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Astrology Essay, Research Paper

The basic astrological assumptions are not hard to grasp. For if astronomy is the study of the movements of the heavenly bodies, then astrology is the study of the effects of those movements. The astronomers of the ancient world assumed a division of the universe whereby the superior, immutable bodies of the celestial worlds ruled over the terrestrial or sublunary sphere, where all was mortality and change. It was assumed that the stars had special qualities and influences which were transmitted downwards upon the passive earth, and which varied in their effect, according to the changing relationship of the heavenly bodies to each other. They were led to postulate a single system in which the seven moving stars or planet shifted their position in relation to the earth and each other, against a fixed backcloth of the twelve signs of the zodiac.

There was nothing obscure about these general assumptions. At the beginning of the sixteenth century astrological doctrines were part of the educated man s picture of the universe and its workings. It was generally accepted that the four elements constituting the sublunary region (earth, air, fire & water) were kept in their state of ceaseless transformation by the movement of the heavenly bodies. The various planets transmitted different quantities of the four physiological qualities of heat and cold, dryness and moisture. Therefore astrology was less a separate discipline than an aspect of a generally accepted world picture. During the Renaissance, even more than in the Middle Ages, astrology pervaded all aspects of the intellectual framework in which men were educated.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were four main branches of judicial astrology. First, there were the general predictions based on the future movements of the ravens and taking note of such impending events as eclipses of the sun and moon. These forecasts related to the weather, the state of the crops, mortality and epidemics, politics and war. They indicated the fate of society as a whole but not that of particular individuals. Secondly, there were nativities, maps of the sky at the moment of a person s births either made on the spot at the request of the infants’ parents’ or reconstructed for individuals of stature, those who could supply the details of their time of births. The horoscope at birth could subsequently be followed by annual revolutions , in which the astrologer calculated the individual’s prospects for the coming year.

The details of the client’s nativity were also needed before he could avail himself of the astrologer’s third main service, that of making elections or choosing the right moment for the right action. By comparing the relationship between the tendencies indicated by the client’s horoscope with what was known about the future movement of the heavens, certain times could be identified as more favorable than others for embarking upon any potentially risky undertaking, such as going on a journey or choosing a wife. Finally there were horary questions the most controversial part of the astrologer’s art, and one that had only been developed after the days of Ptolemy by the Arabs. Its optimistic assumption was that the astrologer could resolve any question put to him by considering the state of the heavens at the exact moment when it was asked.

These four spheres of activity – general predictions, nativities, elections and horary questions – formed the sum of the astrologer’s art. An individual might specialize in one rather than another but he was expected to be a master of them all. He might also possess a certain amount of medical learning. Different signs of the zodiac were thought to rule over different parts of the body, and a proper election of times had to be made for administering medicine, letting blood or carrying out surgical operations.

The availability of English treatises on astrology is a poor measurement for the actual prestige of the subject. Despite the lack of a vernacular literature, most Tudor monarchs and their advisers encouraged astrologers and drew upon their advice. Both Henry VII and those engaged in plotting against him maintained relations with the Italian astrologer William Parron. The Earl of Leicester employed Richard Forster as his astrological physician and commissioned Thomas Allen to set horoscopes. It was at Leicester s invitation that John Dee chose an astrologically propitious day for the coronation of Elizabeth I.

For intellectuals astrology remained a topic of consuming interest. A random list of sympathizers could include such celebrated names as those of Sir Walter Raleigh, Robert Burton, and Sir Thomas Browne. As a young man Isaac Newton bought a book on judicial astrology at Stourbridge Fair.These miscellaneous names testify to the sympathetic attitude in which many men of rank and intellectual importance held astrology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Of course it is not always easy to say just how seriously they took it. But it is certain that until the mid-seventeenth century astrology was no private fad but a form of divination to which many educated people had recourse.

Due to the invention of the printing press, astrology was made available to an infinitely wider audience, and the literature took the form of the almanac. Strictly speaking the almanac comprised three separate items. There was the Almanac proper, which indicated the astronomical events of the coming year, eclipses, conjunctions, and movable feasts. There was the Calendar, which showed the days of the week and the months’ and the fixed Church festivals. Finally there was the Prognostication, or astrological forecast of the notable events of the year.

