As I took a break not long ago from putting the first draft of my dissertation on an Amstrad, I turned on BBC Television and saw my country cruising for a bruising in the Gulf. And yet on the same day I received a letter from America solemnly informing me of a spectacular line-up of planets in the astrological sign of Leo which was to herald a new era of world peace. The writer added that the day also marked the end of the Mayan calendar – how the remnant Mayans are now expected to date their letters she did not volunteer. The reason, I conjecture, why a sober-minded academic should be moved to alert me to these revolutions has to do with her knowledge that for the past four years my scholarly interests have centred on the political prognostications of the English Civil War’s astrologers. It could be worse. Another American academic once responded to the dissertation topic by remarking that he had recently had his ‘biorhythms’ done. Herbert Butterfield, whose notion of Whiggishness continues to provoke among English historians even more examinations of conscience than St Benedict recommended, warned against historians like me. Those who specialise in fields such as alchemy ‘seem to become tinctured with the kind of lunacy they set out to describe’. With this in mind, I scan my psyche periodically for evidence of taint. Here colleagues are of little use, since my choice of topic long ago rendered them incapable of discerning the fine shades indicative of the onset of celestial lunacy.

I have been attempting to reconstruct the astrological habits of mid-17th-century practitioners. Such an approach has meant focusing on this wanton sister of the sciences, shorn of her mitigating intercourse with the respectable academic partners of Puritanism, astronomy, the Royal Society, Anglicanism, mathematics. Insistence on internalist analysis and an allergy to generalisation has long kept my long nose in the many volumes of astrological papers assembled by the virtuoso, Elias Ashmole, and this preoccupation with pothooks and triangles has produced a discernibly crankish viewpoint toward 17th-century intellectual development, even apart from the tincture of credibility. While intransigent integrity has been my justification for such close-up analysis, I secretly suspect that my assiduous attention to detail owes more to my sister Kate’s youthful gender distinction than it does to high-mindedness. This reflective middle child arrived home from second grade to inform my mother that she had that day discovered the difference between girls and boys. My half-Puritan mother braced herself, only to be offered the following definition: that boys colour their maps across boundary lines, while girls demurely maintain custody of their crayons within. I have not come across a more satisfactory analysis.

My own insistence on containing my intellectual quest within boundaries circumscribed by the astrologers themselves has resulted in what I have come to regard as an astrological mentalité. This seizes me intermittently and stems, I fear, from a growing emotional attraction verging on nostalgia for the harmoniously-organised Neo-Platonic universe of astrological discourse. It is a world perhaps more recognisable to us than those of Aquinas, Dante and Kepler, despite modern reverence for their achievements and disciplines. On more than one occasion in Duke Humfrey’s Library in Oxford I have lifted my eyes from an immersion in astrological casebook and manuscripts to experience a jolt as I reenter our arbitrary universe and make my way in an infinity of randomness to the Tuck Shop and my lunchtime bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.

If the 17th-century astrologer William Lilly, or his astrologically-minded friend and political opponent Elias Ashmole, had heard one of the daily bulletins from the Gulf, they would have turned – after, presumably, the same stab of fear and helplessness – to a tool of analysis which is unavailable to us. We await our political commentators’ prognostications, whereas these pundits would have headed immediately for their ephemerides and struck a figure for the exact moment when they had first heard the news of the American provocations in the Gulf. They would then have analysed their celestial paradigm in terms of the implications for England, whose own geniture had been determined by tradition and empirical evidence dating back at least to Posidonius and Ptolemy. Another figure would later have been calculated, when the information became available as to the exact time the ships had left port.

Perhaps even more enviable would have been Ashmole’s certainty that his position was fully integrated within the chain of events, and that the heavens could be coaxed to impart this diagnostic information. When, at 1 p.m. on 13 June 1685, Ashmole first heard of the Duke of Monmouth’s landing (two days earlier) at Lyme Regis, he determined the position of the planets for that exact moment and compared it with his own nativity. Ashmole’s enciphered notations, decoded by C.H. Josten, show us that he judged the invasion would result in no harm to him, since, among other factors, two major benefic aspects were in evidence (the scheme’s ascending degree was in a trine aspect of 120° to his natal sun, and the moon in a sextile aspect of 60° to his ascendant).

What a comfort it must have been, even if the promised result never eventuated, to feel that although your contemporaries might be mad, the universe at least knew what it was doing. Modern Christianity makes no such claim, having removed from creation its impulse to communicate with humans, and relocating divine wisdom in the immediate vicinity of the creator. In such a tightly bound and sympathetic universe as Ashmole’s, however, planets, stars and comets created a billboard on which the creator signalled his intentions to his far-flung sublunar creatures. No need for poets then to ask, with Robert Frost, whether design governed in so small a thing as a royal bastard’s rebellion or a reflagged Kuwaiti oil ship.

