Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky.
— William Shakespeare, (Henry VI, Part 1, Act 1, Scene 1)
Seeking answers in the heavens has a history as old as humankind itself. Every culture across our planet shares a heritage of calculating and making sense of the wondrous universe that surrounds us by studying the clockwork of the night sky. This is England’s story.
Our current understanding of astrology in the West is based on an ancient body of learning begun by the Babylonians, that was further developed by the Greeks and Romans, and expanded with discoveries by Arabic astronomers of the early Middle Ages. The astrology known and practiced in 16th- and 17th-century England was recognisably the same subject as expounded by the Egyptian Ptolemy in his Tetrabilos in the 2nd century AD.
While new astronomical knowledge was welcomed and added to the cannon of astrology as it arose, much like religion, its power lay in its long history and stability. And much like Christianity, many of the English treatises on astrology were translations of earlier Latin writings, providing a continuity of knowledge that I’m sure added comfort even back then with the sense of consulting with ‘old knowledge’.
We now think of astrology and astronomy as two vastly different practices, however this didn’t used to be the case. In fact, it was astrology that was considered the realm of the scholar, whereas mere astronomy was the study of the amateaur. If astronomy is the study of the movements of the heavenly bodies, then astrology is the study of the effects of these movements. Essentially, one discipline is raw data, the other the interpretation of that data. And for most of history, there was nothing esoteric about this study. The strict separate disciplines we think of today as astronomy, medicine, geography, history, ect., were all grouped together into what would simply be thought of as ‘an education’. At the beginning of the 16th century, astrological doctrines were part of the educated man’s picture of the universe and its workings.
Astrology was thus less a separate discipline than an aspect of a generally accepted world picture. It was necessary for the understanding of physiology and therefore of medicine. It taught of the influence of the stars upon the plants and minerals, and therefore shaped botany and metallurgy. Psychology and ethnography also presupposed a good deal of astrological dogma. During the Renaissance, even more than in the Middle Ages, astrology pervaded all aspects of scientific thought. It was not a coterie doctrine, but an essential aspect of the intellectual framework in which men were educated. (Thomas 336)
Before the 17th century, scepticism about the validity of astrological predictions was very rare. No one denied the influence of the heavens upon crops and weather, so it was a natural conclusion to draw that its influence extended to human affairs. It is this belief in the scientifically sound analysis inherent in astrology that separates it, at least initially, from any associations with witchcraft or heresy. In fact, when astrological fortune-telling was outlawed in the 18th century, it was on the basis of fraudulent fortune-tellers having no knowledge of their subject, rather than any assumptions that they made pacts with the devil.
Structure of Astrology
During the 16th and 17th centuries, there were four main branches of astrology:
General predictions would mark the future movements of the heavens, taking note of such impending events as eclipses of the sun and moon, or the conjunction of the major planets in one sign of the zodiac. These forecasts related to the weather, the state of the crops, mortality and epidemics, politics and war. They indicated the fate of society as a whole, but not that of particular individuals.
Nativities were maps of the sky at the moment of a person’s birth, either made on the spot at the request of the infant’s parents, or reconstructed for adults who could supply the details of their time of birth. If the date of the birth had been lost, the astrologer could try to work it out by inference from the relationship between the ‘accidents’, or notable events in his client’s life, and the state of the heavens at the time. The horoscope at birth could subsequently be followed up by ‘annual revolutions’, in which the astrologer calculated the individual’s prospects for the coming year.
The details of the client’s nativity horoscope were needed before the astrologer could provide the third main service, that of making elections, or choosing the right moment for the right action. By comparing the relationship between the tendencies indicated by the client’s horoscope with what was known about the future movement of the heavens, certain times could be identified as more propitious than others for embarking upon any potentially risky undertaking, such as going on a journey or choosing a wife. The election of a proper time was also a desirable procedure for routine operations, like cutting one’s hair and nails, or having a bath.
Finally, there were horary questions, the most controversial part of the astrologer’s art. Its optimistic assumption was that the astrologer could resolve any question put to him by considering the state of the heavens at the exact moment when it was asked—on the principle that as the nativity is the time of the birth of the body, the horary question is the time of the birth of the mind. “If the question was a medical one the patient might accompany it with a sample of his urine; the astrologer then based his answer upon his interpretation of the sky at the moment when the urine had been voided, or when it had arrived in his consulting-room. But every kind of personal question probably could be dealt with as an horary question.” (Thomas 339)
Although purporting to be an objective science, the system was highly flexible, since it left room for the infinite possibilities of disagreement, both over general principles, and over the interpretation of any particular problem.
In the Middle Ages, there had been many prominent English astrological authors, but their numbers fell off sharply during the 15th century and did not revive for over 150 years. This is in keeping with a period of general stagnation of scientific study in England. Interest in astrology revived with the mathematical renaissance pioneered by John Dee and Digges family during the reign of Elizabeth I, and kept pace until the end of the 17th century. Tudor monarchs and their advisers encouraged astrologers and drew upon their advice.