Printed publication was thus one of the main methods by which the astrologers made their impact upon the life and thought of the period. Some almanacs were so popular that they took on a life of their own and continued to appear long after the death of their origins founders. But despite their enormous sales, the almanacs did not usually bring their authors much in the way of earnings; for it was private practice which gave the professional astrologer his regular means of subsistence; and it also was the way in which he made his greatest impact upon the lives of other human being.

By the reign of Elizabeth I, astrology had become, as one contemporary put it, a very handicraft, so that many lived thereby’. Astrological practice was carried on by men, and in a few cases women of very different degrees of teaching. Sometimes it was only a sideline to some other occupation.

William Lilly (1602-81) had come to London as a young man to make a career. His father was a poor Leicestershire yeoman and Lilly began as a domestic servant but made good by marrying his master’s widow. He learned astrology in a few weeks in 1632 and began to practice seriously in 1641. His first almanac came out in 1644 and was followed by an increase of publications. He enjoyed a great deal of political influence and was the acknowledged leader of his profession. His casebooks throw light upon his consulting-practice but he himself remains an enigma.

On a number of occasions Lilly was asked to predict the result of a particular legal action presumably so that the client would know whether it was worth continuing to fight it. One customer asked despairingly in September 1649 if he would ‘ever have justice’. In addition to helping with personal decisions, Lilly was also asked to resolve a variety of military and politics issues. When would Pontefract surrender? Was it true that the King had taken Cambridge? Would he bring troops over from Ireland?

The remaining major department of the astrologers’ art was medicine. The thoroughgoing astrological doctor proceeded entirely by the stars and did not even demand to see the patient. The astrologers were further expected to diagnose pregnancy, estimate how the mother would fare when her labor started and prognosticate the sex of the unborn child. Their consulting-rooms were full of women made desperate by prolonged and unaccountable childlessness.

The general impression given by the casebooks is that Lilly dealt with his patients sensibly enough and his remedies, so far as they are recorded, were not necessarily astrological in character. He was prepared to prescribe medicines and on at least one occasions chose to refer his client to a doctor. But, like all the astrologers, he was prepared to admit the possibility of witchcraft and had rules to determine whether or not it was the cause of his patients’ sufferings

Until the later seventeenth century, a cross-section of the English people took the astrologers very seriously. The clients who flocked to Forman, Lilly and Booker included aristocrats’ merchants, and persons of outstanding intellectual and artistic distinction. Nothing did more to make astrology seductive than the ambitious scale of its intellectual pretensions. It offered a systematic scheme of explanation for all the inexplicable human and natural behavior. Every earthly occurrence was capable of astrological explanation. In the absence of any rival system of scientific explanations and no other existing body of thought, religion apart, which even began to offer so all-embracing an explanation for the baffling various ness of human affairs. This was the intellectual vacuum which astrology moved in to fi1l.

The disadvantage of the system was its rigidity. Since there were a limited number of planets, houses, and signs of the zodiacs the astrologers tended to deduce human potentialities to a set of fixed types and to postulate only a limited number of possible variations. Such obstacles notwithstanding, the astrological explanation of personal misfortunes seems to have appealed to clients. When William Bredon s two daughters died in successive months, their bereaved father wrote to Richard Napier to discuss ‘the astrological cause for the tragedy. Many of the clients entered an astrologers’ consulting-room were seeking an explanation for the various misfortunes which had beset them – illness’ sterility, miscarriage, political failures, and bankruptcy.

No doubt it was more comforting to learn that had been crossed at birth than to be told that one had no one to blame for one s misfortunes but oneself. Astrology could thus appeal as a means of evading responsibility, removing guilt from both sufferer and society at large. Like religion, it also combated the notion that misfortune was purely random in its incidence. There really was no such thing as chance in nature declared the astrologer John Butler. The astrologers also claimed to predict the course of political events. If the Scots had read Lilly’s almanac thought William Paine, they should have known in advance that their invasion of England was doomed to defeat.

