Category Archives: History of Astrology

Was Will a Copernican?

The Will of the title is England’s most notorious playwright and poet, William Shakespeare, who was supposedly born 450 years ago today. The question is the central motivation for the new book by Canadian popular science writer, Dan Falk, The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe.[1] Given that Shakespeare was born just twenty-one years after Copernicus’ De revolutionibus was published and lived through the period in which Kepler and Galileo, amongst others, made the heliocentric hypothesis the hottest item in the European scientific community it is not unreasonable to ask, as Falk does, in the more general sense, whether the cosmological and astronomical upheaval of the age left any traces in Will’s work. Traditional Shakespearean scholarship says no, Falk re-examines the evidence.

The Science of Shakespeare

I must admit that when I first got offered this book to review I had a sinking feeling that somebody was going down the same garden path that Peter Usher had already trodden. For those readers who are not aware of Mr Usher’s endeavours, he is a retired astronomer who believes that he has found the secret message encoded in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and in all of the rest of his works. Usher believes that Hamlet describes the battle for supremacy between the Ptolemaic, Tychonic and Copernican system of astronomy in the Early Modern Period. What do I think of Mr Usher’s theories? Let’s put it this way, Mr Usher manages to make the Bible decoders look like rational human beings. My feelings about reading Falk’s book where not improved on discovering, upon receiving my review copy, that it was indeed an introduction to Mr Usher’s ideas that inspired Falk to research and write his book; I feared the worst. Fortunately, although I cannot totally endorse the book, Mr Falk did indeed do his research on the whole thoroughly and it turned out to be much better than I had feared. In fact on the whole I found it to be a well-written and entertaining read.

The introduction sets the scene for his book by presenting what are respectively the most expensive science and humanities rare books, Nicolas Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and The Shakespeare First Folio, given their proximity in time it is not an unreasonable question to ask if the one influenced the other and whilst acknowledging that the traditional answer is no, Falk already brings here one of the arguments used by more modern researchers, and not just Usher, to claim the opposite. I shall deal with this later along with the other supposed arguments in favour of a heliocentric Bard.

The first five chapters deal with the largely astronomical background giving a quick rundown on ancient cosmology, the emergence of Copernican theory and its reception in late sixteenth-century England. Falk has done his homework well and this part of the book is almost totally satisfying. I say almost because it does contain two serious errors.

Falk manages to walk into a trap that Copernicus laid for the unwary. Falk writes, “and it [the Copernican model] managed to bring the total number of circles down from eighty to thirty-four.” Falk is here paraphrasing a claim that Copernicus makes in the Commentariolus the pamphlet he wrote around 1514, first announcing his heliocentric system. The claim is an estimate and not a fact. Unfortunately for Falk by the time Copernicus had worked out his system in full, in De revolutionibus, he actually needed forty-eight circles, whereas Peuerbach, in his Theoricae Novae Planetarum, the most modern version of the geocentric model, which Copernicus used and consulted himself, only required forty circles. Not a victory for the new astronomy.

Whilst discussing the Copernican reception Falk quite rightly introduces William Gilbert. He goes on to explain that Gilbert, influenced by Copernicus, discusses diurnal rotation in his De magnete, explaining it as the natural motion of a spherical magnet, based on his erroneous view that a spherical magnet left to itself rotates. Unfortunately Falk then goes on to say, “He also believed that magnetic forces emanating from the sun, together with the sun’s rotation, caused the planets to move in their heliocentric orbits”. Gilbert of course believed nothing of the sort. In Book Six of De magnete, where this discussion takes place, he states quite explicitly, “ From these arguments, therefore, we infer, not with mere probability, but with certainty, the diurnal rotations of the earth; […] I pass by the earth’s other movements, for here we treat only of the diurnal rotation [my emphasis], whereby it turns to the sun and produces the natural day (of twenty-four hours) which we call nycthermeron”. Gilbert’s model is in fact not Copernican at all but a geocentric-geokinetic one. I’ve blogged about the history of such systems here. The magnetic force explanation for the movement of the planets in a heliocentric system was hypothesised by Johannes Kepler, first in his Astronomia nova and then again later in his Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae, inspired by Gilbert’s work but not taken from him. I have a sneaking suspicion that Falk got his research notes a little muddled up here.

I found it very positive that Falk does not shy away from some controversial topics concerning sixteenth century English astronomy but whilst discussing them retains a level head. For example he looks at the claims made chiefly by Colin Ronan, who strangely doesn’t get mentioned here at all, that the Digges, that’s father and son Leonard and Thomas, invented and constructed a functioning telescope forty plus years before Hans Lippershey in Holland. Whilst quoting all of the original sources that led to these speculations Falk also gives space to those experts who clearly reject Ronan’s hypothesis, as I also do.

Having presented the scientific background Falk now moves on to Shakespeare presenting the reader with an, albeit, brief but adequate biography of the Bard. A necessary section of his book for those who come to it from the history of science rather than from English philology.

We are now half way through and can at last turn our attention to the real subject of the book, Shakespeare and science and Falk dives right in with “The Science of Hamlet”, where a tortuous trail of speculation is constructed. We start with a quote from the opening scene, “When yound same star that’s westward from the pole, Had made its course to illume that part of heaven”. This is a reference to the time of night, it being common practice in the Middle Ages to measure time at night by the position of the circumpolar stars. With a lot of jiggery-pokery we are led to the conclusion that the referenced star must be the Nova from 1572. This is not completely improbable as this Nova was the most significant celestial event during Shakespeare’s lifetime. In a fantasy dialogue Falk has Shakespeare’s father taking the young Will out to view the Nova in a prologue to the book. We now get led on to the fact that this is Tycho Brahe’s Nova. This is a classic bit of presentism. Tycho did indeed observe and write about this Nova but so did every astronomer in Europe and everybody, astronomer or no, with two eyes almost certainly observed it. So why do we need to introduce Tycho?

We now come to the central argument for an astronomical Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Tycho Brahe produced an engraving of himself, he did lots of that sort of thing, in 1590, which lists sixteen of his close relatives including a Rosenkrans and a Guildensteren, Q.E.D: Shakespeare took the names from Tycho. It’s obvious isn’t it? But how? Tycho sent a copy of his astronomical letters, his Epistolae, containing said engraving to Thomas Saville, which includes Tycho’s well wishes for John Dee and Thomas Digges. What if Thomas Digges also received a copy? We then get a whole heap of arguments the Shakespeare could have (must have) known the Digges family and through them seen such a Tychonic portrait. Digges, we should not forget was a Copernican. Unfortunately none of these arguments contains a single concrete fact that Shakespeare knew the Digges family. The whole chapter is an untidy heap of unsubstantiated speculations with very little real substance.

Is it possible that Shakespeare came across the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by other means? To be fair to Falk he answers this question in the positive. There was a Danish diplomatic mission to England in 1592 including two delegates bearing the names Rosenkrans and Guildensteren and alone on Frederick II court in Copenhagen there were nine Rs and three Gs so a connection to Tycho is not really necessary.

Because Tycho as the Danish source of Hamletian science is so important both to Falk and Usher I will now point out something that the both either ignore or possibly deliberately sweep under the carpet. In the earlier chapters on Renaissance astronomy, when discussing Tycho, Falk points out that James VI & I actually visited Tycho’s observatory on Hven during a trip to Denmark. What he neglects to mention is why James was visiting Denmark in the first place. James went to Denmark in 1589 to fetch his bride, Anne of Denmark. This means that from 1590 onwards there would have been a strong political interest in Denmark, not only in Scotland but also in England where James was already seen as the most likely heir to the childless Elizabeth. Tycho Brahe was by no means the only reason for Shakespeare and his contemporaries to be interested in all things Danish.

Let us assume that having decided to write Hamlet Shakespeare, a good author, did some research on Denmark and the Danish court. He would discover that Denmark was ruled by an oligarchy of about twenty powerful families of, which the Brahes were one. If he chose at random two names from those twenty from his play then those chosen would have been relatives of Tycho because, as is the nature of oligarchies, the families maintained their hold on power by intermarrying. The fact that two courtiers in Hamlet bear the names of two of Tycho’s relatives thus has, in my opinion, very little significance.

Enter Usher stage right: According to Peter Usher the whole of Hamlet not only contains hidden references to Copernican astronomy but is in fact a dramatic presentation of the intellectual battle between the leading astronomical systems, Ptolemaic, Copernican and Tychonic. Hamlet is the Copernican astronomer embodied by Thomas Digges, Hamlet’s murdered father is Leonard Digges, his uncle Claudius is Ptolemaeus, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Tycho (apparently he has a split personality!), Laertes is Thomas Harriot and so on and so on. Only the women play no role in Usher grand scheme of things, a little strange given Ophelia’s central role in the drama! Apart from the Tycho connection sketched above Usher has discovered two smoking guns in the play that he thinks justify his interpretation. The first of these is Wittenberg. This German university town gets several name checks in the play. Usher sees this as references to Copernicanism because Rheticus, who persuaded Copernicus to publish, had studied and taught at Wittenberg. There are a couple of obvious flaws in this argument. Firstly Rheticus had left Wittenberg before the publication of De revolutionibus, in which he is incidentally never mentioned, to become professor of mathematics in Leipzig. Secondly Wittenberg was by no means a centre of Copernican scholarship, Luther and Melanchthon being both on record as opposing heliocentricity.

