For the sake of simplicity, it would be tempting to say that this article on astrology in the Renaissance begins with Petrarch (1304-1374) and ends with Shakespeare (1564- 1616). Petrarch, “the first man of the Renaissance,” was no fan of astrology and railed against its fatalistic leanings. “Leave free the paths of truth and life. . .these globes of fire cannot be guides for us. . .Illuminated by these rays, we have no need of these swindling astrologers and lying prophets who empty the coffers of their credulous followers of gold, who deafen their ears with nonsense, corrupt judgment with their errors, and disturb our present life and make people sad with false fears of the future.” By contrast, Shakespeare’s work some 250 years later gave the world the term “starcrossed lovers” and would have the murder of two young princes at the hands of an evil king attributed to a bad opposition aspect. This evidence in literature suggests a radical turnaround in public opinion of astrology, but what caused this?
It is important to note from the outset that the changes brought forth in the Renaissance had a myriad of manifestations. As Richard Tarnas points out in The Passion of the Western Mind, “the phenomenon of the Renaissance lay as much in the sheer diversity of its expressions as in their unprecedented quality.” The Renaissance did not just express itself through literature alone (or at the same time or place for that matter) but through art, theology, the burgeoning of scientia and the discovery of new lands on earth as likewise a new perspective on the heavens. Therefore, it will be asserted, it is particularly important that commentary on the learning climate prior to the Renaissance is investigated in order to establish a point of contrast.
When reflecting on the Renaissance and its glories in art, music and literature–and astrology–it is important to bear in mind that the remarkable changes of this era took place against the backdrop of the plague, war, religious strife, economic depression, the Inquisition and ecclesiastical conspiracies. Over this broad expanse, in this fascinating period of history, an attempt will be made to determine the renewed interest in and development of astrology during the Renaissance.
The Twin Stars: A Shift from Aristotle to Plato
The discovery and translation of ancient texts has been an instigator of major transitions in history, particularly the works of Plato and Aristotle. In his book, The Sleepwalkers, Arthur Koestler commented on the influence and popularity of these Greek thinkers. “Insofar as their influence on the future is concerned,” Koestler wrote, “Plato and Aristotle should rather be called twin stars with a single centre of gravity, which circle round each other and alternate in casting their light on the generations that succeed them.” Each would have his turn to enjoy being “in fashion” whilst the other went out of style. According to Koestler, Plato would reign supreme until the 12th century, then Aristotle’s work would be re-discovered and after two centuries, when the world’s thinkers tired of Aristotle’s rhetoric, Plato would re-emerge in a different guise. In the period up to the emergence of the Renaissance, it was Aristotle’s star that shone and though it may be difficult to believe given modern Christianity’s lack of approval for astrology, it was a scholastic theologian who united Aristotle, Church doctrine and astrology.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) seemed to have been at the right place at the right time with the right things to say. Arab scholarship and the eventual translation of Aristotle’s work into Medieval Latin meant a revival for Aristotelian thought during Aquinas‘ lifetime. These works of Aristotle became an important project for this Dominican monk, a pupil of Albert Magnus (1206-1280), himself an Aristotelian translator. Tarnas pointed out that “Aquinas converted Aristotle to Christianity and baptised him.” The rise of Aristotelian thought during Medieval times benefited astrology because of its view that “everything that happens in the sub-lunary world is caused and governed by the motions of the heavenly spheres.” Brahe’s discoveries invalidated the notion of a separate and distinct “sub-lunary world.” But there still remained the attunement of heavenly bodies to the earth and therefore having a greater influence to life on earth. Both astrology and alchemy used these same methods of Aristotelian logic, only they were not bound by academic pedantry nor completely subject to the dogma of the Church: classical astrology, often linked to medical studies and codified by Ptolemy, was taught in universities. Surely, it may have been thought, their influences would be greater.
Aquinas was confident and clear about the influences of the stars as they were perceived at this time: “The majority of men … are governed by their passions, which are dependent upon bodily appetites; in these the influence of the stars is clearly felt. Few indeed are the wise who are capable of resisting their animal instincts.” In other words, there was a direct correlation between what happened in heaven and what happened on earth. Aquinas added the important and memorable words:
“Astrologers, consequently, are able to foretell the truth in the majority of cases, especially when they undertake general predictions. In particular predictions, they do not attain certainty, for nothing prevents a man from resisting the dictates of his lower faculties. Wherefore the astrologers themselves are wont to say that ‘the wise man rules the stars’ forasmuch, namely, as he rules his own passions.”
