The role of celestial influence in the complex structure of medieval knowledge.

My entire life has followed a rather strange and at time confusing path that bears no relationship to the normal career path of a typical, well educated, middle class Englishman. It has taken many twists and turns over the years but without doubt one of the most bizarre was how I got to know historian of astrology Darrel Rutkin. We met on a bus, when he a total stranger commented that he knew the author of the book that I was reading, Monica Azzolini’s excellent, The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan. You can read the story in full here. At the time Darrel was a fellow at the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities: Fate, Freedom and Prognostication. Strategies for Coping with the Future in East Asia and Europe in Erlangen, where he was working on his book on the history of European astrology. Darrel and I became friends, talking about Early Modern science and related topics over cups of coffee and he twice took part in my History of Astronomy tour of Nürnberg. Before he left Erlangen he asked me if I would be interested in reading and reviewing his book when he finished writing it. I, of course, said yes. Some weeks ago I received my review copy of H. Darrel Rutkin, Sapientia Astrologica: Astrology, Magic and Natural Knowledge, ca. 1250–1800: I.Medieval Structures (1250–1500): Conceptual, Institutional, Socio-Political, Theologico-Religious and Cultural and this is my review.


As should be obvious from the impressive title this is not in anyway a popular or even semi-popular presentation but a very solid piece of hard-core academic research. What I have, and will discuss here, is just volume one of three, which weighs in at over six hundred pages. In his work Rutkin present two theses the first of which he explicates in Volume I of his epos and the second of which forms the backbone of the two future volumes. The central thesis of Volume I is summed up in the slightly intimidating twelve-word term “astrologizing Aristotelian natural philosophy with its geometrical-optical model of celestial influences.” A large part of the book is devoted to constructing this object and I will now attempt to produce a simplified description of what it means and how it operated in medieval Europe.

It is common in the history of astrology to treat it as a separate object, as if it had little or nothing to do with the rest of the contemporary knowledge complex. It is also very common to lump astrology together with magic and the other so-called occult sciences. For the High Middle Ages, the period that his book covers, Rutkin rejects both of these approaches and instead proposes that astrology was an integral and important part of the accepted scientific knowledge of the period. His book is divided into five sections each of which I will now outline.

The first section is an eighty-nine-page introduction, which contains a detailed road map of the author’s intentions including a brief summary of what he sees as the current situation in various aspects of the study of the subject under investigation. This also includes an excursion: Astrological Basics: Horoscopes and Practical Astrology. This section is not based on the author’s own work but on that of Roger Bacon, one of the central figures of the book, so if you want to know how a leading medieval astrologer set up and worked with a horoscope then this is the right place to come.

The first section of the book proper deals with the relationship between astrology and natural philosophy in the thirteenth century and it is this section that defines and explains our intimidating twelve-word term from above. Rutkin’s analysis is based on four primary sources; these are an anonymous astrological text the Speculum Astronomiae, written around 1260 and often attributed to Albertus Magnus, an attribution that Rutkin disputes, the writings of Albertus Magnus (before 1200–1280), those of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and those of Roger Bacon (ca. 1220­–1292), as well as numerous other sources from antiquity, and both the Islamic and Christian Middle Ages. In this first section he first presents those writings of Aristotle that contain his thoughts on celestial influence, which form the philosophical foundations for the acceptance of astrology as a science. He then demonstrates how the Speculum Astronomiae, Bacon and Albertus expanded Aristotle’s thoughts to include the whole of horoscope astrology and imbedded it into medieval Aristotelian natural philosophy, this is our “astrologizing Aristotelian natural philosophy.” He also shows how Thomas, whilst not so strongly astrological, as the others, also accepts this model. The technical astrology that is considered here is a highly mathematical, read geometrical, one based on the radiation theories of the Arabic scholar al-Kindi in his De radiis stellarum, as originally introduced into European thought by Robert Grosseteste (1175–1253) in his optical theories and adopted by Bacon. This explains how every geographical point on the earth at every point in time has a unique horoscope/astrological celestial influence: the “geometrical-optical” part of our intimidating twelve-word term. This also ties in with Aristotle’s geographical theories of the influence of place on growth and change. What comes out of this analysis is an astrological-geographical-mathematical-natural philosophical model of knowledge based on Aristotle’s natural philosophy, Ptolemaeus’ astronomy and astrology, and al-Kindi’s radiation theory at the centre of thirteenth century thought.

Rutkin does not simple state an interpretation of Albertus’, Bacon’s or Aquinas’ views but analyses their actual writings in fine detail. First he outlines one step in a given thought process then he quotes a paragraph from their writings in English translation, with the original in the footnotes, including original terms in brackets in the translation if they could possible be considered ambiguous. This is followed by a detailed analysis of the paragraph showing how it fits into the overall argument being discussed. He proceeds in this manner paragraph for paragraph cementing his argument through out the book. This makes hard work for the reader but guarantees that Rutkin’s arguments are as watertight as possible.

The second section of the book proper deals with the subject of theology, a very important aspect of the medieval knowledge complex. Rutkin shows that both Albertus and Thomas accepted astrology within their theology but were careful to show that celestial influence did not control human fate, providence or free will these being the dominion of their Christian God. This is of course absolutely central for the acceptance of astrology by Christian theologians. Bacon’s attitude to astrology and theology is completely different; he builds a complete history of the world’s principle religions based on the occurrence of planetary conjunctions, explaining why, as a result, Christianity is the best religion and addressed to the Pope, for whom he is writing, how one needs to combat the religion of the Anti-Christ.

