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The difficulty about tracing the development of astrology is the enormous amount of evidence to be sifted. As one 20th-century writer, Don Cameron Allen, has put it, 'The literature of astrology is as vast as the history of man. No one scholar can possibly hope to untangle all of its intricately woven strands.' (The Star-crossed Renaissance, 1941).
Mr Allen was thinking in the main of books on the theory and practice of the subject, of 'theological' arguments; but from the 14th century onwards, there is a proliferation of comments and allusions in non-astrological literature, which has been seized upon by adherents and antagonists alike, as though to produce evidence that Dante or Shakespeare or Chaucer were 'believers' or not was to add something to the argument. Nevertheless, authors' use of astrology in their work is of enormous value, for it tells us about the general public's varied views on the subject.
It is difficult to discover, from a fictional work, the attitude towards astrology of its author; the old trap of attributing to a writer the opinions held by his characters yawns wide, and has swallowed many. And even if a writer seems to be unequivocally speaking in his own voice, there may be doubt about his motives - especially if he contradicts himself. The French poet Eustache Deschamps (c 1338-1415), for instance, wrote two ballades in which he claims that but for free will man would be completely controlled by the stars. Yet elsewhere (in his Demonstracions contre sortileges) he inveighs against all sorts of divination, and makes free use of the arguments of Nicole Oresme, an opponent of astrology (of whom more later).
With Boccaccio (1313-75) as with his acquaintance, Chaucer, we come to a man whose use of astrology in his work seems as good a mirror of the general view as we are likely to find. His attitude is rather that of the serious astrologers of later generations: that is, when he says that Mars and Venus map out, in a horoscope, the sexual disposition of its subject, he is not saying that those planets actually provoke passion, but that through their positions at the time of birth they influence the subject's attitude to love. It would be difficult to claim Boccaccio as a proselytizer of astrology, but it certainly could not be claimed that he was a serious opponent.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) had clearly read the work of Boethius, and while in the Inferno he condemns some astrologers, in the Paradiso he positively celebrated astrology as the interpreter of the will of God. Even in the Inferno Dante admits that the planets may make man act ('Lo cielo i vostri movimenti inizia'), while underlining the fact that from that moment of action he is on his own. He also believed that it was the positions of the planets that make children different from their parents, adding to inherited factors a new set of personality traits and inclinations.
Piers Plowman, for many people today the earliest accessible English poem, written by William Langland some time between 1360 and 1399, has in the earliest of its versions a sideswipe at astrology as 'evil for to know'; but the third version betrays a clear belief in the influence of the planets. It has sometimes been suggested that the slighting earlier reference was cut because of the general popularity of astrology and Langland's desire to popularize his poem. A contemporary author, John Barbour, in his 1275 poem about Robert the Bruce, mistrusts astrology on religious grounds, but on the other hand admits that the constellations can incline a man to good or evil, and that an astrologer can tell a man's character from the positions of the planets at the time of his birth.
But it is with Chaucer (c 1345-1400) that we come to the first English writer whose work is from beginning to end shot through with astrology. It is possible to argue that he made use of the subject as a selling point, as a popular ingredient in The Canterbury Tales; but this is not a persuasive point of view. It is much more likely that he spoke of astrological elements in the characters in his poem for the very good reason that he saw them as integral, and knew that by referring to them he made those characters more real, made their actions more credible. Which is not to say that he was an astrologer, as some have claimed, or that he was a superstitious fool, which a total acceptance of all the claims of astrology would have made him.
The Canterbury Tales (I use Nevill Coghill's modern 'translation' throughout) both opens and closes with an astrological reference: the Prologue announces that the pilgrimage begins when
the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run
and at the end of the poem, in The Parson's Prologue, the pilgrims approach the end of their journey as
the power of Saturn
Began to rise with Libra ...
More use is made of astrology in some of the Tales than others. The Parson's Prologue has that one brief reference, but in The Knight's Tale, astrology has a crucial effect on the characters: there is a positive astrological dispute when Arcite and Palamon both ask for victory in a fight, and Arcite is promised it.
Immediately an uproar was begun
Over this granted boon in Heaven above
As between Venus, fairest Queen of Love,
And the omnipotent Mars; it did not cease
Though Jupiter was busy making peace,
Until their father Saturn, pale and cold,
Who knew so many stratagems of old,
Searched his experience and found an art
To please the disputants on either part ...
