Tag Archives: crime fighting

Written in the Stars: Astrology, Early Modern Crime Fighting, and Racism

So this is one of the posts that I write because I am truly fascinated. This has nothing to do with law or courts or politics, but instead medieval history. Specifically, medieval astrology!

flammarion_woodcut

Now before you write me off as a crazy person with bizarre interests (whether or not that’s true…), stay a minute and let me tell you just a bit about the subject. You might find that you yourself are just as fascinated as I am, that we can share a love for the oddities. You might even be a closeted medieval historian!

So it turns out that to fight crime, in the olden days people didn’t have fingerprint powder and DNA analyzers and newfangled digital cameras to help them put the pieces together. How odd. So what happened if you were the victim of a crime? If you were walking along a street in a major city like 16th century Paris and got mugged, odds are if you called the local constable he would laugh. Your best bet to have your meager belongings returned to you? The local astrologer, just down the street. Pay him a visit and give him a brief description of the crime, and he would likely be able to give you a description of your assailant and where you could find him. Ha, what?

200

“Preposterous!” you say. “This astrologer has been in his hidey-hole all day, there’s no way he could possibly tell me this information.” Well, while that may or may not be true, what he could do was take into account who you are (the victim), where you’ve been, and who would’ve been around you. Basically an elaborate educated guess. Then, added to these guesses, the astrologers could add the astrological value  of the people involved. For example, someone born with the Sun in the ascendant would have many sorrows afflict them, which sounds a lot like they’d have a hard knock life and probably be visiting the astrologer quite a bit.

Keep in mind that when I say astrologer, I’m using it extremely loosely. While there were, of course, professional astrologers who dedicated their lives to their calling, almost everyone practiced some level of it during the middle ages. That could’ve meant keeping a daily horoscope or doing some sort of astrological calculation in order to help them organize their own lives. Some astrologers even published books explaining how to do this, with detailed equations involved. 

Anyway, delving into back into our topic, I recently read an article on this exact subject by Mark S. Dawson, of the Australian National University, suggesting that astrology created the underpinnings of today’s racism and ethnic segregation. This is initially surprising. What? Why? How? Astrology and racism seem as far from being related as brussel sprouts and bonobos, as porcupines and pork chops. However, what he proposes in his paper is that while astrologists used educated guesses by utilizing a variety of indicators, what they are essentially doing is stereotyping. Walking through the red light district and got mugged? It was a prostitute. Hanging out in a particularly ethnic area of town and assaulted? It was a member of the prevalent ethnicity in the area. This kind of thinking and suggestion were some of the principal reasons that racism began to have a foothold, and according to Dawson, astrology was one of the precursors.

While astrology was immensely popular, there were always opponents to it. Chiefly, this included Christians who worried that predictions of the future, which go almost hand in hand with astrology, would offend God. It was suggested that astrology was rather a form of devil worship than surmising likely events based on those that have already occurred. By the end of the 16th century the practice of reading the stars had fallen to much more boring activities, such as predicting the kind of person someone would marry, or how many children they would have. By the time the Enlightenment began, in the late 17th century, sadly astrology was largely contained within cheap almanacs sold on street corners. However, if Dawson’s argument is to be believed, the legacy of astrology continues to live on even today.

If you’re interested in reading the article, the citation is:  Mark S. Dawson, “Astrology and Human Variation in Early Modern England,” The Historical Journal, 56, no. 1 (2013): 31-53,