Thus he sidesteps the quandry that would bother the humanists to come in the next century: the idea of free will.
Even with Aquinas’ support, this is not to say the Church was supportive of all facets of astrology: there were fairly clear limits. Medical astrology was acceptable, whereas enquiring too deeply into the future might be considered as treading on God’s toes. Aquinas, for the time being, had carefully reconciled astrology/astronomy and the Church giving the proviso of free will rather than absolute determinism.
As the Renaissance dawned, there can be little doubt that astrology had re-emerged despite being mocked almost simultaneously in three very different cultures. In addition to Petrarch’s comments, the Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) condemned astrology as “all guesswork and conjectures based upon the (assumed existence of) astral influence and a resulting conditioning of the air.” The Frenchman Nicholas Oresme, in 1370, wrote “Many princes and magnates, moved by hurtful curiosity, attempt with vain arts to seek out hidden things and to investigate the future.” For these men (including Petrarch), astrology placed the overwhelming temptation in front of man to discover his future. Having established astrology’s existence before the Renaissance, the question of how it grew in popularity despite being so soundly condemned remains.
A hint lies in a connection made between heaven and earth in a more metaphorical sense. Aquinas had pointed out that there existed a ‘principle of continuity’ (as it later came to be called) that connected the highest Beings to the lowest of life forms and further down to the realms of Lucifer, elements of the orthodox doctrines of the Catholic Church. This was associated with a shift from other worldly asceticism to seeing life as affirmative and hence worthy of study. We can see this new view reflected in Dante’s (1265-1321) La Divina Commedia with man at the centre of an Aristotelian universe, balanced between heaven and hell in a moral drama of Christianity. It should be noted that Aristotle’s–as well as Dante’s and Aquinas’– universe was geocentric, a premise which would, of course, eventually be disproved. Dante’s popular work demonstrates how the “common” man of the time saw astronomy and theology as inextricably conjoined–and, in a clear break in clerical tradition, it was written in a vernacular language even the most illiterate of that time might appreciate. Thus, what had been once only available to the upper classes or clergy had become available to the general public.
Tarnas pointed out that whilst Dante’s work culminated and summed up the Medieval era, Petrarch “looked forward to and impelled a future age, bringing a rebirth of culture, creativity, and human greatness.” Petrarch, according to Tarnas, was motivated by a new spirit yet inspired by the ancients to create a greater glory still with man himself as the centre of God’s creation. Petrarch’s ideal was a learned piety and he called for the recollection of Europe’s classical heritage through literature.
Even whilst the plague raged, the notion that life should be enjoyed rather than merely studied was evident in the work of Giovanni Boccaccio in The Decameron (1353). Boccaccio wrote about how life really was, rather than how the Church considered it ought to be lived. The uncertainty of daily survival created a general mood of morbidity, influencing people to “live for the moment”. It would seem not even Petrarch was immune to this new way of looking at life. In 1336, Petrarch climbed Mount Ventoux, which rises to more than six thousand feet, beyond Vaucluse for the sheer pleasure of it. He read St Augustine’s Confessions at the summit and reflected that his climb was merely an allegory of aspiration towards a better life. In his experience, we can perhaps understand why he was reluctant to accept being limited by a fate or destiny and to refuse to see himself “so inconsequential relative to God, the Church, or nature.”
During the years of the plague, as Europe turned its eyes to the authority on medicine at the time, the Members of the College of Physicians of Paris, delivered (in part) this reason for the Great Plague:
“Of the astral influence which was considered to have originated the “Great Mortality,” physicians and learned men were as completely convinced as of the fact of its reality. A grand conjunction of the three superior planets, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars, in the sign of Aquarius, which took place, according to Guy de Chauliac, on the 24th of March, 1345, was generally received as its principal cause.”
Was Petrarch disappointed to apprehend that the plague which had claimed so many of those he loved was caused by a grand conjunction of planets in air signs?
