Georg Tannstetter, Iudicium astronomicum pro anno Ch. 1513 (1513)
*the stars incline; they do not compel
Last month a student presentation in our undergraduate course on mediaeval and Reformation church history drew attention to the frequent appearance of zodiacs in the art and sculpture in the mediaeval cathedrals. The presenter commented on how odd it seemed that horoscopes should feature so prominently in Christian art and architecture.
I was reminded of this today when I came across Dr Patrice Guinard’s great new site Digital International Astrology Library: a Repertory of Ancient Astrological Works which contains links to a growing number of digitised sources for the history of astrology.
I’m not sure (to plagiarise C.S. Lewis) what they “teach them in schools these days,” but even my fairly lacklustre Catholic religious education left me with a vague sense that horoscopes weren’t quite legit (though everyone seemed to know whether he or she was a Gemini or a Scorpio).
And of course, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2115-2116) would later inform us:
God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints. Still, a sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it. Improvidence, however, can constitute a lack of responsibility.
All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.
So I remember feeling similar bemusement when I first realised what an important role casting of horoscopes had played in Christian Renaissance courts — Catholic as well as Protestant — and in the plans both Catholic and Protestant churchmen. Luther’s colleague Philipp Melanchthon was a notable example of this obsession.
In fact, even in the Renaissance, astrology was controversial. There was, of course, the debate about the morality of casting horoscopes. Some doubt was also raised as to their reliability as a forecasting tool.
But it’s the word ‘forecasting,’ that sheds some light on the rather different way in which astrology was understood, even by its opponents. We watch the weather forecast, and it plays a role in our decision about whether to pack an umbrella tomorrow. Even though we don’t necessarily trust the relentlessly perky presenter, we usually let him or her play some role in our decisions about the future — in this case the future weather. In New Zealand there’s also the longstanding folklore concerning those driven mad by hot, north-westerly winds in Canterbury.
Likewise, then, even the Renaissance writers who expressed reservations about astrology, recognised the general principle of planetary influence. So, while Calvin’s Warning against Judicial Astrology (1549) censured the use of astrology to predict the future, it conceded that the planets’ motion affected the sublunary world. Since this influence extended even to the human body, a doctor had to understand astrology in order to diagnose a patient’s symptoms.
Where astrology became problematic for its Renaissance opponents was when it became an expression of what the CCC calls the ‘desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings.’
So, if one were to read the newspaper horoscope in the same spirit as the weather forecast a few pages later, I’m not entirely sure that the church could find fault. While reading horoscopes may well be a crime against rationality and the scientific method, it is not necessarily a crime against the pre-Copernican universe in which the church first framed the rules of the game.
Anyway, in the spirit of useless knowledge to which this blog is dedicated, I thought I’d translate a couple of the predictions from an almanac for 1513 linked from the site above. The work is Georg Tannstetter Collimitius, Iudicium astronomicum pro anno Ch. 1513 (Judicial astronomy for the year of Christ 1513) (Nuremberg, 1513).
In fact the predictions strike me as remarkably unremarkable. No enigmatic Notstradamian utterances here:
On peace and war. Chapter three. Mars… is prefigured as lord of the year… Therefore there will be rancor and hatred right from the beginning of the year. Both will move and rouse the minds of kings, princes, governors and their subjects to bitter court cases and cruel wars. Because of this nations will be cruelly afflicted by slaughter and rapine. The cities, castles and towns of some kingdoms will be partly destroyed through burning and plunder.
The above prediction was a pretty safe bet in most years and most places during the sixteenth century. However, things looked a bit better if you were under the sign of Aries:
On the state of certain regions and cities. Chapter six. Whatever kingdoms, provinces, cities, towns and castles come under Aries, such as Germany, Poland, Britain, Krakow, Batavia etc. will have a fortunate year of honour and glory and will receive an increase in wealth, and will be very safe from the above named illnesses (discussed in chapter 5).
Considering the form of recent economic forecasting, one could do worse.