John Bainbridge’s Astrology

12 November, 2017 - MA Coursework

Setting John Bainbridge’s An Astronomicall Description of the Late Comet in its historiographic context is less a matter of recounting an obvious and lively argument than one of collecting and assembling disparate bits. There are no books, journal articles, or dissertations centered around Bainbridge, none with his name in the title. Bainbridge is thus relegated to play minor roles in several astronomical and cosmological issues of the time. His 1618 treatise on the comet marks one of the first instances of the use of a telescope to observe a comet (the first, by Kepler, had occurred only a few months prior, September 6th, on one of that year’s earlier comets). Bainbridge also cryptically argues for heliocentrism at a time, though well after Copernicus, in which heliocentrism was still hotly contested (only two years prior De Revolutionibus had been placed on the list of banned books by the Catholic Church and Galileo had been issued his “cease and desist” order). The treatise condemns “vulgar astrologie” yet somehow half its pages are devoted to a “moral prognostick” which employs, among other methods, a kind of iconology of the constellations (“celestial hieroglyphicks”). It unrelentingly attacks Aristotelianism. It utilizes new cartographic projection techniques to track and display the path of the comet through the celestial sphere and demonstrate its relationship to the position of the sun. It makes and graphically-diagrams parallax measurements demonstrating the comet’s supralunary position at a time, though some forty years after Tycho and the 1577 comet, when the meteorological/cosmological status of comets was still debated. It was written in English and overtly expresses its desire for a larger audience. And, finally, it earned Bainbridge the first Savilian Professorship of Astronomy at Cambridge and is thus representative of Henry Savile’s scholarly orientation and plays a role in the modern formulation of English university education built around endowed professorships. Though Bainbridge’s An Astronomicall Description situates Bainbridge within contemporaneous conversations about  heliocentrism, cometary astrology, the Savilian Professorship, the telescope, parallax, cartographic projection, and other domains, this paper is no place for such a chaotic and expansive set of subjects. I intend, then, to take a deeper dive into Bainbridge’s role only in the realm of cometary astrology.

An Astronomical Description serves as a peculiar case study in this regard. Despite millennia of synonymy, astronomy and astrology over the course of the seventeenth century for the first time begin to bifurcate. From our vantage point, we could describe this as a bifurcation into a rational, mathematical, falsifiable, in other words, “modern” discipline (astronomy), on the one hand, and a superstitious, arbitrary, mystical, in other words, “archaic” discipline (astrology), on the other hand, but this would be reductive and would belie the complex and long-standing interdependence of these two strands — the relationship between astronomy and astrology could hardly have been so intimate if they so easily unravel into diametrically-opposed antonyms. Peter Wright, in his article “Astrology and Science in Seventeenth-Century England,” also notices that if astrology and astronomy still coexist today, “their juxtaposition and even interpenetration must have been far greater in, say, seventeenth century England. In this event, the problem of explaining the decline of particular non-scientific forms of explanation, such as astrology, becomes yet more difficult.” And as Eugenio Garin succinctly puts it, “The precise classifications and distinction in use at that time [Franz Cumont’s late 19th-C.], between an astrology which was ‘religious’ and an astrology which was ‘scientific’, did not hold up because people kept finding the echoes of ancient beliefs within even the most coherent of mathematical treatises.” Bainbridge is an exemplary representative of this epistemic tension. In the same text he can somehow “esteeme” ‘vulgar astrology’ “no better than Phantasticke dreams” and immediately after express his complete confidence in the prodigious significance of comets using this “Hieroglyphicke doctrine”, which directed him “as by a sure Cynosure, and a conducting Pole-starre” to “dare boldly affirme, that this Comet being followed in his Emblemated motion is to great Britaines Majestie, and Monarchie: An auspicious signe of great honour and happinesse.” He is as confident in the divinely-inspired significance of the comet as he is in the direction of the north star! And yet he utterly distances himself from “vulgar astrology”; what are we to make of this seemingly schizoid attitude? If one understands astrology as an internally consistent monolith then certainly Bainbridge’s above-expressed attitude is untenable, but Tabitta van Nouhuys, in her The Age of the Two-Faced Janus, historicizes sixteenth- and seventeenth-century astrology in such a way as to clarify Bainbridge’s attitude immensely.

