A Kingdom of Stargazers

A Kingdom of Stargazers: Astrology and Authority in the Late Medieval Crown of Aragon

Michael A. Ryan
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    A Kingdom of Stargazers
    Book Description:

    Astrology in the Middle Ages was considered a branch of the magical arts, one informed by Jewish and Muslim scientific knowledge in Muslim Spain. As such it was deeply troubling to some Church authorities. Using the stars and planets to divine the future ran counter to the orthodox Christian notion that human beings have free will, and some clerical authorities argued that it almost certainly entailed the summoning of spiritual forces considered diabolical. We know that occult beliefs and practices became widespread in the later Middle Ages, but there is much about the phenomenon that we do not understand. For instance, how deeply did occult beliefs penetrate courtly culture and what exactly did those in positions of power hope to gain by interacting with the occult? In A Kingdom of Stargazers, Michael A. Ryan examines the interest in astrology in the Iberian kingdom of Aragon, where ideas about magic and the occult were deeply intertwined with notions of power, authority, and providence.

    Ryan focuses on the reigns of Pere III (1336-1387) and his sons Joan I (1387-1395) and Martí I (1395-1410). Pere and Joan spent lavish amounts of money on astrological writings, and astrologers held great sway within their courts. When Martí I took the throne, however, he was determined to purge Joan's courtiers and return to religious orthodoxy. As Ryan shows, the appeal of astrology to those in power was clear: predicting the future through divination was a valuable tool for addressing the extraordinary problems-political, religious, demographic-plaguing Europe in the fourteenth century. Meanwhile, the kings' contemporaries within the noble, ecclesiastical, and mercantile elite had their own reasons for wanting to know what the future held, but their engagement with the occult was directly related to the amount of power and authority the monarch exhibited and applied. A Kingdom of Stargazers joins a growing body of scholarship that explores the mixing of religious and magical ideas in the late Middle Ages.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6315-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Introduction: Traveling South
    (pp. 1-18)

    Gerbert d’Aurillac (ca. 945–1003) had a well-earned reputation as a first-rate mathematician. During his years as a teacher at the cathedral school of Rheims, he contributed significantly to the development of mathematic and scientific studies in transalpine Europe with his work on the abacus, his encouragement of using Arabic numerals for calculation, and his writings on the operating principles of the astrolabe.¹ But Gerbert had gained much of his knowledge of math and science before his days at Rheims. A peripatetic scholar, he traveled far in his quest for knowledge. For three years, from 967 until 970, he had...

  5. Part I. Positioning the Stars, Divining the Future

    • 1 Prophecy, Knowledge, and Authority: Divining the Future and Expecting the End of Days
      (pp. 21-54)

      In the modern world we have all but banished the supernatural to the margins of intellect, to the realm of superstition. Yet during the Middle Ages the spiritual and supernatural worlds were of unquestioned importance to the vast majority of people. Soldiers entered the battlefield only after having been blessed for protection from harm and for salvation should they fall. Families preparing to buy property or arrange for the marriage of a child needed the spiritual guidance and approval of patron saints. The ravages of war, famine, and disease—perceived by some as the deeds of malevolent forces or punishment...

    • 2 For Youths and Simpletons: The Folly of Elite Astrology
      (pp. 55-79)

      In his 1420 Arabic-language autobiography, the Tuhfat al-adīb fī al-radd ‘alà ahl al-salīb (The Gift of the Learned One to Refute the Supporters of the Cross), known simply as the Tuhfa , Anselm Turmeda provides an intriguing account about his decision to convert to Islam.¹ The fifteenth-century former Franciscan states that it was his adviser, Nicolau Myrtle, who encouraged him to leave Christendom and emigrate to the Dar al-Islam to convert. Anselm’s teacher suggested he do this since he was young and healthy, as “God, may he be praised, taught me the truth about . . . Islam and the...

    • 3 The Iberian Peninsula: Land of Astral Magic
      (pp. 80-102)

      Eustache was a wicked monk. He was a lout, a wastrel, a scoundrel, and therefore no paragon of Christian virtue. Thus was he portrayed in the thirteenth-century anonymous French poem Li Romans de Witasse le Moine, or Eustache the Monk.¹ Among his other less-than-fine qualities, however, was that he also dabbled in the magical arts. He did so only after having acquired them in the Iberian city of Toledo, home to Arabic, Jewish, and Christian scholars and translators. It was there where he learned “a thousand conjurations, a thousand sortilegia, a thousand vaticinations.”² The historical Eustache, a northern French priest...

  6. Part II. A Kingdom of Stargazers

    • 4 Kings and Their Heavens: The Ceremonious and the Negligent
      (pp. 105-123)

      In the first half of this book, I investigated the place occupied by astrology and divination within late medieval culture. These disciplines touched upon a number of aspects of medieval life and connected with notions of power and authority, the nature of revelation and intelligence, and the juncture between scientific inquiry and magical practice. In the second half of this book, I discuss the extent to which the interest in prophecy and the occult intersected with the construction of kingship, specifically in the Crown of Aragon. The two fourteenth-century kings I focus on for this chapter are Pere el Ceremoniós,...

    • 5 To Condemn a King: The Inquisitor and the Notary
      (pp. 124-153)

      The ghost of King Joan decided to pay Bernat Metge a visit. After falling into a restless sleep, one that a feverish or starving person might have, the distraught scribe saw the shade of the dead king standing before him, “accompanied by two very tall men. One was young, very handsome, and in his hands he held a rota; the other was very old, with a long beard and no eyes, and he held a staff in his hand. And all around these two there were many falcons, goshawks, and dogs of all kind, crying and howling most hideously.” ¹...

    • 6 A Return to Orthodoxy: The Ascension of Martí I and the End of an Era
      (pp. 154-171)

      On October 4, 1399, three years into his reign as count-king of the Crown of Aragon, King Martí wrote to Berenguer de Montagut, his lieutenant governor in the kingdom of Majorca. The king told his administrator he had received a letter from one Jaime Lustrach, an alchemist from the island. In his letter to Montagut the king wrote that Lustrach, commissioned by King Joan to write a brief treatise on the search for the philosopher’s stone, had some misgivings about completing his alchemical work and that he proposed to abandon the project. Martí urged both Berenguer de Montagut and the...

  7. Epilogue: An Unfortunate Claimant: Jaume el Dissortat, the Rise of the Trastámaras, and beyond the Closing of the Ecumene
    (pp. 172-182)

    The death of the young Martí II, king of Sicily and legitimate heir to the throne of the Crown of Aragon, set into motion a grave dynastic crisis that would have profound ramifications for the ruling house. Felled by malaria in July 1409, Martí II was to become the next count-king after the death of his father, Martí l’Humà.¹ However, with the young prince’s death, the line of the Catalan count-kings, which had been unbroken since the time of the ninth-century Guifré el Pelòs, risked being fractured. It is small wonder, then, why the elder King Martí scrambled to remarry...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-204)
  9. Index
    (pp. 205-214)