Sunday, December 30, 2018

Questioning the Value of Astrological Predictions in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Man is a cause-seeking creature. According to American philosopher, essayist, and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The progress of the intellect is to the clearer vision of causes” (  Man’s obsession with understanding causes accounts for his advancement in every field of endeavor known to him: metaphysics, religion, politics, and science to name a few. The natural calamity of the Black Death presented a baffling occurrence that drove men to consider and offer explanations of its cause in the hopes of gaining insight and control over its effects. Some saw its cause as spiritual. Man’s own iniquities had provoked the wrath of God and repentance was called for to bring God’s forgiveness. Others conjectured that it was a matter of science. Noxious fumes were released during earthquakes and eruptions that contaminated the atmosphere and resulted in the massive loss of life witnessed during the years of the plague. Still others resorted to the conspiracy theory that the Jews had put into effect a plan to wipe out all Christians by poisoning wells and springs everywhere. One other explanation for the Black Death that seems even more ludicrous to today’s thinkers is that the cause was astrological. Although to medieval man, it did not necessarily appear to be an absurd hypothesis since astrology was routinely taught at the finest universities of their day, modern textbooks immediately discount that explanation as useless. When the King of France, King Philip VI, requested the opinion of the medical faculty of the University of Paris as to the causes of the plague, Spielvogel does not even elaborate on the answer provided by the medical faculty but merely states “their advice proved worthless” (Spielvogel 328). The actual response of the University of Paris was that the cause of the Black Death was due to the Mars-Jupiter-Saturn conjunction of March 20, 1345 (Classical But was the medical faculty’s response as worthless as it is portrayed by modern thinkers? Were there any reasons to seriously consider planetary influence as a causal factor in the plague and in other catastrophes, cataclysms and upheavals? By considering the prognostic value of astrological phenomena, the Church’s allowance of certain kinds of astrology, and the fulfillment of astrological predictions, it will become clear if it appeared reasonable to learned men of the time to consider astrological explanations as a candidate for explaining earthly events.

By prognostic value, two things are meant (Sepharial 5). The first of these is that the planetary phenomena such as the alignments that are continuously formed among the heavenly bodies and that make up the heart of the astrological method can be calculated in advance. These planetary cycles recur at regular intervals and thus can be observed again and again. The idea of the repeatability of planetary alignments brought with it the possibility of verifiability and falsifiability so that repeated observations of the same phenomena tended to fine tune the astrologers’ understanding of what to expect and to confirm the general effects of the cycles. As an older astrological author noted, “Watching for coincidences is a necessary process of scientific discovery; and coincidences between astronomic and atmospheric phenomena should be observed and noted…the observation of sufficient coincidences in number may justify the acceptance of an empirical law according to which we may, with approximate safety, predict that when one of the events happens, the other will accompany or follow” (McCormack 12.03). Important cycles were solar and lunar eclipses such as the eighteen-year saros cycle and the nineteen-year metonic cycle. Another key planetary cycle was the twenty-year great mutation cycle of Jupiter and Saturn.

The second meaning of prognostic value pertains to the celestial position in which planetary alignments occur and the mundane locality in which they are witnessed. Regarding the first of these, each section of the heavens, commonly referred to as a sign or constellation, had a different influence on human affairs. Taurus, for example, affected business among other things, while Sagittarius affected horses and cattle etc. (Pearce 324). Each planet as well ruled over some aspect of life, weather, and international relationships to mention a few. Therefore, planetary alignments were not all interpreted in the same way since they involved different planets and different constellations. As far as mundane locality goes, this refers to the different localities on earth that would be affected by the astronomical event in question. The time at which a certain planetary alignment occurred would place those planets over a certain area of the globe thus localizing their influence over that region. This fact would explain why only certain areas were subject to the alignment and not others. The prognostic value of the astrological system provided an orderly way of understanding the world for the people of this period especially after a time of much chaos, confusion, and uncertainty during the early Middle Ages. Note that the understanding of these medieval and later astrologers was very different than the stereotypical caricature often painted of the astrologers’ understanding of eclipses, which was often treated as “a relic of the superstitious dread of barbarians who feared that ‘the dragon’ was about to swallow the darkened luminary, and accordingly beat drums and made horrible noises in order to frighten away the adversary (Pearce 314).”