According to Tabitta van Nouhuys, and to common historiographic consensus, “one of the central problems of the birth of modern science” is “how did metaphysics come to be separated from physics, and how did God come to be eliminated from scientific discourse?” While the how remains a question of special interest, the when is less controversial. As Van Nouhuys tells us, this separation of physics from metaphysics occurred over the course of the seventeenth century. Bainbridge, at least what we can ascertain about him from An Astronomicall Description, seems to represent the beginning of what Van Nouhuys calls “this enigmatic watershed.” We get from Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, through Van Nouhuys’s paraphrasing, that one element of this transformation was the gradual loss of “reverence for the pristine wisdom of the past” to be “replaced with the postulate that phenomena be directly experienced before attempts should be made to explain them.” Somehow, in Bainbridge, possession of these traits is not an either/or, zero-sum formulation; his Astronomicall Description does both. He managed to both be the second person to observe a comet through a telescope (behind Kepler) and spend the rest of his life after acquiring his Savilian professorship studying Arabic and “historical astrology” of Ptolemy and his Arab commentators and expounders. Bainbridge, rather than a silly categorical dichotomy, is thus better portrayed as an ambassador from

“. . . a time when purpose and end where [sic] not yet excluded from scientific discourse; a time that was well-acquainted with the rationalism of Antiquity and the naturalism of the later Middle Ages, but yet refused to abandon teleology; a time when the elucidation of the final cause of natural phenomena was still considered a vital topic of investigation; a time on the verge of the cessation of dialogue.”


This “cessation of dialogue” (with the ancients, that is), is for Van Nouhuys a marker for that enigmatic watershed of the seventeenth century, the bifurcation of physical and metaphysical concerns. Van Nouhuys uses Pierre Bayle’s (1647-1706) criticisms of cometary astrology to describe and signify this transition and is corroborated in this endeavor by Sara Schechner Genuth, who also uses Bayle as an exemplar. We learn from her Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology that Bayle “thought it absurd and heretical to maintain that comets caused wars, new religions, and other ‘plagues of human society’” and that “no physical theory could convincingly connect comets and calamities.” Bayle comes to these conclusions by systematically dismantling any causal connection between comets and terrestrial events. It is on this point that Van Nouhuys makes a distinction critical to our understanding of Bainbridge: that what has been muddled and conflated under the umbrella term “astrology” is actually two separate traditions of understanding celestial influences. Van Nouhuys separates these traditions into the astrological (the naturalistic, mathematically-dependent understanding of a physical, causal relationship between celestial and terrestrial matter, what Van Nouhuys might have less confusingly labeled “judicial astrology”) and the teratological, from teratos: marvel (the teleological, faith-based understanding of a significatory, portentous relationship between celestial and terrestrial phenomena). Eugenio Garin adds to our understanding of these two astrological traditions that the understanding of celestial influences is the “meeting and confrontation point between the demands of a rational order, as in Greek science, and the myths and superstitions inherited from the East: between logic and magic, between mathematics and mythology, between Athens and Alexandria.”

My understanding of Bainbridge, and my speculation that I think warrants further, more expert study than I can provide, is that over the course of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries (and to which Bainbridge contributes with his parallax calculations, telescope observations, and cartographic projection of polar geometry onto his planisphere), developments in mathematical and observational astronomy rendered causal, naturalistic divination (what Van Nouhuys calls the “astrological” tradition and Garin understands to be the Greek contribution) increasingly untenable. I am interested in whether one variable of the separation of metaphysical and physical concerns has to do with the coincident purposes and needs of astronomy and judicial astrology in the sixteenth century. I wonder if this “enigmatic watershed” was delayed and protracted into the seventeenth century because in the century past, the primary research interest in mathematical and observational astronomy was the measurement of the locations and paths of celestial bodies — the exact shared desire of judicial astrologers. When, armed with tables and tables of measurements, Tycho & Co.’s bequest, if you will, astronomers began to ask after the causes of these motions and to attempt to elucidate the mechanistic laws governing them, the coincident coexistence of astronomy and astrology soured, and the teratological strand, fueled by infusions of the Arab astrological tradition, became the last refuge of celestial influence. Since Bainbridge neglected to carefully annotate his every sentence with attributions to his sources of scholarly inspiration, it is through this “astrological”/“teratological” taxonomy that I attempt to make sense of his simultaneous condemnation of “vulgar astrology” and practice of cometary divination through “celestial hieroglyphics,” suggesting, perhaps, that by “vulgar astrology” Bainbridge was referring to judicial astrology with its pretension to causality and lack of invocation of the God of Abraham, but that this did not preclude him from express the teratological, comets-as-portents view.

