The Limits of Influence: Pico, Louvain, and the Crisis of Renaissance Astrology

The Limits of Influence: Pico, Louvain, and the Crisis of Renaissance Astrology

The Limits of Influence: Pico, Louvain, and the Crisis of Renaissance Astrology

The Limits of Influence: Pico, Louvain, and the Crisis of Renaissance Astrology


Historians of science often acknowledge the academic status of astrology in the early modern period, but mostly fail to explore its relation with other disciplines and its role in society. This book seeks to fill that gap. The first part of the book examines the practices and functions that shaped late medieval astrology, and relates how its academic status became discredited, both in northern Italy and the Low Countries. The second part of the book examines various counter-strategies of astrological reform, and shows how these ultimately failed to restore public trust in academic astrology. This book provides a new level of detail to the history of astrology. It also establishes important new links with other fields, like the history of universities, humanism, astronomy, medicine, and instrument building.


A little over five years ago, I presented my first paper at an international conference. Months of study on an unknown astrological instrument had made it necessary to seek advice from a specialized audience, and a meeting of historians of science in a lush Danish abbey seemed eminently suited for the purpose. After I had presented my results and answered a number of helpful questions, I returned to my seat. Suddenly, a large man swiftly made his way across the darkened room, crouched next to me, and belligerently whispered: “Do you believe in this? This is rubbish! Charlatanism!”

It took me a few seconds to realize that my assailant referred to the topic of my talk, rather than the quality of my analysis. Even so, it seemed wise to reassure him that I did not “believe” in astrology. This drew out a muffled groan from the historian’s lips as the next speaker started his talk, and the rules of scholarly propriety were restored.

Most readers might consider my antagonist’s intervention unprofessional. However, it does highlight the problematic position of astrology in virtually any grand narrative of the history of Western science. Cultural historians have established the omnipresence and flexibility of astrology in early modern Europe beyond any doubt.’ But this does not seem to have convinced many historians of science that the topic might be relevant to their concerns. We still need an approach to early modern astrology that confirms its omnipresence and flexibility, but explores its intimate ties with other “scientific” disciplines like natural philosophy, medicine, or astronomy as well. This book wishes to address that need.

This project is doomed to failure if it does not rely on a historically adequate definition of its subject matter. Early modern astrology was an exceptionally rich discipline in terms of conceptual resources,

Good examples include Allen, The Slar-Crosse.d Renaissance; Thomas, Religion and
the Decline of Magic,
pp. 283–388; Grafton, Cardano’s Cosmos.

An excellent exception is Bowden, The Scientific Revolution in Astrology. Liba Taub
still exhorted historians of science towards the “rehabilitation of wretched subjects”
in 1997.

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