The Fate of Nations: Kings, Queens & Astrology at Court
In a unique example of what could certainly be considered cornering the market, both Henry VII and those engaged in plotting against him maintained relations with the Italian astrologer William Parron. Henry VIII himself patronised the German astrologer Nicholas Kratzer and prevented his bishops from censuring astrology. Cardinal Wolsey’s interest in astrology was notorious. He was rumoured to have calculated Henry VIII’s nativity in order to be able to pander to the King’s whims. The Protector Somerset came to England to cast the horoscopes of the young Edward VI and his tutor, John Cheke, a well-known addict. “For Sir Thomas Smith, the ambassador and future Secretary of State, the practice of astrology was no casual interest, but so consuming a passion that he could ‘scarcely sleep at night from thinking of it’.” (Thomas 342) It’s easy to understand why an ability to predict the future and discover auspicious time for action would be invaluable in matters of government. Enthusiasm for astrology was continued by the courtiers of Elizabeth I.
During the period of time known as the Interregnum (the time between the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649 and the arrival of his son Charles II in London on 29 May 1660 which marked the start of the Restoration) there was a bit of a ‘while the cat’s away’ publication bacchanal. In the age of Edward VI, the bulk of astrological knowledge was locked up in the obscurity of learned languages, but by the end of the Interregnum, there was practically no branch of the subject that hadn’t been translated into English.
With this wide accessibility to astrological knowledge suddenly available to the people, the study expanded beyond the fate of nations into the personal and the everyday. And it wasn’t only the translations into English that were to thank, it was also new printing methods. One item above all others would expand the practice beyond the court-based astrologers in the medieval world—the Almanac.
Power to the People: The Almanac (More popular than the Bible?)
The Almanac was comprised of three separate items. There was the Almanac proper, which included astronomical events of the coming year: eclipses, conjunctions, and movable feasts. Then there was the ‘Kalendar’, which, like our calendar today, showed the days of the week, the month, and the fixed Church festivals. Finally there was the ‘Prognostication’, which was an astrological forecast of the notable events of the year. These three parts were sold as one item, the Almanac, which also included various miscellaneous information that would vary by region, such as markets and fairs, a guide to highways and distance by road, a brief chronology of notable events since the Creation, medical recipes, legal formulae, hints on gardening, the list goes on.
By the mid-17th century they also included advertisements for everything from books and medicines to teachers of mathematics. These book Almanacs were different from the broadside sheet almanac in that they contained more information and were less ephemeral. People used them as diaries and notebooks and as a consequence there are large collections of them treasured in the library collections of the British Museum and the Bodleian.
One handy aspect of the Almanac were the tables showing the daily position of the heavenly bodies throughout the year. The reader could use the Almanac to predict the rhythms and seasons of the year in relation to the night sky and, with a bit of instruction, even cast their own horoscopes. There was also included a diagram of the Anatomical Man, indicating the dominion of the different signs of the zodiac over the different parts of the human body. Remember, at this time there was no strict division between the sciences, medicine was as much a part of astronomy as farming. Using the Prognostication, the Almanac would offer detailed forecasts of politics, the weather, the state of crops, and the health of the population in the year to come.
There were Almanacs in circulation before the advent of mass printing, but these were in manuscript form and for use primarily by students and physicians. In the Tudor period, the printed English Almanac became very popular.
By 1600, there had been probably over 600 different almanacs published in England, and they were still on the increase. The number of separate almanacs issued in the 17th century has been estimated at more than 2,000, and well over 200 authors must have been concerned in their publication. The size of a typical edition is unknown. But it is significant that almanacs, like Bibles, were exempt from the original limit of 1,250 to 1,500 copies imposed by the Stationers’ Company on single editions of other publications. William Lilly’s annual almanac and prognostication, Merlinus Anglicus, printed 13,500 copies in 1646; 17,000 in 1647; and 18,500 in 1648. By 1649 it was said to be selling nearly 30,000 a year. This particular almanac was unusually popular, but it is clear that the figure of 3-4 million, which is sometimes suggested as the total production of almanacs in the 17th century, is a distinct under-estimate; the 10 years after November 1663 alone nearly reached that total. Not even the bible sold at this rate. (Thomas 347)
This was a truly popular print. Since the annual almanac remained a bestseller up to 1850, it has long been held responsible for maintaining astrology’s intellectual legitimacy. Almanacs did not, however, explain how it worked; merely stating that the sun, moon, comets, and planets influenced politics and public health according to natural laws. “Folklore says that of these celestial entities the moon was the most important in everyday life, its waxing and waning affecting processes of growth and decay such as planting, harvest, and slaughter. The zodiac’s signs thus signified units of time rather than powers over lives. In almanacs too, astrologers were depicted as sages: foretellers of weather, eclipses, wars, and other public matters. (Mori 264-265)
One sad notation on the popularity of prognostication among the common people is to be found in one astrologer Lilly’s casebooks. The requests came during and after the English Civil War (1642-1651). His casebooks are filled with countless requests from wives seeking to know whether their husbands are dead or alive. Long after the fighting had stopped, women across the country, on both sides of the conflict, longed for answers to the unknown fates and possible last moments of men who simply never came home.
