Astrology in the middle ages


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Extremely wedgie-inducing, leggings-as-pants were the subject of great debate, then as now. In midth-century England there was even a law about who could wear short tunics that revealed the male buttocks. Only the rich. More on this medieval fashion faux-pas here. Then as now, many medicines were drawn from plants. Saint Fiacre, shown here, was the patron saint of gardeners and disease-sufferers, a handy combo. But if healing and herbology sometimes seemed suspicious, healers like St. Fiacre were also thought to be doing the work of God.

Practical and logical home remedies, like ointments and bandaging, are also seen aplenty in pictures from the Middle Ages. In the foreground, Saint Jerome casually, and elegantly, removes the splinter with a pair of gold tweezers. Also on the topic of science, in the Middle Ages astrology was hugely important. People at all levels of society were concerned with their star charts, political leaders especially so. From breaking ground for new buildings to waging battle, astrological considerations were taken very seriously. Astrology may seem superstitious to some of us, but it was practiced some would say, is practiced much like a science.

Sure there were mounted members of the military, but more often than not, soldiers had to fight on the ground. Other arguments against astrology have been in existence for centuries as well. Why can't astrological predictions be perfect? From Roman times on, emperors, kings, queens and other political leaders perceived a danger in letting astrologers have information about their chart. This was especially true during times of conflict - you did not want to give the other side any potential advantage.

Another concern still exists today: Who is legitimate and who is a charlatan? The writers of early books of astrology were among the most learned men of their times. In addition to astrology, they had to learn mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and often medicine. But their services were expensive. Astrologers had many levels of skill and practice below this high level. Even with this uneasy relationship, astrology was extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages.

Until the 17th Century, astrology was not separated from astronomy or the other sciences. Most astronomers were interested in greater precision and understanding of the stars because they were interested in one or more types of astrology, whether it was for medical purposes, weather prediction or personal charts. To excel at their craft, learned astrologers also had to be experts in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and often medicine as well.

In the West, astrology was part of the practice of medicine from the time of ancient Greece up to the 's. The astrologers treat phenomena as they appear to be, whether accurately or no. Astronomers deal with things as they are, whether they seem to be so or not. He takes the argument no further, but does not seem to be intending to denigrate astrology, for he goes on to misquote Plato in support of the theory that the planets control nature and the human body. The heavenly bodies, he argues, heat the atmosphere, which in turn heats water - which forms a fundamental part of all animal bodies - and so must affect every living thing.

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He lists the planets and their qualities and humours, and puts forward some theories about how the principles were discovered, not only suggesting practical but symbolic reasons. The ancients, he suggests, discovered that Saturn was a 'cold' planet because when the Sun was cooler than usual it was in Cancer and in conjunction with Saturn in the same sign. But he also pointed out that Saturn was said to carry a scythe because a man who did so 'did more execution when receding than advancing'.

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Venus was said to have committed adultery with Mars because when those two planets were close together, Mars took away some of Venus' good influences. It has been suggested that Henry II's interest in astrology, fostered by his tutor William of Conches and by his father Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, was sufficient to make him the patron of Abenezra , a Jew from Toledo, who came to England in to lecture in London and Oxford. He was also a poet:. Abenezra seems to have had a pleasant sense of humour as well as considerable fame as an astrologer-writer his De nativitatibus was reprinted in the 15th and 16th centuries.

History of Medicine: Astrology in Medicine

He lectured not only in England but all over Europe, and may briefly have occupied the chair of astrology at the university of Bologna. Both Adelard and William of Conches were important in bringing to France and England more Arabic works, some of which they translated, and some of which they used as source material for their own books. There were of course other translators, many of whose names have been lost, though we know others - Bartholomew of Messina, Burgundio of Pisa and Eugenius, Admiral of Sicily, who translated from the Greek; Egidius de Trebaldis of Parma, Arnold of Barcelona and Blasius Armegandus of Montpellier, who translated from the Arabic, and so on.

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Through their work a great stream of astrological knowledge from Arabia made its way westward - some translators, like Pedro Alfonso, claimed to be intent on bringing knowledge westward to save greater scholars than he the labour of travelling so far to acquire the basis on which they could construct their philosophies. Most translators and scholars believed in observation and experiment as well as the acquisition of knowledge from books. Pedro believed strongly in experience as a good master: 'It has been proved by experimental argument', he says, 'that we can truly affirm that the Sun and Moon and other planets exert their influences in earthly affairs And indeed many other innumerable things happen on earth in accordance with the courses of the stars, and pass unnoticed by the senses of most men, but are discovered and understood by the subtle acumen of learned men who are skilled in this art.

Twenty years after his death, Walcher, Prior of Malvern, made translations of all Pedro's books into English. It was during the 12th century that a great acceleration occurred in the translation of astrological texts into Latin. By , most major texts were available in that language - Plato of Tivoli had translated the Tetrabiblos as the Quadripartitum ; John of Seville made a version of the Centiloquium, a series of astrological aphorisms attributed wrongly to Ptolemy, and translated Albumasar, Alchabitius and Messahala.