Is there another reason for Shakespeare to feature Wittenberg in a play about the Danish court? In fact there is. The court language in Denmark was not Danish but German and although Copenhagen had its own Lutheran university it was common practice for the Danish aristocracy to send its sons abroad for their education. See a bit of the world whilst getting your degree. Because Denmark was a strongly Lutheran country Wittenberg, home of Luther and the Reformation, was the most popular destination for young Danish aristocrats to acquire their foreign university experience. There is absolutely no need to evoke a bogus Copernican connection to justify Shakespeare’s choice of Wittenberg in his play.

Usher’s second smoking gun is the famous hawk and handsaw quote, “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw”. (For those not in the know handsaw is thought to be a typo for hernshaw a kind of heron). For Usher this rather enigmatic passage is interpreted to mean that for someone on Hven when the wind comes from north-north-west this means Elsinore the home of Claudius and Ptolemaic astronomy, so madness, whereas a wind from the south means Wittenberg the home of Copernicanism. Having already demolished the theory that Wittenberg is the home of Copernicanism I don’t really need to say more but I do have to ask why Hamlet should be positioned on Hven, Tycho’s realm, whilst making this speech? It really doesn’t make much sense to me Mr Usher.

There are a whole series of even less convincing finds by Usher not only in Hamlet but in all of Shakespeare’s plays to justify his fantasy constructions that I’m not going to go into here, but there is one further issue that I postponed from the introduction, an argument used by those not totally convinced by Usher’s bizarre arguments but willing to accept that Shakespeare’s work possible does contain some hidden references to heliocentricity. The quote in question comes from Troilus and Cressida, “the glorious planet Sol / In noble eminence enthroned and sphered…” We get told that, “by emphasizing the role of the sun, the passage may hint at the new heliocentric astronomy.” Talk about clutching at straws. Within traditional geocentric astronomy, astrology and alchemy the sun played a special role for very obvious reasons. The sun determines day and night, it defines the year, it brings light and warmth, it is by far and away the most prominent body in the sky do I really need to go one. I will add one astronomical note for those philologists who are apparently too lazy to read up on the history of the subject. In geocentric cosmology the sun was regarded as the ruler of the planets because, in the most commonly accepted order of the orbits, it occupies the central position in the heavens with three inner plants and three outer planets below and above it.

At the end of his chapter on Usher Falk tries a bait and switch. He presents a list of off the wall papers presented at a major Shakespearean conference that he attended whilst researching his book with an argument that Usher’s thesis is no crazier than these. Just because other people spout shit doesn’t make Usher’s shit anymore palatable. I will however give Falk credit, although he does present Usher’s garbage with considerably more sympathy than he deserves he also lets Usher’s critics speak for themselves leaving it to the reader to make up her or his mind on the subject.

What now follows in a chapter on Galileo and the telescopic discoveries made around 1610; in itself not a bad retelling of well-known material. This is included because we now have Usher and others trying to convince us that Shakespeare’s late play Cymbeline contain hidden references to Galileo’s (and Marius’ but he doesn’t get a mention) discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter. I leave it to Falk’s readers to find if the arguments are convincing.

Because the book’s title is The Science of Shakespeare and not the astronomy or cosmology of Shakespeare Falk now turns to what are now commonly known as the occult sciences. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have done his homework here anywhere near as well as he did for the astronomy and cosmology in the main part of the book. We start with astrology and here he fall on his nose at the first hurdle. Falk tells us:

In England, astrology came to have two more or less distinct branches, known as “natural astrology” and “judicial astrology”. Natural astrology was, in fact, something like straight-ahead astronomy; it focused on tracking and predicting the motions of the sun, moon, and planets. Judicial astrology was closer to what we think of today as just plain “astrology – the attempt to link celestial happenings to earthly affairs, and to use astronomical knowledge to predict terrestrial happenings.

Wrong! Astronomy focused on tracking and predicting the motions of the sun, moon, and planets. That’s the difference between astronomy and astrology, although in Shakespeare’s time the two words were still used interchangeably. In fact astrology has four major divisions that go back to antiquity and were not first developed in Renaissance England. These are judicial astrology, electional astrology, horary astrology and natural astrology. Judicial or natal astrology is more or less as Falk describes it. Electional astrology is the casting of horoscopes to determine the correct or propitious time or date to start an undertaking. When should one marry, when lay the foundation stone of a building or new town, when to undertake a journey or even when to start a military campaign. Horary astrology is the attempt to answer questions by astrologers casting horoscopes upon receipt of the question. This is the classic detective story astrology used to detect thieves or to discover the hiding place of stolen goods. Natural astrology is the branch of astrology that deals with the things of the natural world i.e. astro-medicine and astro-meteorology. Theses division are important in the history of astrology, as there were extensive debates and disputes as to the validity of each of them, each of the four having its own champions and opponents. Interestingly even the strongest opponents of astrology in general in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance tended to accept the validity of natural astrology whilst simultaneously launching vitriolic invective against the widespread judicial astrology.

Although having got off to a bad start Falk’s discussion of judicial astrology in Shakespeare is reasonably good. He acknowledges that Shakespeare’s work is permeated by astrological references, whilst being a good mirror of his own society he also lets the opponents of astrology speak their piece. Unfortunately I got the feeling that Falk was trying to persuade the reader that Shakespeare was an opponent of astrology and that despite the fact that in his biographical chapter on the Bard he warns the reader against trying to determine Shakespeare’s character or personality from his works. I was particularly irritated by statements that Carl Sagen or Richard Dawkins would find favour with a particular anti-astrology speech or Neil deGrasse Tyson and Laurence Krauss would applaud a piece of scepticism. I found these comments out of place and quite frankly somewhat bizarre.

After astrology we turn to magic. This chapter slightly disturbs me, as it is largely about demonic magic, Macbeth’s witches and all that, which unlike natural magic was never considered scientia and thus not science. Towards the end of the chapter Falk does briefly discuss the difference between demonic and natural magic but his definition of natural magic is even more wrong than his definition of natural astrology. I’m not even going to go there, as an attempt to explain natural magic would probably end up as long as this already over long review. Even worse Falk talks about astrology as being magic. This is within the context of a book on Renaissance history a serious category mistake. Astrology is not a form of magic. Falk makes the same category mistake as he discusses alchemy in this chapter. Alchemy gets dismissed in a couple of short paragraphs somewhat of a disappointment as alchemy played a very central role in Elizabethan learned society, with even Elizabeth herself a practicing alchemist. Falk closes out the chapter by stating that “Astrology, witchcraft, alchemy, magic … and science. It was all part of a package; all were thoroughly intertwined in the sixteenth century, and even into the early years of the seventeenth.” This was indeed true although it went much further into the seventeenth century than the early years. However I find it slightly sad that Falk choses to illustrate this with a quick sketch of the live and work of Johannes Kepler. This sketch whilst basically correct doesn’t do Kepler’s scientific achievements justice. We also get the following old myth dished up, “We might note that Kepler was a practicing astrologer, and that he cast horoscopes for the German nobility. It’s not clear, however, how much faith he put in the power of the starts to influence our lives” [my emphasis]. Just for the record Kepler was a 100% convinced astrologer and any claims to the contrary are wishful thinking from those who would prefer their scientific heroes free of the taint of the occult.

Next up is Renaissance medicine a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays. An adequate treatment of the subject as far as it goes but neither here nor in his discussion of astrology does Falk even mention let alone discuss astro-medicine. This is a strange omission as astrological medicine was one of the dominant directions in medical practice in Shakespearean times. This chapter contains the strangest claim in the whole book. In his discussion of the differences between physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, and midwifes Falk produces the following gem, “Since the Middle Ages, the practice of medicine had been associated with the Catholic Church and so physicians were forbidden to shed blood”. Now I’m not a historian of medicine but I’ve read a lot of literature on the history of medicine and I’ve never come across anything of the sort in fact I will go as far as to say that this statement is a total myth of the same sort as the claim that the Church had banned dissection. I’m quite prepared to admit that I’m wrong should any of my highly educated readers show Falk to be in the right but somehow I don’t think I’m going to have to.

In the penultimate chapter Falk takes a sharp left turn. The chapter opens with a brief discussion of Lucretius’ De rerum natura and a free advert for Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve. As Falk correctly says De rerum natura was a highly popular and influential book in Shakespeare’s time so one might well expect to find this popularity reflected in Shakespeare’s writings. All that Falk can deliver is one instance of the word atomi in Romeo and Juliet. This doesn’t stop him discussing Lucretius and recommending Greenblatt’s book. Greenblatt is one of the experts on Shakespeare that Falk consulted for his book, as he tells us on numerous occasions in the text and he gives an enthusiastic endorsement to Greenblatt’s work on the rediscovery of Lucretius’ poem in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, this high opinion of The Swerve is not shared by many historians of medieval philosophy including one guest author here at The Renaissance Mathematicus.

