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Play now 45 mins

Renaissance Astrology

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 14 June 2007

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Renaissance Astrology. In Act I Scene II of King Lear, the ne’er do well Edmund steps forward and rails at the weakness and cynicism of his fellow men:This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,when we are sick in fortune, - often the surfeitof our own behaviour, - we make guilty of ourdisasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: asif we were villains by necessity.The focus of his attack is astrology and the credulity of those who fall for its charms. But the idea that earthly life was ordained in the heavens was essential to the Renaissance understanding of the world. The movements of the heavens influenced many things from the practice of medicine to major political decisions. Every renaissance court had its astrologer including Elizabeth Ist and the mysterious Dr. John Dee who chose the most propitious date for her coronation. But astrologers also worked in the universities and on the streets, reading horoscopes, predicting crop failures and rivalling priests and doctors as pillars of the local community. But why did astrological ideas flourish in the period, how did astrologers interpret and influence the course of events and what new ideas eventually brought the astrological edifice tumbling down? With Peter Forshaw, Lecturer in Renaissance Philosophies at Birkbeck, University of London; Lauren Kassell, Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge; and Jonathan Sawday, Professor of English Studies at the University of Strathclyde.

  • Further Reading

    Allen, D.C., The Star-Crossed Renaissance: The Quarrel about Astrology and Its Influence in England (New York, 1973 [1951])

    Capp, Bernard, Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs 1500-1800 (London, 1979)

    Curry, Patrick, Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England (Oxford: Polity Press and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989)

    William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton (eds.), Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe (MIT, 2001)

    Geneva, Ann, Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars (Manchester, 1995)

    Grafton, Anthony, Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer (Harvard, 1999)

    MacDonald, Michael, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1981)

    Niccoli, Ottavia, Prophecy and People in Renaissance Italy, trans. Lydia Cochrane (Princeton, 1990)

  • .

    Tester, Jim, A History of Western Astrology (Boydell, 1987)

    Kassell, Lauren, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman, Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician (Oxford, 2005)

    Barton, Tamsyn, Ancient Astrology (Routledge, 1994)

    Page, Sophie, Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts (British Library, 2002)

    Carey, Hilary, Courting Disaster: Astrology at the Court and University in the Later Middle Ages (London, 1992)

    Ficino, Marsilio, De vita libri tres, ed. and trans. by Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark, Three Books on Life (Tempe, Arizona: Mediaeval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1998) - especially Book 3.

    Copenhaver, Brian, ‘Astrology and Magic,’ in The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 264-300.

    Shumaker, Wayne, The Occult Sciences of the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns, Chapter 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972; repr.1979)


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