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How Albert the Great's Speculum astronomiae was Interpreted and Used by Four Centuries of Readers: A Study in Late Medieval Medicine, Astronomy, and Astrology (review)

From: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft
Volume 7, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 220-222 | 10.1353/mrw.2012.0024

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Reviewed by
Scott E. Hendrix. How Albert the Great's Speculum astronomiae was Interpreted and Used by Four Centuries of Readers: A Study in Late Medieval Medicine, Astronomy, and Astrology. Lewiston, Queenston, and Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010. Pp. 326.

The Speculum astronomiae (SA) is well known for being a critical catalogue of all the texts on astronomy, astrology, and related sciences, drawn up soon after the middle of the thirteenth century. Its differentiation between astronomy and astrology, and its definitions of astronomy (including cosmology) and the parts of astrology (introductions, revolutions of years, nativities, interrogations, and elections) are valuable for the historian of the science of the stars, and its distinction between three kinds of talismanic magic ("necromancy," a division of elections), on the grounds of the use of invocations, exotic alphabets, and the power of stars, is an essential text for the historian of magic. Hendrix's book claims to be the first work to explore the contents of the SA. Hendrix sees the SA as arising out of the "intense controversy [End Page 220] over the compatibility of astrology with Christian doctrine" and considers that "it rapidly assumed canonical status and set the terms of debate for the intellectuals of the fourteenth century and beyond." This is what he tries to show in this book. Chapter 1 discusses the vexed question of the authorship of the SA. Chapter 2 deals with its position within thirteenth-century debates on astrology. Chapter 3 considers the place of the SA within Albertus's thought. Chapter 4 analyzes the use of the work, as evidenced from the manuscripts. Chapter 5 focuses on the discussion of the validity of astrology in the premodern period, and Chapter 6 explores the reasons for its demise, but ends with the remarkable resurgence of interest in astrology in recent years, and the renewed use of the SA itself.

Hendrix is not afraid to sail against the prevailing wind of modern scholarship. He attributes the decline of astrology to its association with popular uprisings. He is convinced about Albertus's authorship and (rightly) considers that the recent debate, which has focused on the authorship, should move on. The principal object of Hendrix's criticism is the conclusions of Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, who argues against the attribution of the work to Albertus Magnus on the grounds that the earliest manuscript does not carry this attribution. The strongest evidence for Albertus's authorship brought by Hendrix is a quotation from Bonaventura of Iseo, a friend of Albertus's, who mentions that the Pope had given Albertus the leave to examine the books of all the sciences to decide which were licit and which were illicit. Hendrix follows Richard Lemay in accepting this evidence as conclusive. After refuting Paravicini's counterevidence for the authorship of Campanus of Novara, Hendrix gives the date of composition as between 1260 and 1270. Hendrix argues for Albertus's authority also on the grounds of the similarity between the ideas expressed in the SA and those in other works of Albertus, such as his De fato.

The arguments of Hendrix's book would have been more compelling if the book had not been marred by a lot of errors in detail. Many of these seem to be the result merely of inadequate proofreading (p. 13, "Paravacini" for "Paravicini"; p. 45, n. 139, "dilegendum" for "diligendum"; n. 142, "iudicorum" for "iudiciorum"; p. 47, "of it" repeated, etc.). More serious are the frequent errors in the descriptions of the manuscripts contained the SA, which form the main evidence for the thesis. These manuscripts had already been described in detail (and more accurately) in a work that the author does not appear to have used: Alberto Magno, Speculum astronomiae, eds. S. Caroti, M. Pereira, S. Zamponi, under the direction of P. Zambelli (Pisa, 1977). Knowledge of these descriptions would have saved Scott Hendrix from making several mistakes in his reading of the Latin in the manuscripts, [End Page 221] and would have provided identifications of many of the texts accompanying the SA: for example, the Arras manuscript that opens the list (pp. 221-22) includes Plato of Tivoli's translation of the Quadripartitum of Ptolemy...