In fact, neither Lilly nor Ashmole would have needed to wonder whether such seemingly minor events might escalate into large and then cataclysmic ones, as many of us without John Wayne or Rambo’s sense of might-makes-right are now doing. Astrology provided an invaluable tool for periodising history and gauging the relative importance of events. Saturn and Jupiter, the outermost planets known to the 17th century, whose orbits ‘around the earth’ (for astrology stubbornly retained a geocentric mind-set long after the actual mechanics of the universe were known to be otherwise) took the longest time to accomplish, conjoined periodically. These conjunctions of the great malefic with the great benefic were thought to herald major upheavals in kingdoms and religions. The planets met every 20 years, moving their meeting sites from sign to zodiacal sign in a predictable pattern. They remained in signs of the same element (of fire, earth, air or water) for some two hundred and forty years. When these couplings had rotated finally from the first fire sign Aries through all the signs and elements in turn to the final water sign of Pisces, an event which happened only every 960 years, the greatest mutation of all was thought to occur. As the planets lurched from omega back to alpha, the effluvia then generated in the celestial realm were thought to produce the mutant spore of a great prophet and to herald the rise of a new religion.

The births of both Christ and Mohammed were accounted for in this way, in a tradition originating with the Sasanian astronomers living in what is now Iran. The country whose Ayatollah helps sustain the Gulf war, and distributes mines in waters patrolled by English and American ships, developed this conjunctionist theory, which was transmitted through the writings of a Jewish astrologer, Masha’Allah, who worked in Baghdad in the eighth century.

Islamic works on the great conjunctions reached the mainstream of Western Medieval thought primarily through the translations of John of Seville in the 12th century. Conjunctionist theories surfaced in England in the germinal Middle English poem ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’, whose birds debate the planetary conjunction of 1186. Albertus Magnus attributed great prodigies to these conjunctions, in addition to pestilent winds. It is tempting to speculate in this context about England’s recent pestilent wind. Might Albertus have regarded it as a harbinger of the prodigious stock-market crash that followed? Conjuctionism played a part in Dante’s Purgatorio, where he connects it to eschatology by reminding the reader of Virgil’s predictions of the coming of Christ. One commentator has ascribed this interest to there having been, in the year of Dante’s birth, a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Gemini, to which configuration he ascribed his genius. He entertained expectations of a reformation of Christendom from the coming conjunction of 1325.

Roger Bacon was similarly smitten with this doctrine of planetary conjunctions. He used them to predict that the Islamic religion would last 693 years, and looked forward to the coming world dominance of Christianity. America comes into the act with recent scholarship arguing that Christopher Columbus – in his self-appointed task as Christoferens, of Christ-bearer – relied heavily on works which connected great conjunctions with change in empires. He noted the rulership of Saturn over India, and copied out a passage of a work deriving from Bacon which said that the law of Mohammed could not last more than 693 years. They were all wrong, although modern America seems slow to absorb this lesson.

In England, the Armada prophecies stemmed from predictions of a conjunction due to occur in 1583, whose effects would be felt in 1588. This conjunction was considered crucial because the planets were first to join in Pisces in 1583 and then meet again (because of retrogradation) in Aries the following year. This phenomenon, according to the pamphlets of the Harvey brothers, had occurred only once since the time of Christ – in 789 at the time of Charlemagne. One wonders if the confrontation of these nationalistic fleets in the English Channel did not gain in importance by following hard on the heels of several years of prophecies.

William Lilly argued in his day that the unnatural tuning of the heavens mirrored the unthinkable collision of the anointed sovereign with his subjects. The conjunction of his day was meant to proceed ‘in an orderly progresse’ to the next fire sign, as had the two conjunctions preceding it. ‘But now, in Anno 1642/3,’ he says, ‘as if the divine Providence were about to change the constant order of nature, and the whole Fabrick of the Universe, these two most waighty or ponderous Planets (after two Conjunctions in the fiery Trygon) come to their ... last Conjunction in the signe of Pisces, the last signe in number of the Zodiac.’ He continues: ‘Times have no Presidents [precedents] of the like excursion, or mutation ... nor shall the ages in future see the like. It may justly be doubted and in an Astrologicall way divined, that there shall be a sensible disturbance, if not a finall subversion.’ Lilly deftly connects the heavenly cataclysms with those below: ‘I say this Conjunction findeth [King Charles] engaged in an uncivill and unnaturall War against his own Subjects, the English Nation.’

In all this, as it turned out, Lilly was correct. These events were both unprecedented and unnatural in contemporary terms; they escalated into a final subversion, which, however, has never recurred. But then Lilly was a Parliamentarian, and arguably one of the most effective propagandists ever to have written. And yet it might be tempting the next time I see satellite pictures of my country playing chicken in the Gulf with all our lives to phone London’s Astrological Lodge and ascertain just when the next major conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter is predicted. And in what sign it is to occur.

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