- Astrology and the 17th-Century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars by Ann Geneva
Manchester, 298 pp, £40.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 7190 4154 6
William Lilly was the first to produce a major textbook of astrology in the English language, at a time when the truth of astrology was almost universally recognised. At their peak in the 1650s his almanacs sold up to 30,000 copies a year. From them he may only have netted a modest £70 a year (enough for a gentleman to live on), but they served to advertise his astrological practice, from which we have the surviving records of many thousands of consultations. Lilly advised the rich, famous and powerful; among his friends were leading scientists of the day. And he shaped the course of events. At the Restoration he had to counter the charge that the day the King was executed was chosen to conform to his prognostication. Through the key years of the Civil War he had forecast Parliamentary victory and royal defeat (he predicted victory at Naseby, the key battle of the war), and Royalists complained that his almanacs were worth several regiments to the Parliament. He had helped to ensure his prognostications came true, and had emerged victorious in his own war with the King’s astrologers. Briefly (before his failure to foresee the Restoration or the Fire of London cut his reputation down to size), Lilly seemed to embody the success of a new astrological science.
Lilly, though, was not the founder of a new era, but the last great practitioner of his art. In the post-Restoration years astrology suffered for its Civil War success. Charles II continued to seek guidance in the stars, but faith among the political and intellectual élite waned. The scientists did not pause to refute it, presumably because its dependence on a geocentric system appeared to render it irrelevant in an age of triumphant Copernicanism (although two of the three founders of the new astronomy, Brahe and Kepler, had themselves been practising astrologers, and Galileo was prepared to recognise some truth in this branch at least of the old science). Astrology never established itself in the universities. Soon after the Society of Astrologers was disbanded at the Restoration the Royal Society for the Advancement of Science was established. Although many members of the Royal Society believed in, and practised, astrology, its days of respectability were numbered.
If anyone was a great astrologer, Lilly was, and it is the great merit of Ann Geneva’s book that she asks straightforwardly what it was that Lilly was good at. Her reply is that contemporaries reckoned him an expert without equal in the casting of horoscopes, and that to understand his brilliance we must study his prognostications from the inside, as interpretations of the heavens. In making this claim she has powerful arguments on her side. Philosophers of science from Kuhn onwards seem to have undermined the belief that science is true because it is ‘objective’ and provides an accurate representation of reality. Facts are inextricably bound up in theories, we are told; scientific evidence is itself theory-dependent; and the difference between what comes to be regarded as good science and what as bad is often hard to discern without the benefit of hindsight. In this tradition, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer have defended the first critics of Boyle’s famous air-pump experiments, which are supposed to have established the vacuum as a laboratory entity, on the grounds that their arguments were as good as any Boyle produced. So, if good science is hard to define, and progress hard to identify, why cannot we now have a sympathetic account of astrology which takes it seriously on its own terms? Such an account need not involve ‘belief’ in it, any more than a sympathetic account of Newton’s alchemical experiments need imply that the philosopher’s stone really exists, or admiration for Hobbes (Boyle’s chief critic) any reluctance to use a Vacu-Vin.
Geneva focuses on Lilly’s prognostications of Charles I’s death, which reached a climax in 1645 with his Starry Messenger, in which he brought together not only arguments from the King’s horoscope, but interpretations of the significance of recent comets and eclipses, together with an elaborate account and interpretation of three suns which had appeared in the sky on the King’s birthday in 1644. (Modern readers will be reassured to learn that there is an adequate natural-scientific account of this phenomenon in terms of the refraction of the sun’s rays through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere.) With the techniques available to him Lilly was able to put together a persuasive case for the King’s life being in imminent danger, just as earlier astrologers had predicted that 1588, the year of the Armada, would be a year of crisis and catastrophe.
Geneva argues that much of this case has been obscured because Lilly left it encoded in astrological terms. Casting the King’s horoscope was against the law, and Lilly was lucky to avoid execution in 1660; even in 1642 his predictions against the King had been censored (the supporters of Parliament still claimed to be, after all, the King’s faithful servants). Geneva shows nicely how Lilly’s first 1642 almanac was designed to convey to those familiar with astrological interpretation an argument he had been forbidden to state openly. But in later works his hints are so broad (as he proudly claimed after the King’s execution) that even the dullest reader must have been able to follow his meaning.
