enter these constellations or formes, etc.

Passus XV (or XIV) of Piers Plowman contains the discourse of the personification Imaginatif (one of those who frame Henry Coley's "images") , who appears at a major turning point about half-way through the poem, after the perplexed and confused Dreamer/Narrator (significantly called Will) has received muddling responses and dusty answers to his requests for guidance in his quest for the good life and his soul's salvation ("Do-Wel") from his personified mentors Dame Study, her husband Wit, her cousin Clergy and his wife Scripture. What follows takes the form of a medieval exercise in psychoanalysis with Imaginatif as the analyst and Will as the patient. Imaginatif is not imagination or fancy, as understood by modern readers of Coleridge and Keats, but a phenomenon known in the Middle Ages as the "vis imaginative", or image-making power. It is a widespread human attribute, and enables sleepers to go to bed worrying about some insoluble problem and to awaken in the morning, sometimes remembering an enlightening dream, sometimes not, but knowing, as if by magic, the right solution. This instant, almost miraculous insight, is analysed in the Liber Sextus de Naturalibus de Anima of the Iranian physician and philosopher Ibn Sina or Avicenna, the last but one of the twelve treatises bound together in MS Bodley 463. (2)

The solution to Will's problem is presented by Imaginatif in the poem:

Spiritus ubi vult spirat, et cetera
So grace, withoute grace - of god and of good werkes,
May nat bee, bee thow siker - thaugh we bidde evere.
Cleregie cometh bote of sigt - and kynde witte of steffes,
As to be bore other bygette - in suche constellacion,
That wit wexeth ther-of - and othere wyrde bathe;

Vultus hujus seculi sunt subiecti vultibus celestibus.
So grace is a gyfte of god - and kynde witt a chaunce
And clergie and connynge - of kynde wittes techynge.

It will be noted that, although the poet gives only the first part of the quotation, he paraphrases and amplifies the second in the vernacular. The repetitious "vult" and "vultus" are an elaborate wordplay on the Dreamer/Narrator's name Will, and his interlocutor's name Imaginatif is suggested by the "sapientes qui imagines faciebant". The meaning of the passage is thus clear: it encapsulates the well-known astrological maxim "As above, so below" and persuades Will the muddled Dreamer/Narrator that he will succeed in his quest only by using his natural intellectual endowments (his "kynde wit", influenced by the stars under which he was born) and his acquired learning ("clergie") , supplemented by the Grace of God from on high through the intervention of the Holy Spirit. How he rises to this challenge appears in the rest of this fascinating poem.

MS Bodley 463 is a collection of astronomical and astrological treatises from Arabic sources which reached the Latin west by way of Moorish Spain in the twelfth century. The first part of it (ff 1-138) including the Centiloquium of Ptolemy (ff 59-74v) was written in the fourteenth century, emanating from a southern book producer. The Liber Sextus de Naturalibus of Avicenna (ft 139r-176r) dates from the previous century and is of northern (perhaps Parisian) origin. (3) The translator is named in the preamble to Avicenna's book in the Bodley manuscript as Iohannes ibn Daûd hispalensis Israelita Physicus Archidiaconus Toletano (John, son of David, of Seville, Israelite, Physician and Archdeacon of Toledo) and the work is dedicated to the Archbishop of Toledo. (4) Iohannes Hispalensis was a prolific translator, credited with works of Abd-al-Aziz al Qabisi (MS Bodley 463, ff 1-19), Thebit filius Cheere or Coreke - Thabit ben Kuraq (MS Bodley 463, ff 24-6 and 75-7) and Alfagranus Mohamed ibn Kathir al Farghani (Bodley 463, ff 39-58, Liber de Congregationibus Sciencie Stellarum et Principiis Celestium Motuum) as well as the Centiloquium Phtolomei. (5) Although scholars have referred to "100 or so MSS" (6) of the Centiloquium scattered throughout the world, the source quoted in Piers Plowman must have been in England before 1400. Among this limited number, some have variant forms and one (British Library Royal 12 F.vii) omits the quotation altogether. It is interesting to find it in Bodley 463 along with the Liber Sextus de Naturalibus of Avicenna, identified by Professor Ernest N. Kaulbach as the source for the personification of Imaginatif (7) in the poem. Bodley 463 is the only manuscript so far identified where the two treatises appear together, though there may be others. The Centiloquium of Ptolemy is copiously annotated in the .well-known hand of John de Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter from 1327 until his death in 1369. He was born in 1292 at Ashperton Castle, Herefordshire, within sight of the Malvern Hills eight miles away, gave the famous astronomical clock to the church at Ottery St. Mary, Devon, which he founded, and also made some marginal notes in the Avicenna text. This gives added weight to the present writer's contention that he was "the real William Langland", who wrote Piers Plowman and has hidden behind this nom-de-plume for seven centuries. (8)

