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.

That may suggest Foucauldian overtones, and indeed we can find him juggling with the master’s Renaissance episteme, the cosmos of resemblances and affinities which was to be superseded in the age of Descartes by a new cosmos of identities and hiatuses. Grafton is not at all keen on the Renaissance episteme (he prefers a later Foucault from the History of Sexuality), so those of us who have ignorantly succumbed to its appeal had better think again. But if his present hero, Girolamo Cardano, is representative of 16th-century thinking, there might be something in the idea. Like Leonardo half a century earlier, Cardano was a master of many trades: astrologer, psychologist, medic, dream-interpreter, autobiographer, inventor of the universal joint (did Foucault know this?). He joins everything up, like Burckhardt, except that Burckhardt did not join astrology up to his Renaissance episteme. Unfortunately for Cardano, he lived at the wrong end of the Renaissance, when universal knowledge was a threat to the intellectual mincer which Paul III had created: towards the end of his life he was had up by the Roman Inquisition and forbidden to publish, though not otherwise disturbed. A later Pope, Sixtus V, banned Cardano’s art altogether.

Should we put them back to back, as two fanatics? No, says Grafton, justly. Sixtus V’s doctrine was not amenable to reason and observation: Cardano, in his trade as an astrologer, was an empiricist. He means by this various things. First, that Cardano was careful to establish (sometimes, to look as if he was establishing) the exact details on which a ‘geniture’ or individual horoscope could be constructed; this was often difficult, as in the cases of Martin Luther, about whose year of birth there was argument, and of Jesus, where one seemed to be sure about the year and the day, but not about the time. Second, that he assembled his verified or verifiable genitures so as to determine what were genuine rules of interpretation and what not. Third, that he pointed out from time to time that astrological influences were not determining, and might be counteracted by other factors, like forewarning. This sounds a nervous cop-out, and Grafton does not particularly defend it. But his final thoughts are very positive: viewing the human psyche from the distance of the stars acted to show up exact details of personality, not to fudge them.

Doing genitures seems to have been the principal of three services performed by astrologers: the others were to give people the higher advice about particular decisions and to predict the future of the world. It was an art which called for numerous mental operations. You drew a square standing on a side, inside a square standing on a corner, inside a larger square also standing on a side. You then drew lines to join the corners of the largest square to those of the smallest. This gave you, in the space between the largest and the smallest square, twelve triangles of equal size. These represented the twelve houses in the heavens governed by the signs of the zodiac. In the inner square you wrote the name of the subject and the year, month, day and (if you knew it) the hour and place of birth.

You then established which house of the zodiac was rising above the (eastern) horizon at the moment of birth and from the position of an observer at the place of birth. You placed the name or sign of this house in the middle of the left-hand side of the set of triangles (at 9 o’clock) and, moving anticlockwise, identified each succeeding triangle with the succeeding house of the zodiac. It does not seem, to the contrary of modern horoscopes, that the ascending house was thought to have any particular influence on the subject in itself: as described in one geniture which Grafton cites, the sequence of houses, wherever it began, simply recorded the aspects of the subject’s life which would come under the influence of the heavenly bodies which at that moment appeared in them (first house, origins; second, wealth; third, brothers and sisters; eighth, death; eleventh, fortunes; twelfth, sorrows).

So now you plotted the position of the sun, moon, planets and perhaps some stars, as seen from this point at this time, in the houses of the zodiac. They would have their usual influence (Mars martial, Jupiter religious etc) on that aspect of the subject’s life denoted by the house they appeared in. But then you would have to plot the ‘aspects’ of the planets and other bodies to each other: if, on the circle of the zodiac, their distance from one another was 90 or 180 degrees, they were in opposition; if 60 or 120 degrees, they were friendly; if in the same house, they were in conjunction. There are several more layers of complication than these; but I suppose that the simplest prognostications would be that if Jupiter was in the third house, the subject would have brothers and sisters in religion, and if Mars was in the eighth house, he would die in battle or by violence; if Jupiter was in the third house and Mars in the sixth or ninth, there would be a conflict between his religious and his military aspirations; if they were in conjunction in the second house, he would be a crusader and make a great deal of money out of his captives.

