Simon De Phares

views updated


(b. Meung-sur-Loire [?], France, ca. 1450; d. Paris, France, after 1499)


All that is known about Simon is what he wrote in his Recueil des plus Célèbres astrologues.1 Born perhaps in Meung-sur-Loire, he studied law in Orléans and then entered the Faculty of Arts in Paris, where he studied Sacrobosco’s De Sphaera and – Introductorium. He then joined the service of Mathieu de Nanterre,2 no doubt as astrologer, and later that of Duke John II of Bourbon. While serving the latter, Simon completed his training with the German astrologer Conrad Heingarter, whom he subsequently considered his master. After studying for two years at Oxford, he traveled in Scotland and Ireland; returned to France to take courses at the Faculty of Medicine in Montpellier; journeyed in Italy (Rome, Venice) and Egypt (Cairo, Alexandria); then traveled through the Alps of Savoy and Switzerland for four years, botanizing and examining rocks.

After the death in 1488 of John II, to whose service he had returned, Simon moved to Lyons, married, and raised a family. His house, near the cathedral, was furnished with a library of two hundred books and was his astrological office. He was so famous that King Charles VIII, while passing through Lyons on All Saints’ Day of 1490, was anxious to consult him. Such glory and success were bound to arouse jealousy. Accused of sorcery before the episcopal court of Lyons, Simon was ordered to cease his activities and his library was confiscated. His appeal to the Parlement of Paris failed, and the books in his library were censured by the Faculty of Theology. He subsequently moved to Paris, where he was still living in 1499, apparently having failed to obtain royal intervention, although he had composed a work justifying his activities for Charles VIII.

This justification is known today by the title Recueil des plus célèbres astrologues et quelques hommes doctes, which was added at the end of the sixteenth century to the only existing manuscript, which appears to be the original. It is the first part of a work in which Simon had also planned to present the principles of astrology and of the divinatory arts, in order that the scientific contributions of the former could easily be separated contributions of the former could easily be separated from the charlatanism of the latter. That the planned parts probably were never written is unfortunate, for Simon’s experience in a trade that he practiced rather like a liberal profession, his curiosity in the most varied areas of science, and his training in at least four universities and through extensive travels would have imparted considerable value to the work.

Composed in French, Simon’s justification of astrology was conceived as a panegyric of astrologers who had honored their profession by the success of their predictions, and he should therefore be considered the first historiographer of astronomy. The Recueil is a series of accounts, arranged in theoretically chronological order, devoted to famous astrologers and their works. It is thus a priceless source of information, since Simon went so far as to give the incipits of some works of his colleagues.

The quality of the information obviously is highly variable, and the reports on Simon’s contemporaries are of greater interest than the mythical biographies of the founders of astrology. Even for the fourteenth century the chronology is often defective: John of Murs and Firmin de Belleval are assigned dates that are too recent, as are Roger Bacon and “Barthelemy de Morbecha” (William of Moerbeke), who are placed in the middle of the fourteenth century. Because erroneous information is presented side by side with precise data, the Recueil must be read very critically.3 Nevertheless, it is a tool of very great importance for historians of medieval astronomy and medicine.


1. The information provided by the Recueil on the circumstances of Simon’s trial before the Parlement has been completed by E. Wickershemier with the aid of archival documents, and by the material published by charles Du Plessis d’ Argnetré in his Collectio judiciorum de novis erroribus. I (Paris, 1728).

2. Mathieu de Nanterre was the premier president of the Parlement of Paris. The minutes of étude VIII in the minutier central of the Archives Nationales preserve several, documents on Mathieu de Nanterre for 1480–1485.

3. Among the errors is Simon’s dating of his work from the sixteenth year of the reign of Charles VIII, who actually died in April 1498, before having completed the fifteenth year of his reign.


An excellent ed. of the only known work by Simon de Phares is Recueil des plus célébres astrologues et quelques hommes doctes faict pat Symon de Phares du temps de Charles VIII, publiés le manuscrit unique de la Bibliothéque nationale par Ernest Wickersheimer (Paris, 1929). The biography included in this ed. (pp. vi–xii) was reprinted in E. Wickersheimer, Dictionaire biographique des médecins en France au moyenage (Pairs, 1936), 743–744. It also is the basis of the account by L. Thorndike in A History of Magic and Experimental Science, IV (New York, 1934), 545–557, which contains interesting speculations concerning the reasons for Simon’s travels in the Alps and the relations of Simon and of Charles VIII to the Parlement of Paris.

Emmanuel Poulle