In the eighteenth century most sections of the English economy were dependent upon the weather. It was this, which gave astrological predictions their credibility. To predict the weather was to predict the harvest, and to predict the harvest was to predict the discontent which would follow a food shortage, and the rebellion which might follow the discontent. In brief, a society which was dependent upon the weather for its efficient functioning, and had fewer means of guarding itself against the depredations of storm or droughts, it was not possible for a weather forecast to refrain simply a weather forecast. Inevitably, it carried with it a chain of far-reaching consequences of a social and political character.

How was astrology able to retain the allegiance of intelligent men when it was utterly incapable of providing the accurate prognostications they wanted? Dating the seventeen years of subsequent records John Booker’s astrological practice showed no signs of respite. On the contrary, the same clients returned again and again, and brought their friends as well. The astrologers, or at least the reputable ones, did not claim for their predictions a binding and inevitable end, all they claimed was that they were likely to be fulfilled.

It was always possible for a man to overcome the tendencies indicated in his horoscope by exercising free-will and self-determination. In this way two men born under the same star might well have a different destiny. Astrologers, a practitioner asserted did not make definite predictions ‘but only a probable conjecture by natural causes .

It was during the Civil War however, that the political potentialities of astrologic forecasts were most systematically exploited. From 1642 the newspapers printed astrological predictions and the astrologers were taken up by both sides in the conflict with Lilly and Booker prominent among the supporters of Parliaments and George Wharton writing on behalf of the King. Some of the conspiracies against Henry VII drew on astrological advice, and all the Tudor Monarchs were made the subject of astrological calculation by dissident groups. In 1581 Parliament made it a statutory felony to erect figures, cast nativities, or calculate by prophecy how long the Queen would live or who would succeed her.

Astrologers could easily gain a reputation for trouble making. John Lambe caused many divisions between husband and wife by diagnosing infidelity; and Lilly was accused of starting family quarrels’ by pronouncing ‘elder brothers childless and younger brothers certain heirs o f their estates’. Astrologers were accused of upsetting projected marriages in aristocratic families and persuading unsuitable clients to marry each other. But when one considers practitioners like John Booker, who conducted his huge business in the heart of London for over thirty years, it seems clear that the astrologer could usually count on a good deal of public tolerance. In many cases the practitioner was positively encouraged.

If astrology was discharging so many useful functions, why did it nevertheless rapidly decline in status towards the end of the seventeenth century? Simply put, the solutions which they offered came to appear less convincing.

Astrology, thought Bacons needed to be reformed, but not abolished. The mid-seventeenth century saw a determined effort to bring the subject up to date fired by such taunts as George Gerbert’s remark that astrology is true, but the astrologers cannot find it’. Serious astronomers had ceased to make any contributions to astrology, even if they were reluctant to abandon it. By the end of the seventeenth century, astrology had lost its scientific prestige; of course many of astrology’s defects had been pointed out before the corning of the new science. Astrology, it was observed was rigid and arbitrary. The zodiac and twelve horses had no reality. Astrology lacked the essential quality of a science – the capacity for demonstration.

Among the population at large the movement of opinion on astrology is impossible to chart with any accuracy. Most people despised ‘astronomers’ said the almanac-maker, John Securis, in 1568. They saw astrology as an entertaining recreation rather than a genuine science. Despite his thriving practice, Lilly complained of the small conceit and shocking judgment the English nation have of astrology’.

The truth seems to be that astrology had ceased, in all but the most unsophisticated circles, to be regarded as either a science or a crime. After 1700 the volume of astrological writing appears to have fallen off sharply. The almanacs continued although their prognostications were vaguer and emptier than ever. In the nineteenth century, and after astrology was to undergo several revivals but the intellectual vitality the subject had once possessed was gone forever.

The relations between astrology and religion had been colored by mutual suspicion since the early Christian era. During the century after the Reformation the two systems of belief came into sharp conflict. Many of the English clergy denounced judicial astrology as an impious art whose teachings were fundamentally incompatible with those of the basic tenets of Christianity.

The first line of attack was to point out that religion and astrology frequently offered conflicting explanations for the same phenomena. Whereas the Christian was taught to regard storms, famines or earthquakes as the manifestations of God’s secret purposes, the astrologer made them subject to the movement of the celestial bodies and therefore predictable by his art. This attribution of good or bad luck to the stars was a direct threat to Christian dogma: as Calvin said, it ‘put . . . clouds before our eyes to drive us away from the providence of God.’

