[Book Review] Astrology in the Middle Ages, by Theodore Otto Wedel (Dover Press)

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Summary: In Astrology in the Middle Ages, Wedel attempts to shed some light about the transitions surrounding astrology, particularly at a time categorized by the power of the church and a lull in science. He mentions numerous scholars, writers, priests, scientists, historians, and philosophers; and describes the development of astrology from a lost art near the beginning of the middle ages to something closer to a high science by the end. His tone seems to take the subject as a little more sacred than your average modern reader might like to see, but the examination of past attitudes is enlightening as to what really mattered and when.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

(20:30:06 CDT)

[Book Review] Astrology in the Middle Ages, by Theodore Otto Wedel (Dover Press)

In 1920, Wedel wrote The Medieval Attitude Toward Astrology, Particularly in England under the imprint of the Yale Press. While spiritualism would have already come through its big boom at the turn of the century, the New Age movement that brought astrology back to the forefront of discussions in the 1960s had not occurred. Unsuprisingly, Wedel begins with a slight bemoanment about how little information is on his topic. While works by Chaucer, and other popular Medieval writers, were still plenty extant, they used astrology as a scapegoat, or as a plot device. Some writers worked hard to elevate what they saw to be a dying art, but swinging perceptions of astrology as child's play or demonology buried many of the more practical, less flamboyant ones. In some cases, Wedel has managed to unearth them; in others he merely references works that reference them.

If you read the book, and you are not particularly fond of historical parapsychology, there are two main benefits to be had. First, it is enlightening to see how much our perception of the Middle Ages has already been colored by historical surveys that act as though civilization quantum leaped from Rome to Shakespeare*. Math and Science languish, sure, in a society that was more worried about religious doctrine and metaphysical ponderings; but the gyre turns and things were being done.

Secondly, perhaps more significantly, the book exposes what the real issues with Astrology were, and a Catholic attack against magic was only a portion of it. Both the Church (capital "C", now) and many secular people were concerned that astrology lead to a disproof of free-will. As Wedel points out (actually, he points out that an editor of Opus Magus points out): we believed, for years, that we were the center sphere in the whole of the cosmos and even, by extension, the focus of it. What would the other stars and planets and comets be if not the cosmological machine that was used by God to influence man? Even astronomers** like Kepler would remark that they considered the study of the stars to be helpful in the fulfillment of chart making at the like. The key word, though, was influence. Those that came to the conclusion that mankind was unerringly run by the stars were considered heretical. What evil exists in a world where there is no free will?***

The explanation that was returned to again and again involved the stars effecting our humors, our bodily energy, but not our spiritual energy. In this regards, they might suggest a course of actions, but could not enforce it. This lead to astrology being about general actions, the tides of humanity, with more specific astrology being the domain of tricksters and heretics that consulted with demons or flat out lied. When you look at astrology now, the "influences" aspect as died down, and many modern users consider its domain more absolute. What's more, the field is almost entirely composed of "day-to-day" and personal readings: the very sort once considered chicanerous blasphemy.

There are two caveats to potential readers besides a general reminder that the friendlier, more pop, non-fiction of today is not reflective of the non-fiction field from the turn of the century. Wedel often, but not always, keeps quotes in their original language. You'll find entire passages in Latin and Middle English, as well as French and Italian. Secondly, he often references a couple of other works in his point making, referring to points made elsewhere. This keeps his narrative fast, but does occasionally make you wonder if you might have been better starting with them. A third caveat, from personal viewpoints, is that Wedel seems a little taken with astrologers, as though their plight was somehow a righteous crusade of Right, equal to the soon-to-follow fights held by Galileo and his contemporary scientists.

Balancing the annoyances against intriguing surprises, and the surprises take it. The book is recommended.

Wedel, Theodore Otto. Astrology in the Middle Ages. Mineola: Dover, 2005 (unabridged reprint). viii+166pp. Index. Bibliography. Paperbound. $11.95. Note that the original book is in the public domain, and should be findable through standard sources of public domain works.

Si Vales, Valeo

*: don't feel guilty, Petrarch, who lived in the 14th century, coined the phrase "Dark Ages" more or less, and he would have only be removed from them by a matter of a few centuries. He is actually a large part of the reason we have continuously had a negative impression of the time period.

**: as the etymology of the term might suggest, the division between the two disciplines was often in favor of "astro-logos" (the Logos of Stars) rather than "astro-nomos" (the Names of Stars). In several instances, astronomy was considered to be weak, used by those who only pretended to use the science and in several others the term was either swapped or considered interchangeable. By the time John Gower wrote the terms in the way we might consider them today, astrology was hopelessly mired in describing the study of stars and their influence on mankind. This terminology stuck, and is one reason why the study of the chemistry and physics of stars are grouped under "astrophysics" rather than astrology.

***: No doubt Wedel flavors the argument with simplicity, but this does find interesting contrast with later, Protestant, movements that involved predestination, and the meta/physics arguments about scientific determinism. Wedel would have been writing this slightly before the time that quantum mechanics, and its Copenhagen intepretation, brought about a potential answer to a question of determinism more concrete than astrologers would have ever assumed.


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