Falk now introduces us to the sixteenth-century French essayist Montaigne trying to conceive him as a modern scientific skeptic, again gratuitously name dropping some actual ones, this time Laurence Krauss and Stephen Hawking. He does however admit that the attempt is at best dubious. He lets us know that Montaigne briefly refers to Copernicus, noting that there are now two possible cosmologies however reflecting that maybe in a thousand years a third model will come along and overthrow both of them. For this insight Falk credits Montaigne with being a sixteenth-century Karl Popper. There is however method in all this. We now get shown that Shakespeare was a diligent reader of the English translation of Montaigne’s essays traces of them turning up all over his own writings. This leads Falk to the categorical claim that at least here Shakespeare must have [my emphasis] come across Copernicus and Copernicanism. I always react allergically when somebody writing a historical text having failed to produce a direct link between two things sets up a plausible but speculative link and then says, “must”. There is no must about it. We simply do not know if Shakespeare read all of Montaigne’s voluminous output or only selected essays or if reading the essay in question skipped over the brief lines referring to Copernicus or even reading them gave them no significance and promptly forgot them again. What makes Falk’s last ditch attempt to link Shakespeare and Copernicus all the more questionable, having failed earlier in his book to produce a genuine smoking gun, is that he has spent a lot of words trying to convince the reader that Hamlet is the Bard’s Copernican work, whereas the English translation of the Montaigne essay first appeared in 1603 after Hamlet was written.

The final chapter of the book goes off on another tangent, this time in the direction of atheism. We get a potted history of atheism in the Early Modern Period and parallel to it a synopsis of how lacking in hope King Lear is. Combining this with the fact the Will’s friend Kit Marlowe was accused of atheism Falk ventures the hypothesis that Shakespeare had abandoned a belief in god. At the latest here, it becomes clear that Falk wishes to recreate Shakespeare as a sort of sixteenth-century Richard Dawkins. Enthusiastically embracing, albeit secretly, the new mode of scientific thinking and rejecting humanities dependency on god. However having come this far Falk baulks at the final hurdle hurriedly qualifying his own hypothesis, “We can’t definitely label Shakespeare an atheist, just as we can’t call him a scientist – even if we suspect we are seeing hints of such a world view.” In my opinion Falk has made a valiant effort to find facts to support his thesis but for me his argument is far too full of gaping holes to be really convincing.

Although this is not a an academic book its subject matter is of an academic nature so I think it is fair to ask about the academic apparatus, foot- or endnotes, bibliography and index. The book is equipped with, what I’m told, are hanging endnotes. That is endnotes giving sources for direct quotes in the text but without indications (quote numbers) in the text that they exist. This is possibly the worst solution to the notes problem that exists and I abhor it. I also found several direct quotes in the text for which no endnote exists. What makes this choice even stranger is that the text also has spasmodic footnotes referring to quotes in the text. Why some quotes earn footnotes and others hanging endnotes is not at all clear to me. The bibliography is quite extensive and gives ample evidence of the work that Falk has obviously invested in his book. There is no index! I find the omission of an index in this age of advance word processors, which make the compilation of an index child’s play, unforgivable.

I realise that if anybody has stayed with me up to here that they might think that having made so many negative comments I would not recommend Falk’s book, they would be wrong. On the whole I found the book well written, entertaining and informative. It is not free of errors but very few popular books on the history of science ever are. One of the very positive aspects of the book is that when even Falk presents a speculative theory concerning some aspect of science and a Shakespearean play he makes very clear that it is speculative and also presents alternative explanations for the text in question leaving it up to the readers to decide for themselves whether to accept the proffered hypothesis or not. On the whole I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it as a stimulating read for anybody interested in the subject matter, although they should be on their toes whilst reading.



[1] Dan Falk, The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe, Thomas Dunne Press, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2014.


Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Everyday Renaissance Astrology.

One of the joys of having run a moderately successful history of science blog for a number of years, and thus become somehow respectable, is that I occasionally get to review books; this is one of those reviews.  Regular readers will know that I tend to bang on a bit about astrology. This is not because I particularly like it or that I’m one of those people who won’t put a foot in front of the door without consulting their horoscope for the day but because of its historical significance. Justifying a popular lecture on the history of astrology that I held in January I said that astrology had played a central role in, not only the history of science but in the social, economical and political histories of Europe for a period of about two thousand years. The role of astrology was ignored by historians of every colour for a very long time. In the eighteenth century during what is commonly known as the Enlightenment astrology, along with alchemy, magic, witchcraft, etc., was consigned to the dustbin of human history. Following this degradation, historians applying a mixture of the Whig interpretation of history and presentism thought it was in order to ignore astrology as a historical error, which humanity had now grown out of. This attitude led to a crass falsification of history. In more recent decades historians became aware of this failure on their part and began to treat the history of astrology with the seriousness it deserves, although their first efforts concentrated almost exclusively on investigating the reasons for humanity, or at least the intellectual part of humanity, freeing itself from this pernicious superstition. This in its own way led to more perversion of history. There are quite a lot of texts out there pointing out how Pico della Mirandolla killed off the belief in astrology with his posthumously published Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem. The only problem with this claim is that astrology was still very much alive and kicking and occupying a central position in European discourse one hundred and fifty years later.

After a couple of centuries of total rejection and then a somewhat unfortunate initial phase I can happily report that the history of astrology has become a well established discipline producing some excellent work, even if quite a lot of academics still tend to reward it with nasty looks.  It is now generally recognised and acknowledged that astrology played a central role in Renaissance culture and most historians will make suitable comments in this regard when talking about the Renaissance. However what exactly was the day-to-day role of astrology during the Renaissance? Although we now have a growing pile of specialist academic literature on various aspects of astrology there has been up till now a surprising lack of general literature explain the role of astrology within the context of everyday life in the Renaissance. One important recent publication that attempts to fill part of this gap is Monica Azzolini’s The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan.[1]

THe Duke and the Stars


I will start off by saying straight out that this is an excellent book, if you have any interest in the history of astrology in the Early Modern Period obtain a copy of this book and read it! I guarantee you won’t regret it. So if you take my advice and acquire the book what do you get?

Azzolini deals with the problem of giving us an overview of everyday Renaissance astrology by presenting us with an extended case study of the use made of astrology by four Sforza dukes of Milan starting with Francesco Sforza (ruled 1450 – 1466) through to Ludovico (ruled 1494 – 1499). However before she starts in on the twisted family politics of the Sforza dynasty Azzolini introduces us to the world of the fifteenth century medical astrology. In her opening chapter Azzolini tries to reconstruct the corpus of books that a student of medicine would have studied at the University of Pavia in the fifteenth-century in order to acquire the necessary knowledge of astrology that he would need to exercise his profession as an astrological physician, what she terms a Corpus Astrologicum. This task is not made easy, as there are no surviving curricula or similar documents with a suitable reading list for the students of the medical faculty. Azzolini’s analysis is therefore per force speculative. However her speculations are always both well argued and solidly founded on the available indirect information that she has brought together to undertake this task. This first chapter alone repays the student of the history of astrology for having undertaken the task of reading this book.

In the four subsequent chapters we get introduced one by one to the four Sforza dukes of Milan and to the use each of them made of astrology during their respective reigns. Through this device we get introduced to the various aspects of the art of astrology as practiced in this period in Renaissance Italy and to those practitioners who served the Sforza dukes.

Azzolini takes us in turn through medical astrology, natal astrology, the use of astrology in planning dynastic marriages and the timing of the consummation of the resulting partnerships, astrology used in political decision making and in the case of Ludovico astrology used daily for almost every single act in his rather turbulent life. At each stage in our journey through the Sforza family history Azzolini explains clearly and lucidly the social and political background to all that is taking place, as well as giving clear explanations of how the astrologers go about their tasks.

The book is very well written and a pleasure to read but it is so multi-layered and dense in detail that it pays to read slowly and with maximum concentration so as not to miss some nugget of information on a multitude of historical topics. Azzolini is a first class historian but she wears her scholarship with ease.

This book is an academic book and for me an academic book lives and dies on the quality of, what I term, its academic apparatus, i.e. foot- or endnotes, bibliography and index. In all three aspects this book is absolutely first class. Although I am on record as preferring footnotes to endnotes I feel in this case the decision to use endnotes is justified. The 212 pages of text are followed by a whopping 108 pages of highly detailed endnotes, enough to satisfy even the most pedantic citation fetishist. Endnote four to the introduction is in itself a masterpiece. We get presented with a multilingual list of books and papers on Renaissance astrology that would serve as a reading list for any university course on the subject. (However it does contain one of my few objections to Azzolini’s book. In this endnote she lists Claudia Brosseder’s Im Bann der Sterne. Casper Peucer, Philipp Melanchthon and andere Wittenberger Astrologen, now I personally think that all copies of this book should be collected in and ceremonially burnt in the courtyard of Wittenberg University, it’s that bad in my anything but humble opinion.)  The thirty-page bibliography more than matches the high standard set by the endnotes and up till now I have found no reason to complain about the comprehensive index. This is an all round excellent book, which is also, as one would expect from Harvard UP, nicely presented.