'My dearest daughter Venus,' said old Saturn,
'My heavenly orbit marks so wide a pattern
It has more power than anyone can know;
In the wan sea I drown and overthrow,
Mine is the prisoner in the darkling pit,
Mine are both neck and noose that strangles it,
Mine the rebellion of the serfs astir,
The murmurings, the privy poisoner;
And I do vengeance, I send punishment,
And when I am in Leo it is sent ...
In The Man of Law's Tale we see an actual horoscope at work; the heroine has agreed to an arranged marriage, but the Man of Law sees that a horoscope drawn up for the moment of departure from home for her wedding reveals an unhappy future:
First cause of motion, cruel firmament,
Driving the stars with thy diurnal sway
And hurling all from east to occident
That naturally would take another way,
Thy crowding force set heaven in such array
That this her first, fierce journey must miscarry
And Mars will sway this marriage, if she marry.
O thou unfortunate oblique degree
Of the Ecliptic, whence the cadent Mars,
Thrust from his proper angle, helplessly
Falls into Scorpio, darkest house of stars!
O lord of war, whose influence debars
All hope! O feeble Luna, vainly knit
To him, thrust forth from where thou shouldest sit!
And O imprudent Emperor of Rome,
Is one time like another in such case?
Haddest thou no astrologer at home
To choose the favourable time and place
Nevill Coghill has taken certain liberties in translation, introducing the sign of Scorpio into the second verse I quote, for example. In the original this verse begins
Infortunat ascendent tortuos,
Of which the lord is helplees falle, alas,
Out of his angle into the derkeste hous!...
This seems to mean that the Ascendant, or sign rising over the eastern horizon at the moment for which the horoscope is cast, is an unfortunate one. Since Chaucer refers to Mars, and it has a special influence when in Aries, it seems likely that that was the Ascendant. Coghill was presumably advised to bring Scorpio in because that is the sign allied to the eighth house, the house of death (traditionally also ruled by Mars). The Moon (Luna, in the Coghill version) is either in conjunction with or in aspect to Mars, the 'wicked' planet.
Versifying an astrological chart is unlikely to add to its clarity, but any astrologer reading the verses would agree that poor Custance is unlikely to enjoy a happy wedding, and indeed as it turns out she not only fails to get married at all, but just escapes massacre.
This is not the place for a detailed analysis of all the astrological allusions in The Canterbury Tales, but we cannot ignore the most famous, which occur in The Wife of Bath's Tale. Again, much play is made with the horoscope - this time the natal horoscope, drawn up for the moment of birth, rather than for some other moment of time in the life of an individual. Once again the verse abbreviates and simplifies the horoscope; not surprisingly, for a full horoscope would be far too complex to versify, or even for a poet to use in contriving a character. The Wife of Bath uses her horoscope to excuse, or at least explain, her happy sexuality:
For Venus sent me feeling from the stars
And my heart's boldness came to me from Mars.
Venus gave me desire and lecherousness
And Mars my hardihood, or so I guess,
Born under Taurus and with Mars therein.
Alas, alas, that ever love was sin!
I ever followed natural inclination
Under the power of my constellation
And was unable to deny, in truth,
My chamber of Venus to a likely youth.
The mark of Mars is still upon my face
And also in another privy place.
For as I may be saved by God above,
I never used discretion when in love
But ever followed on my appetite
Whether the lad was short, long, black or white.
Little I cared, if he was fond of me,
How poor he was, or what his rank might be ...
It is a vivid enough horoscope, however sketchy. The Ascendant is Taurus, and Mars is in that sign - a placing which contributes stubbornness, a hot temper, perhaps even leading to violence, sensuousness and possessiveness. Interestingly, Boccaccio (who Chaucer knew) was told by Andalo di Negro, of Genoa, that anyone born with Mars in Taurus would be 'venereal in all things', and Abholi, an Arabian astrologer, pointed out that Mars when in a 'bad' position always portended the birth of a devious person, and that Venus allied with it would produce a garrulous, mendacious virago - a reasonable description of the Wife. She herself makes the point that Venus gives her 'desire and lecherousness', though she does not say in what position the planet was; perhaps in Scorpio?
