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De Docta Astrologia: C.U.R.A.'s Book Reviews
by Shelley Jordan

 Introduction by Shelley Jordan

 1. Cardano's Cosmos by Anthony Grafton
 2. History, Prophecy, and the Stars (Pierre d'Ailly) by Laura A. Smoller
 3. The Queen's Conjurer (John Dee) by Benjamin Woolley
 4. The Notorious Astrological Physician of London (S. Forman) by Barbara Traister

 CURA's Book Reviews 2nd part (Guinard, Kidger, Bogart, Schechner, Newman and Grafton, Barton)


Welcome to CURA's new book review section. The Latin title of this column, De Docta Astrologia, means "concerning learned astrology", which I am distinguishing here from vulgaris astrologia, the vulgar and common astrology popular with the masses. Ever since Otto Neugebauer's authoritative call in 1951 for the serious study of "wretched subjects" (he meant astrology!), scholars have inched closer and closer to this previously taboo and closeted area, generating a new and learned field of study – the history of classical astrology.

As Professor Neugebauer pointed out in his famous brief and trenchant essay (in "The Study of Wretched Subjects", Isis, 42, 1951; Culture and Cosmos, 1.2, 1997), it is not possible, without a clear knowledge of the astrological tradition, to have a lucid comprehension of the transmission of ideas from antiquity through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. In response to Neugebauer's command, a new wave of scholarship has emerged, with its innovative focus aimed at astrology's cultural and scientific history.

Increasing numbers of talented and devoted scholars have dedicated years to the recovery and interpretation of the nearly lost astrological treasures of our cultural past, to the growing benefit of the fields of the history of science, art, religion and philosophy. Regardless of what side of the fence one is on concerning the issue of "belief" in astrology, objective knowledge of its opulent, complex and multi-cultural history can only clarify and enrich the study of humanity's past.

In this column I will review select titles from the expanding treasury of informative and valuable works that tackle the topic of docta astrologia.

1. Cardano's Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer
by Anthony Grafton (Harvard University Press, 1999)
(reviewed by Shelley Jordan, April 2001, Edition 11)

Cardano's Cosmos is one of the most fascinating and informative books I have ever read on the subject of astrology's vast and complex history. Undaunted by his topic's technical intricacies, Professor Anthony Grafton of Princeton University has created a sensitive and richly detailed entry into the social and cultural environment of the famous and tragic Renaissance astrologer, physician, mathematician and inventor Girolamo Cardano. Without apology or the usual scholarly condescension which typically occurs as soon as the subject of astrology is approached, Grafton familiarizes us with one of Europe's uniquely innovative astrologers, positioning him squarely within his social and intellectual environment. Grafton manages to do this, with his poetic and witty style, in a manner that is both sympathetic, entertaining and illuminating.

Cardano was the first astrologer to utilize and exploit the printing press on a large scale. He achieved fame and pioneering success with the mass distribution of his voluminous collections of celebrity astrological charts, supplementing them with juicily stimulating and informative analyses. In spite of the high profile popularity of astrology during the Renaissance, nothing like Cardano's packaged genitures had ever before appeared in print. He lived in an era of flourishing astrology – a virtual "culture of prediction" (p.170) – when practitioners, blithely ignoring their endless flow of prior errors, enthusiastically continued to predict apocalyptic catastrophes, resulting in the subsequent generation of widespread public hysteria.

In spite of their, at times, erroneous predictions and methods, astrologers thrived and prospered, and did experience considerable success with their art. Astrology was so pervasively practiced in Renaissance Europe that it was studied at Martin Luther's own university. While Luther himself was opposed to the practice of astrology, he unquestioningly accepted the prevailing belief in the portentous power of comets. As Grafton points out, astrology "in short, provided not only the large-scale predictions, but also the fine-grained character analyses and precisely adjusted psychological therapies, that early modern intellectuals needed." (p.193)

It is surprising, then, to discover that the astrology practiced by Renaissance intellectuals such as the mathematician Cardano was so riddled with inaccuracies and errors as to be risible today. For instance, Cardano, who obsessed endlessly over his own chart, incorrectly placed his Moon in the wrong house, not discovering his oversight for years. Grafton describes the typical inaccuracy of Renaissance astrologers:

"Georg Helmstetter of Heidelberg – the historical Faustus – omitted both the precise borders of the houses and all the planetary positions from a geniture which he drew up and interpreted for a client, to the derision of at least one reader." (p.61)

In other words, Helmstetter interpreted a client's chart which was void of house cusps and planets!

Anthony Grafton seems to possess some kind of intuitive access to the typical astrologer's mind when he describes Cardano's obsessive utilization of astrology and preoccupation with his own birth chart as a means of gaining personal insight and self-awareness -- employing and promoting it as a form of "moral therapy." (p.92)

In a chapter called "The Astrologer as Empiricist," Grafton notes that in a

"special, sixteenth-century sense, astrology could become a disciplined, empirical inquiry into the depths of the self. It both prescribed profound exercises in characterology and introspection and stimulated inventive exercises in expressing and recording their results." (p.202)

Cardano left extensive and revealing autobiographical works, analyzing his own chart, and exposing his own inner sorrows and struggles, both professionally and personally. In his efforts at creating a scientific astrology, he insisted on the power of free will, and the imperfections of current astrology. His pleas for its reform were to later influence Kepler. Grafton optimistically observes, "Astrology, like other arts, was the imperfect product of human effort and history. It would continue to change and improve in the future." (p.147)

We find out that, in fact, astrology did somewhat improve in the future, because during Cardano's era, he and other Renaissance astrologers fed their fame and egos by the frequency with which they could accurately predict the causes and dates of peoples' deaths! The heavy professional burden of prediction had, however, by then lightened up since Roman times, when Tiberius was prepared to throw his astrologer into the sea for incorrect forecasts.

