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The Astrologers' Feasts

In interregnum London, one of the phenomena thrown up by a 'world turned upside down' after England's Civil War was the Society of Astrologers. This remarkable professional body, roughly forty strong, met annually for a feast and a sermon between 1647 and 1658. Unique in its own right, these feasts also offer an unusual window on the general social and intellectual ferment of mid-seventeenth-century England.

These were heady days for English astrologers. After official censorship collapsed in 1641, there was an explosion of new pamphlets and newspapers. In the ensuing melee of politics, eschatology and prophecy, the astrological interpretation of celestial signs of the times was much in demand; and on both sides of the major conflict, astrologers were eager to supply it. Indeed, one leading example – John Booker (1602-67) – was himself appointed Licenser for publications of 'Mathematicks, Almanacks, and prognostications'. Thus, by the 1660s, annual sales of almanacs had risen to about 400,000, or roughly one for every family in three. William Lilly's Merlinus Anglicus, one of the most successful titles, sold 13,500 copies in 1646; and by 1649, according to one (hostile) contemporary, it was selling nearly 30,000.

Another new development was the appearance of native English textbooks, both of astrology in all its branches, and of astrological medicine. Lilly's Christian Astrology (1647) was followed by Culpeper's The English Physitian, or an Astrologo-Physical Discussion of the Vulgar Herbs of this Nation (1652), and Gadbury's Genethlialogia, or the Doctrine of Nativities (1659). The editor of Christopher Heydon's posthumously published An Astrological Discourse complained that it had been formerly suppressed by 'the error, or rather malice of the Clergy...'. There is no reason to doubt his word.

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