‘Reading Euclid’: Examining the key mathematical text through an exhibition at the Russell Library

By Barbara McCormack (Special Collections Librarian, Maynooth University), Dr Ciarán Mac an Bhaird (Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Maynooth University) and Dr Philip Beeley (Reading Euclid Project, University of Oxford)

An important exhibition relating to the history of mathematics was launched in the Russell Library on Wednesday, 27th June by Professor Philip Nolan (President of Maynooth University). ‘Reading Euclid: Examining the key mathematical text through an exhibition at the Russell Library’ was a collaboration between the Library and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Maynooth University in conjunction with the ‘Reading Euclid’ project at Oxford University.

Euclid’s Elements is often referred to as one of the most influential works ever written, and it has played a key role in education since it first appeared. The original text is attributed to the Greek mathematician Euclid of Alexandria, who lived around 300BCE. It was one of the first mathematical works to have been printed and is reported to have had the second most printed editions of any work after the Bible. It has been used as a textbook in mathematics for over a 1000 years, and contains many well-known results, such as the Pythagorean Theorem.

Euclid Invitation
Invitation to the exhibition launch in the Russell Library which took place at 5.00pm on Wednesday, 27th June.

Alongside editions in the original Greek, Arabic, or Latin, the main languages in which Euclid’s Elements has been handed down, there were others translated into modern languages such as Italian, French, German, and English. But it was not only linguistically that the text varied. There were also differences both in content and format. Many editions, especially the more widely used ones, comprised only the first six books, while others directed at more scholarly audiences included the remaining seven as well as the “added books” (XIV, XV, and sometimes XVI). Equally, the number and order of propositions could differ tremendously. And size was important, too. Some editions of Euclid’s Elements were weighty scholarly tomes that would grace any library shelf, while others were small enough to fit comfortably into the reader’s pocket.

This exhibition was curated as part of the Reading Euclid project, based at the University of Oxford. The Reading Euclid team is highlighting the legacy of the Elements of Geometry in Early Modern Britain and Ireland, and is particularly interested in varieties of evidence, such as ownership marks, underlinings, and annotations, which shed light on how these books have been seen, read, and used.

What follows is a selection of pre-1700 Euclidean items from the collections of the Russell Library.

1. Megarensis Geometricorum eleme[n]torum libri XV.

Printed in Paris by Henri Estienne in 1516 the oldest edition of Euclid’s Elements in the Russell Library was produced by the French humanist scholar Jacques Lefèvre d’Estaples. This was the most important Latin edition of the Elements before the Greek editio princeps of 1533. The binding of our copy has been repaired but the original wooden boards have been retained. The handwritten annotation ‘quod nos jam punctum’ [a sign that is for us already pricked] appears on page [4] after the printed word ‘Signum’. This is evidence of material interaction between the reader and the book.

RB 89 (Title page)
Title page of RB 89 Megarensis Geometricorum eleme[n]torum libri XV


2. Elememtorum libri quindecim.

SC 28 25 (Title page)
Title page of Sc. 28 25 Elememtorum libri quindecim

Thomas Richard was a sixteenth-century Parisian printer who printed Greek texts from 1548 onwards.[1] This 1558 edition of Petrus Ramus’ Latin version of Euclid’s Elements features Richard’s printing device on the title page. The text is bound in a limp vellum binding. Pages from a printed Spanish theological text have been used as binder’s waste for the pastedowns and endpapers.

A signature on the title page reads ‘Miguel Martinez Calzada’. While Ramus does away with visual images entirely, hand drawn diagrams on pages three and four provide strong and interesting evidence of engagement and interaction with the text. The theories of ‘isosceles’, ‘scalenem’, ‘rectagulum’ and ‘amblygonium’ are illustrated in this way. The word ‘finis’ in the colophon has also been copied by a reader/owner.

SC 28 25 (Page 3)
Hand drawn diagrams provide strong and interesting evidence of engagement and interaction with the text

[1] Charles Henry Timperley, The Dictionary of Printer and Printing, with the Progress of Literature, Ancient and Moderne (London, 1839), p. 309.


3. Operum mathematicorum: tomus quintus.

SC 17 33e (Title page)
Title page of Sc. 17 33e Operum mathematicorum: tomus quintus

The fifth volume of Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christopher Clavius’s Opera mathematica [Mathematical works] was printed in 1612, the year of his death. The title page features the printer’s device of the Jesuit order with the motto ‘Laudabile Nomen Domini’ [the name of the Lord be praised]. Our copy features the stamp of the Royal Astronomical Society on the title page.  A label with a signature [Br. Taylor?] appears in the upper right-hand corner.


A handwritten note affixed to the front endpapers lists the name of stars according to the ‘Stellarum Austrulium catallogus ad annum 1601’ [catalogue of stars in the southern skies for the year 1601] beginning with coordinates and dates for Canopus. Bound in a limp vellum binding the text features head- and tail-pieces, floriated and historiated initial letters, and diagrams and tables.

SC 17 33e notes on endpapers

4. Euclidis Megarensis mathematici clarissimi Elementorum geometricorum libri XV.

SC 28 1 (title page)
Title page of Sc. 28 1 Euclidis Megarensis (1558)

Bartolomeo Zamberti’s Latin translation of Euclid’s Elements was first published in 1505. This later edition (1558) by the Basel printer Johann Herwagen (1497 – 1558) contains historiated initial letters and head-pieces. Our copy features handwritten marginalia in pencil and ink by a previous owner/reader which can tell us much about how the text was used, for example the annotation ‘obliquè posita id est horizonti parallela’     [slanting that is parallel to the horizontal] which appears on page 507 and also ‘extenditur’ [extended] which appears in the margin of the twenty-second theorem beside the underlined word ‘refringatur’ [refracted] on page 512. Diagrams to illustrate theorems have been copied by hand (such as the eleventh theorem on page 508) perhaps to aid the learning process.


The exhibition was a great success and we look forward to future collaborations between the Library and the Department of Mathematics at Maynooth University and the Reading Euclid project at the University of Oxford.

Dr Ciarán Mac an Bhaird (Department of Mathematics & Statistics), Professor Philip Nolan (President of Maynooth University), Dr Philip Beeley (University of Oxford) and Barbara McCormack (MU Library) pictured at the launch of ‘Reading Euclid: Examining the key mathematical text through an exhibition at the Russell Library’ on Wednesday, 27th June.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s