For all of Cardano's success and international recognition as a healer and astrologer, he was the victim of professional rivalry, persecution by the Inquisition, his own contentious and eccentric personality, and his miserable health. His geniture for the birth of Christ seems to have been one of the factors involved in prompting the Inquisition to persecute and condemn him, ultimately placing him under house arrest and banning him from teaching. With the pathos of Verdi's Rigoletto, he reveals in his writings the anguish and agony he endured during the most life-defining experience of his adult years --- the execution of his beloved son, ostensibly by his father's own enemies. He appears to have failed to predict that particular event, but did manage to survive for decades the predicted year of doom which he was certain would be his last.

I am grateful to Professor Grafton for writing this beautiful work. It was a pleasure to read. He ventures heroically into virtually untouched territory, bringing depth, comprehension and sheer entertainment value to the newly burgeoning field of the history of classical astrology. His respect and insight into the topic, and comfort and ease with its technical difficulties have created a model for future historians.

2. History, Prophecy, and the Stars: The Christian Astrology of Pierre d'Ailly, 1350-1420
by Laura Ackerman Smoller (Princeton Univ. Press, New Jersey, 1994)
(reviewed by Shelley Jordan, June 2001, Edition 12)

D'Ailly's Apocalyptic Era

The medieval debate between the titanic traditions of astrology and theology is examined in Laura Smoller's 1994 contribution to the history of classical astrology. [1] History, Prophecy and the Stars discusses the evolution and societal healing power of the astrological prognostications and apocalyptic writings of the eminent French theologian Pierre d'Ailly. A distinguished cardinal and irenic conciliator, d'Ailly produced his major astrological texts during the seismic crisis period spanning the Great Schism, the cataclysmic division that rocked the foundations of the Church from 1378 through 1414. [2] So intense was the structural breakdown of Roman authority during this historic phase that at one point there were as many as three popes simultaneously vying for power.

D'Ailly's lifetime was engulfed in the religious and political upheavals that fractured the Church. At that time Europe was assaulted by plague, war, famine, rebellion and economic chaos. All of these unstable factors contributed to an atmosphere of apocalyptic frenzy, resulting in the fashionable production of multitudinous texts and endless debates concerning the impending birth of Antichrist and the subsequent end of the world. Smoller takes us through the stages of production of d'Ailly's astrological writings on the widely anticipated final cataclysm, examining the authoritative theological objections to astrology's indelible presence in European culture.

It is somewhat startling to discover that even Christopher Columbus was an avid reader of d'Ailly's astrological works, and that his drive to discover the Indies was fueled by a "curious blend of astrological prognostications and apocalyptic fervor" (p. 3). In his letters to Isabella and Ferdinand, which are peppered with astrological references, Columbus described his pressing missionary aspirations to help convert the peoples of the world to Christianity before the world ceased to exist.

Antecedent Influences on d'Ailly's Writings

While astrology was controversial during the Middle Ages, it was universally accepted. Two simultaneous and contradictory traditions co-existed concerning astrology. The Church fathers, particularly St. Augustine (354 - 430), in The City of God, attacked astrology as the pagan superstition of star worship on three primary grounds. First, its position on astral determinism completely contradicted the fundamental Christian belief in the freedom of human will. Second, it established an impossible conflict between astral control and God's will. Finally, it was obviously disproved in the case of twins: two individuals born at the same time could lead completely different lives, in spite of having nearly identical charts.

St. Augustine did concede that there was probably some stellar influence on the physical world, but not on human will. On the other hand, astrology performed a pivotal and crucial function in medieval medicine, meteorology, alchemy and intellectual discourse. During the 12th century, a tidal wave of Arabic literature had flooded the Latin West, carrying astrological and philosophical treatises into the scholarly centers of Europe, resulting in an inflation of astrological material. In particular, the works of Aristotle were embraced by the intellectuals of the Middle Ages. An inkling of the enormous power he exerted on medieval minds is seen in the simple title granted to him during this period – "The Philosopher". Aristotle stated that all events on earth were affected by celestial conditions. Subsequently, as a result of astrology's affirmation by Aristotelian physics, its prestige continually escalated, along with an increasing production of astrological texts.

The three most esteemed early authors whose discussions on the stars contributed to the development of d'Ailly's astrological thinking were Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas. Albertus Magnus (?1193 - 1280), a supreme authority on the occult sciences, was one of the most influential thinkers of the 13th century. Along with Aristotle, he posited a fifth element which was thought to make up the sky and heavenly bodies. Through the mediation of this fifth element, the heavens caused all life and activity on earth. Therefore, astrology was an important natural science because it provided information and explanations for life and events in the physical world.

Like Augustine, Albertus distinguished mind and soul from body to avoid a conflict with Christian theological thinking. He stated that the stars only affect matter, but men of weak will could not resist the temptations of the flesh and were therefore controlled by astrology. Albertus cast nativities and practiced natural magic, including electional astrology. He said, in his Speculum astronomiae, that it was "rash and working against the freedom of the will not to elect astrologically propitious times for one's actions". (p. 30)

Roger Bacon's astrological writings, particularly his Opus maius (ca. 1266), were an important source for d'Ailly. Like Albertus Magnus, Bacon claimed that the stars influenced the body but not the soul. Uniquely strong individuals may be able to resist the force of the stars, but the masses usually could not, thereby validating astrological predictions about large social groups.

Bacon borrowed Albumasar's (Abu Ma'shar) 9th century doctrine of the great conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, and generated a theory of the astral causes of the world's religions. Bacon claimed that astrology had predicted the birth of Christ and the advent of Christianity.

Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274), a student of Albertus Magnus, was not as emphatic a proponent of astrology as were Roger Bacon or his own teacher. However, he was responsible for solving the dilemma of the incompatibility of astral determinism with the theological doctrine of free will. His response became the classic solution to this long-standing conflict. Like previous thinkers, he postulated the distinction between body and soul, and stated that the stars influence only the physical world. There was, however, an indirect astral impact on human behavior. Thomas Aquinas acknowledged that many astrological predictions were accurate because of man's inability to resist the impulses of the flesh. He agreed with St. Augustine that the danger in making astrological predictions lay in the potential intermingling with demonic entities. Thomas's solution of the clash between astrological prediction and free will vindicated medieval medicine, which strongly relied on astrology, and also explained away the failures of astrological predictions - human will simply resisted the forces emanating from the planets.

These somewhat ambiguous solutions to the incompatibility of astrology and Christianity resulted in the widely circulated phrase that summed up the general medieval consensus opinion regarding astrology and its influences: Sapiens dominabitur astris - "the wise one will rule the stars" (p. 30). Positioned at the confluence of these contradictory streams of thought, d'Ailly developed an application of astrology that enabled the theological crisis of his day to be resolved.

D'Ailly's Astrology

Smoller's book gives scant personal information on d'Ailly himself. He was an illustrious theologian, who rose to the pinnacle of the Church hierarchy. His activities on behalf of the Church included presiding over the trial and execution of the Bohemian religious reformer, John Huss, who was burned as a heretic.

D'Ailly played a pivotal role in the successful reconciliation and healing of the Schism. By using astrological calculations to push the anticipated date of the apocalypse far into the future, his astrological writings, perhaps, manipulated and calmed the inflamed public temperament.

At first the Schism fueled his own anticipatory dread, as he urgently attempted to astrologically calculate the end of time, which he initially perceived to be immanent. He ultimately realized, however, that the millennial fury sweeping across Europe was acutely destructive to the social and religious fabric of society in its breeding of heresy and disdain for the clergy. In addition, he could not fail to notice that the world was, in fact, not coming to an end! He revised his opinion and adroitly maneuvered the position of the final cataclysm far into the future, to the provocatively distant date of 1789.

It is easy to be initially astonished at the remarkable year predicted by this French cardinal. The year 1789 eventually witnessed the French revolution, the year d'Ailly predicted would be the ineluctable end of sects, religion and social order. For reasons which are unclear, he knowingly adhered to his prognosticated date of 1789, even though he had used an incorrect astronomical calculation, confusing mean conjunctions with actual and accurate conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn. While Smoller does not analyze his motivations for postponing the world's grand finale, it is tempting to perceive that he intentionally maneuvered the date to assuage the masses, and perhaps himself, of apocalyptic angst, and to stabilize the tremulous position of the great edifice of the medieval Church.

D'Ailly's birth year is uncertain, which may have something to do with his particular practice of astrology, which was not geared toward personal horoscopy. There is no evidence that he actually ever studied the individual rules of chart interpretation, but it is clear from his writings that the last ten years of his life were obsessively fixated on astrologically calculating what could only be the most important date known to humanity - the birth of Antichrist and the final destruction of the world by God.

Ironically - considering his own repeated attempts to predict the end of the world - he attacked those whom he called the "superstitious astrologers", those practitioners he accused of adhering too rigidly to astral determinism. He defended astrology as a valuable science of chronology and history, the demonstrable evidence of which promised to promote the use of the stars for the illumination of history present and future.

" Astrology must be purged of superstitious errors, he argued, such as the attribution of fatal necessity to stellar causality and the assertion of the stars' superiority over free will and divine power. " (p. 63)

His mature astrological works describe astrology as a "natural theology" (p. 54). The techniques for his astrological history were taken primarily from Albumasar and the prevailing astral doctrines that were in vogue at that time. While earlier writers had utilized astrology for historic periodization, no one before d'Ailly had developed as comprehensive and syncretic a system as his.

Like his predecessors, d'Ailly primarily employed the seductively elegant patterns formed by Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions, and their remarkable, geometric ballet through the signs and elements which he perceived as etching out a specific and divine historical narrative:

" In d'Ailly's terminology, a change of triplicity is the greatest (maior) conjunction, which happens every 240 years, and it signifies a change of sect in some region of the earth. After conjunctions have been formed in each of the four triplicities, that is, after approximately 960 years, Saturn and Jupiter are again joined in the original location, invariably defined as the first point of Aries. D'Ailly calls this conjunction the greatest (maxima) conjunction. It is said to signify "changes in empires and kingdoms, fiery impressions in the air, floods, earthquakes, and the supply of crops." In all, d'Ailly delineated four types of Saturn-Jupiter conjunctions: the coniunctio maxima (every 960 years), the coniunctio maior (every 240 years), the coniunctio magna (every 60 years), and the coniunctio minor (every 20 years). D'Ailly located such conjunctions throughout history and related them to the growth of new kingdoms and the rise of new religions. He used astrology, then, as a coherent principle by which to explain and to observe the course of the world's fate. " (pp. 22-23)

D'Ailly had discovered the doctrine of Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions in Roger Bacon's Opus maius. Bacon himself had taken the doctrine from the 9th century Arabic astrologer Albumasar's De magnis coniunctionibus, which was the primary source for conjunction theory during the Middle Ages.

D'Ailly's historic prediction system, which resulted in the tantalizing date of 1789, syncretically assimilated a collection of questionable astrological techniques for determining social and religious patterns. Some of these methods were less astronomically legitimate than others. Among them was the magnis orbis, which was a 360 year cycle, that placed each year under the dominion of one planet and one zodiacal sign. From Albumasar he obtained what were considered to be the three most important indicators of religious shifts: the greatest conjunction (occurring every 960 years), ten complete revolutions of Saturn every 300 years, and the mysterious period of the eighth sphere's accessus and recessus[3]

D'Ailly knew that his prediction for the advent of the Antichrist and the allegedly indefeasible end of time in the year 1789 was based on inaccurate calculations, but nonetheless, he repeated it twice in his writings. While Smoller gives little interpretation to d'Ailly's actions or motivations, it appears that pushing the birth of Antichrist far into the future aided him in successfully negotiating the resolution of the Schism.

