Maximilian and the Mathematici–astrology as political propaganda

For a long time most historians of science tried their best to ignore the history of astrology, basically sweeping it under the carpet where and when it poked its nose into their area of study. More recently this began to change with more and more historians acknowledging that astrology played a role in a large part of human history, although  most of them still treated it as some sort of largely irrelevant side issue that one could mention in passing, if necessary, and then safely ignore. However in large phases of European history astrology permeated all levels of society and was just as much a central factor of life as religion or politics. This was certainly very much the case in the Renaissance. A number of historians have begun to examine in depth the role that astrology played and present their findings in books and articles; one such book is Darin Hayton’s The Crown and the Cosmos: Astrology and the Politics of Maximilian I.[1]


Maximilian I (1486–1519) was an Austrian Habsburg, who was King of the Romans (also known as King of the Germans) from 1486 and Holy Roman Emperor from 1508 until his death.


Albrecht Dürer – Portrait of Maximilian I Source: Wikipedia Commons

Through marriage he became Duke of Burgundy and his son Philip the Handsome through his marriage to Joanna of Castile, arranged by Maximilian, established the Spanish Habsburg dynasty. As such Maximilian played a very important role in late medieval European history. Throughout his life Maximilian was involved in complex and protracted political and military campaigns and Hayton’s book illustrates in detail how Maximilian used astrology as political propaganda to further his aims in those multifarious campaigns.

Throughout his life Maximilian was associated with and actively promoted a significant number of well-known astrological mathematici, several of whom have over the years featured in various blog posts here. As Hayton explains, through his active promotion of the astrologers Maximilian wanted to present himself as a knowledgeable man of science, as erudite and educated. Maximilian’s close connection with astrology began with his birth, when his parents, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III and Eleanor, infanta of Portugal, requested Regiomontanus to cast Maximilian’s natal horoscope. Regiomontanus was only twenty-three years old at the time. Regiomontanus’ teacher Peuerbach had been an astrological advisor to Frederick for some time and had cast Eleanor’s horoscope before the royal marriage.

In the early phase of his career Maximilian used the humanist scholars, Joseph Grünpeck (c. 1473–after 1530) (author of one of the first texts on the French Disease aka syphilis)


Only known portrait of Joseph Grünpeck – artist unknown

and Sebastian Brant (1457–1521) (author of Das Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools))


Sebastian Brant by Albrecht Dürer Source: Wikimedia Commons

to employ their poetical and astrological skills in helping him to create idealised works of autobiography presenting Maximilian as he whished to be viewed as a future Holy Roman Emperor. This was part of a much wider astrological propaganda campaign presenting Maximilian, as the ideal candidate for the position of power.

In a second element of his campaign Maximilian revitalised the University of Vienna, returning it to the high status it had when Georg Peuerbach (1423–1461) and Johannes Regiomontanus (1436–1476) represented the first Viennese School of Mathematics, as the heirs of Johannes von Gmunden (c. 1380–1442). A period, which had ended in 1561 when Peuerbach died and Regiomontanus left Vienna for Italy with Basilios Bessarion (c. 1400–­1472).

At the beginning of the sixteenth century Maximilian brought Conrad Celtis (1495–1508), the Arch-Humanist, from Ingolstadt to Vienna and established for him the Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum. Two professors for mathematics were installed Andreas Stiborius (c. 1464–1515) and Johannes Stabius (1450–1522), both also from Ingolstadt. Stabius was however soon promoted to court historian.


Albrecht Dürer’s portrait of Johannes Stabius Source: Wikimedia Commons

The two also brought their favourite pupil with them, Georg Tannstetter (1482–1535), who would go on to make a long and successful career in Vienna.


Georg Tannstetter Portrait ca. 1515, by Bernhard Strigel Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tannstetter would be succeeded by his own pupil Andreas Perlach (1490–1551). These men constitute the so-called second Viennese School of Mathematics.