This is as I said an academic book and its first audience is of course historians of astrology, however it can and should be read by historians of politics, of medicine, of science, of the Renaissance and of general history at all levels from the undergraduate to the expert historian. All of them can learn much from this book and all would profit from reading it. Although I am now repeating myself, this is an excellent book, which deserves to become a classic and almost certainly will and I regard it as a privilege that I have been allowed to review it.



[1] Monica Azzolini, The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 2013.


Filed under History of Astrology

It was written in the stars: An improbable encounter on a country bus.

If people ask me where I live the answer varies depending on who’s doing the asking. If it’s someone who knows Franconia or the German universities then I answer (the university town of) Erlangen. If less well informed I answer near Nürnberg because, thanks to Dürer and the Nuremberg Tribunal, it’s well known internationally. However in reality I don’t actually live in Erlangen but in a small village on the outskirts of the town, about six kilometres from the town centre.

At about five o’clock on Friday evening I was travelling back home from the town on a bus which winds its way through the villages to the east of Erlangen. As usual when I travel by bus or train I had my nose buried in a book. In fact I do a fair amount of my reading whilst using public transport. On this occasion the volume that was holding my attention was Monica Azzolini’s excellent The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan, of which a review will appear here in due time. Mentally deep in the arcane structures of Renaissance astrology I gradually became aware of a man standing next to my elbow. Clearing his throat he apologised for disturbing, in a pleasant mild American accent, “but that book you are reading, I know the author!” Momentarily struck dumb by the total improbability of the whole situation I finally managed to stumble out a, “you know Monica‽”

It turned out that my fellow passenger was historian of astrology Darrel Rutkin who, unbeknown to me, is doing research for his forth-coming book on the history of astrology at Erlangen University. We then spent a chilly but happy half an hour on a bus stop, Darrel lives in the next village, exchanging surprise at finding a fellow history of astrology enthusiast on a country bus in Middle Franconia and thoughts on the importance of studying the subject. Later in the evening we exchanged PDFs and website URLs per email agreeing to meet up in the near future to continue a wonderful conversation.

As I wrote to Monica in an email later on in the evening it was one of those situations that if it had occurred in a book or a film, then the reader or viewer would probably think, “oh come on, you don’t expect us to swallow that do you, two historians of astrology meet on a country bus, highly unlikely!” I enjoyed Monica’s reply, which closed with the following thought, “Books have many merits, of course. That to put readers in contact is clearly one of them!”

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Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astrology

Dying to make life easier for historians.

There is a clichéd view of history encouraged by bad teaching that presents the subject as the memorising of long lists of dates that somebody has designated as being significant, 55 BC, 1066, 1492, 1687, 1859, 1914 etc., etc. Now whilst in reality history is much more concerned with what happened and why it happened than with when it happened dates are the scaffolding on which historians hang up their historical facts for inspection.

When presenting biographies of scientists two key dates that the historical biographer has to remember are those of the birth and the death of her or his subject. One of my favourite Renaissance mathematici mathematics teacher, astronomer, astrologer, cartographer and globe maker, Johannes Schöner, about whom I have already blogged in the past, made life easier for historians by dying on his seventieth birthday. He was born on 16th January 1477 in Karlstadt am Main and died on 16th January 1547 in Nürnberg.  This means one only has to remember his birthdate and them simply add seventy to get his date of death.


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Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, Renaissance Science


Dean Burnett is a neuro-scientist who has a blog on Guardian Science Blogs, Brain Flapping, that is usually fairly humorous and mostly satirical.  However last week he decided to take a pot shot at astrology that was rather banal, displaying, as it does, Burnett’s total ignorance of astrology both past and present. Basic rule, if you wish to send something up successfully you should at least be well informed about that which you are trying to ridicule. As I am currently preparing a public lecture on the history of astrology[1], I was halfway tempted to let loose another of my diatribes about the significant role played by astrology not only in the history of science but also in the cultural, social and political histories of Europe in the last two thousand plus years but in the end I couldn’t be bothered. On that score you will have to content yourselves with this excellent old post by Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt (that’s Dr Higgitt to you son), on misinterpreting astrology, and my response to it here, with a closing coda from historian of astronomy Lester Ness here.

However I can’t resist analysing Dr Burnett’s opening paragraph, which provides the hook for his attack, from a historical perspective. He writes:

It’s worryingly common to see people, even professional organisations, accidently use the term astrology” when they mean “astronomy”. While phonetically similar, they are in fact very different things; astrology is an ancient system of divination, popular in several cultures, that makes predictions as to people’s personality and futures derived from the precise arrangement of planets, stars and other stellar bodies, whereas astronomy is a real thing that actually happens. 

Now, if Dr Burnett were a little better acquainted with the histories of astronomy and astrology then he would be aware that the distinction he is so keen to impress upon his readers was for the majority of the last two thousand years by no means as clear cut as he seems to think.

Both terms go back of course to the ancient Greek words astrologia and astronomia. In the BCE period of Greek history they only used the one term astrologia, which means, “telling of the stars” and was originally applied to what we now refer to as astronomy, which the Greeks started developing around 500 BCE. As the Greek then started to develop, what we term, astrology from its Babylonian roots in the first and second centuries BCE they also referred to it as astrologia, because as Ptolemaeus wrote in the introduction of his astrology textbook, the Tetrabiblos, in the middle of the second century CE, the study of the heavens consists of two parts the first of which determines the movements of the heavenly bodies, which he had dealt with in his Syntaxis Mathematiké (Almagest), and the second of which determines the changes that these movements bring out, the subject of the Tetrabiblos. Two aspects of one discipline so only one name is necessary. Ptolemaeus used the name astronomia, which means, “star arrangement”, and was introduced in the first century CE specifically to describe what we call astrology! From this point onwards both terms, astrologia and astronomia, were used interchangeably to mean both astronomy and astrology.

The first person to differentiate between astrologia and astronomia was the seven-century CE Archbishop of Seville and encyclopaedist, Isidore, who used the terms as we do today, astronomia for our astronomy and astrologia for our astrology.  Although Isidore’s encyclopaedia, the Etymologiae, was highly influential throughout the middle ages his linguistic innovation in the study of the heavens didn’t catch on and writers continued to refer to both disciplines with either term, indiscriminately.  In fact you can find texts where the author will refer to astronomy as astronomia in one sentence only to call it astrologia a couple of paragraphs further on. Just to confuse the issue even further the three terms astrologus, astronomus and mathematicus are used totally synonymously from antiquity up to the seventeenth century. In a famous passage from Augustinus, where he seems to be condemning mathematics, because he warns Christians to beware of the mathematici, he is actually condemning astrology, which he thought worked because it was fuelled by evil.

Even in the seventeenth century, in the thick of the so-called Scientific Revolution, you can still find writers referring to astronomers in an astronomical context as astrologers. It was only in the eighteenth century that the two terms came to have the distinct meanings that we still use today, somewhat ironically, basically the wrong way round as astrologia is in terms of its origins the science and astronomia the system of divination. So should you make the, according to Dr Burnett unforgivable, error of confusing astrology and astronomy sometime in the future at least you now know that history is on your side.

[1] Astrologie: Wissenschaft oder Hokus Pokus? That’s Astrology: Science or Hocus Pocus? (Planetarium, Nürnberg 15 January 2014 7:00 pm). You are welcome to attend if you happen to be in the area.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy

Help! I’ve just been savaged by a toothless American bulldog.

I really think that the BBC is trying to piss me off this week. First they dish up the total disaster that was Great Lives “Galileo” on Radio 4. Then they present a highly questionable documentary on Isaac Newton on BBC 4, which, have no fear gentle readers, I will deal with in a later post. Finally Adam Gopnik abuses his position as one of the rotating cast of speakers on Radio 4’s Point of View to insult the critics of his highly dubious New Yorker Galileo essay. Add to this Radio 1’s totally wrong and highly cowardly refusal to play Ding Dong The Witch is Dead followed by some maverick BBC reporters making life very difficult for all student field trips to non democratic countries in the future and I could fall out of love with the Corporation that had nourished my soul since I first started to become aware of sound.

Mr Gopnik! Adam Gopnik chose this Sunday to answer those people who had possessed the infernal cheek to criticise his god given words on the great Galileo Galilei. Did he do so by engaging with his critics? Maybe he did so by producing some evidence to back up those of his utterances that had been deemed false by his detractors. Wrong on both counts. Our internationally renowned wordsmith resorted to the lowest form of riposte, the argumentum ad hominem.

I am conceited enough to thing that I personally was, at least, one of the targets at which his insults were launched, because of my criticism of his previous misrepresentation of John Dee, and having both heard the original broadcast and read the transcript of his talk all I can say is that I feel that I have been savaged by a toothless, arthritic American bulldog that is stone deaf and suffers from cataracts. It doesn’t really hurt and one feels slightly embarrassed at having to bat the poor demented creature away but its drool, which as all dog owners know if very slimy and gooey, is difficult to get out of one’s clothes.

So how does Mr Gopnik go about insulting his critics? He doesn’t do it directly but hides it behind even more waffle about Galileo, which only compounds his errors from the original article.

He starts of his talk with the following world-weary complaint of the plagued author:

When you write for a living, over time you learn that certain subjects will get set responses. You’re resigned to getting the responses before you write the story.


