Courting Disaster; & The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe

Patrick Curry | Published in History Today
  • Courting Disaster: Astrology at the English Court and University in the Later Middle Ages
    Hilary M. Carey – Macmillan, 1992 - 282 pp. - £45
  • The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe
    Valerie I. J. Flint - Clarendon Press, 1991 - 451 pp. - £35

Hilary Carey's book is a valuable addition to our knowledge of both the history of astrology and, as any such work should be, the history of the period concerned. Anyone concerned with either subject will want to have it, although given the unreasonably steep price that is as far as it may go for some.

Carey focuses on the transformation of English astrology in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. From pursuing a relatively arcane subject with a foothold in the universities (and a theologically contested one at that), astrologers became steadily more involved in the intrigue and high stakes of court politics. They were increasingly consulted by members of the aristocracy, and some with the wrong patrons ended up on the scaffold. Thus (along with the printing presses) was the basis laid for astrology's appearance in the mid- seventeenth century as a fully-blown popular pursuit, and the transformation was complete.

Unfortunately, Carey's account is flawed, albeit in a way that is itself revealing about the subject. She begins with an encouraging nod towards the kind of even-handed attitude that is a sine qua non for doing such a subject justice. But she quickly loses her nerve when describing 'the determinism, irrationality and paganism implicit in the tenets of astrology' – without exception the terms of its historical enemies, which receive no serious examination here – and adds an extraordinary footnote to the effect that she too 'is sceptical about any of the claims made by astrologers, past and present'. Now, even if we give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume she doesn't really mean any claims, how is it possible to write fairly and accurately about a subject when you have already written off, morally and intellectually, all its practitioners both past and present?

This attitude presumably explains her curious opening remark that the book is actually 'not about astrology', but about its 'social and intellectual context'. It cannot be, of course, because the one is meaningless without the other; but it tries to be. The result, not surprisingly, is unsatisfying. For example, the fascinating and painstakingly amassed catalogue of horoscopes in English medieval manuscripts, including ones for the three Edwards and Richard II, is left sadly under-utilised. Carey offers the defence that 'the possible interpretations of astrological data being legion, it is best not even to attempt to deduce how these horoscopes might reflect on the characters of their subjects'. As an astrologer might interpret them now, yes; and legion, yes; but such interpretation is definitely not unconstrained by the data, as I believe she well knows, and to miss the opportunity of exploring their possible meanings to contemporaries diminishes her book.

The explanation for Carey's attitude and the procedure following from it, which her footnote encapsulates, is actually referred to in her book: fourteenth-century university astrologers found it 'imprudent and even presumptuous' to devote too much time to the details of the subject. But she fails to connect, as so many do. The result, its solid and useful scholarship notwithstanding, is a sad testimony to the oldest surviving form of political correctness in academe.

Valerie Flint, on the other hand, takes the bull by the horns. Allowing 'that magic which sustains devotion and delight' a legitimate (if limited) place in the present, she is equally able to perceive its real and important place in the past. But this is no New Age pie-in-the-sky; far from it. With steely determination and what appears to be effective mastery of the primary sources, Flint traces the changeover in the early Middle Ages from the vehement rejection of magic by the early Christian church, to its careful rehabilitation. The point is inescapable: that this remarkable rescue was neither superstitious irrationality nor weakness on the part of the authorities, as anachronistic historians would all-too-often have it; it was an active and carefully thought-out strategy in response to the urgent need of the early medieval church to re-appropriate some of the authority of 'the old magic', and to enlist its more acceptable forms (which included making 'an honest science of astrology') in the struggle against the more pernicious ones (such as the raising of spirits or offering of sacrifices).

Remarkably, Flint combines a bold thesis and sophisticated historiography with impeccable scholarship. Her semantic disentangling of contemporary texts and their various terms is as sensitive as her contextual interpretation of them, and is even accompanied by a grasp of their limits for our purposes. Certainly with respect to astrology – which she correctly identifies as a tradition of divination by means of the planets, stars and zodiacal signs (and on which perception much hangs) – she never puts a foot wrong. And as if that were not enough, Flint writes with verve and style. This is an extraordinarily good book.

Patrick Curry is the author of A Confusion of Prophets : Victorian and Edwardian Astrology (Collins & Brown, 1992).

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