Saturday, March 11, 2017

Astrology in Old English Literature by Theodore O. Wedel 1920


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Astrological learning...was almost extinct in Europe during the Dark Ages; hence we need not expect to discover more than occasional signs of its existence in northern vernacular literature. All astrological science among the Teutonic peoples, indeed, must be termed a foreign importation—even the popular astrology of the almanac goes back to Greece and Rome. Certain primitive
superstitions among the Teutons and Gauls, it is true, offered points of contact for simple astrological notions. Caesar, describing the religion of the Germans, says that they worshipped as gods only those whose power they could easily recognize, namely the Sun, Vulcan, and the Moon. Tacitus, in the Germania, informs us that the Teutonic tribes held their assemblies on stated days—'either at the new or the full moon, which they account the most auspicious season for beginning any enterprise.' In the English laws of Cnut, a statute is included which forbids all heathenish practices, and, incidentally, the worship of sun or moon. The Penitential of the English archbishop, Theodore of Canterbury (died 690), furthermore, contains slight references to superstitions regarding the moon. An entire chapter in this work is devoted to magic and sorcery — an interesting commentary on the popular beliefs of the time. Augury from the flight of birds is found in the list of malpractices as are also necromancy, and the consulting of witches. Observance of New Year's Day according to heathen customs is forbidden. Last of all, the archbishop warns against the attempt to stop an eclipse by means of enchantment, and prescribes a year's penance for any one 'qui in honore lunae pro aliqua sanitate jejunat.'

The observance of lucky and unlucky days seems to be the nearest approach to astrology in the superstitions of the ancient Celts. Several accounts are on record of Druids who predicted a child's future according to the day on which it was born. There also existed among the Druids a form of cloud-divination, and the corresponding Celtic word, _neladoracht_, is at times applied to astrology and divination in general. Certain puzzling references to astrology proper which appear in the Christian literature of Ireland—one passage, for example, relates how a diviner scans the
heavens, and tells the foster-father of St. Columkille that the time is propitious for his son to begin his lessons—are hardly sufficient to prove the existence of an indigenous astrological science.

The pagan worship of sun and moon, and the observance of lucky and unlucky days, though they cannot yet be called astrology, constitute a foundation upon which it can build. Accordingly, we find in Old English a series of treatises, translated from Latin or Greek originals, which appealed to such primitive beliefs. Some of these treatises—a number of them have been printed by Cockayne in his collection of Old English _Leechdoms_ — belong to the realm of medicine, and indicate the days in each month which are favorable or unfavorable for the letting of blood. Another consists of meteorological prognostications, according to the day of the week on which Christmas falls. 'If the massday of midwinter is a Sunday,' one prophecy reads, 'then there shall be a good winter, and a windy spring, and a dry summer, and good vineyards; and sheep shall thrive, and honey shall be sufficient, and peace shall be kept well enough.' Still another contains miscellaneous predictions
for each day of the lunar month. For the thirteenth, the treatise prophesies: 'The thirteenth day is perilous for beginning things. Dispute not this day with thy friends. The fugitive will quickly be discovered. A child born this day will be plucky, having a mark about his eyes, bold, rapacious, arrogant, self-pleasing, and will not live long. A maiden will have a mark on the back of her neck or on the thigh; she will be saucy, spirited, daring of her body with many men: she will die soon. A man fallen sick on this moon will quickly recover, or be long ill. A dream will be fulfilled within nine days. From the sixth hour it is a good time for blood-letting.'

It is only by courtesy, of course, that compilations like these are allowed to claim kinship with the science of Ptolemy and Manilius. Primitive as they are, they belong to the learned literature of the day, and trace their origin to foreign, not to native, sources. In the course of centuries, this learned superstition became the common property of the uncultured, and the stock in trade of the maker of almanacs. A popular song, found in a manuscript of the fifteenth century, predicting the weather for the year if Christmas falls on a Sunday, exhibits an exact counterpart of one of the texts printed by Cockayne.

The homilies of Aelfric furnish evidence that even the belief in lucky and unlucky days met with the hostility of the English Church. The observance of so-called 'Egyptian days' had been forbidden as early as Augustine, and Aelfric was therefore on orthodox ground when he attacked such popular superstitions in a sermon for New Year's. After exhorting against divination in general, he rebukes those in particular who 'regulate their journeys by the moon, and their acts according to days, and who will not undertake anything on Mondays.'

Probably the only extended reference in Old English to astrology proper is to be found in Aelfric's homily on the Epiphany. Aelfric, following the lead of Gregory, connects with the story of the Magi a discussion of destiny and free will. 'We are also to know,' Aelfric says, 'that there were some heretics who said that every man is born according to the position of the stars, and that by their course his destiny befalls him.' The manner in which Aelfric thus introduces the subject shows clearly how foreign it must have been to his English hearers; the mere use of the past tense is significant. And when he continues with an elaboration of the ancient argument of twins, utilizing Augustine's illustration of Jacob and Esau, his words can have aroused in his hearers little more than a historical interest.

Although England, like the rest of Europe, had to content itself during the early mediaeval period with the mere rudiments of an astrological science, it was destined to play an important role in the scientific movement of the later centuries. Even before the days of the new science, there can be found in England traces of that revived interest in astrology which culminated in the De Mundi Universitate of Bernard Silvestris, and the philosophical writings of John of Salisbury. A curious story is told by William of Malmesbury, which shows that Firmicus Maternus, discovered on the continent during the eleventh century, must have traveled to England shortly after the Norman Conquest. The chronicle relates how Gerard, Archbishop of York from 1100 to 1108, who was reputed to have meddled with magic, was refused burial by his canons because a copy of Firmicus was found under his pillow at his death. In the first quarter of the twelfth century, we also meet with a reference to astrology in Geoffrey of Monmouth. At the close of the seventh book of the _Historia Regum Britannia_, and as a part of the famous prophecies of Merlin, there occur a series of obscure astrological allusions—a passage which puzzled Geoffrey's followers, and did not find an interpreter until the fifteenth century, when the French chronicler Waurin explained it as referring to the day of judgment. Although the prophecy is probably little more than a jumble of classical reminiscences—one of its sources, apparently, was Lucan's _Pharsalia_ — it indicates that astrological ideas were already in the air. Adelard of Bath, indeed, was Geoffrey's own contemporary. With the second quarter of the century, in effect, we are on the threshold of that new age of mediaeval science which was to honor astrology as the chief of the seven arts, and to make of astrologers the confidants of popes and kings.

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