Hating on star-gazing: Early modern astrology and its critics

Where do you turn for answers to pressing questions? You might glance at a weather forecast, the latest political polls, a book of theology or philosophy—or flip a coin. People living in the early modern period likewise had their ways of seeking solutions to life’s puzzles and finding guidance in the face of uncertainty.

Besides prayer, a common practice was to turn to astrology and read the heavens for their influences upon human agents. Indeed, it is hard to overstate how pervasive astrological belief was during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For example, Simon Forman, that less-than-perfect audience member of Shakespeare’s plays, was a perceptive spectator of the heavens.

Nonetheless, the animosity directed towards astrology gained in vitriol as the period progressed. Detractors liked to recall the apocryphal story of the ancient astrologer Thales who, according to Aesop, reputedly stumbled into a well while looking up at the heavens, a story that supports the idea that astrology is a form of high speculation dressed in technical language and pompous claims for supremacy.

This post focuses on several of the many astrology-deniers of the early modern period before turning, briefly, to a play that shows us what we miss if we join the astrologically skeptical bandwagon.

For every figure on the early modern stage who reads the celestial heavens for causes—think, for example, of Kent, who declares in King Lear, “It is the stars. / The stars above us govern our conditions” (4.3.33-34)—there are those like Edmund, or Cassius, who mock such dependence on astrology.

In part, the celestial cynics on Shakespeare’s stage are echoing contemporary tracts such as John Harvey’s A Discoursive Probleme Concerning Prophecies (1588). For Harvey, the astrological readings of planetary conjunctions suffer from narrative excess, and they go too far in predictions of upcoming disasters (were these texts enabling the early moderns to practice a form of doom-scrolling?). As Harvey puts it, there are too many astrological authors, who distract from true astrological readings by saturating the print market: “We neede no more such dismall wizards, I trow, or such terrible prophesieng creatures” (106).

“Wizards” or “creatures” are some of the more generous epithets applied to astrologers in the period. The Puritan divine William Perkins includes in his list of Foure Great Lyers (1585) both those who author prognostications and those who attempt to map out the heavenly influences upon human bodies. Both, according to Perkins, are subject to “imbecillicie of wit” (D1v), and he objects particularly to the common Zodiac Man represented in most almanacs of the period.

Zodiac man - a common figure in astrology
An image of the Zodiac Man from Thomas Dekker’s The Raven’s Almanac. A naked figure stands in the middle, with the twelve signs surrounding it and indicating the particular body parts each one influences.

For Perkins, such an image is riddled with useless fables:

Whereas they call it an Anatomy, me thincketh, it is a butcherly Anatomy: nay that of the butchers is far better, for they ioyne head & appurtenau[n]ce together: these men being sparing giue Aries the head, Leo and Cancer the hart & longes. As for the liuer. I know not which signe hath it, peradue[n]ture in old time men had no liuers (D3r)

The Zodiac Man was meant to illustrate how the heavens affect particular body parts during specific seasons, and yet for Perkins and others the model is a fanciful one that has no real bearing on a body’s actual health or disease.

In the eclectic Sir Thomas Ouerbury His VVife (1616), an almanac-maker is, like the Zodiac Man that invariably accompanies his text, a segmented creature. He is “compact of figures, characters, and cyphers: out of which he scores the fortune of a yeere, not so profitably, as doubtfully (G1r).

The Zodiac Man is also a particular object of critique in the genre of mock-almanacs of the period. Through pamphlets that reproduce the images and format of almanacs, but with specious or usually very commonsensical predictions, along the lines of “summer will be hot, winter will be cold,” mock-almanacs worked to undermine not simply the practice of astrological readings, but the professional figure of the star-gazer.

Playwright Thomas Dekker’s The Raven’s Almanac (1609) includes a typical image of the Zodiac Man, but then, sounding like Perkins, notes that this is mere convention, to have the figure “bitten & shot at by wild beasts and monsters” (B1r).

Astrologers could not catch a break. John Melton’s tract Astrologaster (1620) is one of the fuller examples of the perceived limits to astrological reading in the period.

An early modern astrologer at work
The title page of John Melton’s The Astrologaster. A robed man holds up a celestial globe, with an open book on the table in front of him. Another man, perhaps a customer or the narrator in the text, approaches the astrologer.

For Melton, knowledge of the stars, and the future, derives from the devil rather than from any natural law. In his text, the narrator comes across the Figure-Caster, who proclaims that he has read deeply the book of nature and can provide the narrator with any form of knowledge he desires. The narrator offers the rebuff, “[a]nd for your knowledge in Astronomie, this is my opinion of you, that you haue as much skill of the Poles in Heauen, as you haue of the Poles on Pauls Steeple” (17). According to the speaker, and to many others, the knowledge needed of the heavens can be gained through simple observational experience—any other forms of reading the heavens are mere specious esoterism.

To all of the above authors, astrologers are performers. They have their props, their cues, and their rehearsed lines. But the diversity of sources and authors who take up astrology as the butt of criticism points us to a very important fact—most individuals in the period believed in astrology. While not an astonishing revelation, it is one that we have to continually remind ourselves of, or we lose the dramatic force of moments in which characters desperately read the heavens in an attempt to grasp the implications of their behaviors or desires.

As a brief example of many, in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (written c. 1612-13), the titular character has secretly married her steward Antonio. On the night that the Duchess gives birth to their first child, Antonio casts a nativity, or a form of a horoscope, for the infant. The nativity itself is precise and riddled with technical language that highlights Antonio’s learning:

‘The Duchess was delivered of a son ’tween the hours twelve and one in the night, Anno domini 1504’—that’s this year—‘decimo nono Decembris’—that’s this night—taken according to the meridian of Malfi—that’s our Duchess, happy discovery!—‘The lord of the first house being combust in the ascendant signifies short life; and Mars being in a human sign joined to the tail of the Dragon in the eight house doth threaten a violent death. (2.3.56-63).

Perhaps Webster’s audiences would not have grasped the full meaning of terms like “combust” or “ascendant,” but they would certainly have understood the import of the horoscope, particularly as it is now in the hands of the perfidious Bosola, who has been sent by the Duchess’s brothers to spy upon her. Astrological knowledge not only reveals the future, but is dangerous in the wrong hands. Bosola now possesses a type of script of the child’s future, and the bloody prognostication does not bode well for the child or his parents.

At once esoteric and yet imminently practical, Renaissance astrology touched upon all sectors of early modern lives. My own project, Shakespeare and the Practical Arts, asks what happens when characters peel away the linguistic murkiness of astrology to use it in their daily lives.

While there were many, varied critiques of astrology, all of its detractors acknowledged the lure that such celestial knowledge promised. To Antonio, the nativity provides a type of script that warns him to fear his wife’s relatives more than he has previously. To Bosola, the horoscope is a damning piece of evidence that the Duchess is in a relationship, and he will use this nativity to prove to her brothers that she has disobeyed their injunction to remain single. And to Webster’s audiences, and us, this nativity is a reminder of how the heavens are always above—literally so at theaters like the Globe with its painted zodiac—and the skies are therefore continually not merely symbols but shaping forces in the early modern worldview.

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