The third section of the book proper now turns to the vexed question of the relationship between astrology and magic. Rutkin shows that both the Speculum Astronomiae and Albertus in his writing accept that astrology can be used to create magical images or talisman for simple tasks such as killing snakes. However, this is the limit of the connection between the two areas, other aspects of magic being worked by evil spirits or demons. Thomas, not surprisingly rejects even this very circumscribed form of astrological magic regarding all of magic to have its roots in evil. Bacon is much more open to a wider range of connections between the areas of astrology and magic.

Having set up the place of astrology in the medieval knowledge complex of the thirteenth century, the fourth and final section of the book proper takes brief looks at the evidence for its use in various fields within Europe in the period up to 1500. Fields sketched rather than covered in great detail included mathematics, medicine, teaching in the various faculties at the universities, annual prognostications at the universities and to close astrology in society, politics and culture.

Does Rutkin succeed in proving his central thesis for this his first volume? History is not like mathematics and does not deliver conclusive proofs but Rutkin’s thesis is argued in great detail with an impressive array of very convincing evidence. His work is rock solid and anybody wishing to refute his thesis is going to have their work cut out for them. That is not to say that with time, new research and new evidence his thesis will not undergo modification, refinement and improvement but I think its foundations will stand the test of time.

His second main thesis, which will be presented in the two future volumes of his work, is to explain how and why the medieval, mathematics based (read mathematical astrology), Aristotelian natural philosophy that had been created in the High Middle Ages came to replaced by a very different mathematics based, system of natural philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Having ploughed my way through Volume I, I very much look forward to reading both future volumes.

It goes without saying that the book has an impressively long bibliography of both primary and secondary sources that the author has consulted. I consider myself reasonably well read on the history of European astrology but if I were to sit down and read all of the new, interesting titles I discovered here, I would be very busy for a number of years to come. There is also a first class index and I’m very happy to report that the book also has excellent footnotes, many of which I consulted whilst reading, rather than the unfortunately ubiquitous endnotes that plague modern publishing.

Before I move to a conclusion I wish to point out a second way to read this book. As it stands this is not a book that I would necessarily dump on an undergraduate or a historian, whose interest in the fine detail of Rutkin’s argument was peripheral but that is not necessary or at least not in its totality. I have already mentioned that the introduction contains a detailed road map to the whole volume and as well as this, each of the four sections has an introduction outlining what the section sets out to show and a conclusion neatly summarising what has been demonstrated in the section. By reading main introduction and the introductions and conclusions to the sections a reader could absorb the essence of Rutkin’s thesis without having to work through all of the documentary proof that he produces.

In general I think that Rutkin has set standards in the historiography of medieval astrology and that his book will become a standard work on the topic, remaining one for a long time. I also think that anybody who wishes to seriously study medieval European astrology and/or medieval concepts of knowledge will have to read and digest this fundamental and important work.

I’m posting this today, having pulled it up from the back of a list of planned blog posts because today Darrel’s book is being formally presented at the University of Venice, where he is currently working in a research project, this afternoon with Monica Azzolini as one of those discussing the book and so a circle closes. I shall be there with them in spirit.





Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astrology, Uncategorized

8 responses to “The role of celestial influence in the complex structure of medieval knowledge.

  1. This is from the preface to Leibniz’ Theodicy: “This laziness is to some extent the source of the superstitious practices of fortune-tellers, which meet with just such credulity as men show towards the philosopher’s stone, because they would fain have short cuts to the attainment of happiness without trouble.”
    The idea that the practices of astrology and magic were ever accepted as scientific is totally crazy. Indeed, had it been known that Newton was a believer in the “philosophers stone” Leibniz would have won the day in his debates with Newton’s popularizers like Clarke and Voltaire.

    • It is difficult to say what “accepted as scientific” would have meant at the time (not only because the term “scientist” would coined somewhat later). It is certainly true that many scientists of the time practiced astrology, alchemy, and so on (and if we include those who were religious—essentially just another form of hocus pocus—then we are talking about almost all scientists). It was no secret, even at the time, that Newton devoted more time to pseudoscience than science (not just alchemy, but also biblical chronology and so on).

      I also fail to see what influence, even at a fake-news, ad-hominem level, Newton’s other pursuits would have had on the priority dispute.

    • @ bobarnold1953 As is so often the case your barely intelligible comment has absolutely nothing to do with the blog post to which it is attached. Perhaps in future you could actually read the posts you comment on before doing so.

  2. Todd Timberlake

    At $92 (currently, an Amazon) the price is not as hefty as a I would have feared. Your review certainly makes it seem worthwhile and I would love to have a better understanding of astrology in the period, and how it fit in with other areas of knowledge and culture (or perhaps failed to do so).

    • At $92, for a 600 page hardback, it is certainly “cheap” by Springer’s normal standards

      • Jim Harrison

        Expensive or not, I couldn’t wait for the movie and bought a copy. It’s the sort of book that’s completely unreadable unless you’re into the subject in which case it’s hard to put down. I’m even trying to read the Latin footnotes. Thanks for writing a post about it.

      • I tried to make clear in my review that this is a book for hardcode specialists. Glad that you’re enjoying it if that’s the right word 🤔

      • Jim Harrison

        Defending the ineluctable pleasures of pedantry to normal people makes me feel like a shoe fetishist trying to explain why he’s turned on by low heels. Maybe it takes an Oxford man to understand.

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