Geneva, however, wants to press hard on the metaphor of ‘encoding’ because she believes that the decline of astrology has to do with the decline of the idea of the cosmos as a system of encoded correspondences. In place of a divine message concealed in the stars the new science substituted the plain prose of Newtonian mathematical physics, so that astrology now seems poetic because we have lost the notion of its symbolic truth. We are, she seems to feel, the poorer for it.
I believe that Geneva’s approach to the history of astrology, superficially so promising, is misconceived. Just as important as the question ‘What was Lilly good at?’ is the question: ‘What was 17th-century astrology for?’ The answer is that its main business was to answer very practical questions. Is the price of corn going to rise? Is my wife unfaithful to me? Will my servant return with the money he has gone to fetch? Has my ship, now overdue, gone down? Who stole my linen sheets? Is my husband, who is absent on a long journey, still alive? Who will die first, my wife or I? In other words, to use the summary form that often appears in Lilly’s notes: ‘What’s to be done?’ To answer these questions the astrologer would cast the disposition of the sun, the moon and the planets in the heavens at the moment the question was put to him. (Lilly debated the question whether an astrologer could answer his own questions. Could he know at what moment he had formally put a question to himself?) In other words, the astrologer manipulated an oracle.
There exists a classic account of decision-making through the consultation of oracles: Evans-Pritchard’s wonderful Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Amongst the Azande (1937). It is an extraordinary feature of that book that contrasting intellectual traditions claim to descend from it. On the one hand, there is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), which stresses the functionalist element in Evans-Pritchard’s account. Thomas sees the decline of astrology as linked to improved postal services and better insurance policies, developments that made some at least of the standard questions astrologers answered less pressing. On the other hand, there is Peter Winch’s The Idea of a Social Science (1958), which stresses that Evans-Pritchard had given an account of a coherent, self-sustaining way of making sense of the world, one which ensured that belief in oracles would seem rational.
These two interpretations imply two quite different answers to the question of whether understanding magic is compatible with believing in it. Thomas clearly thinks that understanding witchcraft (his main subject) is incompatible with believing; Winch thinks that understanding amounts to a suspension of disbelief (Evans-Pritchard himself relied on oracles to make all key decisions while living among the Azande; along with many of his close associates, he later converted to Catholicism).
Geneva does not situate her book in what has long been known as the ‘Rationality and Relativism’ debate. Much of this has focused on Evans-Pritchard’s account of the Azande poison oracle, where poison is administered to a chicken and whether the chicken lives or dies is held reliably (even infallibly) to predict the future. Evans-Pritchard believed that the verdict of the poison oracle could not be manipulated or predicted, which was one reason the Azande held it in such esteem. But he also provided a compelling description of the much more Machiavellian skills of Azande witch-doctors, who dance until they are able to discover hidden truths. On his account witch-doctors are notable for (a) their insistence that their own divinations are superior to those of other incompetent or corrupt practitioners; (b) their ready ability to explain away their own errors; (c) their extraordinary skill in telling their clients what they want to hear. Evans-Pritchard was quite clear that the witch-doctor wasn’t simply good at magic; he was good at self-promotion, at risk-avoidance and at ‘reading’, not the future, but his client.
These are the skills that Lilly had in an exceptional degree. Geneva has read his textbook, Christian Astrology (1647), as an introduction to esoteric astrological learning; but it is also an initiation into the skills of the witch-doctor, and, consequently, an elaborate exercise in self-promotion. Its full title, Christian Astrology Modestly Treated of in Three Books, must have alerted every reader to Lilly’s own immodesty. But then Lilly was something of a hypocrite. He always insisted that he had left his first teacher because he adjusted his readings to suit his clients; but Geneva produces clear evidence that Lilly himself could be bribed. (Pepys, reasoning Azande-style, thought this was the only possible explanation of his many false predictions.) Christian Astrology contains numerous warnings to the reader on the tactics of risk-minimisation: on the care to be taken, for example, before telling a man his wife was unfaithful. Lilly tried not to get mixed up in cases involving stolen property: there survives an anonymous letter to him dated 1650 promising he would be ‘wonderfully beaten’ if he continued to accuse Dr Luke Ridgeley falsely of theft. Above all, we can catch Lilly at work reading his client, not the stars.