Pierre Bayle accounted for just such a possibility it in his systematic critique of cometary significance. Granting that comets-as-portents are much more difficult to refute than any naturalistic, causal connection, Bayle asserted that in order to hold this opinion, one would have to believe comets were created miraculously on-demand to serve as a portent. Many seventeenth century astronomers subscribed to this view. Bainbridge, however, in keeping with his paradoxical role of having one foot walking each of two forking paths, had this to say:

“Those Philosophers, who still walke in the way of the Gentiles, are afraide to induce generation, or any other mutation into the heavens, rather choosing to followe their blinde guide (who denied the world to have an beginning, or ending) then to beleeve the infallible truth of sacred scripture.//Others haue beene scrupulous to conceit any creation since that first Saboth.// But whether this Cometd and the like were caused by efficacie of nature (the ordinary power which God hath put into all his creatures) compacting the liquid aetheriall substance, or whether by the immediate power of the worlds Architect a new matter was presently created:// I will not here curiously dispute, either of these waies doth acknowledge a celestiall matter, and divine providence.”


Due diligence does not seem to Bainbridge to require that he choose one or the other theory of cometary generation. More pointedly, if we pay special attention to Bainbridge’s insistence that both explanations acknowledge divine providence, we can see that he disputes Bayle’s insistence that one must see a portentous comet as a miraculous creation: God simply could have set up the original creation to produce a comet at a preordained time — a not unusual act for an omniscient being. Bainbridge’s motives for cometary astrology, like all motives for all acts, can never be more than speculated at, but his methods should be much more penetrable and subject to historical inquiry.

“Celestial hieroglyphics” is not exactly standardized terminology. You will not find the term, except in An Astronomicall Description, searching through any early-modern anglophone corpus. Sara Schechner Genuth devotes three pages to it in Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology. She mentions no other practitioner of this art and only says that it originated from Pliny’s Natural History (Book II, Ch. 23). I was able, however, to track down three other late-sixteenth- and seventeenth-century astronomers divining cometary significance according to the constellations through which the comet passed, what might be called iconological cometary astrology: John Gadbury in his De Cometis; William Knight in his Account of the Natural Signification of the COMET, or Blazing-Star, appended to William Greene’s Memento’s to the World; and David van Mauden in his De geschiedenisse van de nieuwe Comete des Jaers 1577. Though Bainbridge mentions no authority for this method, Gadbury mentions a “Haly” and Van Nouhuys says van Mauden did so following the rules of “the authoritative Arab astrologer, Haly,” though she does not say if van Mauden explicitly makes this attribution, or if she simply recognizes the source of this method herself. As “Haly” was the generic latinization of “Ali,” this only begins to narrow our search. Two prominent Arab astrologers, both from the eleventh century, both with the given names “Abu Hassan Ali . . .” are likely candidates: one Ali ibn-Ridwan and an Ali ibn-Rijal (“Albohazen,” l. from “Abu Hassan”, or “Haly Abenragel”). I believe ibn-Rijal is the likely candidate, at least as far as we have understood his identity since the sixteenth century. In 1563, appended to the end of a Nurnberg printing of Marcus Frytch’s Meteororum, a treatise was printed under the name Tractatus de Cometarum significationibus per XII, signa zodiaci (Treatise on the Significations of Comets in the twelve signs of the Zodiac). This treatise itself could have been misattributed in 1563, but, that is how it has come down to us. Ibn-Rijal’s candidacy is strengthened by the fact that his De judiciis astrorum (printed in 1485 in Venice and repeatedly in Basel throughout the sixteenth century) likewise contains brief instructions on divination according to the zodiacal signs of the comet’s path. Bainbridge and Gadbury also use the constellations pointed to by the comet’s tail as portentous indicators, and Bainbridge includes not just the zodiac signs, but the symbolic iconology of any constellation the comet passes through or points to with its tail (so far as I have uncovered, he is the only practitioner to do so). I need to more thoroughly translate both ibn-Rijal’s De judiciis astrorum and Tractus to understand if these variants were likewise derived from medieval sources. Supporting ibn-Rijal’s candidacy further is the fact that I have found no practitioner employing these methods before the Tractatus was published in 1563, and the first instance, Van Mauden’s, was just fourteen years after, though this could, of course, be due to my inadequacy as an early-modernist. Of further interest for future inquiry might be a comparison of Gadbury’s, Van Mauden’s, Knight’s, and ibn-Rijal’s semiotics of constellar imagery. The choices of certain signifying images for the constellations are rather arbitrary products of cultural inheritance, and the metaphorical associations of those images with certain qualities are entangled with emotional and moral assumptions and cultural proclivities and idiosyncrasies.

