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Place in the Cosmos: Book Connects Astrology & Reformation

Robin Barnes
Robin Barnes

History Professor Robin Barnes has published Astrology and Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2016), a book exploring the relationship between the Renaissance art of the stars and the Lutheran evangelical movement of the 16th century.

The book was 20 years in the making, Barnes said, and owes much to his classroom work with students.

"For several years I focused my History 421 seminar, ‘Everyday Life in Renaissance and Reformation Europe,' around the theme of Renaissance astrology," he explained. "Also, I have often taught a 200-level historical methods course titled ‘Magic and Witchcraft in Pre-modern Europe'; here I have devoted a good deal of attention to stellar science as a subject of historical inquiry."

Thanks in part to the new business of printing, astrology gained tremendous currency among physicians, preachers and other educated laymen in the period around 1500, especially in the towns of the Holy Roman Empire. Their ideas then spread quickly through popular annual forecasts, the ancestors of the modern almanac. In this context, astrology was not essentially "magical"; it was an effort to understand natural laws, not to manipulate occult or spiritual forces, Barnes said.

This systematic attention to supposed natural laws tended to undermine medieval assumptions about the power of the saints and the authority of priests. God worked not through special human agents, but directly through natural forces, and through grace. Such beliefs helped prepare the way for Martin Luther's teachings, according to Barnes, and continued to shape German Lutheran culture well into the 17th century.

"Neither Catholic nor Calvinist leaders were so welcoming to astrology as the Lutherans," he said.

Scholars have too often imagined that biblical Protestants who preached spiritual freedom were inevitably opposed to the natural determinism implied by astrology. But Barnes emphasizes that for Luther and his followers, freedom came from God's grace, not from nature. One had to adapt to the natural order, but one's fate finally hung on the divine will. Therefore both practicality and prayer were called for.

Book Cover
Astrology and Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2016)

"Astrology is an attempt to orient human beings in the cosmos. In past times it drew on both religion and science. Its surging popularity among sixteenth-century Germans affected their religious world view in basic ways," he said. This is a perspective that most students of the Reformation have not recognized.

Major Scholarly Contribution

Oxford University Press advertises the book as a major scholarly contribution:

"During the 16th century, no part of the Christian West saw the development of a more powerful and pervasive astrological culture than the very home of the Reformation movement-the Protestant towns of the Holy Roman Empire. While most modern approaches to the religious and social reforms of that age give scant attention to cosmological preoccupations, Robin Barnes argues that astrological concepts and imagery played a key role in preparing the ground for the evangelical movement sparked by Martin Luther in the 1520s, as well as in shaping the distinctive characteristics of German evangelical culture over the following century. . . . Astrology and Reformation illuminates an early modern outlook that was both practical and prophetic; a world that was neither traditionally enchanted nor rationally disenchanted, but quite different from the medieval world of perception it had displaced."

In addition, several noted historians have praised Barnes's study.

Anthony Grafton, of Princeton University, called it a "learned and lively" book that "ties the history of astrology to that of the Protestant Reformation." And Erik Midelfort, of the University of Virginia, said "this exciting new book highlights the neglected fact that astrological theorizing exploded in Lutheran Germany.... Barnes brilliantly provides the first serious study to connect these two efforts to understand our place in the cosmos."

Barnes came to Davidson in 1980 after earning a doctoral degree in European history from the University of Virginia; he currently serves as director of the Ken Kelley Program in Historical Studies. His first book was published by Stanford University Press, and he has edited two volumes on topics in early modern studies. He has served as president of the Society for Reformation Research, and as an editor of the Sixteenth Century Journal. In 2005 he was awarded the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference Medal. In 2009-10 he was a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, and is currently a referee of fellowship applications for the ACLS.