Smoller presents a convincing argument that d'Ailly practiced astrology in a cultural and intellectual atmosphere of acceptance and receptivity. It is tempting to independently speculate, based on her material, that he could have manipulatively used astrology as an additional irenic devise in his successful resolution of the traumatic Schism that scarred his age, although his initial purpose with astrology was to brace himself for the coming cataclysm. While not suggested by Smoller, one can perceive d'Ailly as a transitional character, an adumbration of the impending scientific attempt to organize the physical, temporal world, and to, in some way, reconcile the natural, astrological world with the sacred.

Smoller's book is densely packed with information. It is a valiantly muscular effort at presenting a technically and philosophically complex stage in medieval history. History, Prophecy and the Stars is another example of the growing number of scholarly works discussing astrology in the context of European intellectual history.
[1]  Laura Ackerman Smoller is an Assistant Professor of History (early science and medicine) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. « Text
[2]  The Great Schism began September 20, 1378. « Text
[3]  Regarding the accessus and recessus (approach and recession), my sincere appreciation to Giuseppe Bezza for his explanation: The theory of accessus and recessus is also called the theory of trepidation. This complex doctrine presumes that the eighth sphere has two movements. The first is the uniform movement of precession (but somewhat slower than Ptolemy's, i.e. a complete revolution takes 49,000 years. The second is the movement of accessus and recessus: by this movement the beginning of Aries (in the ninth sphere) moves according to the sequence of the signs, and also in the contrary order, accomplishing a complete revolution in 7,000 years. In short, trepidation explained the apparent inequalities of the movement of precession. For further information, see B.R. Goldstein, "On the Theory of Trepidation", Centaurus, 10, 1964. pp. 232-247; also see J. Samso, Islamic Astronomy and Medieval Spain, Hampshire, 1994. « Text

3. The Queen's Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I
by Benjamin Woolley (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2001)
(reviewed by Shelley Jordan, August 2001, Edition 13)

John Dee was a Renaissance intellectual superstar by the age of twenty-four. Born in London in 1527 and educated at Cambridge, Dee ravenously absorbed and mastered most of his epoch's major areas of learning, becoming a celebrated authority in such innovative disciplines as mathematics, geology, navigation, engineering, astronomy and mathematical astrology. A passionate bibliophile, Dee's personal library became one of Europe's largest collections.

He was an intimate mentor to Elizabeth I, and as "hyr philosopher" he was chosen to determine the most astrologically auspicious date for her coronation. Dee was an industrious participant in European political life, and frequently engaged in mysterious espionage activities for the British crown. He possessed expertise in the newly bourgeoning field of ciphers and cryptology, which was closely tied in with the magical literature of his time. Also equated with magic was the new and dangerous practice of mathematics, sometimes called 'calculing' in its association with conjuring by an ignorant public. During the Tudor era, books on mathematics were regularly burned as conjuring texts; mathematics was commonly associated with the magical black arts.

Dee lived in an period of rampant scholastic reform, when Arabic numbers were just beginning to replace Roman numerals, and mathematics was still a questionable pursuit that could place the indiscriminate practitioner in grave jeopardy. Dee wrote the introduction to the initial English translation of Euclid's Geometry, and caused a sensation in Paris as the first individual to publicly lecture on that topic at a European university.

It is a wonder, then, why after such a glorious beginning Dee ended his long life in ignominious obscurity, his name and reputation scarred for centuries by accusations of heresy, necromancy and conjuring.

A flush of fascinating literature examining the strange and scandalous life of Dr. Dee has recently emerged, partially fueled by Dame Frances Yates' discussion of Dee in her brilliant book, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. Benjamin Woolley's 2001 biography, The Queen's Conjurer, focuses on the very activities of John Dee's that led to his downfall and disgrace -- his political enmeshments, his astrological writings and especially his infamous occult preoccupations with angelic wisdom. Woolley's vivid and hypnotic narrative gives us a detailed and at times, cinemagraphically fictionalized account of Dee's life.

A welcome bonus is the photographic reproduction of his birth chart, in Dee's own hand, different from the chart previously published in Lois Rodden's Astro-Data III (A.F.A., 1986) . The source for Rodden's Dee chart is the book John Dee: Scientist, Geographer, Astrologer and Secret Agent to Elizabeth I , by Richard Deacon (London, 1968). According to Woolley, John Dee's natal chart is the only extant record of his birth information: July 13, 1527; 4:02 PM, in or near London (only the latitude is given -- 51 degrees 32 minutes -- a common practice during that era). Deacon gives 4:35 AM, instead of the 4:02 PM of the authentic, hand-written chart in Woolley's book, taken from the Ashmolean library collection. Rodden gives the Deacon source a B rating.

One wonders about the rather exact sounding time of 4:02 PM, and whether it is an accurate time or a time rectified by Dee to place Antares and Sagittarius on his ascendant, supporting some view Dee may have had of his own identity, seeing himself as a contentious philosopher, which Antares on the Sagittarius ascendant would describe. [1b]
John Dee's birth chart

Dee's birth chart, "one of three to be found among his papers" (according to Woolley, p.116-),
Bodleian Library, Oxford, ms Ashmole 1788, fol. 137r


Early in the book, Woolley makes an attempt at analyzing Dee's chart, utilizing the traditional Ptolemaic techniques that Dee himself would most likely have employed:

"The two most powerful influences, the Sun and Moon, the two "luminaries," are in opposition [Sun in late Cancer, Moon at the beginning of Aquarius] – a common enough configuration, but one that suggests a conflict of personality. More notable for Dee was the position of Jupiter, which basked with the Sun in the "serene and warm" sign of Cancer, where it was exalted. In his copy of Ptolemy, he marked the observation that Jupiter's distance from the ascendant (the rising sign on the eastern horizon) indicated that he would be skilled in science. "If he should be lord alone," Ptolemy wrote, Jupiter would also promote "honour, happiness, content and peace."

