Thursday, December 29, 2011

In Praise of Ephemeral Astrological Literature

Posted by Darin Hayton on 12/29 at 04:58 PM

Thony over at the The Renaissance Mathematicus beat me to the post in his recent “Reformation, revolutions and social media.” I had been thinking about The Economist’s article on “How Luther went viral.”

Thony rightly points out that The Economist article doesn’t offer anything terribly new, as his quotations from Eisenstein and Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin on the Reformation (surely taking his cue from The Economist article) demonstrate. He thinks the Reformation would have occurred anyway—I would add to his John Wycliffe example Jan Hus and the Bohemian reformers, reflecting my own central European interests.1 He also wonders aloud about how valid the parallels are between the advent of print and new media technologies today.

To be fair to The Economist, I think the article tries to see today’s social media as analogous not just to print but to the networks of circulation that spread Reformation and Counter-Reformation ideas:

Now the internet offers a new perspective on this long-running debate [the role of print in the Reformation], namely that the important factor was not the printing press itself (which had been around since the 1450s), but the wider system of media sharing along social networks—what is called “social media” today. Luther, like the Arab revolutionaries, grasped the dynamics of this new media environment very quickly, and saw how it could spread his message.

The underlying question seems, however, still to be: Is the internet analogous to print? I too wonder about this. Today’s social media that disseminate messages far and wide would not be possible without the internet—Twitter, Facebook, blogs, (SMS complicates this picture a bit). Although more local social networks would exist, as they did in the 16th century, political and social messages would not travel as far as quickly. When looking back at Luther, The Economist’s article tries to place print within a spectrum of media, making it one of many modes of communication in the 16th century, as Robert Scribner has shown convincingly.2 Visual arts, pageantry, theater, preaching both inside and outside of churches, music, and singing were all effective forms of media. The other social networks mentioned in the article all existed before print and continued to exist alongside print. In the article, however, the printed pamphlet is the key development: “The surge in the popularity of pamphlets in 1523-24, the vast majority of them in favour of reform, served as a collective signalling mechanism.” To be sure, the pamphlet was a multivalent thing, allowing for the spread of images and texts. The texts could then be read aloud to audiences and reprinted. The images could be reproduced without the text and distributed or hung up around town. All this seems to point to the validity of the analogy. But the printed pamphlet was slower than other forms of media, and more costly even though it was cheap. Songs and preaching were more dynamic and versatile and accessible to an even broader spectrum of the public.3 And unlike “Likes” and retweets today that convey the popularity of a particular message along with that message, it was more difficult for an individual in the 16th century to apprehend the popularity of a pamphlet or a song or a sermon. Oral repetition and reprints may have offered some measure of popularity but were limited to a person’s immediate context. But I don’t want merely to reflect on The Economist’s analogy.4

I share Thony’s interest in how print might have had an influence on the “evolution of astronomy in the early modern period.” As he points out, cheap, ephemeral astrological texts were the most popular and widespread printed literature. By the 17th century, astrological prognostications, almanacs, calendars, and pamphlets often contained explanations about heliocentric astronomy. They were both affordable and understandable by a broad audience, much broader than could have afforded Copernicus’s or Kepler’s books, or would have been interested or able to understand them even if they could afford them.

Here again Eisenstein is relevant. She devoted the third section of her The Printing Press as an Agent of Change to the impact of print on the development of modern science.5 She argues that print played a necessary role in bringing about modern science. Rejecting what she calls a “naive view of science” that assumes early modern scholars rejected books for the investigation of the “book of nature,” Eisenstein argues that the printing of books “provided the indispensable step” toward modern science. Fixed texts allowed for the wider dissemination of observations and provided the material for a feedback loop by allowing readers to verify and extend the information in a printed book. The duplication in print is one of the key features in Eisenstein’s argument. Further, the proliferation of print allowed for scholars, she focuses on Copernicus, to read and evaluate more sources and to recognize “long standing problems” in astronomy. Eisenstein focuses on the pillars of the Scientific Revolution—Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe, Galileo, etc.—and the thick tomes that they produced.6

I want to turn from the relatively rarified world of massive scholarly tomes to the more abundant ephemeral literature, the very pamphlets that both The Economist and Thony emphasize. These ephemeral texts were much more accessible and abundant. Whereas 400-500 copies of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus might have been printed in the first edition and another 500-500 in the second, 550 copies of Kepler’s Tabulae Rudolphinae, and 750 of Newton’s Principia mathematica, thousands of annual prognostications, broadsheet calendars, almanacs, and astrological practica were printed each year.7

One of 276 surviving copies of the first edition of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus from Haverford College’s Special Collections (Source: Accessible Treasures, an article from Haverford Magazine (2010): 28–33. A PDF of that issue is available here )

These astrological pamphlets were typically produced by court astrologers or local university masters, often at the request or demand of the local prince. They included weather forecasts as well as general predictions about wars, famines, the prosperity of groups of people—merchants, princes, burghers—and countries—in the early 16th century the Turks were a common concern in these pamphlets. Predictions were grounded in careful calculations and empirical claims about the positions of the planets relative to each other, against the backdrop of the constellations, and relative to the fixed stars. Decorative woodcuts often adorned the title pages and conveyed relevant astrological information, such as the planetary rulers of the year or impending eclipses. The woodcut below, from Georg Tannstetter’s annual prognostication, indicates that the planetary rulers for the year are Mars and Venus and that there will be an eclipse in Pisces. Tannstetter was a favorite at the Holy Roman Court in Vienna and a rising star at the University of Vienna. In addition to his lectures on astronomy and astrology and medicine, he regularly produced annual prognostications and the yearly wall calendars that complemented these texts.