…you will get many letters and emails from what we call the cracked (and I think you call the barking)…


The oddest response, though, is if you write making an obvious point about an historical period or historical figure, you will get lots of letters and emails insisting that the obvious thing about the guy or his time is completely wrong.

By now you should be getting the drift, it is inconceivable that Mr Gopnik is wrong about anything, he obviously has god like powers and is omniscient, so it follows that his critics are not just wrong they are barking mad.

Now just in case you think that our god like author is only talking about those who are genuinely cracked he makes very clear that he isn’t:

Now these letters and emails come more often from the half-bright, some of them professional academics, than from the fully bonkers or barking.

You can tell the half-bright from the barking because the barking don’t know how little they know, while the half-bright know enough to think that they know a lot, but don’t know enough to know what part of what they know is actually worth knowing.

We now finally arrive at the grounds for our sterling authors woes his essay on Galileo. This time he choses to base his story around the myth of Galileo throwing balls off the Tower of Pisa. He sort of half admits that it might not be true. It’s actually a complete load of rubbish. However he doesn’t think that that matters because “it’s a legend that points towards the truth”. This shows that Gopnik neither understands Galileo nor physics. The story is a load of rubbish because it wouldn’t produce a result that confirms the laws of fall, it would instead confirm Aristotle’s view, which Galileo knew full well and which is why he would never had tried it. Galileo was not stupid.

Gopnik now goes into hagiographic modus:

In 1632 Galileo wrote a great book – his Dialogue On Two World Systems. It’s one of the best books ever written because it’s essentially a record of a temperament, of a kind of impatience and irritability that leads men to drop things from towers and see what happens when they fall.

The Dialogo is indeed a fine piece of polemic carefully constructed to cover the yawning gaps in the science that it contained. In those parts where Galileo sticks to his undoubted strengths as an experimental scientist it is about men who design carefully thought out, skilfully constructed and studiously carried out experiments and not about impatient and irritable idiots who throw things off towers.

Having led us away from his lament about the crackpots who make his life so difficult he now returns to stick the knife in to those barking critics who dared to contradict the master.

In that essay I wrote about Galileo I compared him to John Dee, the famous English magician, alchemist and astrologer, who was one of his contemporaries who was also a consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, and who read everything there was to read in his time and knew everything there was to know in the esoterica of his time – but didn’t know what was worth knowing.

Notice how he carefully avoids crediting Dee with being a Renaissance mathematicus, which he indubitably was, and one of the leading mathematical practitioners in Europe in the third quarter of the 16th century. Also notice the subtle piece of invention at the end, “but didn’t know what was worth knowing”. This is a claim of Gopnik’s own creation and is in no way backed up by the historical facts about Dee.

He knew a lot about Copernicus, for instance, but he also spent half his life trying to talk to angels and have demons intervene to help him turn lead into gold.

Here we have a lovely example of rhetorical bait-and-switch. Dee might have known a lot about Copernicus but that knowledge was worthless because he talked to angels. In fact Dee and his group, Thomas Digges, John Feild (sic), Robert Recorde, Gemma Frisius etc, played an important and highly significant role in the propagation and dissemination of the Copernican heliocentric hypothesis, something that Gopnik with his black and white vision of the history of science is apparently incapable of understanding. Or more probably he can’t acknowledge because to do so he would have to admit that he is wrong and as we already know he can’t be wrong because he’s omniscient.

Now Mr Gopnik descends to the level of sneering condescension a sure sign that he has run out of real arguments and has to rely on argumentum ad hominem:

Well, it turns out that John Dee the magician and astrologer has his admirers – indeed his web pages and his fan clubs and his chatboard, just like Harry or Liam or Justin – and they took up the cause of the old alchemist with me. How dare you knock John, his fans, some of them half-bright, some of them just a little, well, barking, insisted. Wasn’t he a formidably erudite man particularly on just those subjects – stars and orbits and falling objects – that Galileo cared about too? Why shut him out of the scientific creed.

The only sentence worth noting in this gratuitous piece of slime is the final question, “Why shut him out of the scientific creed?” Gropnik’s answer is illuminating as it displays his total ignorance of the history of science:

Well, that was the point I was making. And it seems to me worth making again – and then again and then again. It just can’t be made too often.

The scientific revolution wasn’t an extension in erudition. It involved instead what we might call a second-order attitude to erudition – and if that sounds fancy, it just means the human practice of calling bull on an idea which you think is full of it, and being unafraid to do so.

Dee was a learned man – too learned a man, in fact, in whose head all kinds of stuff lodged, some obviously silly and some in retrospect sane, but impacted together like trash in a dump heap. Above all, his work is filled with supernatural explanations – with angels and demons and astrological spells.

There are two salient points to be made here “the scientific revolution […] means […] calling bull on an idea which you think is full of it, and being unafraid to do so”. Ignoring for the moment the fact that the majority of historians of science no longer believe in a thing called the scientific revolution Gopnik’s characterisation of what happened to science in the seventeenth century is totally and fundamentally wrong. Modern science emerged throughout the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from an incredible jumble of rational, semi-rational, moderately weird and totally bat-shit insane ideas, concepts and theories. I would suggest that Mr Gopnik should avoid the works of Johannes Kepler who contributed considerably more to the development of modern science than Galileo (and yes I’m prepared at anytime to defend that claim). Kepler’s contributions to science emerged in a pot pourri of Renaissance ideas and theories that at times make even Dee’s conversations with angels seem almost rational. I shall come to Newton’s alchemy in a minute.

We return to Dr Dee:

Dee was a learned man – too learned a man, in fact, in whose head all kinds of stuff lodged, some obviously silly and some in retrospect sane, but impacted together like trash in a dump heap. Above all, his work is filled with supernatural explanations – with angels and demons and astrological spells.

Again we catch Gopnik making things up. Dee’s work was in no way, “impacted together like trash in a dump heap.” I challenge Mr Gopnik to search Dee’s mathematical writings on cartography, navigation and astronomy for the angels and demons. I will personally buy him a pint of his favourite beverage for every single one he finds. I know that I won’t actually have to open my wallet because unlike Mr Gopnik I have studied John Dee’s mathematical work and I know what I’m talking about.

Galileo, emphatically did not believe in magic. Galileo has no time for supernatural explanations of any kind – indeed, when he goes wrong, as he did when he rejected the idea that the Moon causes the tides, it’s because he resists the right explanation because it just sounds too strange or magical.[1]

I suggest that Mr Gopnik never reads Galileo’s Il Saggiatore, the polemic pamphlet containing his famous quote about the book of nature. Here he would find his hero vehemently defending the completely irrational Aristotelian theory of comets against the reasonably correct theory of Grassi based on observation just to score rhetorical points, a low point in the writings of the Tuscan polymath. This is just one example of several; Galileo was by no means as rational and scientific as Gopnik would wish him to be.

History has taught us that science didn’t just happen in a burst. Alchemy and astrology evolved slowly and over time into chemistry and astronomy.

Wow! Gopnik actually got something right for a change.

Galileo even made a buck in his youth by casting horoscopes for rich people.

You can almost hear the subtext screaming “But he didn’t believe in it, not my Galileo!” Just for the record Galileo was a professional teacher and practitioner of astrology and all of the available evidence suggests very strongly that he also believed in it.

There were no bright lines. Indeed sometimes science slipped back into astrology and alchemy and superstition and the occult. It’s well-known that Isaac Newton spent a lifetime searching for the Philosopher’s Stone.

Again Gopnik either doesn’t know what he is talking about or he is being deliberately misleading. Galileo in no way marks the end of astrology or alchemy as mainstream branches of knowledge in the seventeenth century so what we have is not a case of slipping back. Astrology first lost its academic and scientific status around 1660 and alchemy went on being acceptable, albeit in a strange secretive manner, into the beginnings of the eighteenth century. In fact I once wrote a short piece about the alchemical correspondence between Newton, Boyle and Locke. As I pointed out in another post on the entanglement of science and pseudo-science Newton’s very serious study of alchemy played a very significant role in the development of his universal theory of gravity. But that of course cannot be because as Gopnik informs us alchemy is bull and that has nothing to do with real science.

The closing paragraphs of Gopnik’s piece are a pathetic pleading for his version of science against the esoteric of the cracked and barking. It is straight out of the neo-positivist’s handbook of nineteenth century rationalism which I cannot be bothered to waste you time dismantling

Mr Gopnik if people criticise what you have written about the history of Renaissance science you might do well to open your ears and listen to what they have to say. If you did so then you might just learn something. However instead of listening you decided to insult your critics and to make stuff up to justify the false claims you made in the first place. If you are going to pontificate about the history of science in the Early Modern Period then might I suggest that you go away and learn something about it first before you start shouting your mouth off. Even better why don’t you write something about art instead? I’ve head that’s a subject that you might actually know something about.

[1] I was planning on tackling Galileo’s claims on his reasons for rejecting a lunar tides theory in this post but as it is already far too long and still growing I think I’ll save that for a separate one.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

What was when modern?