There is another, more simple, and definitely simplistic, explanation of Bainbridge’s astrology — that Bainbridge was not an astrologer at all, that he simply desired the attention and beneficence of King James I, who was a widely-known appreciator of astrology and who was, according to Sara Schechner, “agog over the great blazing star of 1618-1619.” Bainbridge’s celestial hieroglyphics, from this interpretation, are simply a moth’s light fueled by the patriotic fervor and royal sycophancy Bainbridge not-so-subtly put on display, designed to mesmerize the person who was also, not coincidentally, the addressee of An Astronomicall Description’s dedication letter. There would be no fun in this reading for the historian, though, and quite a bit of machiavellian cynicism. I prefer to think of Bainbridge as the victim of unfortunate epochal circumstance, forced to do the splits naively attempting to walk two forking paths — there is a certain starkness in comparing his station to that of the astrologers who succeeded him in using celestial hieroglyphics: while he went on to a Savilian professorship at Oxford, John Gadbury and William Lilly, representatives of the middle- and later-seventeenth-century astrological practice were untrained almanack writers, unaffiliated with any university enterprise. They were indicative of the descent of astrological study from academia to professional craft. If there was such an undeniable bifurcation of metaphysical and physical concerns in the seventeenth century, as Van Nouhuys, Keith Thomas, and Sara Schechner contend, Bainbridge seems to exemplify qualities of scholars on both sides of the divide. His role in this regard at the precipice of the cessation of dialogue and the glorious scientific revolution, and the myriad technical, cosmological, and mathematical astronomical issues at whose intersection he positions himself, gives credence to Mordechai Feingold’s insistence that Bainbridge’s works “have not received the attention they merit.”


Works Cited

Bainbridge, John, An Astronomicall Description of the Late Comet from the 18. Of Nouemb. 1618. To the 16. Of December following. With certaine Morall Prognosticks or Applications drawne from the Comets motion and irradiation amonst the celestiall Hieroglyphicks, 2nd Ed. London: Edward Griffin, 1619.

Feingold, Mordechai, The Mathematicians’ Apprenticeship: Science, Universities and Society in England, 1560-1640. New York: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Gadbury, John, De Cometis. London: Printed for L. Chapman, 1665.

Garin, Eugenio, Astrology in the Renaissance: The Zodiac of Life, trans. Carolyn Jackson and June Allen. New York: Arkana, 1983.

Genuth, Sara Schechner, “From Monstrous Signs to Natural Causes: The Assimilation of Comet Lore into Natural Philosophy.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1988.

Knight, William, LIKEWISE, STELLA NOVA; OR, The New STAR, Or, An Account of the Natural Signification of the COMET, or Blazing-Star, That hath so long been Visible in ENGLAND, and other Countreys, and is yet hanging over our Heads. London: T. Haly, 1680.

Schechner, Sara J., Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.

Tyacke, Nicholas, “Science and Religion at Oxford before the Civil War.” In Puritans and Revolutionaries: Essays in Seventeenth-Century History presented to Christopher Hill, edited by Donald Pennington and Keith Thomas, 73-93. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Van Mauden, David, De geschiedenisse van de nieuwe Comete des Jaers 1577 seer neerstelick g’observeert van datse begonst te schynen tot den eynde toe. Antwerp 1577.

Van Nouhuys, Tabitta, The Age of Two-Faced Janus: The comts of 1577 and 1618 and the Decline of the Aristotelian World View in the Netherlands. Boston: Brill, 1998.

Wright, Peter, “Astrology and Science in Seventeenth-Century England,” Social Studies of Science 5, no. 4 (Nov. 1975), 399-422.

Yeomans, Donald K., Comets: A Chronological History of Observation, Science, Myth, and Folklore. New York: Wiley, 1991.


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