The title page to Georg Tannstetter’s Iudicium Astronomicum pro anno Christi M.ccccc.xiii. (Vienna, 1512) (Source: The original is in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Sig. Res/4° Astr.p. 510, 25)

The same woodcut appears on the bottom of Tannstetter’s calendar for that year, linking the two texts in interesting ways. This astrological information is precisely what made these texts popular. They offered practical advice and guidelines for the reader. When combined with the calendar for the year, these texts became handy reference tools that helped readers structure their lives, guiding them when to plant or sow seeds, when to undertake journeys, when to wean children, move house, take baths, trim hair and nails, and when to treat certain illnesses.

And we should not forget that astrology (here broadly understood) provided one of the most compelling systems of knowledge about the natural world. While various people argued about how to practice astrology and how much you could expect from it, nearly everybody from all registers of society subscribed to the basic tenets of astrology.

These ephemeral texts did more than simply convey astrological information. Their close connections to local princes meant they were effective means of propaganda. Competing astrologers often traded barbs, using astrology to advance their own patron’s agenda at the expense of their opponent’s. In 1529 the Catholic, Viennese, pro-Habsburg astrologer Andreas Perlach condemned Johannes Carion, the reformed astrologer from Brandenburg, for practicing illicit astrology. At issue was Carion’s dire predictions for Austria and Vienna.

These ephemeral texts also transmitted considerable knowledge about planetary systems and concern for computational accuracy, which could confer empirical accuracy. In the following century, as Thony notes, when competing systems were on offer, you can find expositions of both the Ptolemaic and the Copernican and even the Tychonic now and then. As early as 1540, Andreas Aurifaber praised Copernicus in the dedicatory epistle to his Practica Auff das Jar M.D.XLj for the following year.8 Aurifaber even claimed that he used Copernicus’s planetary tables for calculating the motions of the planets. Aurifaber does not mention any cosmology, referring only to the computational accuracy provided by Copernicus’s tables. He suggests that other authors of practica should also use these more accurate tables.

Whether or not The Economist’s analogy is accurate, I think ephemeral print has a lot to offer if we spend the time studying it. These pamphlets often reveal what the most sophisticated astrologers thought, how astronomical ideas were spreading amongst the learned, how influential astrologers aligned their work with local princes and political agendas, and what the public might have known about their world. When combined with the more erudite texts these astrologers produced, either the large tomes that we think provide the foundation for our modern world—as Eisenstein did—or the university texts they produced or their lecture notes, these ephemeral texts can provide a richer and more complete picture of astronomical/astrological/mathematical knowledge in early modern Europe and the uses to which that knowledge was put.

1The importance of print in making possible and making effective the Reformation continues to be contested. From the print side of things, Eisenstein’s materialist historiography and too-ready assumption that print was authoritative by virtue of being print has been challenged. Her most forceful opponent has been Adrian Johns. If you have the time, John’s The Nature of the Book (Chicago, 1998) offers an erudite alternative to Eisenstein. A shorter exchange was the “AHR Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Print Revolution” in the American Historical Review 107 (2002): 84–128. The complete exchange between Eisenstein and Johns is available online here. From the oral and performance side of things, scholars like Helga Robinson-Hammerstein, Alexander Fischer, Gary White, and Huston Diehl have argued for the importance of other forms of communication, such as theater, music, and visual art. All these scholars owe a debt to Robert Scribner, who laid much of the ground work for understanding the Reformation in terms of the multiple forms of media that were used to disseminate religious and social messages.
2The best starting place is Robert Scribner, For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Culture and Popular Movements in the Reformation (New York, 1981).
3Marcela Perett has recently argued that songs were more effective and dynamic forms of media, and had been for decades by the time the Lutheran Reformation occurred: “Vernacular Songs as ‘Oral Pamphlets’: The Hussites and Their Propaganda Campaign” Viator 42 (2011): 371–92.
4This paragraph reflects my initial thinking about the matter. By no means do I intend to defend vigorously or stand behind any of these musings.
5I don’t have my copy to hand, so I am drawing from her abridged The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe for any quotations. In this edition, her discussion of science extends from 187–254.
6Almost every aspect of Eisenstein’s argument has been challenged and, according to many, refuted. My observations have little to do with that dispute. See the AHR Forum cited above.
7Print runs are usually estimates. For these numbers, see Owen Gingerich, The Book Nobody Read (London, 2004), 126–28.
8I am relying here on Jonathan Green’s recent article: “The First Copernican Astrologer: Andreas Aurifaber’s Practica for 1541” Journal for the History of Astronomy 41 (2010): 157–65. It seems the Landesbibliothek Coburg has digitized its copy of Aurifaber’s practica here.

Tags: andreas aurifaber, andreas perlach, annual prognostications, astrology, georg tannstetter, johannes carion, johannes kepler, nicolaus copernicus, practica, social media, the economist


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