As every Europeanist knows, astrology used to be good science. It used to be essential to both medical theory and practice. It used to be part of every person's Weltanschauung. The big message of the book under review here is that the foregoing is true not only of Europe—and I speak as a historian of its Middle Ages—but of many other places on the planet as well.
This collection of essays, which come (with one exception) from a colloquium held at the Warburg Institute in 2005, "gives [us]," as the editors put it, "a first glance at the contacts between astrology and medicine, and opens up the subject to future research" (p. xi). The ground covered is extensive—the ancient Near East and Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, the Islamic world, ancient China and India, Tibet, and medieval through modern Europe. The idea of correspondences between the microcosm of the body and the macrocosm of the universe—in particular the moon, the planets, and the constellations—is a longstanding one and can be said to be a core component of the premodern mentalité, what we might describe as human history's ancien régime culturel. (Think "great chain of being.") It is a phenomenon common to learned and popular culture. And it brings in its train not only an astrologically oriented medicine but the related "sciences" of talismans, astrobotany, astrominerology, astropharmacology, physiognomy, onomancy, and alchemy as well. Other more particular cultural constants appearing the world over are the use of astrology for providing a diagnosis, a prognosis, and an explanation for a particular disease or ailment; for selecting, fabricating, and administering medicines; for carrying out medical procedures; for determining the most propitious time for conception; and for discerning the physical and mental characteristics of a child whether in the womb or newly born.
An attempt at comparative cultural history on a global scale, this book makes a very successful initial foray into new and difficult territory. Of course the book cannot do everything, and its authors are duly aware of its limitations. Indeed, beyond the rich content of the essays themselves is the repeated call for more work to be done on several fronts: on cultural connections and lines of transmission, on the broad similarities linking the various traditions, on the differences separating them, and on the specific cultural elaborations and innovations that so often are the consequence of ideas moving from one place to another. A grand synthesis is not offered here, but the attentive reader can surmise something of its broad outlines.
The volume contains the following articles: Nils P. Heeßel, "Astrological Medicine in Babylonia"; Vivian Nutton, "Greek Medical Astrology and the Boundaries [End Page 120] of Medicine"; Hilary M. Carey, "Medieval Latin Astrology and the Cycles of Life: William English and English Medicine in Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.5.26" (with a transcription of William English's middle English translation of De urina non visa on pp. 55-74); Concetta Pennuto, "The Debate on Critical Days in Renaissance Italy"; Y. Tzvi Langermann, "The Astral Connections of Critical Days. Some Late Antique Sources Preserved in Hebrew and Arabic"; Anna Akasoy, "Arabic Physiognomy as a Link between Astrology and Medicine"; Vivienne Lo, "Heavenly Bodies in Early China: Astro-Physiology in Context"; Audrius Beinorius, "Astral Hermeneutics: Astrology and Medicine in India"; Vesna A. Wallace, "A Convergence of Medical and Astro-Sciences in Indian Tantric Buddhism: A Case of the Kālacakratantra"; Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, "Tibetan Medical Astrology"; and Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum, "From Lilly to Steiner and Jung: Temperament in Astrology and Psychology, Seventeenth and Twentieth Centuries." Together they make for a fascinating read.