A 1647 edition of William Lilly’s Christian Astrology, located in the Burns library stacks, bears an ominous warning to those who would delve into the practice of reading the stars. The book’s owner cautions that “all those that peruse this book must own that it thou knowledge gives of things unknown.” William Lilly, and those who cautiously read his books, lived in an era when astrology was an established scientific practice. To many in early modern Europe (the period from approximately 1500-1750), astrology could be applied to everything from folk medicine to political fortunes, and so it appeared in a wide variety of literature. Burns Library holds some fascinating examples of the period’s astrological discourses.
Before Enlightenment thinkers scrapped astrology as a pseudo-science, the study of the stars was an ancient practice that formed the basis of several scientific disciplines. Astronomy especially was fueled by the human desire to understand how the heavens could affect the lives of people on earth. Johannes Kepler, a key figure in discovering the way planets move around the sun, was also a dedicated astrologer who published several influential books on the subject. This interest stemmed from a greater sense that the human anatomy was influenced by their environment in many key ways. To early modern philosophers, the position of the planets had just as much capacity to change one’s bodily functions as the food one ate and the weather one experienced. Almanacs were published with directions on how to order one’s life around the influences of the stars, while extensive astrological treatises showed the interested how to read these influences for themselves2.
Burns Library collections contain various types of literature that contributed to the influence of astrology. William Lilly, whose book inspired so much caution in its purchaser, made his living publishing prophecies and guides to the astrological sciences. Burns Library collections contain his Prophecy of the White King, Lilly’s interpretation of a medieval prophecy about the downfall of a “White King” of England. He published this resurfaced prophecy during the English Civil War, inserting his expert astrological perspective into contemporary debates around the King’s right to rule. Lilly’s book Christian Astrology, besides its fascinating annotations, also contains a wide breadth of approaches to astrology, and is still foundational to astrological practice today.
Astrology’s wide influence did not mean that it was not subject to debate. One book in the Burns Library stacks called Astrologomania, the Madnesse of Astrologers (1624) condemns the field as anti-christian, with its author writing that “the illusions of judiciary astrology have long beene maintained by the policies of Sathan.” Many Christians were uncomfortable with how astrology fit into established religious doctrine, and astrologers were sometimes portrayed as hacks dealing in illusions. Later in the same century, the playwright John Dryden wrote An Evening’s Love, or the Mock Astrologer (also at Burns Library), playing with these unflattering tropes on the English stage. Though astrology was, at this time, an established field, there was always suspicion about the limits of its applications.
In the following centuries, astrology was dismissed as a serious discipline of science, but it has never fully lost its cultural appeal. It has proliferated as a modern pastime, especially alongside interests like witchcraft and spiritualism. Numerous books and apps today help individuals find their birth charts and determine possible planetary influences throughout the year. But at Burns library, one can reflect on when this modern hobby was a major part of the scientific and political discourses of its day.
If you would like to see these resources, or anything housed in Burns Library, please contact us to make an appointment.
-Kelley Glasgow, Burns Library Reading Room Assistant & PhD student in the English Department.
1 Westman, Robert S.. “Johannes Kepler”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 5 Apr. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Johannes-Kepler.
2 Curth, Louise Hill. “Astrology and Popular Culture.” English Almanacs, Astrology and Popular Medicine, 1550–1700, Manchester University Press, 2007, pp. 105–16.