Later, from the devastating storm of 1703 to the London earthquake of 1750, people turned to printed prognostications to explain the unusual workings of nature. These publications in all formats, “from ephemera and single-sheet narratives to embellished folio complications carried detailed descriptions of the marvellous, miraculous, and prodigious productions of nature of various kinds: the latest monstrous births, gruesome murders, prolonged fasts, the sudden sinkings of the ground, conflagrations, rains of blood and wheat, and apparitions of armies in the sky.” (Jankovic 36-37)
People wanted answers and to find order in the messy world around them. And there sprung up just such a service to meet the demand.
Fortune-Tellers & Low Scandal
It had long been established that answers and advice could be sought from the village cunning person, who dealt with prophecy, love magic, healing arts, and counter-witchcraft. Whereas the astrological fortune-teller claimed a higher knowledge of casing personal horoscopes, which required mathematical expertise that most ordinary people did not possess.
In 1736, a new Witchcraft Act repealed the old Tudor and Stuart statutes that linked magic to heresy. In their place, it stipulated that divination for money was a form of fraud. What regularly appeared at the Old Bailey from 1700 onwards were charges of theft and larceny against fortune-tellers. “Peers and Members of Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act in the name of ‘reason’ and began to tinker with the vagrancy laws. The English association of magic with deceit appeared in both the Proceedings and the crime report.” (Mori 257) What these laws accomplished was less about the control of magic and more about the control of vagrancy. It positions the aspirational beginnings of a ‘middle class’ of society against the lower orders. This became a clash of rationality against irrationality; the civilised town against the uncivilised country; low supersituiton against high reason.
And this does bear out when looking at the demographics of who engaged in magical work. This work was usually one of many occupations held by beggars and other marginal people in society, as few lower-class people worked only one trade. In London, fortune-telling was undertaken by people who were also china-menders, match-sellers, rag-and-bone merchants, and used bottle-traders.
These were often women working on the fringes of the ‘formal’ or waged economy. Most suspects practised simple deceptions, reading fortunes from faces or palms and practicing theft by sleight of hand. […] Tradeswomen were in a good position to be successful because a ‘good’ fortune depended on the quality of personal information that went into making it. Counselling, rather than magic, was the commercial fortune-teller’s stock-in-trade. […] [Fortune-tellers] performed the same kinds of pastoral work as preachers like John Wesley. Parishioners too wanted answers to life’s riddles: the health and welfare of absent family and friends, the outcomes of personal plans, the meanings of bad dreams, tidings of whom they would marry, a sympathetic ear for family troubles, or particulars of future children. (Mori 266)
The Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded in London in 1802 and took on the quashing of fortune-telling as a banner cause. The SSV’s prosecution of these magical vagrants constituted an attempt by middle class professionals to separate themselves from, and also police, working-class behaviours. The vehemence with which both entities like the SSV and the popular press treated fortune-telling transgressors speaks to middle-class insecurities about the rationality and respectability of their own station. “This is part of the process by which a capitalist middle ‘class’ separated itself from the early modern middling ‘sorts’.” (Mori 269) The importance of this distinction cannot be overstated. Before the 19th century, there was no such established station as the ‘middle class’, and the strict moral and aesthetic social guidelines that developed further into the century, and came to define the Victorian era, were the establishment of just such a distance between the freshly minted middle class and the common labourer.
According to the SSV, these fortune-telling activities were objectionable not only due to their perceived fraudulent aspects (which should be held apart from the actual theft that sometimes accompanied fortune-telling at that time) but also due to their distasteful hints of paganism. “Superstition was about bad theology as well as bad logic.” (Mori 271)
Despite their best efforts, Victorian middle-class morality couldn’t keep divination down. As the country became swept up in the heady possibilities of Spiritualism at the end of the century, the answers people sought began to come from ‘beyond the veil’ rather than ‘beyond the stars’, and today you can probably find a practitioner online who can offer both. The methods may change over time, but these questions are eternal.
Sources and further reading…
Heather, P.J., ‘Divination’, Folklore, 65:1, p10-29. 1954. Journal.
Jankovic, Vladimir, Reading the skies: A cultural history of English weather, 1650-1820, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) 2000. Book.
Mori, Jennifer, ‘Magic and Fate in Eighteenth-Century London: Prosecutions for Fortune-Telling, c 1678-1830, Folklore, 129:3, p254-277. 2018. Journal.
Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England, (London: Penguin University Books) 1971. Book.