It is amusing that she refers to Mars' mark, found upon her face and elsewhere. There was often believed to be a correspondence between the horoscope and the 'marks of the body' - indeed, William Lilly, the 17th-century astrologer, believed that the truth of astrology could be usefully proved by telling someone where 'the privy marks of the body' were to be found, after merely consulting his or her birth chart; and claimed to have done it himself.
As we will find again with Shakespeare, Chaucer was able to assume that his readers had some technical knowledge of astrology - far more than any general reader today would have; they would know what was meant by allusions to the Ascendant, to planets 'in angle', to the houses, and so on.
It is certainly open to any reader to doubt whether, just because Chaucer attributes a belief in astrology to characters in a work of fiction, he necessarily accepted the theory himself. His Treatise on the Astrolabe, written for his son (and not, of course, a work of fiction) seems to indicate that he entirely rejected judicial astrology - the astrology that claimed to be able to foretell the future. But at the same time it suggests that he considered astrologia naturalis - the astrology that claims the planets affect at least some significant areas of human life - quite another matter. May it not be significant, too, that at no point in The Canterbury Tales does he actually condemn astrology, even judicial astrology, as stupid, or wicked, or mistaken?
It would have been difficult for Chaucer to avoid taking an interest in the subject, whatever conclusions he eventually reached about it. Few thoughtful men could escape astrology, even if they wished. Petrarch, who was certainly capable of sharp gibes about superstition, and in his letters to Boccaccio was extremely caustic about indifferent astrologers, corresponded with distinguished doctors about astrological medicine, and in a letter to the Emperor Charles IV confessed (perhaps sycophantically) that long ago an astrologer had promised that he would be on familiar terms with the greatest rulers of his age. Some time after his death, an historian claimed that Petrarch was himself an astrologer, and had predicted an earthquake in Tuscany and the deaths of various great men. Unlikely. But it should at least be noted that Petrarch was far harder on alchemy, magic in general, and the power of gems, than astrology.
The death at the stake of Cecco d'Ascoli failed to dissuade any other men from the study of astrology; and in fact it is notable that that study flourished particularly among the friars of the Middle Ages (who were not only theologians, but supporters and manipulators of the Holy Inquisition). Only a few years after d'Ascoli's execution, Niccolo di Paganica, a Dominican friar, published a book on medical astrology; he may have been the astrologer who drew up the horoscope of John the Fearless, later Duke of Burgundy, at his birth in 1371. His book was to be found in Petrarch's library. Another Italian Dominican, Bishop Ugo de Castello, wrote and published a book on 'critical days' in 1358. This was particularly addressed to physicians, and argued that it was far more accurate to fix on the critical days of an illness by astrological means than simply to watch for physical symptoms, describing too how to fix the position of the Moon and interpret the planetary effects in the context of particular illnesses.
Some scholars made a special study of astrological medicine, and wrote voluminously on it. One such scholar was Gentile da Foligno, a severely practical man whose lectures and writings were influential. His work was not all astrological; he wrote about many aspects of medicine.
Much of Gentile's attention was given to the plague, of which he himself died in 1348. This was the notorious Black Death, and his essay on it was written at the commission of the University of Perugia just as it was attacking the city (Augustine of Trent had written on the same subject seven years earlier). It was, Gentile asserted, a sickness caused by certain planetary dispositions - most astrologers suspected eclipses of the Sun and Moon and conjunctions of Saturn and Mars as prime movers, especially when they occurred in one of the 'human' signs of the zodiac. The planets, then, it was suspected, produced a kind of rotting of the air which became poisonous when breathed into the lungs. Gentile made various suggestions for combating the plague, some based on hygiene, and extremely sensible; others based on perhaps less effective notions, such as the drinking of potable gold.
Andalo di Negro was another theorist of astrological medicine, suggesting how from the study of planetary positions you could tell whether a patient would or would not recover from an illness, what the cause of that illness was, the best times to administer laxatives, for bleeding, operating, and so on, and even suggesting, for the lay reader, the means of discovering whether the doctor attending a patient was experienced and honest, or even whether though of an evil nature he might be likely to do the patient good by accident! Interestingly enough, Andalo admits that the patient's horoscope is not likely to be helpful, because it is extremely unlikely to be accurate (the difficulty of finding out the birth time of an ordinary, undistinguished member of the general public was almost insuperable). Boccaccio thought him a splendid man, and complimented him on his grave deportment and vast knowledge of the stars, who 'since he has travelled almost the whole surface of the earth, gaining experience in every climate and under every horizon, knew by direct vision what we can only learn from gossip.'