MS Bodley 463 has an interesting history. It is uncertain how John de Grandisson (an energetic and enthusiastic collector and connoisseur of books and manuscripts) came by it. He was in Paris studying theology in 1314, and attended the lectures of the future Pope Benedict XII, so this may have been the source of Avicenna's Liber Sextus (as mentioned previously, a northern manuscript). As Secretary and Chaplain to Pope John XXII, John Grandisson travelled extensively in Gascony on a diplomatic mission in the company of the Archbishop of Vienne and the Bishop of Orange, so he may have obtained texts which reached the Latin west through Moorish Spain during his travels. Equally there were family connections with the University of Bologna: his uncle Henri de Grandson (Bishop of Verdun, 1279-86, and described as "a stormy petrel") was in serious trouble over his debts while a student there, due to his extravagant purchases of books, and had to be bailed out by his relations. (9) The Centiloquium of Ptolemy is included in the University of Bologna's collection with (like Bodley 463) the Commentary by Haly. (10) It is possible that John de Grandisson, like his Uncle Henri, may have been in Bologna, for he had an expert knowledge of civil and canon law, that University's speciality. It is certain that they shared both a love of books and a peppery temperament. After John de Grandisson's death MS Bodley 463 remained in the possession of the Bishops of Exeter, and a note on the manuscript states that it was given by Bishop Edmund Lacy (1420-55) to the Cathedral, where it remained in the Library until 1602, when it was donated by the Dean and Chapter to Sir Thomas Bodley, an Exeter man, for his new Library at Oxford.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: The present writer is indebted to David George Viall, of Chalgrove, Oxfordshire, for his unstinting help and support in this research.


(1) John A. Alford, Piers Plowman - A Guide to the Quotations, New York, 1992.

(2) For a full explanation of the role of Imaginatif in the poem in relation to the works of Avicenna, see Ernest N. Kaul bach , Imaginative Prophecy in the B-Text of Piers Plowman, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge, 1993.

(3) M.-T. d'Alverny, Avicenna Latinus, Codices Britannici, Codices Oxoniensis,Bodleianus 463, Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Litteraire du Moyen-Age, Paris, 1966, pp 271-5. d'Alverny doubts whether Johannes Hispalensis and ibn Daûd , were the same translator.

(4) See also Bodleian Library Summary Catalogue 2456B.

(5) See also Anthony Pym's website,

(6) Francis J. Carmody, Arabic astronomical and astrological sciences in Latin translation. A critical bibliography. Berkeley/Los Angeles, 1956.

(7) See Note 2 above.

(8) Stella Pates, The Rock and the Plough, Fairford Press, 2000.

(9) Esther Rowland Clifford, A Knight of Great Renown - The Life and Times of Othon de Grandson, University of Chicago, 1961, pp 87-91.

(10) C. Malagola, 1888, Statuti delle Università e dei Collegi dello Studio Bologna, p 276,

© Stella Pates 2002

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