And Gerard of Cromona made over seventy translations from the Arabic into the Latin, among them Ptolemy's Almagest Syntaxis , and two previously unknown works of Aristotle, the Meteorologica and the Generatione et corruptione.

By the end of the first decade of the 13th century, the complete works of Aristotle were for the first time available in Western Europe in a language that every scholar could read, and by , despite the misgivings of some churchmen, they were accepted in the universities. This was a great step forward for astrology, for it meant that no serious theologian would now contest the fact that the processes of change and growth on earth depended on the activities of the heavenly bodies; read the medieval scholars on Aristotle, and we find them all - from Albertus Magnus to Thomas Aquinas and Dante - accepting the astrological theory which had become a part of the philosopher's arguments; if they held strongly to free will as a cornerstone of Christian teaching, they could not now deny Aristotle's or, for that matter, Augustine's admission that the planets influenced human affairs.

The Church was forced to see astrology as a science, and recognized it while at the same time condemning magic. Thomas Aquinas is explicit in his Summa theologiae:. The majority of men Few indeed are the wise who are capable of resisting their animal instincts. 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.

The spate of translations from the Arabic introduced a new element into western astrology. Ptolemy in the Tetrabiblos had concerned himself almost entirely with judicial astrology - using the positions of the planets at the time of someone's birth to look at the child's future. He ignored two aspects of astrology more important to the Arabs: interrogationes and electiones. The first concerned itself with setting up a chart in order to discover the answer to a question - the identity of a thief, perhaps, or the nature of a proposed marriage.

The second was a way of discovering the propitious moment for a certain action - the sailing of a vessel, the starting of a business, the consummation of a marriage. The election of a particular moment of time was much used by doctors to discover the proper moment at which to apply medicine, perform an operation, raise a patient from bed; in a sense it is still used in the 20th century when at least some doctors choose to operate at phases of the moon when a patient is likely to bleed less freely, or a blood donor chooses to give his blood at full moon, when he bleeds more freely.

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  7. At least one Arabic work played an important part in determining the philosophical attitude to astrology held by the English church: this was the Introductorium in astronomiam of Albumasar, translated by Herman of Dalmatia who, with Robert the Englishman Robert of Retines , travelled in Europe in the s discovering astrological works. Albumasar's work was particularly important to those concerned about astrology's relationship to free will.

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    He claimed that while it was certainly true that some things were unarguable - fire was hot, always had been hot, and would continue to be hot - and there was no point in contention, other elements in life were mutable: he was setting pen to paper today, but might or might not continue to write tomorrow. The planets were susceptible to reason, and their powers, divinely governed, could influence both arguable and unarguable fact. Translations of astrological books made during the 12th century were extremely influential and widely read. Some of them became profoundly popular. Bernard Silvester, who wrote in the middle of the 12th century, produced for instance three books, each dealing with astrology, which were very widely read indeed.

    Silvester's Experimentarius was a verse translation of a work on astrological geomancy a means of prediction by which a number of points were dashed down at random, and then joined together by lines, creating a number of shapes then used as a key to certain constellations or sets of tables; the resident astrologer of an hotel in Agra, India, was using it still in His Mathematicus was a narrative poem based on an astrological prediction, and De mundi universitate, was about the stars themselves and their effect on the whole of creation. The latter was, in the terms of its day, a runaway bestseller, almost immediately accepted in the major schools of Europe, where interestingly there is no record of even the slightest reaction against Silvester's calling the planets 'gods' - 'gods who serve God in person' - near enough to the Creator to receive from him the secrets of the future, which they impose upon 'the lower species of the universe, by inevitable necessity'.

    The whole of nature derived its life from the skies, and could not move without instructions from on high - although at the same time Silvester speaks of 'what is free in the will and what is of necessity'; somewhat confusing. The Mathematicus is perhaps the earliest work of fiction to depend entirely on astrology for its plot, which tells of a Roman knight and his lady whose marriage is childless.

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    The wife consults an astrologer, who predicts that she will bear a son who will become a great genius and the ruler of Rome, but will one day kill his father. The wife tells the husband, who makes her promise to kill the child in infancy. Of course, when she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, she cannot bear to have him killed, and sends him away, assuring the husband that he is dead. The child, Patricida so named to ensure that he will hate the crime of patricide is intellectually brilliant, learning 'the orbits of the stars and how human fate is under the stars' and 'clasping divine Aristotle to his breast'.

    He grows up to be a brilliant soldier, too, rescuing Rome from the attacking Carthaginians, after which the king abdicates in his favour. His mother, understandably, is both pleased for her son and anxious for his father. She tells all to her husband, who to her dismay goes to Patricida and confesses how he had once ordered him to be killed, but had been overruled by the planets, which would no doubt one day order the king to kill his father.

    Patricida decides to commit suicide to save them both from fate; he summons the Romans together, induces them to promise him anything, and then announces that he wishes to die And here, alas, the intensely operatic poem breaks off, leaving us to construct our own version of what may have happened. The story was written, and taken, extremely seriously; critics who suggested that it was a satire were for the most part Christian clerics intent on producing anti-astrological polemics.