Another influence that had brought order to society during the emergence of the Medieval world was the Christian church. As the official Roman state disintegrated, the church filled the void and played an increasingly important role. The Church, however, had a love-hate relationship with astrology. Church Fathers such as Augustine and Origen took issue with some forms of astrology because they felt it challenged human freedom and the power of God’s will--important concepts in Christianity (Johnson 4).

Yet, Thomas Aquinas made a distinction between what was allowable and unallowable with astrology. In his treatment of the question regarding whether divination by the stars was unlawful, Aquinas opined that to use astrology to know the” certitude of future human actions” was an unlawful use of astrology and thus superstitious and unlawful divination since it discounted human free will. Nevertheless, “to apply the observation of the stars in order to foreknow those future things that are caused by heavenly bodies, for instance, drought or rain and so forth, it will be neither an unlawful nor a superstitious divination (Aquinas). The Christian worldview was probably the best worldview through which to understand planetary influence since there would be less reason to consider the planets as gods in their own right and just to view them as a part of creation not to be worshipped or adored. This permissible area of astrological use is today referred to as mundane astrology. This is the branch of astrology dealing with the influence of the stars and planets on nations, cities, agriculture, war, epidemics etc.

Additionally, the Bible seems to use language that sounds astrological in nature. Scholars refer to such language as “apocalyptic imagery.” We find in Matthew 24:29 that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken (Holy Bible). According to Rebecca Johnson, these accounts mention astrology only incidentally, but they reveal the idea “that the planets were in some way responsible for events on earth (Johnson 1).” Furthermore, she points out that this was the understanding of the intellectual elite at the time of the Black Death.

So far it has been pointed out that the prognostic value of the astrological method provided an orderly system that allowed logical conclusions to be deduced from natural phenomena. The events would vary in nature, in the time of their occurrence, and in locality all according to certain astrological influences. In addition, the Church considered the prognostication of mundane events through astrology as permissible. But were the predictions of any value?

Skeptics and critics are quick to highlight failed astrological predictions as if these were the only kind astrologers make. One such popular one was the deluge of February 1, 1524 that failed to materialize and was rescheduled for February 1, 1624. No deluge occurred then either (Randi). But one must survey a representative sample objectively to come to a fair conclusion. One could easily pick the most embarrassing weather forecasts of our conventional meteorologists and erroneously conclude that the effectiveness of our present-day forecasts is worse than it is. For example, over a million Florida residents were told to evacuate coastal areas as Hurricane Floyd approached the peninsula in September of 1999. Floyd never hit Florida (, and in 2009, Britain’s Met Office were left red faced as their predictions for a “barbecue summer” turned into a literal wash out (Met Office).

Following are some of the astrological predictions underreported in modern literature but well-known during their time. Tycho Brahe, the brilliant Danish astronomer, was quite famous for his astrology as well. His astrological interpretation of the supernova of November 1572 coupled with the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn around the same time was published in two volumes. The Dane foretold of the decline of the Catholic religion and the rise of a great Protestant soldier and humanitarian who would die a violent death in 1632. The life of Gustavus Aldophus fit the description so well that it cemented Brahe’s reputation as Europe’s leading astronomer (Plant; Goodagve 52).

Following close on Brahe’s heels and influenced by him, astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler was an ardent practitioner of astrology. Kepler is remembered for his discovery of the planetary laws of motion which he began publishing in 1609. But Kepler’s first brush with fame came because of his astro-meteorological prediction of the winter that put Styermark, Austria on ice in 1593. In the same prediction, he foretold of the revolutionary disturbances of the Austrian peasantry (Goodavage 54). Kepler while in Prague had a following among the lower classes. His biographer, Max Caspar, relates that 15 days in advance, Kepler told the local populace that there would be wind and rain on a certain day. A fierce gale set in when the day arrived, and the people, amazed, wondered what was happening. “Then the cry grew loud, “Kepler comes. Kepler comes” (Kollerstrom).

