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CES Dissertation Workshop

Prophecies of Doom or the Doom of Prophecy? Debates Over the Astrological Prediction of Disasters in the Atlantic World, c.1650-1700


November 9, 2018
2:00pm - 4:00pm
Hoffmann Room, Adolphus Busch Hall
November 9, 2018
2:00pm - 4:00pm
Hoffmann Room, Adolphus Busch Hall

The inhabitants of the early modern world had no single explanation of disastrous events. Instead, they possessed a diverse range of ideas drawn from many intellectual traditions, including theology, natural philosophy, astrology, medicine, architecture and others. Of these types of catastrophic knowledge, we know least about astrology, which has largely escaped the attention of historians of disaster. In fact, the speaker argues, it was extremely important in the early modern intellectual world, and the changing nature and status of astrology played a crucial role in shaping how contemporaries understood disasters. From the 1650s, debates over the relationship of comets, eclipses and celestial conjunctions to what we now call natural disasters, were an important feature of the intellectual landscape in Europe and the Atlantic world. One of the reasons historians have missed this connection is that the historiography of early modern astrology has tended to produce narratives, in which astrology played second fiddle to science. The conventional historical picture claims, that after a very long history stretching back to the ancient world, astrology experienced first a heyday in the mid-seventeenth century and then a rapid decline over a few decades, in which it was utterly dethroned by the natural sciences and eventually disintegrated by its critics. There are significant problems with that (largely Anglo-centric) narrative. By taking the specific case of disaster astrology and situating it within the context of the wider intellectual ecology, the speaker shows that astrological theories actually played a crucial role in shaping understandings of disaster. Rather than treating astrology as a hermetically-sealed knowledge paradigm, he traces its connections and conflicts with rival traditions. Astrology adapted to critiques, and even sceptical naturalists relied on the existence of astrology as an opponent to legitimize their own disciplines.

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