Geoffrey of Meaux is said to have predicted the approach of the Black Death (although to be fair there is no actual record of this), allegedly connecting it to the appearance of a notable comet in 1315, another in 1337, and a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 1325. He was obviously a man of some reputation - he is named as one of the six physicians who attended Charles IV at his coronation in 1326, magnificently clothed in fine furs at the king's expense, and taking precedence over the six surgeons who attended.
Geoffrey seems to have worked for some time at Oxford, for it is from there that he dates a work on the causes of the Black Death (in which, among other things, he suggests that because there were at the time few stars of magnitude in the sign Aquarius, the plague attacked the peasantry rather more violently than the nobility). In his work on the comet of 1337, he points out that it was generated by Mars and Saturn in Gemini, and therefore signalled infections of the blood, which suggested (since Gemini was involved) an epidemic of some kind, perhaps particularly affecting rulers and the clergy.
He gave special attention to the contagious elements of the plague, why it should attack some people and not others, why rage in one street and leave another unscathed. This was, of course, nothing to do with hygiene, but could be explained entirely by a study of the planets. As for remedy, he advised people to keep warm, not to eat or drink too much, and to encourage liberal perspiration two or three times a week. A patient could be rubbed down with a solution of linseed and camomile cooked in wine, and given spiced brandy. There is one extremely sensible piece of advice: 'Everyone should avoid standing or talking for any length of time with anybody who has the sickness, for it is contagious, poisonous and deadly in every way'.
Another strong adherent of astrological medicine was the remarkable Guy de Chauliac, born at the turn of the century, an ordinary peasant boy taken up by the local nobility and given an education. He became a canon and provost of St Just at Lyons, and physician to three Popes: Clement VI, Innocent VI and Urban V. While serving them in their palace at Avignon, he met and became a friend of Petrarch. His interest in medicine was compulsive, and among his writings is one of the most comprehensive treatises on surgery to have survived from his time. Much of his work was sound and original (he was the first surgeon we know to have used a catheter to diagnose stone in the bladder).
He, like Geoffrey, ascribed the Black Death to the 1345 conjunction of the three superior planets in Aquarius, entirely accepted the connection between various zodiacal signs and certain areas of the body, advised the use of the planets to time the administration of purgatives or bleeding, noted 'critical days', and produced such astrological aphorisms as 'A wound in the neck while the Moon is in Taurus will always be dangerous'!
Another use of astrology emphasized in the 1300s and 1400s was in weather forecasting. The meteorologists of the Middle Ages observed astronomical tables rather than barometric pressure; with agriculture playing so important a part in national economies, it was natural that astrologers should turn their attention to weather forecasting - the prediction of fine weather, storms, rain or flood. One of the earliest English astrological meteorologists was one Robert of York, a friar who lived in the first half of the 14th century (he may have died of the plague in 1345).
Robert seems to have published, at York in 1325, a work on weather prediction into which a great deal of original thought had gone; after a long preamble about the nature of the four elements and their relationship to terrestrial weather, he provides rules for predicting rain, frost, hail, snow, thunder, wind and tides, and for good measure earthquake, pestilence, wars and rebellions.
William Merlee, or Morley, a fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and a Lincolnshire rector (who died in 1347) was not only an astrological weather forecaster, but is the first Englishman of whom we hear who kept a detailed record of the weather (over seven years). Using these records, he compiled a discourse on meteorology which went into twelve chapters, in which he not only discusses the signs of good or bad weather but interprets them. It is an intensely empirical work, and Merlee makes use not only of his own observations, but those of farmers, seamen, and others depending on the weather. At least one continental European produced a parallel study: Enno of Wurzburg published a very similar work during which he shows how he was able to forecast heavy snows, storms, high winds and other phenomena.
General astrological work continued at all levels: at the highest, Leo Hebreus made predictions for Pope Benedict XII and for Clement VI, and John de Murs was commissioned by the latter to produce an astrological calendar, and allegedly forecast the Pope's death in 1352. De Murs was a considerable astronomer, and agitated for calendar reform.
