Illuminating Treasures

The garden in the evening can be a great place to just sit down. I have a makeshift bench next to the dandelion patch, with a coffee table made from scrap pine pieces. The nightshade is already coming in nicely. The garden is only twenty feet from the chicken coop, and the murmurs from the hens can be hypnotic. Sometimes I take the laptop along and this is where I was when I came upon an article about the astrology of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The author described their rising signs and so on. Birth times were listed with no sources and the dates were pretty fuzzy. This is the kind of astrology that sticks in my craw. It’s especially aggravating because I’m learning that it is possible to recreate charts from history, and we can learn a lot. But this was simply the dazzling drivel that gives astrologers a bad name.

The University of Cambridge has done just the opposite. They have provided online, samples of thousands of charts with notes from the practices of two astrologers working in the time of Shakespeare: Richard Napier and Simon Forman. The charts, with exact times, can be viewed at and the murky handwriting is expertly transcribed. It makes for a month’s worth of interesting reading if you have any inclination toward morbidly obscure history (come on, I know that you do). These astrologers were physicians who helped people suffering from all kinds of maladies by using Horary Astrology — casting a chart for the moment of the question (when they arrived for the appointment), or sometimes from the moment the person first noticed symptoms, (Decumbiture). I haven’t studied Horary, but I suspect Napier and Forman would both be tracking the Moon’s position quite closely throughout the day. The Moon, the 6th house of illness and health, and the dignities of the planets would be critical. Birth times in the notes are also included in some instances. It was common for these guys to see fourteen patients a day in a time when most official physicians only looked at urine samples of wealthy clients without even seeing the patient in person. Sometimes they even offered their services for free.

The entries are short, but fascinating:

Richard Bedford of Gadstone in Hertfordshire, 50 [years]. Monday 14 June 1619, 6.40 am. Urine good. Somewhat mopish. Cares not to go abroad, & he will keep his bed all the day. Costive. At the first he said he was so fat that he was ashamed to go abroad. Had been first heart sick & was twice let blood. Now will keep his bed almost all days & will not go out of his own house. He talks well & wisely. I would wish all men to go to the church. Promises to go to church but they cannot bring him to it.

Sometimes a family member would visit the astrologer to inquire on behalf of an ill person who stayed at home:

Robert Mathews’ brother-in-law of Whitfield came again for him. Tuesday 18 January 1603, 1.00pm. He was Mr Thomas Spenser’s clerk. And took a surfeit [excess] and was drunken at London. After which time he took such a conceit that he was never well after, but his master’s maids made him believe sometimes that one of the them loved him and sometimes another so that at length his mind ran altogether upon their love and he became sottish and now speaks he cannot tell what and talks idly never ceasing as long as he has any company. He sleeps well and eats whatever is given him.

Other entries show the darker side of the period:

Agnys Thorneton of Eckton, 38 years. Monday 29 November 1602, 12.20pm. Wonderfully tormented in her throat. Cannot swallow anything. Joints ill, shoulder and head as if it would pull her in pieces. & yet not heart sick. Suspect some to have done her harm. One of them was hanged and the other in Northampton gaol. Alice Smyth thought to have done all the mischief who is now in prison. Ever since Whitsontide. Bewitched. One of the women confessed that June Smiley did bewitch to death a child and — 3 women. & This woman pines & consumes away.

You can imagine how detailed the project has been. I’m not sure how many years in the making this was (I’ve heard ten), but it must have taken a small, very dedicated army to get this accomplished. They have over 80,000 entries in the collection, all cross-referenced over multiple categories.

The first performance of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure was staged at The Globe theatre, just a few months before this consult was done by Richard Napier:

Robert Parker of Hanslop, 24 years. Friday 21 June 1605, 10.30 am. Head light. Frantic. Talks Godly. Can take no rest nor sleep. But talks to himself. His mother sent his water. His greatest talk is of Jesus Christ. Denies that ever he was in love with any but it took him sitting on a cross upon Sunday in the afternoon about 2 of the clock. His urine good.

Napier often consulted with the archangel Raphael and mentions him in his notes. At times he disagrees with the advice Raphael gives him. What the website doesn’t offer is a look at how the data translates to modern chart reading (at least I didn’t find anything on this, and may have missed it as the site is vast). If we want to make the conversions to historical charts with our software we have to adjust for the calendar changes that happened at different times in history.

This table shows the adjustments that I’ve worked with, and I do not assume this is definitive. More detailed charts are available. I only present this for simplicity and as a point of encouragement to invite people to jump in and enjoy the charts from our past. It is a study that will keep you occupied well into your retirement years as not all of us are into golf, or we might be a tad less satisfied with marching to our graves still binge-watching internet streamed programming (lately, watching the hens is equally exciting; they are crazy for dinosaur kale).

11 days is the official calendar change for the UK, but I find that charts sometimes match more closely with adding 10 days instead of 11 (see my article Nicholas Culpeper, Dr. Diligence). Not a minor point, and it gives some cause for objection. I may be missing something simple in my calculations. If so, I encourage and would appreciate you sending me a note. For now, it is safe to say that the issue is one not to be ignored and we should spend the time to really examine our results and support historical birth charts with as much clear data as we can.