Darin Hayton has a short post discussing a review of John Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox, a new book about the cartographical endeavours of the Renaissance mathematicus Johannes Schöner.  As well as being the addressee of Rheticus’ Naratio Prima, the first published account of Copernican heliocentricity, Schöner played a very central roll in the history of globe making as well as the evolution of cartography in the sixteenth century and it is with this aspect of his life that the new book is concerned. Schöner put together a private bound volume of cartographical material that he used for his own work. This volume contained, amongst other things, the only known copy of the first map to name the newly discovered western continent America, Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 map of the world, that was purchased by the Library of Congress for ten million dollars in 2003. In his latest book Hassel analyses all the cartographical material contained in Schöner’s “toolbox” to develop a picture of how he worked. I might write more about this book when I’ve read it, I ordered it today, but here I’m concerned with one troubling paragraph of the review to which Darin has already drawn attention in his post. The reviewer, John Wilford, wrote at the end of his piece the following:

Nothing in the book points up more clearly Schöner’s pivotal place in a world in transition from the medieval to the modern than his residual interest in astrology and his awakening curiosity when he apparently heard reports of a new theory being formulated by a Polish Catholic cleric. A brilliant young student of Schöner’s, Georg Joachim Rheticus, went to see Copernicus in 1539 and learned more about the Earth orbiting the Sun. Rheticus then composed a short treatise, written in the form of a letter to his teacher, “most illustrious and learned” Johannes Schöner.

In his post Darin comments on this paragraph thus:

Schöner’s interest in that “new theory being formulated by a Polish Catholic cleric” probably owed more to his interest in astrology and making astrological prognostications than the modernity we see in Copernicus’s theory. Along with his prognostications and calendars, Schöner also wrote books on astrology before and after Copernicus’s De revolutionibus was published, notably his Opusculum Astrologicum in 1539 and De iudiciis nativitatum Libri Tres in 1545. Schöner might also have been the author of a horoscope cast for Copernicus. Judging from the table of contents, Hessler spends some time assessing Schöner’s astrology. Schöner’s interest in astrology shouldn’t diminish our interest in him, but it should, perhaps, prompt us to wonder about the labels “modern” and “medieval” and the work they do for us…

Darin criticism is right on the button and in what follows I would like to expand upon it somewhat and expose what I see as a common misconception concerning the history of astrology.

Darin is perfectly correct when he surmises that any interest that Schöner had in the work of Copernicus was almost certainly motivated by his very active interest in astrology and it should be noted that Schöner’s “brilliant young student”, Georg Joachim Rheticus, who famously undertook the arduous journey to Frauenburg to visit Copernicus did so after spending several months in Nürnberg studying astrology under Schöner. The central section of Rheticus’ Naratio Prima consists of an excurse on what he sees as a confirmation of an astrological cyclical theory of history, popular at the time amongst Renaissance scholars, delivered by Copernicus’ theory of the precession of the equinoxes. However I see a major problem in Wilford’s labelling of Schöner’s astrology as medieval.

Schöner’s astrology is Renaissance astrology and it is for various reasons a very different beast to medieval astrology. His astrological practice cannot and should not be seen, as Wilford wishes us to do so, as a residual left over from earlier times but as the, for the sixteenth century, central and actual activity of the working Renaissance mathematicus; Schöner’s astrology was modern.

European horoscope astrology, there are other sorts that I won’t discuss here, began life in Greece sometime in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, combing elements of earlier Egyptian and Babylonian systems of prognostication. Its fortunes waxed and waned over the following centuries and reached a zenith in the work of Ptolemaeus in the second century CE. From here like all the other sciences of antiquity, and its adherents certainly regarded it as a science, it went into decline, almost disappearing completely in the Early Middle Ages. Although it should be pointed out that those works of astronomy from antiquity that remained known in this period such as Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii and Microbius’ Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis are strongly astrological.

With the first major revival of learning at the beginning of the High Middle Ages, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the rise of the European universities astrology enjoyed a rather dubious reputation. It stood in conflict with the dominating Catholic theology. Horoscope astrology with its seemingly deterministic prognostications appeared to contradict the central Church tenet, the belief in free will.

With the advent of Humanist Renaissance in the fifteenth century astrology enjoyed a major revival centred around astro-medicine, or as it was also known iatro-mathematics, a discipline that like astrology had its roots in fourth century BCE Greece. This form of medicine believed that the causes and cures of diseases were controlled by celestial influences and that a medicus must study the horoscopes of both the patient and the disease to determine the correct course of treatment. Chairs of astrology were established at the Northern Italian humanist universities and also in Cracow in Poland, later in other parts of Europe. By the end of the century astrology was the central discipline studied and practiced by the Renaissance mathematicus. This revival in the fortunes of astrology was also made possible because the new astrologers interpreted horoscopes as being indicative and no longer deterministic. That is a horoscope indicated a possible course for the future but one that could be altered by the subject of the horoscope if he took the right actions. Actions defined by the astrologer, of course, for a further fee.

In the sixteenth century at the start of the Reformation Philipp Melanchthon, who was responsible for the curricular of the Lutheran Protestant schools and university, established chairs for mathematics in all of the Protestant educational establishments to further the study of astrology of which he was a passionate adherent. Johannes Schöner professor for mathematics at the Egidian Oberschule in Nürnberg was one of the first of those appointees. Favoured for his already excellent reputation as an astrologer. Far from being a medieval residue Renaissance astrology, as practiced by Schöner, was a cutting edge academic discipline and for its time the epitome of modern.

Astrology was also not in the process of dying off following Schöner’s own demise in 1547 it continued to be a central field of study for the cartographers and astronomers who created the modern disciplines over the next hundred years. Both Gemma Frisius and Gerard Mercator, who are regarded as two of the principle founders of modern cartography and who were both highly influenced by Schöner’s work, were highly respected practicing astrologers. Rheticus the midwife of Copernican heliocentricity who became a medicus practicing astro-medicine in Cracow in the later part of his life gained a European wide reputation for his astrological prognostica. Michael Maestlin, Kepler’s teacher, and Tycho Brahe, his most significant employer, who each made important contribution to the evolution of the new astronomy were both practicing astrologers who regarded astrology as central to their astronomical research. Kepler himself, probably the most important of the modern astronomers, was also a passionate believer in celestial influence even if he rejected the traditional horoscope astrology and wished to replace it with one of his own devising. Finally even Galileo Galilei, supposedly the first really modern “scientist” taught astrology to the medicine student at the University of Padua a discipline that he himself obviously believed in as evidenced by the horoscopes that he drew up for his own family. This list of sixteenth and early seventeenth century astrologers is of course not exhaustive but merely an indication of just how deep the study and practice of astrology was embedded in the work of a Renaissance mathematicus.

Astrology first went into decline and lost its social and academic status in the second half of the seventeenth century with the general decline of the scholastic Aristotelian philosophy and with it the Renaissance belief in the micro-cosmos/ macro-cosmos philosophy, the fundamental justification for celestial influence and astrology.

Returning to the starting point of this post I hope I have made clear with my brief exposition of the history of European horoscope astrology that Schöner’s “residual interest in astrology” in no way indicates his “pivotal place in a world in transition from the medieval to the modern” as there was nothing medieval about his astrological activities for they were in themselves a sign of modernity in the sixteenth century.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, Renaissance Science

A little learning is a dangerous thing

“A little learning is a dangerous thing

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: 

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again. 

Fired at first sight with what the muse imparts,

In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts 

While from the bounded level of our mind 

Short views we take nor see the lengths behind 

But more advanced behold with strange surprise,

New distant scenes of endless science rise!”

In a recent New Yorker essay Adam Gopnik delivered up his view of Galileo Galilei. The essay is long and meandering and I don’t intend to do a complete analysis but there is one central point of Gopnik’s that I do wish to discuss. He gets off to a lousy start by calling Galileo “The founder of modern science”. I’ve already dealt with this elsewhere and don’t intend to repeat myself here. However Gopnik returns to the theme towards the end of his essay with proof! He begins with the following:

Contemporary historians of science have a tendency to deprecate the originality of the so-called scientific revolution, and to stress, instead, its continuities with medieval astrology and alchemy. And they have a point. It wasn’t that one day people were doing astrology in Europe and then there was this revolution and everyone started doing astronomy. Newton practiced alchemy; Galileo drew up all those horoscopes. But if you can’t tell the difference in tone and temperament between Galileo’s sound and that of what went before, then you can’t tell the difference between chalk and cheese.

Those historians of science can make their claims but Gopnik, a literary critic/humourist/art critic [please choose the appellation for Gopnik that best fits your prejudices or lack of them: see comments] knows better! He has read a book!

The difference is apparent if you compare what astrologers actually did and what the new astronomers were doing. “The Arch-Conjuror of England” (Yale), Glyn Parry’s entertaining new biography of Galileo’s contemporary the English magician and astrologer John Dee, shows that Dee was, in his own odd way, an honest man and a true intellectual. He races from Prague to Paris, holding conferences with other astrologers and publishing papers, consulting with allies and insulting rivals. He wasn’t a fraud. His life has all the look and sound of a fully respectable intellectual activity, rather like, one feels uneasily, the life of a string theorist today.

