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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.


"Astrol'gy shows the stars effects and force,
Astronomy, their measure, motions, course,
And though this hath its being from the other,
I like the daughter — love who will the mother."

(Nicholas Billingsley 1633-1709)

By the later seventeenth century, modern terminology was coming into use.



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.
A person's temperament was decided by which humor was predominant:


The melancholic was cold and dry - clever but unstable.


The choleric was hot and dry - sharp and fickle.


The sanguine was hot and wet - happy, impatient and unreliable.


The phlegmatic was cold and wet - slow and stupid.


" …Choler first hotly claimed right by her mother,
Who had precedency of all the other:
But Sanguine did disdain what she required,
Pleading her self was most of all desired.
Proud Melancholy more envious then the rest,
The second, third or last could not digest.
She was the silentest of all the four,
Her wisdom spake not much, but thought the more.
Mild Phlegm did not contest for chiefest place,
Only she craved to have a vacant space.
Well, thus they parle and chide; but to be brief,
Or will they, nil they, Choler will be chief.
They seeing her impetuosity
At present yielded to necessity."

(Anne Bradstreet 1612-72)


These humors were influenced by stellar forces. The moon, for example, affected all moist bodies - not only moving the tides but increasing susceptibility to madness (lunacy). Mars increased choler and Saturn increased melancholy.

Domenico Feti, Melancholy (1620)



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)


Astrological predictions

bulletAstrology 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 increasingly included.
Astrological predictions were parodied from the earliest days, but millions were produced and sold.


John Dee A Letter (1603)

Astrology was taken perfectly seriously by educated men in the later sixteenth century. John Dee drew up astrological predictions for Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.


bulletThe best-selling author of astrological works was William Lilly (1602-81) whose works sold by the thousands in the mid seventeenth century.
bullet"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.
bulletMaidservants 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)


Astrology's foundations

bulletThe 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.)


Astrologers "found their judgment upon the hour in which one is born. But I say contrariwise that the hour of the generation is more to be considered, the which for the most part is unknown, for the mother hath not always a time certain wherein she should bring forth her child"

(Calvin Admonicion against astrology, 1561)


During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, notions of macrocosm and microcosm were widely accepted - i.e. many people believed that the same patterns are to be found in the human body (microcosm) on a small scale, as are found in the natural universe as a whole (macrocosm.)

"Verily I am persuaded there are no material human accidents continging in this world, which are not significantly wrote in the face of heaven" 

(Lilly, Anglicus: Or, An ephemeris for 1646)


bulletAristotelian 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.
bulletEarth 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.

bulletPeople 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 different fortunes.)

"It is the stars,
The stars above us, govern our conditions;
Else one self mate and mate could not beget
Such different issues"

(King Lear 4.3)


bulletSeventeenth 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.

"In February 1652, there was a great eclipse of the sun about 9 hours in the forenoon on a Monday; the earth was much darkened, the like, as thought by astrologers, was not since the darkness at our Lord’s passion. The country people tilling, loosed their ploughs, and thought it had been the latter day [i.e. day of the last judgment]."
"Tis thought the king is dead; we will not stay.
The bay-trees in our country are all wither'd
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth
And lean-look'd prophets whisper fearful change;
Rich men look sad and ruffians dance and leap,
The one in fear to lose what they enjoy,
The other to enjoy by rage and war:
These signs forerun the death or fall of kings."

(Richard II 2.4)



Astrology's social functions

bulletAstrology 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 love.

"Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date"

(Sonnet 14)


bulletChristian 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.)
bulletMany astrologers defended themselves by insisting that they were concerned only with natural effects, but theologians complained that their speculations ranged far wider.

"If astrology stayed itself in this, to foretell the natural humors or their effects, which shall be in such plants and bodies as are somewhat governed by planets; it might seem to have some likelihood. But with this they meddle little or nothing; their curiosity is about men’s fortunes"

(Carleton ASTROLOGOMANIA: The Madnesse of Astrologers, 1624)


bulletAstrologers 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, they said, 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. 

"Farther we say, that if their predictions or prognostications be true, then they are of necessity; and if of necessity they cannot be avoided, and if they cannot be avoided, they are known in vain: for to what end should we know things so before, if we cannot prevent and avoid them?"

(Chamber Treatise against judicial astrology 1601)


bulletLike 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.
bulletThe 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.
bulletUnpopular 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

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)


bulletBy the end of the seventeenth century astrology had ceased to be respectable in educated circles, although almanacs were still published and sold.


Jonathan Swift published a parody of Isaac Partridge's almanac, mocking the vagueness and unreliability of typical astrological predictions.

Swift's prediction of Partridge's death was the first stage of an elaborate practical joke at the astrologer's expense.


bulletThe 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.
bulletSaint Augustine had been one of the first to argue that astrologers could only predict correctly by the assistance of demons.
bulletAfter 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).
bulletCalvinists 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 effect.

"For so opinionate are some, without all judgment and reason, that except they rob the heavenly bodies of all virtue, they vainly account God robbed of his divine providence, … As if they might not know, that the providence of God in the ordinary government of the world, doth as well shine in disposing the means, as in ordaining the end."

(Heydon,  A Defence of Iudiciall Astrologie 1603)


bulletArminians, 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.


Sir John Cheke (1514-57)

A number of preachers against astrology told the story of the early Protestant Reformer, Sir John Cheke, who consulted his stars before making a journey to Brussels in 1556, only to be snatched there by Queen Mary's agents and brought back to the Tower of London.


bulletDuring 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.
bulletThe 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.
bulletAfter 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.
bulletThe theory of "humors" was also losing credibility amongst physicians, and so the links between astrology and medicine were also abandoned.
bulletEven amongst the lower classes the popularity of astrological  predictions declined and sales of almanacs and prognostications decreased.



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