Seven on your side: Loss, mobility, and practical astrology in seventeenth-century London

I am not ignorant that many have written against the science I profess, But such is my candid equanimity, that I think they inveighed against the abuse rather then the true use, of so ancient, so rare, so often verified a learning, which for its practical part may challenge any.

So wrote Dr. Thomas Clayton (1575-1647), regius professor of medicine at Oxford, in the preface to the large, unpublished “Vindication of Judiciarie Astrologie”, composed by his friend Jeffrey Le Neve (1579-1653) in or shortly after 1641 and now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.[1] Today, he might write the same lines as an anguished humanities scholar or even, in light of last week’s Brexit surprise, a pollster. But the solid and practical science that Clayton and Le Neve defended in 1641 was, instead, astrology.

Often described as an “occult” belief, astrology (like alchemy) is one of those pursuits whose fall from intellectual respectability makes a tempting boundary-marker between the pre-modern — pre-scientific, credulous, irrational — and the modern world. Before people understood how things worked, they blamed witches, demons, angels, the stars, and finally God for everything that happened to them. Then science came and they read novels instead. By the same token, astrology’s annoying persistence in some corners of the modern world helps to delineate islands of ignorance, pseudoscience, and magical thinking — in a word, backwardness — from the vast sea of sober and secular rationality in which we moderns swim. With only slight loss of subtlety, and considerable savings of time, this whole historiographical tradition might be retold as a Jeff Foxworthy routine: “You might be an early modern if….”

But we learn more by trying to understand how past beliefs worked than by summarily dismissing what doesn’t work for us, or at least for the “us” that we fondly imagine. (The more simplistic your view of the present, the more threatening the complexity of history is likely to appear.)  Far from a jumble of random nonsense, as Eugenio Garin observed, astrology implies “a general conception of things as a necessary and determinant cosmic order”; it “expresses the rationality of a rigidly graded world”.[2] Or, to quote Keith Thomas, “Whereas the Christian was taught to regard storms, famines or earthquakes as the manifestations of God’s secret purposes, the astrologer made them subject to the movement of the celestial bodies”, in effect “offering a secular explanation of some of the most delicate matters in religious history.”[3] In good seventeenth-century fashion, Clayton (on Le Neve’s behalf) split the difference between natural determinism and divine direct action, arguing “That God… of and by him self disposeth all things, But in the execution of his will, useth the virtue and influence, of the Superior Bodies as instruments, to incline, and guide the Inferior”.[4] In any case, as Anthony Grafton and William Newman put it, astrology was not only “a prominent feature of the practice of everyday life”, but also a “highly reasonable” attempt, “in a world that lacked statistics, tables, and insurance policies, to try to use the best mathematical techniques available to foresee, and thus control, the future.”[5] Like polling, of course, it didn’t always deliver.

As its title suggests, Le Neve couched his work as an empirical defence of what he called “judiciary” (or, more commonly, “judicial”) astrology. As against much that we might call astronomy, this was the branch of astrology that sought to predict the effects of celestial motions on people, whether collectively (as in the general predictions furnished by almanacs, or in political prophecy, common in the 1640s but always risky) or as individuals, through nativity horoscopes or the consideration of ad hoc “horary questions”. In other words, this was astrology’s widespread, practical, socially embedded form. The manuscript was also more immediately a vindication of Le Neve’s own talents. (Since he’d been hounded out of a lucrative government commission in Great Yarmouth for malfeasance in 1631 — wonder why he never saw that coming? — credibility may have been a touchy point.) Appealing to 44 years of experience, Le Neve devoted the bulk of the book to presenting 500 of his recent horary predictions, all from London between 1635 and 1641, with the results. It makes for fascinating reading, then, less because of Le Neve’s scientific ambitions than for the sake of his clients (“querents”), and the social anxieties, aspirations, and attachments their queries reveal.

What sort of people consulted the astrologer in early Stuart London? To judge from the “Vindication”, a very wide range indeed. Men and women — though apparently many more women than men; married and unmarried — or those pondering marriage; young and old; anxious parents and those confronting the possibility of pregnancy; servants, farmers, merchants, and people “of quality”. Religious distinctions are hard to assess on the basis of the scant personal details Le Neve recorded, though Keith Thomas long ago suggested that at least some of the querents’ names — his favourite was the wonderful Contented Bird — indicate Puritan parentage.[6] Most, predictably, were city dwellers in London or Westminster; in case anyone wanted to check his claims Le Neve recorded their “habitations”: the Tower, Moor Lane, Fleet Street, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Holborn. But at least one traveled from as far away as Chichester, and another, from Walton-on-Thames, sought news of her missing cows. (They were retrieved.)