Now I have read the same book and although that book is excellent it, in my opinion, suffers from a major deficiency that I actually discussed on twitter a while back with Ted Hand (@t3dy) a historian of alchemy. However before we turn to Parry’s book and its deficiency let us see how Gopnik uses it to justify his belief in Galileo’s modernity.

The look and the sound of science . . . but it does have a funny smell. Dee doesn’t once ask himself, “Is any of this real or is it all just bullshit?” If it works, sort of, and you draw up a chart that looks cool, it counts. Galileo never stopped asking himself that question, even when it wasn’t bullshit but sounded as though it might well be. That’s why he went wrong on the tides; the-moon-does-it-at-a-distance explanation sounds too much like the assertion of magic. The temperament is not all-seeing and curious; it is, instead, irritable and impatient with the usual stories.

So there we have it. Galileo may have been a practicing astrologer but he was also a questioning scientist whereas his near contemporary John Dee was just a gullible pseudo-scientist. Case closed. Galileo is different. He is the founder of modern science as claimed. Gopnik 1 historians of science 0.

Unfortunately for Gopnik reading one book on Dee, no matter how good, isn’t enough. He has fallen head first into the error illustrated by the famous quote from Alexander Pope with which this post is headed, “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. If instead he had drunk deep of the springs of Dee scholarship he would not have so confidently labelled Dee chalk to Galileo’s cheese.

What is Parry’s deficiency and why is Gopnik wrong?

To understand the problem we have to look at how John Dee’s image has changed over the centuries. In the 16th century Dee was a highly respected member of the European scientific community highly involved in mathematics, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, cartography, navigation and history. By the middle of the 17th century his star was fading fast and he was largely forgotten then Meric Casaubon published the so-called Angel Diaries, Dee’s supposed conversations with angels through the medium Edward Kelly. Through this publication of previously unknown material Dee became the archetypal Renaissance magus in the popular imagination, a dabbler in magic probably in league with the devil.

This remained the public persona of Dee right up to the beginning of the twentieth century and he became a notorious trans-continental figure turning up as the essence of sorcery in several works of fiction. In the twentieth century, however, historians began to investigate and re-assess the real historical John Dee and the role that he played in European Renaissance culture. What emerged was a very different figure from the archetypal Renaissance magus. The last forty or fifty years has seen the publication of many academic papers and a series of monographs containing biographical studies of Dee, illustrating various aspects of his highly complex character. Glyn Parry’s The Arch Conjuror of England: John Dee is the latest such biography to be published.

Parry’s book, which is excellent and highly recommended for those interested in the subject, is a well researched and minutely documented study of the role played by alchemy and magic in the European royal courts of the sixteenth century, in particular the court of Elizabeth I of England, structured around the life story of John Dee. This is not the first such study but follows in the tradition of R. J. W. Evan’s excellent Rudolph II and his World: A study in intellectual history, 1576–1612 and Bruce T. Moran’s equally excellent The Alchemical World of the German Court: Occult Philosophy and Chemical Medicine in the Circle of Moritz of Hessen (1572–1632) both of which also feature John Dee, albeit in a less central role, who was active on both courts. Both books are regarded as classics and standard works on the role of the occult in Renaissance culture and Parry’s book is a more than worthy companion but there is a minor and important difference. Both Evan’s and Moran’s books were marketed as academic books written for specialists and although Parry’s volume is equally academic his publishers have seized upon Dee’s public popularity and marketed it as a popular book. They have also, and this is the crucial point, marketed it as a biography. This marketing strategy has led Gopnik to the belief that having read Parry’s book he now knows all about John Dee but unfortunately he is highly mistaken.

Parry actually only deals with one aspect of Dee’s multi-faceted nature, his activities as a magus almost completely ignoring Dee the mathematicus and it is here that Gopnik walks straight into a trap of his own making. If instead of just reading Parry’s book he had done some basic research on Dee he would have discovered that Dee and Galileo are by no means so far apart as he would like to think.

Several times in his book Parry alludes to the fact that mathematics plays a very central role in Dee’s whole philosophy but never bothers to elucidate what or why, concentrating instead on Dee’s occult activities leading Gopnik to a totally false picture of Dee the mathematical scientist. Early in his book Parry explains that after graduating from Cambridge Dee paid two visits to the University of Leuven, in the Spanish Netherlands, one short and one substantially longer to study under Gemma Frisius and Gerard Mercator. Parry discusses the astrology that Dee studied under the two Netherlanders but makes no mention of the mathematics. In fact Frisius was one of the leading teachers of the cutting edge mathematical sciences of the age and Dee came back to Britain with the best mathematical education available anywhere in the world at the time. He introduced into Britain, which lagged far behind the rest of Europe in the development of the mathematical sciences, the newest procedures in mathematics, astronomy, cartography and navigation as well as bringing with him the newest terrestrial and celestial globes and astronomical instruments from the workshops of Frisius and Mercator. On his early journeys through Europe Dee also got to know and to learn from other leading European mathematical practitioners such as Pedro Nunes in Portugal and Federico Commandino in Italy.

In his house in Mortlake Dee set up a research centre for the mathematical sciences, which contained the largest private scientific library in Europe, including at least two copies of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, where other interested scholars could and did come to learn and discuss the latest in mathematical knowledge. Dee’s foster son Thomas Digges wrote and published one of the first works on Copernican astronomy in English, which contained the first published partial translation of De revolutionibus into the vernacular. Another acolyte of Dee’s John Feild (sic) published, at Dee’s urging, the first ephemeris based on Copernicus’ work. Dee himself wrote the extensive preface to Henry Billingsley’s English translation of The Elements of Euclid. This preface is an important early work on the philosophy of mathematics. Dee corresponded on mathematical topics with many of the leading mathematicians and astronomers in Europe including a correspondence with Tycho Brahe on the problems of determining the parallax of moving celestial bodies, i.e. comets, a topic at the cutting edge of contemporary astronomical research. Dee was also a close friend and colleague of Thomas Harriot the greatest of English Renaissance mathematicians whose scientific discoveries easily rivalled those of Galileo but because he never published anything remained unknown and unacknowledged.

His English language preface to Billingley’s Euclid was not a one off but is symbolic for one of Dee’s most important contribution that of co-founder of the so-called English school of mathematics. As already mention in the second half of the sixteenth century England lagged behind the rest of Europe in the mathematical sciences. The first person to undertake series efforts to correct this deficit was Robert Recorde who wrote and published a series of textbooks in English covering the mathematical sciences including Copernican astronomy. After Recorde’s death Dee brought out several revised and expanded editions of those textbooks. The two of them started a tradition of English mathematics that stretched through the second half of the sixteenth century all the way through the seventeenth century up to Newton, which encompasses such important figures as William Oughtred, Seth Ward, John Wallis, Christopher Wren and even Newton himself.

Far from being the naïve magician that Gopnik imagines him to have been John Dee was acknowledged and recognised as one of the leading European mathematical practitioners in the third quarter of the sixteenth century. Whose mathematical heritage echoed all the way through the seventeenth century and the creation of modern science.

Contrary to the commonly held myth Galileo did not invent modern mathematical science but built his research on a solid foundation a Renaissance mathematical advances that goes back all the way to Georg Peuerbach and Regiomontanus in the middle of the fifteenth century. One of the Renaissance mini-giants on whose shoulders Galileo and his contemporaries constructed their contributions to the evolution of modern science was John Dee. Far from being the contrast obsolescent model to Galileo’s shiny new show room model as Gopnik would have us believe John Dee, in his own way, contributed as much to the creation of modern science as Galileo himself.


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Pseudo-science, proto-science, pre-science or just plain science?

Having posted my recent article on the history of pseudo-science and science I went off to bed. Whilst I was wrapped in the arms of Morpheus an interesting little debate was taking place on my twitter stream. One of the participants thought that astrology and alchemy in the Early Modern Period should be considered as proto-sciences and not pseudo-sciences whereas his companion preferred the term pre-sciences. Their objection to the use of the term pseudo-science certainly has historical validity but if we are searching for a non-anachronistic substitute then as I answered in the morning, when I read their little debate, one should simply refer to them both as sciences. This discussion actually has a deeper meaning and I thought it might be of interest to take a closer look at the objections to the use of pseudo-science and my, for many people provocative, suggested solution.

The discussion that follows is, on a very superficial level, one on the philosophy of science, which some people, I think largely correctly, consider to be nothing other than epistemology. I should state that although I studied philosophy of science formally for ten years and informally for much longer I do not consider myself to be in anyway an authority in this area so if you wish to blast my arguments to smithereens in the comments please feel free to do so.

My twitter friends were of course perfectly correct to object to the label pseudo-science being applied to astrology and alchemy as practiced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However I was using the term in the sense in which it is used currently by Skeptics and other self-appointed defenders of the purity of science. In fact my whole point was that in earlier times these disciplines had not been decried but taken seriously and had thereby made substantial contributions to the evolution of the sciences. My twitter friends had realised this and were suggesting alternative terms based on their belief that astrology and alchemy aren’t really sciences but were treated as such in the Early Modern Period and thus proto- or pre-science. This raises visions of Thomas Kuhn’s pre-paradigmatic disciplines suggesting that because astrology and alchemy never developed paradigms they never succeeded in becoming sciences, unlike for example physics. I think this view is wrong.

