Michael A. Ryan

 

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

Cover Interview of February 08, 2012

Lastly

I hope that my book encourages readers to think about the interest in, and implications of, astrology within medieval and early modern culture.  I end the book with the anecdote about Nancy and Ronald Reagan’s interest in astrology after the assassination attempt against Reagan not to make a political statement, but rather to provide a relatively recent and wholly relevant example of how the occult sciences and political power intertwine even today.  One friend who had finished my book quipped, “Astrology and the ruling elite; it’s not just for the Reagans anymore.” And that, in my opinion, succinctly sums up the heart of the matter.  What happens when powerful people engage with astrological matters to gain sense of a world in crisis? How does their interest with that discipline intersect with how they construct their authority? And how does their interest generate approval or opprobrium from others?

Moreover, I also hope that my study inspires other scholars, whether they like and agree with my book’s argument or not, to take up the pen and address the issue regarding how the tendentious disciplines of astrology and alchemy, among other occult arts, were prevalent and conceptualized in the later Middle Ages and early modern eras.  Some people tend to impose false boundaries upon periods of history that simply do not hold up to careful scrutiny.  The false dichotomy between science and magic, for instance, is one that people routinely bring up when they establish arbitrary boundaries between the “medieval,” and therefore supposedly “superstitious,” past in contrast with the “modern” and “rational” present.

One of the best examples that I use to bring this point home for my students is the figure of Isaac Newton.  Undoubtedly, he is a luminary within the history of science and deservedly so, as the beauty and brilliance of his Principia Mathematica. Yet he also wrote extensively about apocalyptic and alchemical matters alike, and in no small quantity. Apocalypticism, alchemy, and mathematics all occupied a space in Newton’s brilliant mind in which he sought answers to the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos.  Put differently, the three disciplines were not at odds with each other and should not be seen as such, lest a disservice be done to the historical reality in which these disciplines were understood. I believe that my book contributes to this larger understanding by positioning it farther back in time during a period of intense crisis, but also profound change.