In England, John Eschenden (we choose, arbitrarily, one of at least fourteen alternative spellings of his name) produced a number of astrological works which are close to the almanacs that were to proliferate in the 16th century and later: he forecast such general results of astronomical activity that almost anything that happened could be verified by reference to his work. For instance, as a result of the total eclipse of the Moon of 20 March 1345, and the conjunction of the three superior planets - which according to Geoffrey of Meaux and Guy de Chauliac signalled the approach of the plague - Eschenden predicted diseases for men and beasts, death and many wars, cold, rain and snow, violent winds, rotten-ness in the air, worm-eaten crops, the sickness of domestic beasts, the birth of several men of genius, ill behaviour within the Church, wind and thunder, robberies, shipwrecks, drought, arson, great heat, thunderbolts and 'much cold and heat in their seasons'.
Apart from all this, serious theological argument continued, if not at very high pressure. The most notable English participant was Thomas Bradwardine (c 1290-I349), known as 'the profound doctor', Chancellor of Oxford University and Professor of Divinity, chaplain and confessor to Edward III, and in 1349 Archbishop of Canterbury (though he died only a month after his consecration).
In Be causa Dei, Bradwardine advanced all the well-tried objections to astrology (more or less recapitulated from Augustine and other early authorities). But once having made it quite clear where he stood on fatalism, he put up a rather spectacular defence of astrology, totally approving Ptolemy's approach to the subject, and suggesting that it is a positive Christian duty to consider the effect the planets have on man's character, and to foster the good traits they have implanted while suppressing the evil ones. He gives the example of a merchant he once met, who confessed to him that the planets at the time of his birth indicated homosexual lust. But by application, he had overcome this. Bradwardine also quotes from a work attributed to Aristotle which told of Hippocrates visiting a physiognomist, being told that his face was that of a wanton deceiver, and admitting that he had perceived these traits in himself through a study of his horoscope, and had stifled them. Summing up, Bradwardine suggests that all theologians should study astrology, the science of celestial things and therefore the science closest to God.
This was by no means the unanimous view of all theologians. John Wycliffe (c 1320-84), the man who instituted the first complete English translation of the Bible, studied astrology quite closely, and apparently came to the conclusion that it was unimportant rather than positively evil. When he spoke of it, as he did in his sermons, it was as a subject which was futile; it was a waste of time for friars to study 'vain sophystry and astronomy' rather than the Bible - although it must be said that his arguments, which include an attack on astrologers for not being able to explain whether angels regulated the movements of the planets, and the accusation that Joshua's causing the Sun to stand still in the sky made a nonsense of the whole astrological theory, are not of the keenest.
A much more coherent, dangerous opponent of astrology was Nicole Oresme, a theological student from Paris who became head of the College of Navarre, and was at his death Bishop of Lisieux. He seems to have been particularly concerned at the too great reliance placed on astrology and divination by princes, though he was far from condemning the whole idea of astrology. In one short treatise he seems to be trying to prove that on the whole those princes much devoted to astrology were unfortunate in their lives; but in the same essay he carefully discriminates between 'good' and 'bad' astrology. Most opponents repeated (and still repeat) the old anti-astrological arguments. Oresme was a little more original. He argued that as it was impossible fully to predict the movements of the planets and stars, so it was obviously impossible to use them for prediction. He claimed, not producing any great body of evidence, that the Bible condemned astrology; attacked it as an inexact and often fallacious science; and claimed that, anyway, astrologers did not know nearly enough about the effects of the planets to be able to draw any firm conclusions about them.
One point he makes very clearly would appeal to most modern astrologers: he disclaims any idea that the planets or stars could have any occult effect on man. If there is an influence, he says, it must be material - the result of light and heat, he thought. Modern astrologers would mostly say, rather, that any planetary effect is the result of some very real but so far unfathomed force (similar in nature to that of gravity), but would agree with Oresme that whatever that force is, it is certainly not occult.
