Medieval views on astrology


Medieval astrology

On the face of it, astrology may seem a strange bedfellow to the types of complementary medicine most of us are familiar with, such as acupuncture, homeopathy and herbalism.

Astrology in the Middle Ages

However, historically astrology has been part of a much more integrated view of the universe, where the heavens and Earth were seen as part of an interconnected whole. Medical doctors studying in universities were required to study astrology up until the end of the 18 th century. Medieval medicine looked very different to modern medicine, although the meticulous recording of the effects of medicinal herbs have found their way into modern medicine in some cases.

In modern times, we know that willow bark contains salicin, from which aspirin is derived. In addition, signs of the zodiac were related to parts of the body in a logical sequence — the first sign of the zodiac, Aries, assigned to the head, down to the last sign, Pisces, assigned to the feet. This led to guidelines, such as avoiding bloodletting when the Moon was in a sign relating to the part of the body from where the blood was to be drawn.

More sophisticated astrological techniques also related to medicine — when a patient took to their bed with an illness, an astrological chart was drawn up for that moment and analysed. Thomas Aquinas considered the matter carefully.

Beginning astrology: before you even learn the zodiac.

His views represent something approaching the medieval consensus and are worth quoting:. If anyone attempts from the stars to foretell future contingent or chance events, or to know with certitude future activities of men, he is acting under a false and groundless presumption, and opening himself to the intrusion of diabolic powers. Consequently, this kind of fortune telling is superstitious and wrong.

Astrology in medieval Islam

But if someone uses astronomic observation to forecast future events which are actually determined by physical laws, for instance drought and rainfall, and so forth, then this is neither superstitious nor sinful. So, as far as the Church was concerned, the science of astrology was acceptable when it was restricted to studying the natural effects that the stars have on earth.

In that case, the astrologer could not see the future but could make forecasts based on the predictable motions of the heavens. However, true divination was not possible using purely natural means and hence was out of bounds to good Christians. The Church also drew other lines that no astrologer should cross. Aquinas was sure that it was the latter:. Still, they can dispose and incline man to do this rather than that, in as much as they make an impression on the human body.

This was important because if the facts of our birth determine the course of our lives, any idea of free will or moral responsibility becomes untenable. The Paris condemnations of made it very clear that as far as the Church was concerned, fate was not fixed and the stars could only effect predispositions.

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Are our personalities determined by our genes or do the decisions we make in life affect the kind of person that we are? Like the Church in the Middle Ages, most of us are acutely uncomfortable with the idea that free will might be an illusion. The medieval Church repeatedly attacked determinism and defended the concept of free will.

Inevitably, some astrologers would not toe the line and one or two galloped imperiously across it. Bologna in the fourteenth century was a city of lofty towers. When a Bolognese family wanted to keep up with the neighbours, they had to ensure that their tower was taller than the one next door. Few of these architectural monstrosities survive today but the Torre degli Asinelli, one of those that does, is an impressive feet high. The university was thriving as well. It was already over two centuries old and had added a medical faculty to the original law school.


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Although Cecco was a lecturer on astronomy, for students training to be physicians, in fact astrology was the rationale for learning about the stars. It is no surprise, then, that it was as an astrologer that Cecco built his reputation. The text that he used for his classes was The Sphere by Englishman John Sacrobosco who died around About Sacrobosco himself we know next to nothing except that he spent most of his career teaching at Paris.

His book is a short and simple introduction to the knowledge of the heavens that was current in the thirteenth century, specifically intended for students at the new universities. The title refers to the fact that medieval people, like the ancient Greeks, thought that the universe was perfectly round, with the earth at its centre. Because The Sphere was so brief, lecturers tended to use it as a jumping-off point rather than treating it as an exhaustive survey. He put his own astrological spin on the material and appended many other unrelated ideas.

The Grad Student Medieval Reading Group of the St. Louis U. English Dept.

Sacrobosco himself does not mention astrology at all. When he actually gave the lectures, he may have gone even further than he was willing to admit in his published writings. The professors of Bologna were respected and reasonably well paid, but Cecco had a lucrative sideline that allowed him to live very comfortably indeed.

He traded on his reputation as an astronomer to moonlight as an astrologer, providing readings for clients who wanted to know their future. Cecco was in no doubt that astrology worked and that the stars were a sure guide to what lay ahead. His confidence in astrology caused him to make statements that even today seem shockingly foolish in their bravado. In an incredibly unwise move, he went as far as to calculate the horoscope of Jesus Christ. Under the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus was God incarnate. Rumours of what Cecco was up to leaked out.

We do not know if his students or his clients betrayed him, but someone found his pronouncements beyond the pale and reported them. The man who was most interested in such deviancy was the local inquisitor for Bologna, one Lambert de Cingulum fl. Like many inquisitors, he was a member of the Blackfriars, the Dominicans of Thomas Aquinas.

This meant that he was no ignorant cleric frightened by things he could not understand. Lambert was an educated scholar, an expert on the ethical teaching of Aristotle and a professor in his own right. Like the secret police in a communist state, inquisitors depended on a network of informers and agents to keep them abreast of heresy in their district.