Unfortunately, Jupiter was not "lord alone." He was threatened by Mars, so his benign influence was seriously compromised. The same passage in Ptolemy that promised scientific proficiency also warned of isolation and condemnation.

There were other disturbing signs, such as the presence of the star Antares together with the planet Mars [Antares conjunct the ascendant at 4° of Sagittarius, Mars rising at 25° of Scorpio]. Antares had been described as the "Scorpion's heart," as it appears in the middle of the constellation Scorpio. Mars is a troublesome presence in any chart, causing "mischief and destruction," as Ptolemy put it. Antares was by tradition taken to have an influence similar to Mars, so the presence of the two apparently acting in unison, and within the sign ruled by Mars, must have struck Dee as a threatening combination." (pp. 9-10)

The centrality of astrology in Dee's natural philosophy is seen in one of the products of Dee's early scientific ambition – his astrological work the Propaedeumata aphoristica (Preliminary aphoristic teachings). This collection of aphorisms attempted to explain the phenomena of nature according to the powers of astrology and their impact on the sublunar world. [2b]

Dee viewed astrology as a science of optics. He theorized that every object in the universe emanated rays. The force of these rays impacted every other object with which they came into contact. Dee's planetary rays had the power to affect the human soul as well as the body. Woolley makes no comment that with this perspective, Dee deviated from the orthodox position of the early church fathers, especially Thomas Aquinas, who stated that while astrological influences affected the world of matter, they made no impact on the soul.

These heavenly rays were capable of being manipulated with lenses and mirrors. According to Dee, such devises would reflect, concentrate or refract these celestial emanations. Woolley speculates that Dee was moving from a magical to a scientific world view, though still very much entrenched in magic.

"This [theory of rays] became the basis of Dee's natural philosophy, and it is very tempting to see it as anticipating by more than a century Isaac Newton's groundbreaking Principia Mathematica, the fountainhead of the scientific revolution and modern physics. There are certainly similarities with Newton's theory of gravity: the idea of a magnetic-like force emanating from physical bodies that acts on other physical bodies; the emphasis on mathematics combined with measurement as a way of discovering how such a force works. Furthermore, like Newton, Dee believed that the universe worked according to mathematical laws, and he also believed that the sorts of principles set out in Propaedeumata Aphoristica provided a way of proving it." (Page 49)

Dee's wide-spread renown as Queen Elizabeth's astrologer and consultant fell into disrepute as the position of astrology in England's cultural landscape shifted. Elizabethan England was a schizophrenogenic environment for a thirsty young intellectual like Dee. On the one hand, astrology was a widely accepted part of life, though sparsely practiced due to the shortage of English ephemerides and texts.

On the other hand, the actual construction of birth charts, frequently requested by the nobility, could generate accusations of sorcery – a threatening and dangerous position to be in, considering the recent burnings of hundreds of victims of religious and political persecution during Dee's own lifetime. Dee himself, in fact, had at one point been arrested and charged with calculating, conjuring and witchcraft on the grounds that he had drawn up a horoscope for Queen Mary. In addition, unsettling celestial events like comets and the supernova of 1572 were upsetting the reliability of the fixed Aristotelean cosmos.

Astrology's reputation began to decline after the numerous prophecies for the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in Pisces in 1583 failed to materialize. Astrologers predicted the usual catastrophes and apocalyptic disasters for this final conjunction in water signs, before Jupiter and Saturn would make their shift into the fiery trigon in 1603 (the year of Queen Elizabeth's death). But, in fact, 1583 was one of England's most successful and glorious years.

Like other recent authors who have attempted to deal with the hitherto taboos and complexities of astrological history, Woolley runs into a bit of trouble. He gives the duration of Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions in a particular element as 200 years, instead of the accurate period of 240 years. He writes that the next anticipated conjunction of 1603 would occur in Aries, when in fact, it fell, of course, in Sagittarius, due to the conjunction's pattern of advancing not one, but eight signs in between consecutive conjunctions. [3b] He also writes, for some reason, that Dee became an astrologer and astronomer because of his insecurity as a "bewildered young boy" (page 6). This is a curious position to assume considering the greatest scientists of Dee's era were astronomers as well as astrologers.

Eventually, Dee felt that he had exhausted all human resources available to him in his compulsive quest for knowledge, and that he would only find the answers to his deepest inquiries into God's creation by resorting to actual contact with beings of a higher order -- angels.

The center of gravity of Woolley's absorbing book is his shocking account of Dee's self-destructive addiction to what he referred to as "actions". These were allegedly authentic discourses with angelic entities, carried on with the help of a skryer, what we today would call a psychic. Skryers and their activities were common enough in Elizabethan England, which was filled with these characters, many of whom were marginal, homeless vagrants claiming to have direct, supernatural contact with the angelic realms, usually through the use of magic stones or crystals.

Woolley relates Dee's incessant activities as an investigator of these supernatural revelations, and his degrading partnership with his apparently psychopathic skryer, Edward Kelley. The author rarely interjects opinion or commentary as he dramatizes the surrealistic visions graphically delivered by Kelley, and assiduously recorded by Dee. In his fabricated retelling of Dee's psychic investigations, Woolley's book at times reads like a cross between fictionalized biography and tales from the twilight zone.

One of the more suspect angelic transmissions recommended: "All sins committed in me are forgiven. He who goes mad on my account, let him be wise. He who commits adultery because of me, let him be blessed for eternity and receive the heavenly prize." (Page 259)

Dee became so captivated by the empty commands and vagaries of his angelic teachers that, to the reader's horror, he even submitted to their demand that he engage in wife-swapping with Kelley, trading his beloved young and tempestuous wife, Jane, nearly thirty years Dee's junior, for Kelley's difficult and unloved Joanna.

