Using the Heavens

John Bossy

  • Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer by Anthony Grafton
    Harvard, 284 pp, £21.95, February 2000, ISBN 0 674 09555 3

It is a shame for a 16th-century historian to know nothing about astrology, but that has been my case, and I should think that of most others in this branch of the profession. I come across, say, a letter from a French Ambassador in London in April 1583, where he remarks that there is about to occur a ‘great conjunction’ of Jupiter and Saturn in the sign of Aries, something that happens once every seven hundred and sixty years or so and heralds some frightful disturbance in the sublunary world. What am I to think? That he is writing an obligatory letter to somebody he needs to butter up but has nothing really to say to? That he is reporting a matter of general concern in the distinguished conversational circles he moves in? Is passing on superstitious gossip from the servants downstairs? Has just had a letter from Jean Bodin, or been talking to his newly arrived guest, Giordano Bruno? Has been studying his almanacs to find out what line he should take between the poles of English politics, Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots?

My natural bent is to think that he is chatting the man up: I do not find him saying such things in his official correspondence with Paris; nor do I find that on such grounds kings and councillors made their decisions about the destinies of state and church. Not Queen Elizabeth, who would surely have giggled if anyone had suggested it; not Philip II, who would have been shocked; not even, perhaps, the Emperor Rudolph II, who sat in his high palace in Prague communing with the stars and tried to get John Dee to put him in touch with the heavenly orders. True, there had been Pope Paul III, a politician if ever there was one and founder of the Counter-Reformation: he retained an astrologer to tell him, I suppose, when it was prudent to launch the Society of Jesus or set up the Roman Inquisition (which was to persecute astrologers). Since both these institutions have now lasted in one form or another for half a millennium, we can think that the practitioner in question, Luca Gaurico, must have had some grasp of his art.

To find astrology funny must be an effect of ignorance, since now we have the authority of Anthony Grafton to tell us that it is serious. Grafton has recently become known in England as the author of an elegant history of the footnote, but this is the tip of an iceberg of learning, though a good example of his sharp and sprightly manner. A traditionalist in topic and method, probably because a traditionalist in topic and method, he has come up with all sorts of original things, and now deservedly, perhaps symbolically, sits in the Princeton chair once occupied by the late Lawrence Stone, and next to another chair once occupied by the happily not late Natalie Davis. As against both of them, he has pursued a roughly Warburgian path of investigating the 16th-century intellect.

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