Renaissance Science – XII

There is a popular misconception that the emergence of modern science during the Renaissance, or proto-scientific revolution as we defined it in episode V of this series, and the scientific revolution proper includes a parallel rejection of the so-called occult sciences. Nothing could be further from the truth. This period sees a massive revival of all sorts of occult studies, covering a wide spectrum, we will look at this in more details in further episodes, but today I wish to deal with astrology. It is generally acknowledged that the period we know as the Renaissance was the golden age of astrology in Europe. There are multiple reasons for this rise of interest in and practice astrology in the period from roughly fourteen hundred and the middle of the seventeenth century.

As already explained in the previous episode, one reason for the rise in the status of the mathematical sciences during the Renaissance was the rise of astrological-medicine, or iatromathematics, within school medicine, something that we will look at in more detail when discussing Renaissance medicine. This rise in iatromathematics was, naturally, also a driving force in the increasing acceptance of astrology, but it was by no means the only one. This brings us to the important fact, that whereas most people on hearing the term astrology automatically think of natal astrology (also known as genethliacal astrology), that is birth horoscopes, but this is only one branch of the discipline and often in a given context not the most important one.

As well as natal astrology and iatromathematics there are also mundane astrology, electional astrology, horary astrology, locational astrology also called astrogeography, and meteorological astrology, each of which played a significant role in the world of astrology in the Renaissance. 

Mundane astrology is the application of astrology to world affairs and world events rather than to individuals and is generally acknowledged as the oldest form of astrology.

Electional astrology is the attempt to determine the most auspicious time to stage an event or undertake a venture, or even to show that no time would be auspicious for a given event of venture. The range of events or ventures can and did include, starting a war, or staging a battle, but also peaceful activities such as launching a diplomatic mission, simply going on a journey, or planning the date for an important, i.e., political, wedding.  

Horary astrology attempts to answer questions, interrogations, posed to the astrologer by casting a horoscope at the time that question is received and understood by the astrologer. The range of possible questions is entirely open, but few would waste the time of the astrologer or incur the costs that they might levy with trivial questions.

Locational astrology assumes that geographical locations play a specific role in astrological interpretation. For example, although time and latitude are the principle initial condition for casting a horoscope, two babies born at exactly the same time on the same day but in differing locations would have differing horoscopes, even if born at the same latitude, because of the influence of the geographical location.

Meteorological astrology, or astrometeorology, is the belief that the weather is caused by the position and motion of celestial objects, and it is therefor possible to predict or forecast the weather through astrological means.  

There are also special procedures such as lots of fortune and prorogation to determine special or important events in a subjects life, too detailed for this general survey. 

Mundane, natal, electional, horary and locational astrology are all grouped together under the term judicial astrology. Iatromathematics and astrometeorology are referred to as natural astrology. Those who objected to or rejected astrology, including at times the Catholic Church, usually rejected judicial astrology but accepted natural astrology as a branch of knowledge.

Western astrology has its origins in the omen astrology of the Babylonians, which was originally purely mundane astrology. Individual horoscope astrology emerged in Babylon around the sixth century BCE, and it was this that the ancient Greeks adopted and developed further. This is basically the astrology that was still in use in Renaissance Europe. After some reluctance the Romans adopted the Greek astrology and in the second century CE Ptolemaeus produced the most comprehensive text on the philosophy and practice of astrology, his Tetrabiblos, also known in Greek as Apotelesmatiká (Ἀποτελεσματικά) “Effects”, and in Latin as Quadripartitum. It should, however, be noted that this is by no means the only astrology text from antiquity. 

With the general collapse of learning in Europe in the Early Middle Ages from the fifth century onwards, astrology disappeared along with other scholarly disciplines. It was first revived by the Arabic, Islamic culture via the Persians in the eighth century. Arabic scholars developed and expanded the Greek astrology. Astrological texts were amongst the earliest ones translated into Arabic during the big translation movement in the eighth and ninth centuries. The same was true when European scholars began translating Arabic texts into Latin in the twelfth century. They translated both Greek and Arabic texts on astrology.

The Church could have rejected Greek astrology in the High Middle Ages as it was deterministic and as such contradicted the theological principle of free will, which is fundamental to Church doctrine. However, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, who made Aristotelian philosophy acceptable to the Church also did the same for astrology reinterpreting it as contingent rather than determinist. By the thirteenth century all the forms of astrology had become established in Europe.

So, astrology in its various forms were well established in Europe in the High Middle Ages. This raises the question, why did it flourish and bloom during the Renaissance? As already stated above it was not just the rise of iatromathematics although this was a contributary factor.

One factor was the rise of the court astrologer, as a member of the retinue serving the ruler at court. Several Roman emperors had employed court astrologers, but the practice re-entered Europe in the Middle Ages via the Islamic culture. The Abbasid Caliphs, who started the major translation movement of Greek knowledge into Arabic, adopted the practice of employing a court astrologer from the Persians. In the Middle Ages, one of the first European potentates to adopt the practice was the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II (1194–1250), whose court was on the island of Sicily an exchange hub between North African Arabic-Islamic and European cultures. Frederick was a scholar, who not only traded goods with his Islamic neighbours but also knowledge. Following the Abbasid example, he installed an astrologer in his court. Both the prominent astrologers Michael Scot (1175–c. 1232) and Guido Bonatti (c. 1210–c. 1300) served in this function. The fashion spread and by the fifteenth century almost all rulers in Europe employed a court astrologer, either as a direct employee at court or when employed elsewhere on a consultant basis. The role of the court astrologer was that of a political advisor and whilst casting birth horoscopes, their main activities were in electional and horary astrology. Many notable mathematicians and astronomers served as court astrologers including Johannes Regiomontanus (1436–1476), Georg von Peuerbach (1423–1461), Peter Apian (1495–1552), Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), Michael Mästlin (1550–1631), and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630).

