Astrology and supernatural power in early modern Scotland
in The supernatural in early modern Scotland
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Astrology was a core component of the university curriculum in Scotland until the late 1670s. It was taught as part of natural philosophy, linked with the teachings of Aristotle and Ptolemy. There were two branches of the subject: natural and judicial astrology. The former, used to understand natural phenomena such as weather, was widely accepted, even by Calvin, while the latter, aimed at prediction and control of outcomes based on subjective judgement, had always had its detractors, notably George Buchanan and James VI.

Two seventeenth-century developments led to astrology’s fall from grace. First, the gradual acceptance, despite some kirk opposition, of the falsity of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models of the universe also undermined astrology’s validity by association and it was discarded from the syllabus along with them. Additionally, the ‘mathematical certainties’ afforded by the new Cartesian and later Newtonian theories had more intellectual and practical value than the ‘probable certaintie’ claimed by astrological predictions. Second, an explosion of astrology books published in the vernacular rather than Latin around mid-century opened the subject to the less educated and the entrepreneurial. During the civil wars, astrology was appropriated by these ‘seditious men’ as a propaganda tool, acquiring for it a reputation as vulgar and irrational, not to mention divisive and dangerous. The chapter traces the chronology and rationale for the intellectual downfall of astrology in Scotland.

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