Overall, though, it is impressive to see how closely our software matches these 400 year old birth charts. Many times the planet placements are aligned within minutes. They used the Regiomontanus house system, and I found that the nodes of the Moon may differ by a few degrees. Retrograde is clearly marked (though at times Rx is a note for a remedy or even for a particular archangel), and the Ascendant ruler is usually noted to the left, sometimes with the planets that aspect it and/or the planetary Lord of the Hour.

Joan Travell of Gothurst, 24 years.  Tuesday 8 April 1617, 10.30 am.  Troubled with foolish fancies. Much troubled with wind in her bowels and guts. Cries out she shall be killed & will have no other talk & says that nobody can tell the sorrow that she endures. Her fancies much troubled. Talks well & sensibly. Sometimes will sing 3 hours otherwise as heavy & as sad as can [breaks off].  Should have married one & they now at words as if she would not have him & then bidding him to marry elsewhere fell into this passion. She knows that she shall never have him.

By now you may be realizing that times have not changed so much. Some of the entries truly pull at the heart strings. Who hasn’t gotten sottish over lost love, or talked without ceasing, or felt like not leaving the house? As you read the entries you may feel a connection to the dim past and then a bit of a connection to everyone everywhere. Sadly, the remedy provided for Joan only included a suppository, a clyster enema and horse leeches.

This brings us to these remedies. The horse leeches might tip you to the fact that this part of my article is not for the squeamish. They had some interesting ideas in those days. Remedies covered a wide array: herbal treatments, gemstones worn around the neck, rings, spoken blessings, bloodletting and purging. Sheep’s bladders, tobacco, oils from animal organs and even tea made from ground up human skulls or toads’ bones; it gets pretty grim. My favorite so far is to take a handful of live bees from a hive and plunge them into a quart of ale. Then drink the ale, first adding some sugar. Medicine always goes down easier that way! They also used ginger and endive and figs, though, so they were onto some good ideas. Also, you can’t ignore the simple healing quality of having your ills attended to by a human being rather than just dropping off your urine sample in a little cup.

Some of our remedies today are not so appropriate either: opioid deaths can be traced to prescription pads all over the country. Sometimes it is only 90 percent of the doctors that tarnish the other reputations, but we would all benefit from a health care system that is held accountable. Instead they work to reduce or even do away with accountability altogether. Not a reassuring development.

To compare another chart with modern software, this visit from October of 1633 is a clear example. Mercury, the Moon, Venus and Jupiter are easy to read, and the aspects are detailed at the bottom of the chart.

Mistress Mary Fisher sister to Master Jobson, 31 years. Sunday October 1633, 11.45 am. Cataract feared. A mist before her eyes which in the morning oftentimes takes away her sight with seeming black spots between the eye & the light, & nothing to be seen.  Her eyes seldom or never water, but burn sometimes extremely, & sometimes a cold rheum comes down her face & strikes into her eyes. Brain & forehead often hot & burning. Brain hot & dry. First caused through continual weeping. Her eyes grow worse & worse. Desires advice & counsel.

For an additional layer, the following entry included the person’s birth time along with the time of the question so we can look at the birth chart also:

Sarah Major of Blaxeley 18 years. Thursday 7 August 1634, 1.30 pm. She was born 1 March 1616 at 2 of the clock in the morning being Thursday. Burns much. Complains of a pain in her sides & back. Urine good. Body costive. Was first taken making of hay & lying against a haycock where she felt something to prick her back & again the next day the like. Sometimes one bone in her back came forth & would slip in again & sometime another, at other a third joint & slip in & out again. Took purgations of one Mr Lapworths & Dove & Rawlins of Daventry, an Apothecary, which wrought 10 days together & she is very weak after it. Was at Bath yet grows worse & worse. Is very weak. Has sweating fits & cold fits. Has of late suspected some ill body that has bewitched her. Elisabeth Wickins & Em Taylor her daughter suspected. 

Sarah Major’s Mars is at 9 degrees Pisces in the birth chart (not the question chart) and this is a degree that even today is associated with rheumatoid arthritis. If her Sun was there, it could be difficulty. With Mars there, it is definitely an indication of major pain in the joints at some time during the life.

I don’t know that astrology today can offer detailed health remedies, or maybe it can. But a birth chart reading can certainly pinpoint difficulties and help us to understand where physical issues come from. This means the timing and the intensity of flare-ups can be predicted through the transits the planets make through the zodiac today. After all, our bodies and our minds are intertwined. Our psychology and our habits show up in our organs and bones. Astrology can also point us in the direction of other, more appropriate health modalities. If I have a broken leg, of course, I would be the first one to hobble over to the long line at the emergency room. I would take on those huge medical debts just like most of us in the United States. For more subtle issues, however, astrology is sometimes as good a bet as the four or five minutes many of us are granted with today’s average general practitioner.

So order a reading from The Ness of Astrology. You won’t be disappointed. And don’t worry, I promise I won’t suggest any toads’ bones. But the ale of bees, maybe yeah.

Special thanks to the Bodleian Library and Cambridge University.

Lauren Kassell, Michael Hawkins, Robert Ralley, and John Young, ‘Early modern astrology’, A Critical Introduction to the Casebooks of Simon Forman and Richard Napier, 1596–1634.