Having dealt with Maximilian’s use of astrology in his autobiographies and his political propaganda in the opening chapters, Hayton deals in successive chapters with the various aspects of astrology–teaching of the subject, astrological instruments, wall calendars and practica, ephemerides, prognostications–and how these were used by their producers to support and enable Maximilian’s political aims and ambitions. This is all down in substantive detail illustrating nicely how the work of the mathematici and their patron created a symbiosis serving the needs of both sides. In the chapter on Perlach and his ephemerides Hayton gives a very nice analysis of Perlach’s readers, based on the hand written marginalia found in the surviving copies of his texts.

It should be noted that this service of the Viennese mathematicians did not end with Maximilian’s death in 1519. Both Tannstetter and Perlach carried on producing their astrological publications in the political interest of the Habsburgs for Maximilian’s grandsons, Ferdinand Archduke of Austria (1503–1564) and Charles V (1500–1558) Holy Roman Emperor and Emperor of the Spanish Empire, Maximilian was predeceased by their father, his son Philip the Handsome.


Ferdinand Archduke of Austria Portrait by Hans Bocksberger the Older Source: Wikimedia Commons


Charles V by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz Source: Wikimedia Commons

The book is nicely illustrated with grey tone reproductions of the texts and their illustration from the various publications. There are extensive, informative endnotes, an equally extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources and a useful index.

Hayton has written an important study on the political use of astrology by those in a centre of power during the Renaissance that can be profitably be read in tandem with Monica Azzolini’s The Duke and the Stars, which I reviewed some time ago. As Hayton says in his introduction historians of the period need to include the history of astrology in their studies and historians of astrology need to look more closely at the general historical picture. Hayton has excellently fulfilled his own demand.




[1]Darin Hayton, The Crown and the Cosmos: Astrology and the Politics of Maximilian I, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2015



Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astrology, Renaissance Science

5 responses to “Maximilian and the Mathematici–astrology as political propaganda

  1. Dear sir, please remind your readers that François Rabelais (born 1494) hilariously satirized the nonsensical hocus pocus obscurantism of astrology. And that such debunking of false superstition goes back to ancient Greece with Socrates and Plato, for example. Otherwise, the idea that astrology qua magical thinking ever had merit is meretricious legerdemain.

    • thonyc

      Although it always had its critics, astrology was regarded as a science from its inception in Ancient Babylon down to about the end of the seventeenth century CE.

  2. theazimechproject

    Reblogged this on Resting Goth Face.

  3. Let’s get it right. The scientific academic norm was a simplification of the previous quadrivium, which recognised emotions as a reality, as much as the tangible. The capstone was a thesis, usually religious – for that was the norm of the day, knowledge was controlled by the Church – with two pairs of illustrative facets supporting it, music and arithmetic, and cosmology and geometry. We ended up with arithmetic and geometry as the foundations for the other sciences, and music and the rest left in the dust. I put it as cosmology because there was the birth of astronomy in it – Newton wrote twice as much on the stranger side of things as ever he did on astronomy, but without his work, we’d not be in space now. Science can somerimes be wilfully blind.
    Music is extraordinarily powerful as a motivator, too, and is mathematical. Bach took it away from the strictly mathematical, starting with his study of equal temperament in The Well-Tempered Klavier (Keyboards to you) and then gradually realising that a purely mathematical tuning based on the circle of fifths is soul-less (for non-musicians, it’s possible to tune a complete octave based on the first and second harmonics of a string, where the harmonics give the intervals) and is inaccurate in other keys.
    Einstein, himself a fine violinist well used to the adjustments, recognised God, arguing that it was the only possible reason for order in the cosmos. God doesn’t play dice with his creation, was how he put it. I agree, from a more pragmatically tested basis – and my IQ and successes are comparable to his, indeed Stephen Hawking’s DAMTP is currently working on a project I set them recently, to take Telsa’s tuned induction seriously.
    Another element in blowing the socks off the Catholic prejudice you claim as “it stands to reason” is to tackle the painful subject of alchemy, which historians of science do NOT treat as hogwash. How the heck the mediaevals discovered mercury and gold are neighbours on the Atomic Table, if you remove a single proton from Hg you get Au, I cannot explain, I have a suspicion how they created the necessary plasma, stripping the electron shells away, but it’s possible.
    So stop living in a complacent world of basic knowledge and realise that the edges of knowledge are far wilder and woolier than suits the demands of pure science as we know it now.
    And do please tell a woman her emotions don’t exist…

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