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In 1600 astrology was not clearly distinguished from
astronomy. Instead, a distinction was made between
natural astrology - describing the
motions of the stars and planets and their influence on physical
events like tides and weather; and judicial
astrology - predicting the stars' influence on human
health, fortunes, temperaments and actions.
The line between the two was often a bit fuzzy.
Seventeenth-century medicine was based on the ancient
belief that people's physical and mental condition was determined by
the balance of humors in their bodies. The four humors were blood,
phlegm, choler and melancholy, and their relative levels decided the
heat or coldness, and dryness or moisture, of the constitution.
Classical medical theorists had recommended that treatment should vary in accordance with the predominant planetary influences, and sixteenth-century physicians followed this advice.
Just as astrology and astronomy merged, so alchemy and chemistry were not clearly separated. It was widely believed that "occult forces" led to interactions between animals, vegetables, minerals and the stars. The line between science and magic was regularly blurred.
|"In those dark times,
astrologer, mathematician and conjurer were accounted the same
things; and the vulgar did verily believe him to be a conjurer …
One time being at Hom Lacy in Herefordshire … he happened to
leave his watch in the chamber window. (watches were then
rarities). The maids came in to make the bed, and hearing a
thing in a case cry Tick, Tick, Tick, presently concluded
that that was his devil, and took it by the string with the
tongs, and threw it out of the window into the moat (to drown
the devil). It so happened that the spring hung on a sprig of an
elder that grew out of the moat, and this confirmed them that
'twas the devil. So the good old gentleman got his watch again."
(Aubrey, Brief lives on Thomas Allen, 1542-1632)
|Astrology became increasingly popular during the reign of
Elizabeth and a large number of "prognostications" were printed.
Many of these were closer to almanacs
than modern horoscopes. They provided general useful information
(for example on dates, high tides, and the phases of the moon) as well as
predicting the weather for the year ahead. During the later
seventeenth century, predictions about politics were also
Astrological predictions were parodied from the earliest days, but millions were produced and sold.
|The best-selling author of astrological works was William Lilly (1602-81) whose works sold by the thousands in the mid seventeenth century.|
|"Consulting" astrologers such as Simon Forman (1552-1611) and John Booker (1603-67) made comfortable livings by advising clients on their career and marriage prospects and on the locations of missing goods and persons.|
|Maidservants figured prominently amongst astrologers' clients, but more prominent people also consulted astrologers well into the latter half of the seventeenth century. Charles II consulted Elias Ashmole (1617-92). Ashmole studied astrology and wrote on alchemy, but also laid the foundations of one of the most important scientific collections in England - the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The Leveller, Richard Overton (unusually) denied the existence of an immaterial soul, but consulted William Lilly on the prospects of the Leveller soldiers' uprising.|
|"This is the
excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in
fortune ─ often the surfeit of our own behavior ─ we make guilty
of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were
villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves,
thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance;
drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine
thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay
his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father
compounded with my mother under the dragon's tail; and my
nativity was under Ursa Major; so that it follows, I am rough
and lecherous. Tut! I should have been that I am, had the
maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing."
(King Lear 1.2)
|The basic assumption of astrology was that the stars and planets
exert an influence on the earth and everything on it. The relative
position of the stars - especially at a particularly susceptible
moment like birth - must therefore affect a person's fortunes.
(Opponents of astrology often countered that the moment of
conception - not birth - was the logical one to consider, but that
astrologers deceitfully ignored this because the moment of
conception is rarely known.)
|Aristotelian science had distinguished between the superlunary sphere (above the moon) which was fixed and perfect, and the sublunary sphere (the moon, meteors and the earth) which was mutable. The world's four elements (earth, air, fire and water) were in a continual state of flux that was partly determined by the movements of the planets and stars.|
|Earth was cold and dry, water cold and wet, air hot and wet, and fire was hot and dry; these elements were reflected and embodied in each person's humors.|
|People noticed that children of the same parents, raised in the
same home, nevertheless displayed very different personalities and
abilities: (Lacking any knowledge of DNA or genetics) it
seemed reasonable to explain this by planetary influence. (The
opponents of astrology countered that twins often enjoyed very
|Seventeenth century skies were extremely clear by modern
standards. The movements of the planets, and unusual occurrences
such as comets and supernovae, were far more noticeable than they are now.