More interesting that what differentiated Le Neve’s querents, arguably, is what they had in common. Le Neve himself took a stab at classifying their queries and counting the numbers of each kind (though, whether because some fell into multiple categories or because he included cases not included earlier in the book, they total not 500 but 712). In order of frequency, they are:

  1. “Of Questions concerning goods stolen” (199)
  2. “Of Markes discovered upon several parts of the body” (189)
  3. “Of Questions concerning Goods lost” (114)
  4. “Of Questions concerning Fugitives” (111)
  5. “Of Questions concerning suitors” (35)
  6. “Of weakness and defects of the eyes discovered” (24)
  7. “Of Questions concerning Sickness” (17)
  8. “Of Questions concerning people absent whether they were Living or dead” (10)
  9. “Of Questions concerning the Effecting of business that was hoped of” (6)
  10. “Of Questions concerning Suits of Law” (4)
  11. “Of Questions concerning women being with Child” (2)
  12. “Of a Question concerning ones Remove or staying still” (1)[7]

If we were to attempt to categorize the categories, one simple way to do it would be to divide them into a vast majority dealing with missing goods or people (questions 1, 3, 4, 8 — 434 cases), a sizeable minority dealing with the querent’s own body (2, 6, 7, 11 — 232 cases), and — perhaps a bit more loosely — a fraction dealing with personal and business decisions (5, 9, 10, 12 — 46 cases in all). Broadly speaking, Le Neve’s clients wanted to know where things had gone, what was going on with their health, and how to get on with difficult choices. To the extent that such language makes any sense, these were the ordinary concerns of ordinary people. Strictly speaking, in fact, most of their questions concerned the past or the present as much as the future.

Of course, reducing the queries to numbers flattens out their texture and misses much about their querents’ lives and worlds. Consider Contented Bird, who came to Le Neve on January 9, 1636 to ask “About her husband being absent, if he were alive or dead”. The astrologer “was very doubtful her husband would not return alive home again”, but on the bright side “she might receive money and benefit by her husband”. So it turned out: “at the next East India ship’s arrival, the Querent was informed her husband was alive on the 9th of January before being then sick and so shortly after died in the Journey, so she received his wages for the time he lived and other his goods”. The widow Bird’s was not the only absent husband, though he may have been one of the better catches; when Ione Pedder asked “About a Knight that was a suitor unto her Mistress, if she were likely to have him to be her husband”, Le Neve “did fear that he was married” elsewhere already, which turned out to be the case. Ann Greene of Gardiner’s Alley in Westminster, too, wanted to know whether someone was living or dead — her sister, from whom she’d not heard in twelve years. Though success for Le Neve lay in predictive accuracy rather than customer satisfaction, the two sometimes lined up. Alice Burton of Newington Butts’s query “About a fugitive maid that had carried away her Child” ended with “both returned home again”.[8] The quality of family ties remains opaque in the astrologer’s notes, but the anxieties born of new geographical mobility can be read off the page.

So can the problems of trust and honour engendered by family, household, neighbourhood and business relationships, at once more diverse and more interpenetrating then than is usual now. When Goodwife Smyth of Westminster inquired “About her son and another that were fugitives”, her desire was evidently not to get them safely home; escaped servants or perhaps apprentices, they were caught and returned to their master’s household, where they belonged. Tensions between husband and wife, parent and child, master and servant, neighbour and neighbour, and rich and poor are sometimes most palpably suggested in the many missing objects Le Neve was asked to locate. Ann Gardiner asked about “About Broad Cloth, a Hat, Pewter and a waistcoat that was stolen out of her house”; Elizabeth Hopkins “About gold Lace that taken out of a Trunk”; Sarah Coles “About a Gold Ring taken away or Lost”; and Ellen Broukbanke “About a Pistol Lost or taken out of her Mistress’s house”, for which perhaps she feared blame — “the goods were never recovered nor the Thief discovered”. Other relationships transcended the species itself: Robert King came “About his Dog he had lost”, reporting “the next day… that a clear complexion man a little distant from him… had his Dog, and had tied him up in a moist cellar, and so his Dog was redelivered unto him again” as predicted.[9] (Several missing dogs appear in the collection.)

In one sense we can read in Le Neve’s book a series of absences we no longer feel, gaps where the astrologer stepped in to perform functions that we now perform or have performed for us by other, more effective means: physicians and meteorologists, locks and passwords, Facebook and IM, background checks and the police. But — despite the recuperative power such a functionalist reading might have, allowing us to take the astrologer seriously as a part of early modern society — this arguably reduces the distance and difference of the past to a matter of technology. Perhaps more interesting is the possibility that some of these functions are no longer performed at all, or, to put it another way, that some of the querents’ anxieties do not touch us. Some may be too archaic — Ione Morris’s desire to locate a missing charm for the King’s Evil (scrofula), for instance, sounds like a superstition grafted onto yet another superstition.[10] Others, on the contrary, might — like the wrenching mobility of persons and things, and the attendant senses of loss, uncertainty, precariousness, and distrust that lie beneath so many of the queries — be so built into the conditions of our existence that we must look to the past to render them once again visible as the unnatural things that they are.


[1] Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 418. On Le Neve’s life, see Bernard Capp, “Le Neve , Jeffrey (1579–1653)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [].
[2] Eugenio Garin (trans. Carolyn Jackson et al.), Astrology in the Renaissance (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), 13.
[3] Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Oxford University Press, 1971; rpr. 1997), 358-359.
[4] Bodl. Ashmole MS 418, f.4v.
[5] Anthony Grafton and William R. Newman, “Introduction: The Problematic Status of Astrology and Alchemy in Premodern Europe”, in Newman and Grafton (eds.), Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe (MIT Press, 2001), 2, 13.
[6] See Thomas, Religion, 359; her case appears at Bodl. Ashmole MS 418, f.56r (p.99 in Le Neve’s pagination).
[7] Bodl. Ashmole MS 418, ff.260r-262v (pp.507-512).
[8] Ibid., ff.18r, 26v, 56r (pp.23, 40, 99).
[9] Ibid., ff.7r, 9v, 8r, 13v, 14v, 37v (pp.1, 6, 7, 14, 16, 62).
[10] Ibid., f.255v (p.598).

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