By the 15th century, astrology had received a further boost in the form of Byzantine scholarship. In 1438, Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus attended the Council of Ferrara and the Council of Florence to discuss a union of the Greek and Roman churches. With him was the Plato scholar Plethon who generously offered to translate Plato’s texts to interested Florentines. This was a fabulous enhancement to the earlier work on translation done by Petrarch and his contemporaries since they were so impeded by their difficulties in translating Greek into Latin. Plethon (also known as George Gemistos) had “Long harboured an ambitious plan to restore to vitality the pagan religion which pertained before Justinian’s suppression of the cult and the Athenian Academy: in short he was, in everything but name, a ‘pagan’ philosopher.” As a total pagan, Plethon predicted the world would forget about Jesus and Mohammed and that absolute truth would flower through the universe!
Cosimo de’Medici, head of the influential Medici family of bankers (who built their business empire in the economic depression following the bubonic plague) was so impressed with this “new” knowledge that he opened a Platonic Academy in 1439 and selected the promising young Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) to manage it. Although a boy, Ficino displayed a precocious talent for translation and encouraged by the Medici family, he eventually translated a large number of ancient texts including those of Plato and Hermes Trismegistus. Campion points out that Greek manuscripts also found their way into the west following the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. Because he had established himself as an interpreter, many of these texts fell straight into the hands of Ficino.
Ficino not only interpreted these texts but he commented on and was clearly influenced by them. His own contributions included Three Books on Life (“De Triplici Vita“), which contained a work entitled On Obtaining Life from the Heavens (“De Vita Coelitus Comparanda”). Ficino was largely responsible for bringing back the Neoplatonic belief that the stars were divine. Reflections of this belief can be seen in the works of Michelangelo (1475-1564), Raphael (1483-1520), DaVinci (1452-1519), Botticelli (1445-1510) and others. There was a general shift in art during this time: prior artists had focused on recreating biblical images or symbols, whilst the artists of the Renaissance began to study the model of nature more closely and employ greater realism in their work by adding more colour and depth and by using linear perspective, (a mathematical technique). As Baigent so eloquently expressed the matter, Ficino’s influence on these painters caused them to “encapsulate the divine within their art such that each piece might become a pure crystal of divinity, a talisman able to change those who gazed upon it.” Thus Frances Yates describes Botticelli’s work and particularly, his masterpiece, the Birth of Venus, as a practical application of Ficino’s magic drawing down “the Venereal spirit from the star and to transmit it to the wearer or beholder of her lovely image.” It would be, Yates indicated, as if Venus herself was walking the earth again.
Under this re-emergence of neo-Platonism and a revival of pagan gods and goddesses, astrology had also found favour through the use of almanacs and its popularity in various European courts. Without almanacs, astrology may have continued to be available only to those who could afford to read and write (i.e. royalty) had it not been for one thing: the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in 1440. Until this time, printed material, limited to religious material copied onto parchment whose creation was taken as an act of worship (The Book of Kells for instance), was reproduced by hand and hence quite rare. For example, an inventory of library books at Cambridge University library 1424 showed the university only owned only 122 books—each of which had a value equal to a farm or vineyard. The printing press allowed the reproduction of both religious and secular texts. Astrological tables and almanacs were just one facet of the myriad of subjects which suddenly became available to eager new readers.
Thus, astrology with its allusions to pagan gods and goddesses reached the peak of its popularity. However, just as one would have thought astrology would be safe, came an unprecedented—and posthumous–attack in 1494, delivered by a student of Ficino, Pico Della Mirandola. Pico’s attack shook astrology to the core and is still quoted as being the most devastating attack on astrology in history. Cornelius characterised Pico’s attack as a “neo-Platonic interpretation of Magia, using the weapons of Aristotelian logic,” adding that,
At that point in our history the imaginative consciousness called magic and the craft of horoscope judgments parted company… After Pico, craft horoscopy never had a serious intellectual case.
There are some widespread misconceptions about this attack. It was certainly bad news for astrology in Italy. But for example in England, in the following century, Elizabeth I was openly consulting the magician John Dee (1527-1608) for astrological advice. Dee’s counterpart in France, Jean-Baptiste Morin (1583-1659) enjoyed, like Dee, a wide following in Europe. Secondly, the attack wasn’t aimed against astrology per se but against the sloppy practices of astrologers. Campion points out that Pico’s intention was more to reform astrology rather than destroy it.34 This astrological development, like any other reform, would eventually put the spotlight on many astrological practices, such as erroneous astronomical tables and a geocentric universe as well developments outside the Ptolemaic system, such as new house systems.
