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Religion, Science and Print


This session brings together a number of the 'big themes' of early modern European history: the impact of the printing press, the so-called 'Scientific Revolution' of the seventeenth century, and developments and changes in religious belief. Our way into these questions is through the topic of astrology, and specifically medical astrology. For many people today, astrology is a disreputable pseudo-science, and horoscopes at best a bit of harmless fun. Yet astrology was taken extremely seriously at all social levels in the early modern period. Thinking about why this was so, and how astrological ideas were circulated and understood, may want to make us question and clarify what we mean by categories like 'science' in this period.


In advance of the seminar, everyone should read at least one of the three Recommended Readings below. Curth gives a straightforward survey of the genre of almanacs in seventeenth-century England; Capp’s chapter is a study of the relationship between science and astrology in English almanacs in the same period; Grafton is an introduction to the practice of astrological medicine.

You should also read selected parts of a contemporary how-to guide to practical astrology: document here. This is a set of seventeenth-century instructions by the English astrologer Joseph Blagrave (1610-1682) about how to diagnose and treat an illness using astrology. There are two resources to help you make sense of this text: the comments (by Dr Michael Bycroft) in the margin of the instructions, and the set of images from astrological texts found here.

On the basis of these readings, think about these three questions:

  • Why was medical astrology so popular in seventeenth-century England?
  • What role did print play in its popularity?
  • Was astrology the antithesis of the new science or a typical manifestation of it?


First half of the seminar - practice

We will run through the how-to guide to practical astrology together as a group. It may help to go through the three main steps that Blagrave describes, ie. using an ephemeris, erecting a figure, and giving a judgement (sections 2, 3 and 4 in Blagrave’s text). It may also help to focus on the example Blagrave provides, ie. that of his friend who fell ill on “October 10th, 1667, at a quarter past one o’clock in the afternoon.”


Second half of seminar – discussion

We will discuss the three questions listed above.



‘Astrology, Science and Medicine,’ in Bernard Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs 1500-1800 (Faber & Faber: London, 1979), pp. 180-214

‘The Genre of Almanacs,’ in Louis Hill Curth, English Almanacs, Astrology, and Popular Medicine: 1550- 1700 (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 2007), pp. 35-56

‘The Astrologer’s Practice,’ in Anthony Grafton, Cardano's Cosmos: the Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2001), pp. 22-37 – you may find this useful as an accessible introduction to the practice of astrological medicine



Joseph Blagrave, Blagrave’s Astrological Practice of Physick (London, 1671), pp. 28-40 [available on EEBO, and in a handy html format here:;view=fulltext]: the full version of the workshop set text.

Fly, Fly 1667 an almanack for the year of our Lord God 1667 (London, 1667) [available on EEBO] – a typical almanac, this one for the year in which Blagrave’s friend fell ill – you may want to browse this document to get a sense of what it contains

William Lilly, Merlini Anglici ephemeris, or, Astrological Judgments for the Year 1667 (London, 1667) [EEBO] – a typical ephemeris, this one for the year in which Blagrave’s friend fell ill – on EEBO, the Table of Planetary motions starts at image number 18 and the Table of Houses starts at image number 43.

Richard Saunders, The Astrological Judgment and Practice of Physick (London, 1677), pp. 114-208 [available as pdf via Google Books] – another how-to guide to astrological medicine published in the 1670s.

Richard Napier astrological chart – see Lauren Kassell, Michael Hawkins, Robert Ralley, and John Young, ‘Anatomy of a case’, A Critical Introduction to the Casebooks of Simon Forman and Richard Napier, 1596–1634,, accessed 3 June 2019 – this is what astrological medicine looked like on the page.