The system was wide open to abuse by those who denounced their enemies for personal or venal reasons. An inquisitor was trained to be aware of this possibility and punish those who made false accusations. We cannot tell if Cecco was the victim of a vendetta or jealousy but nevertheless Lambert had little difficulty in finding him guilty of making heretical statements.

Full text of "The mediaeval attitude toward astrology, particularly in England"

The size of the fine indicates that the crime was a considerable one and that Cecco was wealthy enough to pay it. Above all, Lambert forbade Cecco to continue either studying or practising astrology.

This tells us the inquisitor was satisfied that the defendant had come clean and admitted to all his crimes. When summoned before an inquisitor, any strategy other than complete candour would be a serious and probably fatal mistake. If only Cecco had stuck to mainstream astronomy from then on, he could have continued his career without much of a stain on his character.

In time he would have expected to get his job back and been reintroduced to polite society. Unfortunately, he would not stop reading the stars. He left Bologna and travelled to Florence where he set up shop as a freelance astrologer. There are plenty of later and unreliable stories about what he got up to and how he made enemies of important people. None of them is necessary to explain what happened next.

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Astrology in Medieval Medicine

The inquisitor of Florence was a Franciscan friar called Accursius. Accursius was nothing if not meticulous and spent a year carefully investigating the case. We have seen how the inquisitors would not hand a heretic over to the secular arm of government for their first offence but were utterly merciless to repeat offenders. By continuing to practise astrology, Cecco had deliberately flouted a direct order from an inquisitor. If found guilty there would be no clemency. But it's nonetheless a fact that God -- and even perhaps God through Nature, per natural laws we haven't scientifically discovered -- grants to some the ability to see things others can't.

The Bible expressly speaks of those given the ability read souls and to prophesy. As an example, St. Padre Pio was able to know the sins of his penitents before they came to confess to him. He was, ergo, "psychic. And so it may well be with astrology, properly understood. Again, no Catholic is bound to believe in astrology -- i. A Catholic can consider it to be complete hokum; all of that is a question of fact and, ultimately, a matter of science, not of eternal Truths or dogma that we need to know to save our souls. But a Catholic may believe that "the stars" influence us, and he can be perfectly orthodox while doing so.

It is perfectly licit to cast a natal chart to try to determine the planetery influences that may affect your inclinations. What is forbidden is the casting of charts to foretell the future as if it's cast in stone by the stars a form of divination , or to believe in any form of astrology that denies free will. Back to Being Catholic Index. The Ram Aries or the Lion Leo or the Archer Sagittarius carved [on stones] by reason of Fire and the Eastern triplicity, indicate that stones have a property against fevers and such infirmities as dropsy, paralysis, and the like.

And since heat has a beneficial effect, these are said make their wearers skilful and clever, and to raise them to positions honour in the world; the Lion especially [has this effect]. The Twins Gemini , the Scales Libra and the Waterman Aquarius if carved on stones, by reason of the triplicity of Air and the West, are said to predispose their wearers towards friendship and righteousness and good manners, diligent observation of laws, and concord.

The Crab Cancer , the Scorpion Scorpius and the Fishes Pisces , carved on stones, by reason of the triplicity of Water and the North, temper dry fevers, like [those called] ethica and causon, and the like. But according to The Art of Images, they produce an inclination towards lying and unrighteousness and inconstancy and licentiousness.

Evidence of this is that the Scorpion is the image of Mahommet, who never taught anything except lies and unrighteousness. And if the Bull Taurus , the Maiden Virgo or the Horned Goat Capricornus are engraved [upon stones], by reason of the triplicity of Earth and South, they are cold and dry, so far as their effects [are concerned]; hence they are said to cure their wearers of fainting fits and hot infirmities. And they incline their wearers towards religious devotion, and wards country occupations, such as agriculture and the planting of vineyards and gardens.

The same considerations [hold good] for the images that have been scribed outside the Zodiac.

The Traditional Catholic View of Astrology. Here is one of many examples of a "Zodiac Man" which illustrates the idea that the different zodiacal signs influence various parts of the body: Medieval literature is filled with astrological thought. Augustine, famous for writing against astrology, conceded, in Book V, Chapter VI of his "City of God", my emphasis: But, while it is not altogether absurd to say that certain sidereal influences have some power to cause differences in bodies alone —as, for instance, we see that the seasons of the year come round by the approaching and receding of the sun, and that certain kinds of things are increased in size or diminished by the waxings and wanings of the moon, such as sea-urchins, oysters, and the wonderful tides of the ocean— it does not follow that the wills of men are to be made subject to the position of the stars.

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medieval views on astrology Medieval views on astrology
medieval views on astrology Medieval views on astrology
medieval views on astrology Medieval views on astrology
medieval views on astrology Medieval views on astrology
medieval views on astrology Medieval views on astrology
medieval views on astrology Medieval views on astrology

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