Completely hypnotized by the actions, the ingenuous Dr. Dee barely blinked an eye at the occasional hints that cast doubt on the proceedings: "How pitiful a thing it is, when the wise are deluded" one of the angels remarked. (page 180)

The impression Woolley leaves us with in his tale about the legendary Dee and his vacuous angels is of a tragic figure, possessed of a colossal intellect, but flawed with blinding hubris and a credulity that led to the crumbling of his once exalted status as the premier natural philosopher in Elizabethan England.

An entirely different perspective on Dee and his angel research is presented by leading Dee scholar Deborah Harkness. In her excellent, thoroughly researched book John Dee's Conversations With Angels (Cambridge University Press, 1999), she positions Dee's angel work within the shifting philosophical, political and religious conditions of his day -- an historical period continually shaken by the widely believed expectation that time, nature and the world were nearing their end. Harkness demonstrates that the angel conversations were, at that time, legitimate exegetical aids in Dee's natural philosophy, which was attempting to maintain consistency between heaven and earth, during a period when it was believed that life on earth was approaching extinction. The angel conversations, the veracity of which were doubted by few who came into contact with them, were Dee's attempt to develop a universal science that would "extend a ladder from the deteriorating world to the heavens" (Page 4).

Woolley's book, though, has high entertainment value. It is a compulsively readable story of a character who inspires awe and disdain. His animated interactions between the earnest and scholarly Dee and the turbulent Kelley have an ominous vitality that makes this work an engrossing dramatization of the world of Renaissance science and magic.

Further reading: select bibliography on John Dee

Bowden, Mary Ellen; The Scientific Revolution in Astrology: the English reformers, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Yale University, 1974

Clulee, Nicholas H; John Dee's Natural Philosophy: between science and religion, Routledge, 1988

Fenton, Edward, ed.; Diaries of John Dee, 1527-0608, Day Books, 1998

French, Peter; John Dee: the world of an Elizabethan magus, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1987

Harkness, Deborah E.; John Dee's Conversations With Angels: cabala, alchemy, and the end of nature; Cambridge University Press, 1999

Sherman, William H; John Dee: The politics of reading and writing in the English Renaissance, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995

Shumaker, Wayne ed. & transl, with essay by J.L. Heilbron; Propaedeumata aphoristica (1558 and 1568), University of California Press, 1978

Shumaker, Wayne; Renaissance curiosa: John Dee's conversations with angels, Girolamo Cardano's horoscope of Christ, Johannes Trithemius and cryptology, George Dalgarno's Universal language, Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, State University of New York, 1982

Yates, Frances; The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Routledge, 1993
[1b]  We see a similar situation with another illustrious Renaissance astrologer. Girolamo Cardano's highly specific birth time of 6:40 PM (September 24, 1501, Gallarate, Italy), places Taurus on the ascendant. The description of Taurus in a work Cardano would probably have had access to, Abu Ma'shar's The Abbreviation to the Introduction to Astrology (E. J. Brill, 1994), fits what we know about Cardano: «defective in figure, cut in its limbs, libidinous, having few children» (page 15). Did Cardano rectify his chart to fit a description of himself that he identified with in Abu Ma'shar's famous work? In addition, at that time, Jupiter was rising, conjunct the ascendant, which could both be a projected self-concept of Cardano's as a healer and educated individual, or in fact, if the time is truly correct, those very astrological conditions that would describe him as such.
This triggers questions about the whole history of chart construction and time-keeping. In most cases, for the past two thousand years, people simply did not have access to accurate time-keeping instruments. My consideration, for the moment, is whether or not astrology historically had functioned more as a contemplative, philosophical system, than as an actual science based on the observation of birth charts, even though birth charts were continually being constructed and interpreted. Astrologers simply did not have access to that many charts for study, which may be one of the possible explanations for why astrology remained in such a frozen state for so many centuries.  This issue is what makes Cardano such an important figure in the history of astrology. He was the first person to make large collections of birth charts available for study after the invention of the printing press.
Perhaps the practice of horary was more widespread than genethliacal astrology, simply because a horary chart requires no personal records. Reading al-Biruni's Elements of Astrology one gets the impression that his book is better suited for horary rather than for natal chart interpretation. In spite of his reputation as a «Baconian» (my own adjective for him) observational and experimental scientist, al-Biruni is quoted in the Elements as noting that an illiterate soothsayer was able to make a correct prediction because his part of daemon was conjunct his ascendant (The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology, page 283, footnote 2; al-Biruni, trans. R. Ramsay Wright; Luzec & Co. 1934)  It seems unlikely that the illiterate lower classes in the middle east were maintaining accurate birth records for the construction of birth charts. So the question becomes, how did individuals know and communicate their birth times to astrologers?
This topic -- how birth times were recorded and collected for the casting of charts, and the nature of historical methods of time-keeping -- needs further investigation in order to develop a better understanding of the history of astrological chart calculation. Also, see Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos, III 2, for a discussion of this very problem. « Text

[2b]  See John Dee on Astronomy: Propaedeumata aphoristica, edited and translated, with general notes, by Wayne Shumaker; with notes and introductory essay on Dee's mathematics and physics and his place in the scientific revolution by J.L. Heilbron. « Text

[3b]  In this case, the conjunction, a coniunctio maior, advanced nine signs, because of the shift in elements. See S. Jordan's review in CURA of Laura Smoller's History, Prophecy and the Stars for an explanation of the medieval doctrine of Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions. « Text

4. The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman
by Barbara Howard Traister (University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2001)
(reviewed by Shelley Jordan, October 2001, Edition 14)

What were the daily practice and lifestyle of a successful professional astrologer like during the English Reformation? Barbara Howard Traister's recent publication, The Notorious Astrological Physician of London answers this question and more in her lucid and well-organized University of Chicago Press publication. Dr. Traister's stimulating book, born from her examination of the manuscripts of the English astrologer Simon Forman, associate and contemporary of William Lilly and Richard Napier, divulges not only the intimate and considerably sleazy side of Forman's life, but more importantly, his cultural and economic struggles and successes, alternately familiar and alien to today's practitioners of the astrological art.

