5.3. THE ASTROLOGICAL APOGEE
5.3.1. The planetary conjunctions and the movements of the eighth sphere
In no other historical period has astrology gained greater power and influence than in the 16th and the 17th centuries. After hundreds of years of constant development, in Luther’s time astrology came to a very interesting status: theoretically condemned by the church, practically treated as the queen of sciences. Thus, amid the spiritual dissatisfaction offered by the ecclesiastical teachings and the confusion caused by the Protestant Reformation, conjunctions, eclipses, heavenly appearances and planetary movements became subjects that swallowed countless hours of observations and calculations, caused fierce debates and generated rivers of ink.
Astrology was considered capable of offering explanations about the birth, the development and the decline of all things that are part of the material world. For mystics it was the door toward a universe filled with beauty and harmony, in which the spiritual correspondences unite all the existing things. Pierre d’Ailly named astrology “natural theology” because he saw the firmament as a map through which God informs mankind about the type and the time of certain future events. The heavenly events were believed to be in direct relation with the earthly events according to the relation macrocosm-microcosm depicted by the followers of Paracelsus. According to a witness of the time, everyone – from common people, doctors, commanders of troops, to popes, kings and emperors – saw themselves more or less dependent on the messages from the roof of heaven:477
astrology has become a recognized profession, and almost everyone has nativities drawn up … [indeed], there is no cardinal or prelate or prince who does not have discourses drawn up telling his fortune based on his nativity … Of course, only for secondary causes, because everything in the final analysis depends on God.478
The scope of astrology expanded until it came in connection with all known fields: botany, chemistry, zoology, mineralogy, anatomy and medicine. Colors, metals, stones, plants, medicines and the life of all kind of animals have been associated with one or more planets and placed under a spectrum of influence. In this way, the entire realm of natural sciences has been transposed in astrological language with the purpose of seeing in all the natural phenomena indicative signs of what the future might bring. At that time there was no difference between astronomy and astrology, or even between astrology and mathematics. Until the Late Middle Ages astrologers were named mathematici. At first, the Latin term mathematicus was used to denote a person competent in astrology, astronomy and mathematics.479
At the time of the Reformation astrology was divided into two distinct branches. There was “judicial astrology,” which had as object of study the relation between social actions and celestial phenomena; its practitioners considered that the position of celestial bodies affects mankind’s affairs. And there was “natural astrology,” which had as object of study the movements of celestial bodies and their effect on weather.480 In general, natural astrology was practiced by beginners, while judicial astrology by experts.
The Reformation brought new eschatological theories and calculations. From the astrological adaptation of the historical Joachimite scheme to the most threatening eclipses or conjunctions, a multitude of books and pamphlets emanated by the horde of soothsayers launched a flood of bold apocalyptic speculations. Yet, only a few have managed to leave a deep imprint upon the historical consciousness, the best example being Nostradamus.
In the 16th century the importance of future astrological events was still determined through the technique of comparative horoscopy (their comparison to past astrological configurations) and according to their rarity. It was a controversial technique, but widespread enough to set the astrological universe on fire in 1524, when a planetary alignment occurred in the constellation of Pisces. In Almanach nova plurimis annis venturis inserentia from 1499 Johannes Stöffler stated the followings:
In this year  we shall see eclipse neither of sun nor moon. But in this year will occur positions of the planets well worthy of wonderment. For in the month of February will occur twenty conjunctions, small, mean and great, of which sixteen will occupy a watery sign, signifying to well nigh the whole world, climates, kingdoms, provinces, estates, dignitaries, brutes, beasts of the sea, and to all dwellers on earth indubitable mutation, variation and alternation such as we have scarce perceived form many centuries from historiographers and our elders. Lift up your heads, therefore, ye Christian men.481
This short fragment, inexplicably, gave birth to a rumor which said that in the year 1524 a second universal flood was going to take place. The planets involved in the great conjunction were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, together with the Sun.
The prophecy of the flood was, naturally, first and foremost contested by clerics because it violated God’s covenant with Noah. Other skeptics preferred to make jokes on the subject, the philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli jeeringly urging the women of Florence to quickly climb the hills and live with the hermits. George Tannstetter, a mathematician at the University of Vienna, rejected the prophecy of the flood on the ground that it follows the lame pattern of prophecies which announce serious disasters for Christendom: the Turkish invasion, religious divisions, civil wars or the death of Emperor Maximilian. In 1517 Agostino Nifo astrologically confuted the theory of a future flood in De falsa diluvii prognosticatione quae ex conventu omnium planetarum qui in piscebus contingit anno 1524 divulgata est. Paul of Middleburg also rejected the prophecy through the letter Prognosticum, addressed to Pope Clement VII, in which he argued that a planetary conjunction in the signs of Pisces does not nearly indicate a future flood, global or local.482
On the other hand, the Italian priest Sebastianus Constantinus of Taormina had the courage to defend the prophecy of the flood. Indeed, a universal flood was impossible due to the divine promise, but a local one cannot be excluded, as a warning or a punishment from God. He emphasized that people are prone to the demonic temptation of ignoring divine signs, as it happened at the time of Noah. Divine warnings can come on the path of stars in the same way a star announced the three magi about the birth of the Savior. Hence, Constantinus concluded that it was better to follow the idea that there would be a flood than to believe that there would be none.483
Contested or supported, the prospect of dying by drowning was not an issue easy to ignore. So, the hysteria of the masses grew as the year 1524 approached. In England, people feared that water, according to astrological calculations, would hit London on the 1st of February (in the Julian calendar). Around 20,000 people abandoned their homes in fear, while a prior turned his church into a fortress, apparently waterproof, within which he stuffed resources of food for a two-month waiting. In some port cities the population purchased small boats, while a certain Aurial built himself a giant ark at Toulouse, in France. Likewise, Count Von Iggleheim, built a three-storey ark on the Rhine. Unfortunately for Von Iggleheim, his construction drew the attention of the common people and fueled the frightful rumors. When a modest rain began to fall in the morning of the 1st of February, panic erupted and the curious crowd went berserk. The mob rushed on the docks to catch any objects that could float. Hundreds of people perished in the stampede, trampled or drowned. At the sight of the desperate throng Von Iggleheim closed the door of his ark – a gesture that cost him dearly: the people climbed on the ark and rushed in, caught him, threw him out and stoned him.484
Despite the grim expectations, according to the chronicle of Andrea Pietramellara of Bologna, the year 1524 turned out to be ordinary:
contrary to the expectation of many, since many were fearful of earthquake, excessive rain and other things hateful to mankind. Although we have not felt or seen such, yet there was a rumor that outside Italy and especially at Naples and in the mountains long rains had occurred, and there had been earthquakes, also rivers had submerged houses and villas not without great calamity to mortals.485
A planetary conjunction took place indeed on the 23rd of February, but without having any earthly effects. Nevertheless, the conjunctions that followed throughout history gave birth to equally sick speculations. In January 1583 Richard Harvey, one of the brothers of the famous poet Gabriel Harvey, prophesied the end of the world for the afternoon of the 28th of April. His argument was …
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