Once rejected as a wretched pseudo-science, the history of astrology is now recognised as vital to understanding pre-modern culture. Providing a universal framework which integrated the heavens with both society and the individual, it enabled interpretation as well as judgment. The subject was pursued in universities, at courts, in cities and on the streets by a great diversity of practitioners and clients. It provides an extraordinarily rich route into many fields and topics, with substantial connections to the histories of mathematics, astronomy, natural philosophy, medicine, magic, alchemy, art, politics, history, theology, religion, the body and sexuality. This paper introduces its ancient roots but focuses principally on astrology’s theory and practice in medieval and early-modern Islamicate and Christian cultures. From 9th-century Baghdad to 12th-century al-Andalus it played a leading role in intellectual transformations and movements of translation, while in Timurid Samarqand, Ottoman Istanbul, Habsburg Vienna and ducal Milan it was crucial to imperial and noble ambitions and propaganda. A learned and highly technical art, in Europe it nevertheless also came to be distributed through cheap print almanacs to a wider audience, saturating Reformation Germany and Civil War England with prognostications.
The course provides a thematic perspective on astrology’s many dimensions and discusses why, after centuries of polemical refutation and defence, it lost its intellectual status in later 17th-century Europe. Sessions are delivered in the Museum of the History of Science whose collections, equally strong in both Islamicate and European sources, provide a vital dimension of material culture to complement the subject’s intellectual history. It is also hoped to be able to introduce students to relevant manuscript and printed sources in the Bodleian Library.