Her study focuses not so much on the lurid and "notorious" side of Forman's life (although there is enough of that to satisfy the innocent reader who wonders why the appellation attached itself to Forman). Rather, her research converges on the textual records of Forman's own personal papers. [1c] Forman's casebooks, diaries and autobiographical works contain information on his medical, astrological and magical practices, even including his strangely imperceptive observations of the theater of his day. His professional papers are among the earliest English medical records; his private writings contain two of the first English autobiographies, the second of which is replete with personal annual horoscopes. [2c] His chaotic and erroneous critical commentaries (he thought it was Macbeth's hands that were stained with blood) make up the earliest London theater journal.

With a psychological slant and occasional touch of dry humor, Traister tells us how the late-blooming Forman positioned himself in the English medical caste system, establishing himself after long periods of struggle and deprivation as a successful and propertied physician and astrologer. Due to the penury of his early life (he felt rejected by his mother and his father died the day after his eleventh birthday), Forman was unable to complete his education at Oxford.

In spite of these obstacles, he eventually began an earnest and enthusiastically self-taught practice of physic (medicine), but was subsequently hounded and persecuted by the newly established Royal College of Physicians due to his lack of formal education. Among their assaults on Forman, which resulted in continuous pressure, harassment and imprisonment, was the administration of an examination on astrology, which Forman failed, to the accompaniment of the humiliating laughter of the examining board of physicians. Astrology was an essential component of the medical practice of that era, and Traister, along with the reader, wonders why Forman, an assiduous practitioner of astrology, failed his examination. Further research is needed to shed light on the prevailing astrological orthodoxies of the Reformation era, and how Forman's techniques differed from the predominant practices of his day. After years of conflict and dogged determination, he eventually did receive his medical license from Cambridge.

Forman gives his birthday as December 31, 1552. Traister describes him as a "busy, driven man who lacked any discernable shred of humor" (p. xii). Mistrustful and ambitious, "Forman devoted his life to scrambling up the social ladder and claiming a place in the world" (p. 6) He re-invented his family history in an attempt to cover up the emotional and financial poverty of his early years, in order to achieve the wealth, status and respectability he craved. His belief in his own intelligence and occult gifts supplied him with the confidence to attain his financial and social goals. Traister mentions his loneliness and paranoia, his sense of superiority over others:

"Forman's enemy was a social structure that was closed against him. In his eyes, its most obvious embodiment was the College of Physicians, the "doctors." (p.27)

Forman practiced astrological medicine within the framework of Galenic humoral theory, with its emphasis on maintaining balance in the body. He was eclectic in his approach to healing, adding various other techniques, including the therapies of Paracelsus. He experimented on himself, recording the results of his scientific endeavors. He described one of his attempts with a reputedly effective prescription for rejuvenation in which he

"did boill 2 snakes in my strong water when I distilled it. and after I drank of that water and yt made me loke fresh and toke away all my gray hairs when I was 56 years old & many toke me not to be aboue 40 or 42." (p. 33)

What are we to make of that experiment, and then, subsequently, of Forman's other clinical observations?

Though not formally trained in his medical practice, Forman taught himself both physic and surgery, attracting persecution not only from the physicians, but from the barber surgeons. He kept records of his cures and wrote theoretical treatises on medicine, including two astrological essays on the plague, which he determined was celestial in its origins, sent as punishment from God to avenge the sins of a wicked humanity. He distinguished between the black plague of Saturn and the red plague of Mars. He wrote with characteristic detail (and spelling):

"The sores [of Mars] ar felte vnder the eare, vnder the arme pites and in the flancke or groine, as those of Saturn ar, but thes sores or carbuncles of mars ar more fierie hote, and red, and do rise vp and com out quicklie in respecte to those of Saturne, for those of Saturne when they rise they begine depe in the fleshe and ar longe before they com to any perfection, and doe seldom breke, and they locke wan & palle in respecte of those of [Mars] & therfore I haue lancte them & cut them often tymes. And ther is in them lyttle matter, but moch water, and they ar verie sore and gryvouse. But those of mars doe rise in the superficies of the fleshe and com to a hed quickly.and will break often tymes of them selues, or with a lyttle healpe, but let men take heed to stand by in dressinge of those of mars because they ar daungerouse and verie infectiue." (pp. 44- 45)

Differentiating between the various forms of humoral melancholy, Forman recommended that the afflicted patient should be bled, unless the melancholy was located in the brain. This condition was curable if diagnosed early. The melancholic patient was prescribed an abundance of entertaining activities, a diet rich in fats and sweets, and a lot of sleep. Outdoor activities in beautiful environments were encouraged, but perspiration and physical intimacy were to be avoided. From Forman's writings, it is clear that he operated as a psychiatric consultant, in addition to his other functions as a healer.

Some of his recommendations were surprisingly astute, such as suggesting lemon juice for scurvy; but for bloodshot eyes with potential cataracts, he recommended "let him put a hed louse into his eye and he will eat yt out and healle yt." (p. 50)

Alchemy and necromancy were avid interests for Forman, but they took a back seat to the primacy of astrology, which was "central to every activity in which he engaged, most particularly to his medical practice" (p. 31) In addition to treating patients with astrological medicine, he was approached for non-medical astrological consultations by clients for many other types of issues and problems, from romance to business. If the birth time was not available, he would engage astrology as divination, constructing casts (horary) in response to clients' questions. He himself constantly engaged in horary regarding his own life and situations. The calculation of horary charts was commonplace at that time, determining everything from paternity issues to inquiring whether guests would arrive for dinner.

