- "The Devil that Rules i'th' Air":Determinisms of Wind, Star, and State in John Webster's the Duchess of Malfi
Although celestial bodies hurtle through the cosmos with all the complexity of an ecosystem, they are not generally recognized under the conservational purview of environmental activism.1 In the face of today's specifically terrestrial crises, an ecocritical survey of the early modern starscape might seem beside the point to modern environmentalism, which (solar winds and stray asteroids excepted) regards heavenly bodies as largely irrelevant to our lively island home of Earth.2 When distance is measured in the vastness of light years, it is difficult to see ourselves, our interests, and our world imbricated in the huge dramas of space. For early moderns, however, the stars and planets hung much more closely as an intricate network that constantly influenced the atmosphere and landscape below. While much has been written about the prominence of astrology in early modern intellectual history, the environmental valence of this vital cultural discourse has largely escaped our ecocritical gaze.3 Yet because ecocriticism evaluates the ways in which humans and their environment share material, conceptual, and cultural spaces, the histories of astrology and astronomy are ripe for study. Indeed, the meteorological and agricultural influences of the stars were widely accepted throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And as Louise Curth has demonstrated, the transactions between the early modern humoral body and its environment extended even to the stars and planets, which were thought to agitate or soothe the elements of the world and of the human body.4 Because this early modern cosmology encompassed everything from stardust to dust-storms, early modern ecocriticism must take a telescopic view when considering what counts as the environment. To this end, I deploy the term astrometeorology throughout this essay in order to emphasize the early modern chain of intimacies linking all of creation, from the highest star in the sky to the rain that nourishes the lowest shrub.5 [End Page 865]
This radically vertical perspective, however, was constantly tapped for political use in order to reify the hierarchies of human society. The essayist Patrick Scot, for instance, warns Prince Charles in his 1621 advice tract A Table-booke for Princes that "princes are of star-like influence vpon inferior bodies; If the ayre bee infected with an epidemicall quality, they that dwell therein cannot be very sound."6 Scot's metaphor—descending from inauspicious stars, to their contaminated air, to the creatures who breathe it in—naturalizes social hierarchies that place the subject beneath the prince just as the crude earth rested beneath the nobler atmospheres of wind and star. Obviously, Scot is not unique; thinkers often exploited the top-down language of astrometeorology to describe Stuart superiority—both politically and analogically as an elevated (literally superior) regime of celestial bodies. In 1622, for instance, Henry Peacham opens his discussion of nobility by erecting a bulky scaffolding of analogy that extends human kingship across the entirety of nonhuman creation:
Among the heauenly bodies wee see the Nobler Orbes, and of greatest influence to be raised aloft, the lesse effectuall, depressed. … The Lyon we say is King of Beasts, the Eagle chiefe of Birds; the Whale and Whirle-poole [whales with blowholes] among Fishes, Iupiters Oake the Forrests King. Among Flowers, wee most admire and esteeme the Rose: Among Fruite, the Pom-roy and Queene-apple; among Stones, we value aboue all the Diamond; Mettals, Gold and Siluer. … Surely, to beleeue that Nature (rather the God of Nature) produceth not the same among ourselues, is … to abase ourselues beneath the Beast.7
According to Peacham, the cosmic axiom of excellence manifested by the "heauenly bodies" and the earth's taxonomic kingdoms (here meant literally) enjoins people to recognize monarchical excellence as a fact of nature while also confirming humanity's "natural" place of excellence above that of the "Beast."
For Peacham and, indeed, for many early modern thinkers, anthropocentrism provided a convenient hermeneutic with which to read hierarchies both in the cosmos and in human society. I contend, however, that readings of nature like Peacham's encode their own limitations even as they...