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Journal of the History of Ideas 66.4 (2005) 557-576
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The Writing in the Wittenberg Sky:
Astrology in Sixteenth-Century Germany
It probably was a delightful summer day when the celebrated humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, best known as a friend of Albrecht Dürer and Erasmus of Rotterdam, strolled, with an unknown friend, through the streets of Nuremberg. When they saw a girl standing at the streetside, it occurred to the friend to predict the girl's future by reading her palm. So he did, foretelling a forthcoming marriage and a blissful life. After the girl had passed on, Pirckheimer's unknown friend admitted that, unfortunately, he had not seen the girl's blithe life but her impending death. In order not to scare her, however, he had not revealed this message to the girl; only his learned friend Pirckheimer could know the truth. Some years later, the Nuremberg philologist Joachim Camerarius, who narrated this rather trivial event with great excitement in 1576, does not display any sign of bewilderment that in this instance a chiromantic had told untruths to somebody.1 On the contrary, he praises this art and admires Italy's scholars, who practiced, besides chiromancy, other wonderful divinatory arts based on astrology. Camerarius was perceptibly impressed by Italian astrology and her divinatory stepsisters. Presumably he was thinking about De subtilitate (1554) by Girolamo Cardano who, at least in this work, counted astrology and chiromancy among the arts of natural divination.2 And so, as if inspired by Cardano's acute judgment years afterward, Camerarius [End Page 557] read in Cardano, in the same breath, the idea that there had been only twelve significant scholars in the history of civilization, who were capable of divination: such were, among others, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Alchindi, and Vitruvius. However, no contemporary of Cardano was among them.
This anecdote provides but a glimpse of the sixteenth-century enthusiasm for the divinatory art of chiromancy and, relatedly, astrology. My contribution will show that academic Protestant Germany was actually in the grips of an astrology fever. Throughout the sixteenth century, many German scholars were under the spell of astrology. In this, Germany did not essentially differ from Italy and France, but in one specific place astrology presented itself in a peculiar shape.
In the sixteenth century astrology flourished particularly in one German site of erudition: in Wittenberg, 51°52' latitude, 12°38' longitude. Particularly here at the University of Wittenberg, attracted by Philipp Melanchthon's pedagogic enterprise, a series of scholars came together who shaped the image of astrology in sixteenth-century Germany. They were humanists, physicians, astronomers, mathematicians, municipal surgeons, and scholars of Greek. There were at least forty-six of them. In one way or another, each of them was interested in astrology. Many of them composed astrological analyses for wealthy clients. "Pene innumberabiles" mathematicians came from the University of Wittenberg, as the Tübingen professor of rhetorics Nikodemus Frischlin grudgingly asserted. By this he meant astrologers, and he did not try to conceal his aversion to them.3 He was unequivocal: astrologers are swindlers.
With this opinion, Frischlin joined the ranks of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola,4 Martin Luther,5 Erasmus of Rotterdam,6 and others. This is not a novelty, and yet Frischlin's caustic remark can still teach us something today: regarding the history of German astrology, one should resist the temptation to see Melanchthon as the one and only spiritus rector of German sixteenth-century astrology. Instead, it is reasonable to concede much more weight to the sway of Wittenberg and its numerous astronomers, mathematicians, and physicians, who did not only gravitate toward the personality of Melanchthon. The large number of scholars and the variety of ideas preempts any attempt [End Page 558] to reduce the number of astrologers to a so-called Melanchthon circle.7 This circle did not exist, not least because his pupils did not monistically adhere to Melanchthon's thoughts on astrology. In particular, a personality as industrious in publishing as Melanchthon's son-in...