I listened to an excellent In Our Time the other day about Renaissance Astrology (go here to listen). The show was particularly interesting in light of the recent discussions I’ve been having on here. Astrology was hugely influential in the court of Elizabeth I. So much so that her advisor, John Dee, was asked to pick the date of her coronation. It was also widely used for everything from predicting the weather but also every day transactions. Unlike today’s versions which are all based on birth dates they were often cast on the date when something occured – or was due to happen.

The program discusses many of the reasons why astrology fell out of favor to the point that not only was it no longer taught in schools but in a very short order it became the near-universal laughing stock it is today. These reasons include improvements in astronomy showing the existance of even more stars, details on the moon and sunspots. Also repeated attacks by the church who saw the idea of as having a direct impact on god-given free will.

However, the major cause for the decline was the beginning of attemts to systematise the concept. This act of rationalism was an attempt by some of the learned people of the day to test the theories in existance at that time to see if they could be shown to effective, in terms of prediction, and reproducable. Of course they were shown not to be. A lot of this work was done by Tycho Brahe and Francis Bacon. Astrology was repeatedly reworked and retested and as the start of The Enlightenment approached eventually abandoned by the everyone – not just the educated classes.

Of course, at the same time, other somewhat less than rational pursuits were common. In particular I’m thinking of alchemy and Sir Isaac Newton. Obviously, unlike astrology which has all but disapeared today the systematisation of alchemy lead to the creation of the science of chemistry.

I was particularly interested by the way the themes of the show made me reflect on religion (as these sort of things have wont to do). In the same period most of the major world religions also made predictions and frequently pontificated (pardon the pun) on temporal matters. As the world became a more rational place (relatively speaking) these statements on temporal matters grew more and more infrequent. Now, it seems to me, religion tends only to comment on matters that cannot be rationally examined.

Even then it very much seems the case that most people I know are uncomfortbale about openly discussed religion – so I’d like to thank

again for getting me to write about more than just listing interesting articles.

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