The upper echelons were thus firmly anchored in an astrological culture but what of the masses? Here, an important factor was the invention of movable type printing. This, of course, meant that the major Greek and Arabic astrological volumes became available in printed form. Ptolemaeus’ Tetrabiblos, translated from Arabic into Latin in the twelfth century, was first printed and published in Venice by Erhard Ratdolt (1442–1528) in 1484. However, much more important for the dissemination and popularisation of astrology were the astrological ephemera that began to appear from the very beginning of the age of print–wall calendars, prognostica, writing calendars and almanacs. The wall calendars, and Guttenberg printed a wall calendar to help finance the printing of his Bible, and writing calendars were a product of the iatromathematics, whereas the prognostica and almanacs dealt with astrometeorology and mundane astrology. These ephemera were comparatively cheap and were produced in print runs that often ran into the tens of thousands, making them very profitable for printer-publishers. Often containing editorial sections, the prognostica and almanacs came in a way to fulfil the function of the tabloid press today. For most households the annual almanac was the only print item that the purchased, apart perhaps from a Bible. 

But what of the Humanist Renaissance, did its basic philosophy or principles play a role in the rise of astrology? The answer is yes, very much so. Although the Tetrabiblos was translated into Latin comparatively early, the majority of important astrological texts in the Middle Ages were Arabic ones and these also found their way early into print editions. This circumstance kicked off a back to Greek purity–remove the Arabic influence debate amongst Renaissance astrologers. The humanists insisted that the only permissible astrological methods were those found in the Tetrabiblos and anything else was Arabic corruption. This meant they wanted to eliminate elections and interrogations, which Ptolemaeus does not deal with. Ironical both practices came into Arabic astrology via Persian astrology from Greek astrology that was older than Ptolemaeus’ work.

We don’t need to discuss the details of this debate but leading scholars, and the astrologers were leading mathematicians, astronomers and physicians were exchanging theoretical broadsides in print over decades. This, of course, raised the public perception and awareness of astrology and contributed to the Renaissance rise in astrology.

The Renaissance surge in astrology held well into the seventeenth century. With the notable exception of Copernicus, who apparently had little interest in astrology, all of the astronomers, who contributed to the so-called astronomical revolution including Tycho, Kepler and Galileo were practicing astrologers. Later in the seventeenth century, astrology went into decline but we don’t need to address that here.

8 Comments

Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astrology, Renaissance Science

8 responses to “Renaissance Science – XII

  1. What I find fascinating is that the professor of astrology/astronomy at any medieval university that taught the subject, typically was a physician. The teaching of medicine assumed the teaching of astrology as early as the thirteenth century. Nancy Siraisi makes this clear in her work on Taddeo Alderotti. David Gentilcore makes this point in his Healers and Healing in Early Modern Italy. Earlier, Lynn White ‘Medical Astrologers and Late Medieval Technology’ Viator 6 (1975): 295-308 does the same. Natural science of any sort was the property of the physician, and we find this illustrated by the Latin term ‘physicus’.

  2. Akiva Bacovcin

    Interesting! Coming from a background in ancient history, astrology in Mesopotamia and Rome was AFAICT a undetachable part of a general system of divination that saw (the potential for) omens in most celestial and earthly events from bird flights to sacrificial animal liver spots to the behaviour of ants. Does the rest of the traditional divination systems also receive a Renaissance with the Humanists? If not, what was special about astrology that made it more plausible/acceptable than for example haurospicy.

    • Babylonian omen astrology was certainly a complex system that involved many phenomena that were not celestial, whereas the Greek astrology that developed out of it was strictly celestial.

      The Romans adopted Greek astrology, but regarded it as one system of divination amongst several, which were then consulted parallel to each other.

      In medieval Europe there were also multiple systems of divination but they tended to be consulted independently of each other. This was also the case in the Renaissance; above all astrology was regarded as a science whereas other systems of divination weren’t.

      • An excellent observation. If we remember that the purpose of medieval astrology was much less about prognostication (which was on shaky ground in Christian theology) and much more about answering questions like ‘why me? why now?’, then the importance of this observation becomes clearer, and reminds me (of course) of the importance of medicine in this debate.
        The contribution of the Hippocratic physicians was to fly in the face of those who postulated ‘supernatural’ causes of disease and argue that every disease (with one or two exceptions) had a *natural* cause. The physician, as a student of nature, could figure out what this cause was by studying the physical world. Astrology was one of the ways this could be done, because as everybody knew, the heavens had an influence on the world below.
        The natural cause of disease could be unfortunate conjunctions, evil smells released by earthquakes, eating unsuitable food, on and on. Most of this is scientific nonsense by our standards, but in a medical marketplace before science, it was the learned physician’s biggest appeal: It didn’t rely on the closeness of a healer to the secrets of the gods, but on what could be openly taught, sort of like accounting or the laws.
        Divination remained enormously popular on every level of society, as did what we would call magic. But astrology, above all, told an individual what their place was in the created world. This was cool and in the end really caught on.
        G.E.R. Lloyd is the best source on the natural cause of disease and Harold Cook on the medical marketplace. Everybody will have their favorite. Thanks Thony for opening up such an interesting subject.

  3. sntx

    While reading this interesting post, I couldn’t help but think how Economics now occupies roughly this niche in the contemporary world.

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