|Astrology provided explanations in many areas of early-modern
life. These ranged from the highest level of historical "periods," to
a single individual's weaknesses, propensities, or even bad luck in
|Christian theologians condemned astrological explanations - they insisted that God's providence (not the stars) controlled the world and every person in it. Men sinned because of original sin and their own free choices (not stellar influence) and acted virtuously by God's grace (not stellar influence.)|
|Many astrologers defended themselves by insisting that they were
concerned only with natural effects, but theologians complained that
their speculations ranged far wider.
|Astrologers also argued that the influence of the stars did not
compel people to act - it only inclined
them in certain directions. Sapiens
dominabitur astris - the wise man will rule over the stars. Astrology,
was useful precisely because this is true, since there is little point in
knowing a future that is unavoidable. Astrology is useful, they said, because
it tells us what will happen if we do not take steps to prevent it. The idea
that we can avoid the outcomes that astrology predicts also made it possible
for astrologers to explain away their failures; if I predict that something
will happen to you and it does not happen, then it may well be that my
prediction was correct but that (knowingly or unknowingly) you took steps to
prevent it happening.
|Like modern therapists and psychiatrists, successful astrologers reinforced their shaky science with common sense and with research into the sort of answers their clientele wanted. Astrologers who misjudged their listeners could bring trouble on their heads by offending powerful people.|
|The legal status of astrology was unclear, but an astrologer might be prosecuted under the Acts against witchcraft of 1542 and 1563. Political predictions risked punishment for sedition or treason.|
|Unpopular astrologers risked vigilante justice. John Dee's house was ransacked by a mob in 1583 and Buckingham's astrologer ally John Lambe was stoned to death by the London rabble in 1628.|
The decline of astrology
|By the end of the seventeenth century astrology had ceased to be
respectable in educated circles, although almanacs were still
published and sold.
|The Christian Church (with a few exceptions) had opposed astrology throughout its history. The planets were named for heathen gods and the roots of Babylonian and Egyptian astrology lay in the belief that the planets were indeed gods controlling human fate.|
|Saint Augustine had been one of the first to argue that astrologers could only predict correctly by the assistance of demons.|
|After the Reformation in England, Protestant theologians linked astrology with "popish superstition," (although in fact many Protestant polemicists took their arguments against astrology directly from Catholic writers like Giovanni and Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola).|
|Calvinists particularly bridled at any suggestion that the stars,
or indeed anything other than God's providence, controlled the world.
However it was open for Protestant astrologers simply to say that
the stars were the means God chose to put his divine designs into
|Arminians, such as Peter Baro, Peter Heylyn, and William Laud, laid
less stress on divine providence than many Calvinists, and they took astrology seriously.
But then so did a number of Calvinists - like the impeccably puritan Major-General John Lambert,
and the Independent minister Hugh Peter.
|During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the clergy were far more united in their opposition to astrology than scientists were. Nevertheless, science probably played a far larger role in the decline of astrological belief. In particular, the insistence on systematic empirical investigation established standards that astrology could not meet.|
|The invention of the telescope and the observations of astronomers undermined the whole Aristotelian view of the universe, and many of the premises of astrology. The Aristotelian theory of a perfect, unchanging superlunary sphere, for example, was destroyed by the observation that the planets did not move in perfect circles, that the surface of the moon was pocked and scarred, that the sun had spots, and that comets moved far beyond (not below) the orbit of the moon.|
|After the publication of Newton's Principia, it was clear that the stars and planets acted in accordance with the same physical laws as bodies on earth.|
|The theory of "humors" was also losing credibility amongst physicians, and so the links between astrology and medicine were also abandoned.|
|Even amongst the lower classes the popularity of astrological predictions declined and sales of almanacs and prognostications decreased.|