William Lilly, England’s most famous astrologer during the time of Charles I and England’s Civil War, was even consulted several times by Charles, but the astrologer lamented that the king would not follow his advice (Lilly 5). Lilly’s most celebrated prediction, however, was published in his book in 1651 entitled Monarchy or No Monarchy. The book contained several drawings alluding to the plague and Great Fire of London which took place in 1666. Lilly was summoned that year before an investigative committee after the conflagration because it was understood that he had hinted at such things in his book of 1651. His prediction was too close for comfort, and the committee wanted to know if he had any further involvement or knowledge of who brought it about – which he did not.

Commander Morrison of the Royal Navy, writing under the pen name Zadkiel I, followed the lead of the older astrologers of the Middle Ages and made numerous predictions regarding famine and disease such as the Irish potato famine in his Alamac of 1846 published the year before (McCormack 10:09), his prediction of the fatal outbreak of cholera in Great Britain in 1849 and another occurrence again in 1853-4. (Pearce 391) While astrology has always had its detractors, it can at least be seen that its track record was not nearly as abysmal as thought to be in modern times.

Having looked at the prognostic value of astrological phenomena, the Church’s allowance of certain kinds of astrology, and the fulfillment of astrological predictions, it is now somewhat clearer that it appeared reasonable to learned men of the time to consider astrological explanations as a candidate for explaining earthly events and that they were not as worthless as is often portrayed. The prognostic value of astrology lay in the repeatability of planetary alignments as well as the celestial and mundane positions of those alignments that provided a system of prediction that varied the type and place of events. The Church permitted its followers to engage in certain kinds of astrology, and astrological language in scripture hinted that planetary influence is in part a cause of earthly events. Finally, it is apparent that many predictions of that period and beyond were, in fact, accurate and reliable giving good reason to not completely dismiss astrology’s value. One might take the position that Kepler took when his benefactor asked him how a man of his intelligence could believe in astrology. Kepler replied, “As a Lutheran astrologer, I retain the substance but discard the nonsense” (Today in Science).

Works Cited Ralph Waldo Emerson History. https://www.age-of-the- Accessed December 1, 2018.

Aquinas, Thomas. “Question 95. Superstition in Divinations.” CATHOLIC LIBRARY: Sublimus Dei (1537), Kevin Knight, 2017, Accessed December 4, 2018.          

Classical Astrology of the Bubonic Plague. Accessed December 3, 2018.

Goodavge, Joseph F. Astrology: The Space Age Science. New York, Signet Books, 1967.

Holy Bible. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Oxford UP, 2001.

Johnson, Rebecca. “From Sin to Science: Astrological Explanations for the Black Death, 1347-1350.” Ex Post Facto Volume XVIII. 2009: 1-16. Web. December 2, 2018.

Kollerstrom, Nicholas. “Kepler’s Belief in Astrology.” Accessed December 3, 2018.

Lilly, William. An Introduction to Astrology. London, George Bell & Sons, 1901.

McCormack, George J. Astrotech Weather Guide. Fair Lawn, privately printed by author, 1947.

“Met Office left red faced.” Daily Mail, July 30, 2009, Accessed Dec 7, 2018.

Pearce, Alfred John. The Text-Book of Astrology. Washington, D.C., American Federation of Astrologers, 1970.

Plant, David. “Tycho Brahe: A King Amongst Astronomers.” Accessed Dec 3, 2018.

Randi, James. The Mask of Nostradamus. Prometheus Books, 1993. Quoted in “List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events.” Accessed December 5, 2018.

Sepharial. Eclipses in Theory and Practise. London, Ascella, 1915.

Spielvogel, Jackson, J. Western Civilization, Ninth Edition, Volume 1: To 1715. Stamford,  Cengage Learning, 2009.

Today in Science. Today in Science History. Accessed December 7, 2018. Hurricane Floyd. Accessed December 6, 2018.