History, Prophecy, and the Stars: The Christian Astrology of Pierre d'Ailly, 1350-1420

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History, Prophecy, and the Stars: The Christian Astrology of Pierre d'Ailly, 1350-1420. By Laura Ackerman Smoller. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1994. Pp. xii, 233. $35.00.)

With the contributions of such scholars as Ouy, Courtenay, Bernstein, Pascoe, Guenee, Kazmarek, Pluta, and Chappuis, fans of Pierre d'Ailly appear of late to be growing in number, and they have good reason to welcome this cogent, intriguing, and well-researched book, which packs a good deal of learning into surprisingly small compass. A faithful follower of the via moderna at the University of Paris, d'Ailly rose to prominence as one of the most distinguished theologians of his day, as chancellor of the university, reforming churchman, cardinal of the Pisan obedience, and a leading conciliarist spokesman at the Council of Constance, deeply involved in the successful efforts of that assembly to end the schism. Scholars have long known that he dabbled in astrology as well as wrote on astronomical, calendric, and geographical questions, but despite his arresting choice of the year 1789 for the future arrival of Antichrist, no previous scholar has accorded this aspect of his life and work the degree of painstaking attention extended to it by Smoller.

In so doing, she constructs a persuasive portrait of a thinker who in his earlier years had shared both the widespread apocalyptic foreboding generated by the protracted schism and the antipathy toward the claims made for astrological divination long common among churchmen, but who in the last ten years of his life, as his hopes for a genuine reform of the Church waxed and his apocalypticism waned, turned to astrology as an analytical tool to help him confirm his sense that the coming of Antichrist was not imminent. For by that time, and unlike such contemporaries as Nicole d'Oresme and Heinrich von Langenstein, he had come to view astrology as a rational science that would enable him to make sense of history and prophecy. …