    There is no sign in the text itself to suggest that it was anything other than a straightforward tale, and its many readers took it as such. England produced no astrologers to compete in reputation with some of those on the Continent, although the universities taught the subject not with as determined a conviction as that displayed at, say, the universities of Bologna or Padua. English travelling scholars brought news of the latest developments of the study into the country - among them Alexander Neckham , who was a foster-brother of Richard I, born on the same night as the king, and sharing his mother's breasts with his future sovereign.

    He grew up to be a distinguished scholar and Abbot of Cirencester, and in his book De naturis rerum wrote about astrology, astronomy and natural science in general. Richard is said to have written 'something on astrology', but the manuscript has not survived. That the peoples of Britain as a whole were affected by astrological prognostications cannot be doubted: together with most other Europeans they were thrown into a panic, for instance, by the conjunction of planets in Libra announced for Most astrologers predicted disastrous storms Libra is an 'air' sign , with the result that many of their more credulous listeners dug underground shelters in which to pass the crisis, and services were held in many churches in an attempt to persuade the Creator to overrule the planets.

    Two English writers, Roger of Hoveden and Benedict of Peterborough, attempted to comfort their hearers by recalling that an ancient astrologer, one Corumphira, had predicted that only cities in sandy regions of the earth would be affected; but Hoveden also pointed out that an English astrologer, William, clerk to John, Constable of Chester, argued that England would be included in the area of devastation as it were by divine intervention, and that 'princes should be on their guard, to serve God and flee the devil, so the Lord may avert their imminent punishments'.

    As September approached, panic spread. A tract by a Saracen astrologer, Pharamella, criticizing his western colleagues' calculations, and arguing that the positions of Mars and Venus were such as to mitigate the effects of the conjunction, was too late to comfort the superstitious. As it happened, September was a rather mild and unexceptional month, and the astrologers were forced to admit that they had been mistaken: the conjunction did not provoke storms at all - instead, it instigated the victories of Saladin in the Holy Land in the following year!

    As the 12th century wore on, English astrological writers continued to consolidate ancient knowledge into accepted texts. Daniel wrote a book dealing very thoroughly with astrology as it affected the weather, famine or plenty, events and the history of the state, with the horoscope as it revealed the life of an individual, then with its capacity for answering particular questions, and finally with 'elections', or the choosing of a moment for a particular task.

    The last, of course, was of use for instance when a ship's master wanted to know an auspicious moment at which to set sail on an important voyage - astrologers had already been used for centuries to predict such moments, and would continue to be used so even by hard-headed insurers for centuries to come. With the 13th century came the first really notable court astrologer since Roman times of whom we have a clear record - Michael Scot, who when he died in the s was astrologer to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. There is a good anecdote about Frederick II, incidentally, who during his lifetime seems to have employed a number of astrologers.

    When one presented himself, he decided to set him a test, and asked, 'By what gate shall I leave the castle today? Frederick thereupon ordered a new exit to be made in the walls, and left through the roughly cut hole. Opening the sealed message, he read: 'The king will leave today by a new way. Scot was referred to by one contemporary as 'a scrutinizer of the stars, an augur, a soothsayer, a second Apollo'. Very little is known of the life of this Scottish scholar and astrologer, but there is extensive evidence of the way in which his mind worked - a mind crammed with curious knowledge and odd theories that, for instance, since there are fourteen joints in the fingers of the hand - and the reasons for that conclusion are not given!

    He discusses in a voluminous Introduction to Astrology the theory and practice of making use of the planets to discover God's purpose for man, addressing himself to all the old quesions - how the stars are signs, not causes, and how they can be used to discover 'something of the truth concerning every body produced in this corruptible world'.

    He castigates 'superstitious astrologers' those who used numerology or geomancy , though he rather enjoys describing such occult means of divination as the shapes of clouds or the appearance of the surface of liquids. Much of Michael Scot's work is muddled and derivative, but he seems to have done some original research - on, for instance, menstruation and the phases of the Moon - and to have had a strongly felt belief that the moment of conception was, if anything, more important than the moment of birth..

    A woman should always, he says, note the exact time of coitus, when she may conceive, and goes into some detail about how different positions in copulation can, with the aid of the positions of the planets, have certain results at conception.


    Charming magical and superstitious omens are liberally introduced into more serious astrological theories. To discover the sex of an unborn child, ask the pregnarit woman to give you her hand. If she offers the right, the child will be a boy; if the left, a girl. If a man sneezes two or four times while engaged in business, and rises and walks about immediately, he will prosper in the undertaking; but sneeze twice in the night for three successive nights, and you forecast death or disaster.

    Many stories of wizardry and magic grew up around the figure of Scot. A rhyme told of his peculiar powers:. And people whispered of his going about by riding a demon in shape of a black horse. He is said to have foretold that he would die as the result of a blow on the head, and to avoid this always wore a steel helmet. One day, at church with the emperor, he was forced to remove it, whereupon a small stone fell on his head and killed him instantly.

    Some more prominent 13th-century figures had a merely peripheral interest in astrology.