Baby born to medieval scholars, named Astralabe

Photo of an astrolabe from the 11th-century Spain.
An astrolabe

Here’s the story of an unusual baby name that was bestowed in Paris during the 12th century.

The parents were French philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard and his brilliant student, Héloïse d’Argenteuil. In the year 1115, they started their infamous love affair (“one of the best known love tragedies of history”). In 1118, they welcomed their only child, a son.

Because he was illegitimate, it fell upon Héloïse to do the naming. She chose Astralabe — after the Astrolabe, a sophisticated navigational instrument being used at that time in the Islamic world (which included much of Spain). Astrolabes could “locate and predict the positions and risings of the sun, moon, planets, and stars.”

In Catholic France, where most babies were named after saints, “Astralabe” was a highly unconventional choice. (One science writer, in 2008, compared Héloïse’s choice to “a woman in a sci-tech backwater today naming her son iPod.”)

Abelard and Héloïse soon married and legitimized Astralabe. But that didn’t stop Héloïse’s outraged relatives from attacking and castrating Abelard. Ultimately, both ended up going into religious life (even though, technically, they remained married).

No one is certain what became of Astralabe, but name-based evidence (a person referred to as “Canon Astralabe” at Nantes Cathedral circa 1150, for instance) suggests that he entered religious life as well.

The word “astrolabe” is ultimately derived from the ancient Greek compound noun astrolabos organon, meaning “star-taking instrument.” Astrolabos is made up of the elements astron, meaning “star,” and lambanien, meaning “to take.”


Image: Adapted from Planispheric Astrolabe by the National Museum of American History under CC0 1.0.

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