If patients themselves were unable to attend the appointment, friends or relatives would arrive in their place. Forman constructed either nativities or casts for each of the consultations. The way he interpreted the chart would change if the chart were drawn without the consent of another person. Typically, like other contemporary physicians he prescribed "purges, dietary drinks or pills, and bloodletting". (p. 70) His diagnostic categories ranged from humoral, to specific illnesses (like the pox), behavioral ("ill diet") or "forespoken" (bewitched).

An industrious man, Forman worked seven days a week seeing his clients who came from all socio-economic backgrounds. He had a variety of payment plans. Patients could pay in one lump sum; give him a down payment at the beginning of treatment, with the balance due upon completion of the therapy; or, in some cases, if the patients were not cured, they did not have to pay at all. Forman was consistently emphatic that no patient could be cured without the physician's use of astrology.

In addition to astrology, he made costly magical sigils (talismans) for himself and his patients. As Traister reminds us:

"We tend to dismiss such therapy as superstition. Yet this form of therapeutic magic was part of a serious intellectual framework in the early modern period, its rationale articulated most cogently by the Italian philosopher and physician, Marcilio Ficino." (p. 100)

Recording (in the third person) the formula for his own prophylactic power ring, Forman reveals his synthesis of astrology and magic:

"And the 22 of March folowinge ante mer [A.M.] at 45 p[ast] 5 he began to set the ston into the Ring and yt was fully Ended 15 minutes post 6 ante merid, vnder the stone was put a bailif [3c] and fine virgin parchment wherein was written the name of the ass[cendents] and the caracte [astrological sign] & plannet thus. [Virgo Mercury] Simon Forman. This Ring must be worne on the littlell finger on the lefte hand & yt preuaills againste witch[c]rafte diuels possession & to expell diuels, against thunder lightning storm & tempest & to giue fauour & credit & to mak on famouse in his profession & to overcom enimies."(p. 101)

What scholars today consider separate occult practices, were for Forman one unified field theory of integrated magico-scientific disciplines. He divided astronomy into five sections: astronomy itself; astrology; astromagic; geomancy; and alchemy. Astrology was operative astronomy. With his magical world-view, Forman's mind was directed toward searching for meaning in nearly all his life experiences. He avidly recorded, examined and interpreted his dreams, studying them carefully as valuable sources of information and guidance.

Astrology was his specialty, a science which he viewed as a divine creation, and a discipline in which he believed he was particularly gifted. He used it as a means to determine optimal times for his purchases and real estate transactions, for guidance in his love life, to answer questions regarding his wife's fidelity (he married her when he was 46 and she was a mere 16), and most especially, in the diagnosis of disease.

Astrology was pervasively practiced by other doctors at that time, and it was not his use of it that caused his persecution by the Royal College, but rather, because they perceived him to be a particularly inept astrologer. Whether or not this accusation was true remains unknown at this time. He earnestly pursued magic, cabala and necromancy, which were all commonplace practices during his era. Unique to Forman was his use of theater as a mantic device, viewing the events onstage as "reflections of himself or cautionary events from which he could learn." (p.171)

Forman developed a profitable following of female clients, both because of his specialization in women's medicine, and because of the female propensity to consult astrologers regarding their romantic lives. It is in this capacity that Forman becomes "notorious". Well into middle age, he recorded surprisingly frequent physical encounters with his female patients and mistresses, fathering numerous children outside of his marriage.

After his death, his name became associated with the most scandalous legal case during the reign of James II. This was the murder trial involving the complex love intrigues surrounding the death of Sir Thomas Overbury, in which Forman was posthumously implicated. The accusations in this case made against the now-dead Forman permanently tainted his name and reputation as a supplier of poison, love potions and magical devices intended to deviously manipulate and control the passions of unknowing and helpless male victims. Forman was accused of providing the lethal poison that killed Overbury. When the court demanded Forman's papers and records, the facts about his hyper-active libidinous pursuits were publicly revealed. Following his death, "Devil Forman" became a figure in English and American literature, appearing in the works of authors such as Ben Jonson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, always in a villainous capacity.

Traister's book is an original and illuminating work. It does a candid job of de-mystifying Forman, revealing him not as the diabolical witch doctor and vendor of love potions depicted in literary tradition, but as an ambitious and hard-working astrological practitioner, soundly situated in his era's intellectual and cultural environment, and as a rich source of original textual observations of English Reformation society. [4c]

In spite of a growing reactionary tendency among many of today's astrological practitioners to romanticize the past, and to view historic astrologers as possessors of the true and accurate celestial science, Barbara Traister's scholarly and enlightening book is successful in revealing the primitive thinking of at least this particular flourishing English astrologer and his approach to his work. This book is recommended to all readers interested in the daily reality and world view of a well-known astrological practitioner of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

[1c]  For more on Forman's intimate life, see A. W. Rouse's Simon Forman: Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age. London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1974. « Text
[2c]  Barbara Traister does not claim to be writing from the perspective of the history of astrology, so we cannot fault the omission of details that would be of interest to the astrological historian, such as Forman's nativity and astrological techniques. By annual horoscopes, I assume she is referring to solar returns. « Text
[3c]  Professor Traister was unable to find a definition for 'bailif'. My guess is that Forman meant 'bay leaf' and was using herbs in his magical preparations. « Text
[4c]  Barbara Howard Traister is professor of English at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. She is the author of Heavenly Necromancers: The Magician in Early Renaissance Drama. « Text

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Shelley Jordan: De Docta Astrologia: C.U.R.A.'s Book Reviews
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