I have provocatively labelled our two esoteric disciplines sciences as they were conceived in the period under discussion and here we have, in my opinion, the crux of the matter; the meaning of the term science is not and never has been cast in concrete but has itself changed over the centuries.

The current meaning of the term as understood by most people today, that is a study of nature governed by some form of logical scientific method, only really emerged in the nineteenth century, earlier it meant something rather different.

Science is the English translation, via the French, of the Latin term scientia, which was in the Middle Ages the standard translation in the works of Aristotle and others of the Greek term episteme in turn usually rendered in modern English as knowledge. The term first appears in English in the thirteenth century and according to Deborah Harkness in her The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (2007) (an excellent read) was in common usage in the Elizabethan period.

For Aristotle episteme of the natural world was ideally derived deductively from predetermined axioms; common sense statements that could be accepted by all without further proof, a very different concept of scientific knowledge to our modern one.

There is a modern debate as to whether scientific knowledge is the only form of knowledge or just one of several that I do not intend to go into here (or ever for that matter; that way lies madness!) However in the Early Modern Period it was freely acknowledged that there were different forms of knowledge with differing justifications. At the top of the pile was religious knowledge, which was revealed knowledge, revealed through God’s word in the Bible. This was in everyway superior to mere empirical knowledge. In fact as I pointed out in an earlier post Galileo’s famous two books argument, the book of God and the book of Nature, was a sneaky attempt to raise empirical knowledge to the same level as religious knowledge.

In the sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth century empirical knowledge was not justified in the first instance by repeatability but by personal testimony. A natural philosopher would give a list of those who had witnessed his discovery, the higher the social status of the witnesses the higher the justification of the knowledge. Although this situation gradually changed throughout the seventeenth century we still find strong examples of its use. When Pascal published the results of sending his cousin up a mountain with a barometer he did so with a list of those who had witnessed the experiment. Galileo who is often credited, wrongly, with having invented modern science sent out his telescopes not to astronomers but to bishops and aristocrats because their testimony carried more weight than that of the astronomers.

Both astrology and alchemy were considered to be epistemic disciplines, that is deliverers of knowledge. The justification in this case was philosophical and can be found in the concept of micro-cosmos/macro-cosmos. This philosophical axiom was particularly prevalent in the Renaissance and was the belief that the earth was a miniature model of the heavens and that through celestial influence the heavens in some way controlled what happened on the earth. In an extension of this philosophy the human body was an even smaller model of the cosmos producing a sort of Russian doll effect. This philosophical concept occurs in almost all schools of Greek philosophy and was taken over by the scholastics in the Renaissance.

Astrology was supposedly a way of determining this celestial influence whereas alchemy, in its Renaissance form, and natural magic were supposedly ways of controlling or manipulating that influence.

The collapse of these Renaissance esoteric sciences came about largely because the micro-cosmos/macro-cosmos philosophy was abandoned towards the end of the seventeenth century thus withdrawing their epistemic status. This is not something that happened overnight for example as I’ve written before although Isaac Newton completely rejected both astrology and natural magic he accepted alchemy as an epistemic discipline as did both John Locke and Robert Boyle.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of science, Renaissance Science

Humanity’s interest in the so-called pseudo-sciences has not always been bad for science.

In a recent piece on her excellent Guardian Science blog, The H Word, my #histsci soul sister Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt asked, “Is there a rising tide of irrationality?” summarising her opinion with the following subtitle:

Despite claims that pseudoscientific views are on the rise, history shows that belief in things like astrology or the paranormal have always been with us and are likely to remain

Being my usual provocative self I thought I would take the time to point out that not only has the belief in things like astrology and the paranormal always been with us but that this belief has over the centuries made a not insubstantial contribution to the evolution of the so-called legitimate sciences. What follows is not intended to be an exhaustive survey of the subject but an indicator that humanity’s interest in the apparently non-rational has not necessarily been so disastrous as the members of the so-called Skeptical Community would have us believe.

As Ms Higgitt specifically mentions astrology I thought it would make for a convenient starting point. Some form of astrology or more generally a belief in celestial influence was the main driving force behind the development of astronomy from its beginnings in the prehistoric mists of time up to the beginning of the eighteenth century CE. Most if not all astronomers in antiquity were also astrologers a fact best illustrated by the fact that the author, Ptolemaeus, of the definitive account of technical astronomy in antiquity, his Syntaxis Mathematiké, was also the author of the definitive technical account of astrology, his Tetrabiblos.

We find this connection flowering in the Early Modern Period where the principle founders of the new astronomy – Gmunden, Peuerbach, Regiomontanus, Apian, Rheticus, Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo et al. – were all practicing astrologers. (The first person in the comments, who claims they only did it for the money gets to clean my bike for the next twelve months) In fact we know that the principle motivation for the majority of them in improving astronomy was to provide a more accurate apparatus for delivering the raw data for astrology. It is first the generation of astronomers active in the latter part of the seventeenth century – Cassini, Newton, Flamsteed, Halley et al. – who abandoned astrology for astronomy qua astronomy, although both Cassini and Newton were motivated to take up the subject by an early interest in astrology.

During the Humanist Renaissance the strong interest in astro-medicine or, as it was know, iatro-mathematics led to the establishment, for the first time, of dedicated chairs for the study of the mathematical sciences at the mediaeval universities.

During the Early Modern Period attempts to establish astrology as an empirical science led to the emergence of the science of meteorology and also made major contributions to a modern fact based approach to history. All in all not a bad record for the most ridiculed of pseudo-sciences.

Sticking with the “A”s we move on to alchemy. Often ridiculed as complete nonsense in reality alchemy made some major contribution, along side astrology, to the evolution of the sciences in the Early Modern Period.

Most difficult to determine is alchemy’s contribution to the development of its first cousin chemistry as the two disciplines were entwined in a close embrace well into the eighteenth century. What is certain is that most of the equipment and the methodology that became standard fare in the chemistry laboratory were developed over the centuries by alchemists.

Paracelsus has been called the father of pharmacy, a term, that regular readers of this blog will know, I detest. However it is a historical fact that the science of pharmacy as we know it has its origins in the activities of the Paracelsian iatro-chemists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries whose activities were based on a modified alchemy developed by their guru Theophrastus.

Alchemy also played a surprising role in the history of physics in the work of the seventeenth century’s most infamous alchemist, Isaac Newton. To quote I. Bernard Cohen probably the greatest of all Newtonian scholars:

Thus Newton’s acceptance of forces [and also action at a distance] as fundamental entities was conditioned to a significant degree by his studies of alchemy.[1]

In fact Newton’s rejection of the then dominant mechanical philosophy for an alchemy inspired physics of invisible forces acting at a distance led to the Principia being rejected by both the Cartesian and the Leibnizian physicists as occult (read pseudo) science.

Staying with old Isaac for a brief moment, as I have blogged in the past, he and other Bible chronologists, millennialists to the core (and you can’t get more pseudo than that!), in their endeavours to establish the date of the apocalypse made significant contributions to the development of modern historical methodology.

Should anybody jump to the conclusion that with the successful completion of the so-called scientific revolution this unholy alliance between the one pure doctrine of science and its distinctly unsavoury sister the occult had finally come to an end they would be mightily mistaken.

For example in the nineteenth century Vitalism, Naturphilosphie and Mesmerism, all three of which would be decried as pseudo-scientific today, all played important and significant roles in the scientific debates of the period pushing forward the development of various scientific disciplines.

Even the twentieth century was far from immune from the influence of highly dubious subjects within the evolution of the sciences. When he died the scientist, science communicator and novelist, Arthur Koestler left money in his will for the establishment of a chair for the investigation of the paranormal, an act that caused a major outcry within the scientific community. However throughout the twentieth century investigations of supposed paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, telekinesis, out of body experiences etc. have contributed to experiment design and evaluation, the development of statistical evaluation of experiments and made general contributions to the development of the cognitive sciences.

Should anyone believe that twentieth century physics is immune from woo they should read up on the history of the heuristics employed by those who developed the standard model, rational is something else.

Of course I’m not advocating the pursuit of pseudo-science or in anyway supporting those who try to sneak pseudo-science into the school curriculum but as a historian of science I do have problems with the often almost hysterical attitude of the Skeptical Community towards what they see as the demonic forces of woo. On one occasion when discussing the role that astrology played in the evolution of modern astronomy I was told by a leading German Skeptic, who was at that time a physics post doc at my local university and is still deeply involved in science communication, that I should not say such things in public because I would give people a false impression of science. As a historian of science I can only say that it is the supporters of Dawkins, Mayer et al who with their gospel of scientism who give people a false impression of science. Science has evolved over the centuries along a strange and convoluted path and will almost certainly continue to do despite the best efforts of the Hordes of Pharyngula and their ilk to place it in a straightjacket.

[1] Isaac Newton The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, A new translation by I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman assisted by Julia Badenz Preceded by A Guide to Newton’s Principia by I. Bernard Cohen pp. 57 – 58


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Newton, Renaissance Science