Long life was the reward for godliness, not the legacy of the planets. Much of the war against astrology was fought at this basic level of causation. As the Presbyterian Thomas Gataker declared in 1653, it was essential that Christians should regard all events’ ‘not with an astrological, but a theological eye’. The astrologers caused the deepest offence by offering a secular explanation on some of the most delicate matters in religious history. They did not hesitate to offer astral reasons for the dominance of different religions in different parts of the worlds.

The origin of the theological attack on astrology was the conviction that the astrologers taught an astral determinism which was incompatible with Christian doctrines of free will and moral autonomy. What they found intolerable was the judicial side of the art – the exact predictions, not just of the weather, but of human behavior, whether of people in the mass or as individuals. The more specific the prediction the more it offended the belief in free will. The astrologer could never infallibly tell how any particular man would behave because the will and the intellect remained free. A practitioner who claimed certainty for his predictions was no more than a heretic.

Yet the whole point of astrological diagnosis was to widen human freedom of choice by making the client aware of just what possibilities were open to him, but the clients did not always remember that. At a popular level, astrology may well have helped to slacken moral responsibility in the way the theologians predicted, even educated men were quick to attribute their own personal weaknesses and misfortunes to the crippling influence of the planets.

Committed to the belief that the will was necessarily free, the clergy therefore reasoned that it was impossible to predict future human behavior, if the astrologers did so, it could only mean that they were in league with the Devil.

Although it also offered an abstract system of explanations, astrology was first and foremost a practical agency, providing advice on a wide range of personal difficulties. That they should turn to star-gazers in their hour of need rather than to the traditional pastoral agencies of the Church seemed a direct threat to the moral supremacy of the clergy whose privilege it had always been to resolve disputes and administer advice. Even though they often conceded that astrologers might be correct in their prognostications, but cited this very success as further evidence for the diabolical stature of their art. Do astrologers foretell right sometimes? sneered John Agree, So do witches’. The astrologers lost either way. If their predictions were wrong it proved they were charlatans if they were right, then they were in league with the Devil.

So instead of remaining two rival systems of belief pagan astrology and Christian religion proved to have many points of contact. Both astrologers and clients usually found it possible to arrive at a modus vivendi , which permitted them to reconcile their religion with their practice without too much soul-searching. Yet the preachers feared that the vogue for astrology might lead to the replacement of the Christian God by the planetary divinities. Astrology, they recalled, had begun as a religion rather than a sciences and the Bible contained warnings against star-worship. None of the leading astrologers seem to been atheists or star-worshippers. They represented almost every shade of religious opinion, from Roman Catholic to Quaker, but they all claimed that their art was compatible with their religion, and that the heavenly bodies were merely instruments of’ God’s will.

At the popular level, however, the balance between astrology and religion may have been occasionally upset. Early Christianity had sometimes been mistaken for a solar religion, and the Anglo-Saxon kings had to legislate against star-worship. The signs of the zodiac decorated many English churches and may have helped to shape popular religious attitudes. Pictures of the sun and moon were found in several Suffolk churches and the churches themselves were built to face the rising sun.

How far such practices affected men s basic beliefs it is difficult to tell. Anne Bodenham, who was executed for witchcraft at Salisbury in 1653 was a former servant of the astrologer John Lambe, she had long practiced as a cunning woman, claiming to be able to do more than Master Lilly or anyone whatsoever. When she dealt with a maid who had convulsive fits, she is reported to have proposed a frankly pagan remedy -prayer to Jupiter, the best and fortunatest of all the planets’. Even more striking is another Wiltshire case, which came before the quarter sessions in 1656. A Lacock weaver, Wllllam Bond was charged with atheism and blasphemy, and in particular with publicly affirming that there was no God or power ruling above the planets, no Christ but the sun that shines upon us’; and ‘that the twelve patriarchs were the twelve houses’. “This was astrology run wild; and it is tantalizing not to know how many of William Bond’s contemporaries may have held similar views.

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