There can be no denial that astrology’s reputation had taken quite a hit with the prediction by Johann Stoeffler of a great flood during the great conjunction of planets in Pisces in February 1524, a month noted for its fair weather. Although the summer saw some notable rains, it was a far cry from the predicted great flood that over fifty astrologers had foreseen in the wake of Stoeffler’s prognastication. Even this, though, did little to eradicate the reputation of Nostradamus (1503-1566) whose quatrains were well known in his own lifetime.
Nicholas Copernicus’ (1473-1543) revolutionary idea of a sun-centred universe hardly made a splash when On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was published in 1543. Koestler says that not only was Copernicus’ work difficult to read, it was an all time worst-seller. However, eventually this work would transform man’s view of the world from a Kosmos (in the Greek sense), where there existed a proportionality between man and the universe, to the post-Renaissance heliocentric world associated with the development of modern science. Astrology requires this scale between man and the universe in order to flourish. With Galileo’s best-selling book in 1609, Siderius Nuncius, the heliocentric world-view was catapulted into the public’s consciousness.
Some thirty-one years after the death of Copernicus, on November 11 1572, Tycho Brahe, stepping out of an alchemical laboratory to get his supper, noticed a bright new star near the constellation Cassiopeia. Of this event, Koestler says:
“The sensational importance of the event lay in the fact that it contradicted the basic doctrine–Aristotelian, Platonic and Christian–that all change, all generation and decay were confined to the immediate vicinity of the earth, the sub-lunary sphere; where as the distant eighth sphere in which all the fixed stars were located was immutable from the day of creation to eternity.”
Brahe’s researches had a feature hardly to be found in Aristotelian logic: precision. The logic of the time emphasised quality rather than quantitative measurement; Brahe was devoted to measurement, down to fractions of minutes of arc in his calculations, and didn’t tolerate the “near enough” attitude of planetary tables. Later, Brahe proved that the great comet of 1577 was no sub-lunary object (the Aristotelian thought of the time) but was ‘at least six times’ as far away in space as the Moon. That same year, Brahe, at his own urging, received the first clock with a minute hand from its inventor, Jost Burgi. Up until this point in history, accurate time keeping had been impossible.
A few years later, astrology suffered further from the Papal Bull of 1585 which effectively forbade judicial astrology and dictated the closure of all publications of serious astrology except for the simplest of leaflets (the very things Pico disputed). As a fairly traditional if not conservative discipline, astrology was not helped by a major paradigm shift in cosmology. When a cold and hungry Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) showed up at Brahe’s door in 1600, it was only a matter of time before the world would be convinced that the Earth revolved around the Sun.
If the “scientific” side of astrology was beginning to unravel, it hardly affected the Elizabethan audience’s affection for it. William Shakespeare made over one hundred allusions to astrology in his thirty-seven plays. In his time, planets and stars were personified, the heavenly spheres had eternal souls, and people feared upsetting the traditional order of things. “The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre observe degree, priority and place … but when the planets in evil mixtures to disorder wander, what plagues and what portents!” A further example of this can be seen in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as the magician Prospero (a character loosely based on Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer, John Dee), is portrayed as causing a great storm and subsequent shipwreck, much to the dismay of his young daughter Miranda. It seems such an ironic yet sweet tribute to astrology that this play’s characters were used in the naming of the planet Uranus’ satellites when they were discovered in the mid 19th century. It could almost seem like an olive branch from astronomy to astrology.
According to Tarnas, the Renaissance, was “an emphatic emergence of a new consciousness–expansive, rebellious, energetic and creative, individualistic, ambitious and often unscrupulous, curious, self confident, committed to this life and this world, open-eyed and sceptical, inspired and inspirited. . .” Platonism as such was not astrological, but the revival of neo-Platonism in the Renaissance was the essential matrix for the great blossoming of astrology which then took place. It saw new discoveries of ancient texts and a discovery of the joy of living even amidst death caused by the Plague, as well as the opening up of the world through new shipping routes and inventions, such as the printing press. The Renaissance was a glorious eruption of antique pagan concepts into Europe. Embedded in all this was astrology and from this point, for the better or worse, astrology would have to pull itself up by its own bootstraps.