Thus he reports that on 16 June 1646 at 19.26 p.m. he was consulted by a lady who had repeatedly turned down a gentleman’s proposals of marriage, and now bitterly regretted it. She was tall, good-looking, blonde, round-faced and cheerful. In no time at all Lilly had discovered (from the stars) that her suitor was short, ill-looking, dark-haired and long-faced, ‘his eyes fixed ever-downward, musing, stooping forward with his head, some impediment in his going, as treading awry, etc’. Lilly assured her that her suitor was naturally irritated with her, her prospects were now bleak, and that it was her own fault. But she, despairing, begged his assistance. ‘Hereupon, with much compassion, I began to consider what hopes we had in the Figure.’ Soon he had identified a suitable go-between to whom the lady should address herself; she did so ‘to the content of the sorrowful (but as to me unthankful!) Lady’. Evans-Pritchard would have had no difficulty in recognising here a skilful witch-doctor at work, and one who had earned his fee.
I won’t stop to demonstrate that Lilly’s skill in reading his clients was paralleled by a remarkable skill in finding what he wanted to find in the stars: even Geneva describes with admiration his virtuoso ability to reach the opposite interpretation from that one might expect, and Lilly himself reports how, when asked whether Rupert (the Royalist commander) or Essex (the Parliamentarian) would have more success in the field, he could have read the stars either way. He ascribes to his own skill the reading he proposed, which was the less obvious one, but turned out to be correct. (His readers did not know, as we do, that he was apparently bribed to predict Rupert’s downfall and death.)
Geneva spends little time on judicial astrology, Lilly’s bread-and-butter occupation, but concentrates instead on his almanacs and on interpretations of comets and other marvels of nature, for it is by these that he predicted (and influenced) the fate of king and nation. But once we’ve identified the skills of the witch-doctor we find them at work here, too, and as a result everything takes on a different complexion. Where Geneva sees astrological skill, a sceptical reader would see self-promotion, where she sees encoding, a sceptic would see the constant struggle to avoid a falsifiable prediction. Above all, where she sees republican principles, a sceptic would suspect Lilly of echoing back to his audience (an audience of Londoners whose fate was bound up with that of Parliament) exactly what he thought they wanted to hear When he takes risks, as, for example in 1652, when he attacked the Rump Parliament, it is in a popular cause. His attacks on the King in the early 1640s went beyond those of the established politicians, but not beyond those of the popular millenarian preachers; and once the King was captured, Lilly, like the nation at large, lost much of his desire to see him dead.
Reading Lilly in this way we would see him as engaged in an improvised dramatic performance, in which he had constantly to be taking his cues from his audience. Like a psychoanalyst, he would be listening to his patient, and struggling against his resistance. Like an economist his predictions would reflect the confidence or lack of it in the marketplace, and would then serve to reinforce the market’s own view. Like those of both the analyst and the economist his interpretative skills would be practical, not poetic. Geneva laments the loss of a world in which microcosm and macrocosm are in harmony and interpenetrate each other. Such a lament might be appropriate in a study of Valentine Weigelius, who in his Astrology Theologised (1649) advocates a spiritual and symbolic interpretation of the heavens, arguing that there are stars within each one of us, and who stresses that he wants to help people get to heaven, not make money. But Lilly’s astrology claimed to be practical, efficacious, mundane. He regarded the stars as no more symbolic than we would a mammogram or papp smear. If the messages he found in the skies were ambiguous it was not because they were spiritual or poetic, but because he required uncertainty in order to practise his skills, the true nature of which he probably concealed even from himself.
What was Lilly good at? For an answer we should consult John Melton, who offered in 1620 ‘a new and true description of astrology: Astrology is an art whereby cozening knaves cheat plain honest men; that teacheth both the theory and practice of close cozenage, a science instructing all the students of it to lie as often as they speak, and to be believed no oftener than they hold their tongues; that tells truth as often as bawds go to Church, witches or whores say their prayers, or never but when the English Nones and the Greek Kalends meet together.’
What is remarkable about 17th-century England is that there were some people, like Melton, who saw through astrology. Lilly practiced medicine at a distance by a combination of reading horoscopes and inspecting samples of urine. He was pestered by sceptics submitting samples of horse-piss for analysis. The Azande, by contrast, all agreed that the poison oracle, properly administered, could never lie. Ann Geneva calls for new histories of credulity, and historians of astrology will benefit by her own contribution; but we still await a decent history of scepticism, or a preliminary account of the theory and practice of ‘close cozenage’, though one can be found concealed in Lilly’s Christian Astrology, which is the last place anyone has thought of looking for it, despite the fact that it is an eminently practical guide to his art.