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  • Entre science et nigromance: Astrologie, divination et magie dans l'Occident médiéval (XIIe-XVe siècle)
  • Laura Ackerman Smoller
Jean-Patrice Boudet . Entre science et nigromance: Astrologie, divination et magie dans l'Occident médiéval (XIIe–XVe siècle). Histoire ancienne et médiévale 83. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2006. Pp. 624.

No one knows more about late medieval astrology than does Jean-Patrice Boudet. His studies of the late fifteenth-century astrologer Simon de Phares and his library established Boudet as a master not simply of one astrologer's career, but also of the entire corpus of texts and techniques of medieval astrology. The same thorough grounding in writing, practice, and the wider context in which they are embedded is apparent in Boudet's new, magisterial [End Page 211] study of astrology, divination, and magic in twelfth- through fifteenth-century Europe. Boudet begins with the observation that the fates of astrology on the one hand and divination and magic on the other, although linked in the early Middle Ages, diverge drastically in the later Middle Ages. While the years 1350–1600 mark a golden age for astrology, the same period sees simple diviners and healers increasingly persecuted as witches. The rest of the book tracks these divergent fates.

Boudet's story line is not exactly new. Like Michael Bailey, Richard Kieckhefer, and Edward Peters, he traces the boost given to astrology, divination, and magic by the wave of translations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; the varied responses to this rise formulated by theologians and canon lawyers; the carving out of a permissible category of practice called "natural magic"; and the eventual condemnation of much divination and magic as demonic in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, culminating in the rise of the witch trials. What is novel and crucially important in Boudet's book is rather the wide range of evidence he brings to bear in tracing this story, evidence that allows him to add nuance to the standard outline and to "tweak" certain details.

For starters, Boudet thoroughly knows the texts of medieval astrology, divination, and magic, as well as the manuscript tradition and the evidence provided by contemporary library catalogues and bibliographies. Analysis of these sources enables him to make several important observations. For example, he notes that the most commonly used textbook for astrology, Alchabitius's Liber introductorius (in the translation by John of Seville), gave rules for judging nativities (birth horoscopes), but not interrogations and elections, precisely those aspects of the science of the stars that came under increasing suspicion in the later Middle Ages. Based on his mastery of astrological techniques, Boudet is able to distinguish between an elite cadre of truly competent astrologers and those "amateurs" who seized upon a more simplistic analysis (such as that based on the great conjunctions) to blend astrology and prophecy or to produce almanacs, annual predictions, and lunaria. Similarly, careful analysis of surviving charts and judgments enables Boudet to conclude that rulers who consulted astrologers tended to do so retrospectively and not in advance of action; he finds little evidence beyond anecdotes in chronicles to indicate that astrology was ever seriously used in making policy.

Second, Boudet examines, often with great sensitivity and creativity, what evidence does survive about the actual practice of astrology, magic, and divination. A fresh reading of John of Salisbury's Policraticus, for example, yields a picture of the types of magic and divination that the twelfth-century secretary to the archbishops of Canterbury saw as the chief vice infecting both [End Page 212] court and clergy. A look at the sorts of questions addressed in Guido Bonatti's astrological summa confirms that there was indeed a clerical audience for predictions of the future. Similarly, analysis of university records, princely libraries, account books, and the list of personages in Simon de Phares's Recueil des plus celebres astrologues enables Boudet to construct a profile of working astrologers and their status. (A royal astrologer in late fifteenth-century France, for example, received around the same annual salary as the king's barber.) Boudet also concludes that, contrary to popular perception, most physicians did not use astrology in...


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