Bad Omens: When the Astrologers Got it Wrong

Europe panicked when astrologers predicted a huge flood in 1524. When it failed to appear, astrology had to defend itself.

The great conjunction in Pisces. Titlepage from Leonhard Reinmann’s Practica uber die grossen und manigfeltigen Coniunction der Planeten (1524). Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

On the morning of 1 February 1524 hundreds of Londoners gathered by the Thames in dreadful anticipation. This day had been a long time coming. Preparations had begun months and, in some cases, years earlier: homes had been stocked with provisions, doors and walls had been fortified, boats had been procured. Those who could had escaped to the higher parts of the city while those who could not had moved their belongings to the upper storeys of their houses. Much the same was true in many regions of continental Europe. In Rome, large stores of grain were amassed, and many of the nobility left the city for the mountains. In Toulouse, a politician allegedly had an ark built on a nearby mountaintop. Meanwhile, in the German lands, several city governments made efforts to reinforce the city walls. Burghers arranged for barges in front of their homes. Around Vienna, as elsewhere, low-lying fields were sold at a loss as people tried to move to higher ground. A catastrophic flood was coming, and Europe was poised in readiness.

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