This is all far too simple, but it will help us to figure out what my Ambassador, who was called Michel de Castelnau, was telling his correspondent. The subject was the future of the world, not of an individual, so the conjunction was not relevant to a geniture; the houses did not refer to aspects of a person’s life, but must be thought to have had an influence of their own on the future. Jupiter meant religion; Saturn seems to have meant malevolence and deceit; Aries meant war. Together they seemed to portend a violent conspiracy for the sake of religion whose outbreak would lead to general war. This was not a very surprising prophecy to make in 1583, and it would come home to the recipient, a French agent who had been sent to Scotland with the idea of organising a Catholic coup. In his letter Castelnau had just been extolling the virtues of peace, so he was probably using the heavens to warn the agent off the scheme without actually saying so. I doubt if he thought that the conjunction would itself bring about the result predicted, though he may have had some feeling of the sort.

This doubt is surely a feeble rejoinder to Grafton’s major position: that Cardano, some at least of his fellow astrologers, and their clients were ‘dans le vrai’; for one thing, his claim is based on the geniture, not on grand speculations about the future of the world. It is a strong claim, and may mean something more than that: if we wish to get into the minds of 16th-century people, we should observe carefully and respectfully the doings of Cardano and his kind. There are easy ways of objecting to it. For instance, we can compare Cardano’s language when he is talking about astrology to his language when he is not. Grafton gives us an extreme example of the first, which he concedes to be a piece of mystification:

In every geniture there is a best position, which controls all good fortune, and a worst one, which controls all misfortune. The best place is the tenth house, or the first one, or a luminary, if there is joined with these fortune, or a propitious ray, or that of the other luminary, or a fortunate star, so that the good fortune is doubled.

Then there is his language when he is describing a dream:

About the year 1534, in the grey of dawn ... I saw myself, in my sleep, running along the base of a mountain which rose to my right. With me ran an enormous crowd of people of every estate, sex and age ... I asked where we were all running. One of them answered: ‘To death.’

He climbed straight up the mountain, holding onto vine-stems. The climb got easier. As he got to the bare top he felt a surge of self-confidence, but nearly fell down a rocky cleft. He was terrified again. He entered a rural hut, hand in hand with a young boy in an ash-coloured suit. He described the dream variously in various tellings, but no more than anyone would. He concluded that it was a predictive dream about fame, and that the rural hut was about tranquillity, but could not make his mind up what the boy meant, or whether he was a good omen or not. This seems perfectly straight, so that you would trust the man who said it. Cardano’s autobiography, in which it comes, is full of such solid matter, about his food, his urine, his impotence, his scruffy appearance, his inability to be polite to anyone but the great, his embarrassing choice of servants.

There is a more interesting objection, which may not be an objection at all. I think of Stuart Clark’s recent book on witchcraft theory, Thinking with Demons (discussed in the LRB of 11 November 1999), which takes rather the same line as Grafton, arguing for ‘the rationality and cogency of texts previously condemned for barbarism and inhumanity’. I wonder whether Grafton would hold that writers about witchcraft like Bodin were ‘dans le vrai’. The only relevant comment I can find in Cardano’s Cosmos is that the powers of prediction of 16th-century astrology were about the same as those of 16th-century medicine: its implications seem ambiguous. Perhaps he might want to make a distinction between witchcraft theory, which generally entails belief in Christianity (or apparently, in Bodin’s case, in Judaism), and astrology, which does not. Grafton’s centre of gravity is in classical scholarship, in both senses; it seems that, in the warfare of Christianity and astrology, he takes the side of astrology. And why not? In rescuing Cardano from the Inquisition, and by his other scholarly achievements, Grafton has earned the right to our trust and admiration.