He recapitulates the familiar argument about the birth of twins, the different deaths of people born at different times, and so on. As far as the mustering of a large body of argument is concerned, he seems most determined of all opponents of astrology. And yet - and this illustrates the continuing general attitude as strongly as anything - he concludes:
I say that the prince and any other person should greatly honour true students in astrology who make tables of observations and critical rules for judgements and those who know how to consider scientifically the natures of things, discriminating the true from the false,
and consents to the propositions that many of men's actions would not take place if 'the sky' did not prompt them; that astrological weather prediction was possible (if often inaccurate), that the planets seemed to influence certain general activities such as political or religious movements. He was not an easy man to fool: when he experimented with 'elections' - the setting up of a chart for the moment of time, in order to determine an action or an attitude - and failed, he complained to an astrologer, and was told that there were factors in his own horoscope which showed that he would not be good at that aspect of the subject. 'And why', he enquired tartly and with reason, 'did you not tell me that in the first place?' The fact that despite his antagonism he was forced to conclude that there were aspects of astrology deserving respect has a certain force.
Oresme's arguments were certainly familiar to his patron Charles V of France (1337-80) - Charles the Wise, as he was called - who collected a notable library at the Louvre (it became the foundation of the Bibliotèque Royale), and whose other scholarly advisers included Raoul de Presles, Philippe de Mésières and a large number of astrologers. He was not the only monarch, of course, to find the subject of interest. When King John of France came to grief at Poitiers in 1356, he spent his subsequent captivity talking with an astrologer who had been brought by the English from Bourges because his predictions were so accurate.
The whole Hundred Years War was conducted amid a cacophony of prediction and advice from astrologers. Jacques de Saint André, a canon of Tours (later to become a friend of King John) firmly predicted the victor of Cocherel in 1364; Thomelin de Turgof, an English captain, had even earlier selected du Guescim as the victor of Cocherel. Yves de Saint Branchier accompanied the Constable of France into battle, and selected the precise moment when he should launch his attacks. Jacques de Montciclat predicted the deaths of du Guesclin and King John. Charles the Wise himself employed Pierre de Valois of Coucy, who had also worked in England, and André de Sully, who forecast the battle of April 1366 in Spain and drew up the horoscopes of Charles' three sons, Charles, Louis and John.
But there are lesser astrologers whose names have not survived, who worked at a lower level among the troops, predicting the success or failure of this battle or of that; many of them just such cheapjacks as sprang up at the sign of any disaster, to predict illness, recovery, death, to the gullible who wanted to know what the future held.
Charles himself, whatever Oresme's attempts to wean him from reliance on the planets, seems to have conducted much of his private as well as his public life on the advice of his astrologers - who for instance drew up the horoscopes of himself and his fiancée before their marriage. He is known to have read Ptolemy, Albenragel, Guido Bonatti, as well as more modern writers, and founded a college for the study of astrology and astrological medicine at the University of Paris, giving it a good library, a fine collection of astronomical instruments, and several scholarships.
Of course there were occasional failures, some risible. On one occasion astrologers ordered a knight to prepare his arms for a duel at a particular moment of time which would ensure his success. He did so, only to find that at the moment when the conflict was to begin, it poured with rain, and the whole thing was called off. Well, at least he escaped death or injury, which was success of a sort.
As the 14th century ends, there is still no real sign of a diminution of the powers of astrologers. The French and English courts, the Bohemian court, the German court all relied on them to some extent, and it is difficult not to see serious attacks on them as uncharacteristic and even eccentric - except for jokes at the expense of the over-credulous; such as that of Sebastian Brant, in his Das Narrenschiff (Ship of fools), first published in 1494 in Basel. This long satirical work sees the whole world as populated by fools, and attacks dishonest cooks, crooked lawyers, jerry-builders, blasphemers, cheating tradesmen, adulterous wives, with equally splenetic vigour. Astrologers, or 'star-gazers', were among his targets (as these lines, from William Gillis's translation, illustrate):
The stars, they say, aren't independent,
Events both great and small attendant
Upon them; every flea-brain notion
Is read in each celestial motion:
What he should say and what advise.
And will his fortunes sink or rise,
His plans, his actions, well or sick
Outrageous hocus-pocus trick.
The world, which grows more stultified,
To trust in fools is satisfied.
The traffic in these divinations
Appeals to printers' inclinations;
They print as much as fools can bring,
Each shameful word dolts say or sing.
The public's failure to reprove it
Must witness that the folk approve it ...