12.06.17, Ryan, A Kingdom of Stargazers

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Eric M. Ramírez-Weaver

The Medieval Review 12.06.17

Ryan, Michael A.. A Kingdom of Stargazers: Astrology and Authority in the Late Medieval Crown of Aragon. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011. Pp. 232. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4984-0.

Reviewed by:
Eric M. Ramírez-Weaver
University of Virginia

Late medieval spheres of power and influence, regulated pathways to education and knowledge, and sanctioned ideas of science relied upon traditional theological doctrines and rapidly changing late feudal ideas of an appropriately constituted court. Although appeals to Christian orthodoxy often give the illusion of a courtly consensus concerning various approaches to the study and practice of astrological tradition, in fact the institutional structures of late medieval life were often interpreted in diverse ways relevant to specific sites, revealing as much about the royal families as their subjects and objects of scientific inquiry. Michael Ryan's excellent book grapples seriously with each of these aspects of the complicated nexus of overdetermined motivations for astrological study in the lands under the aegis of the Crown of Aragon. Tracking the trans-generational developments in occult celestial study through three successive kings, Pere (d. 1387), Joan (d. 1396), and Martí (d. 1410), the emphasis upon the royal family importantly situates the primary locus for the adjudication of the acceptability of star study within the courtly structures surrounding these Aragonese sovereigns. Spiritual authority and scientific knowledge in late medieval Aragon remained within the purview of a sanctioned elite cadre of courtiers who maintained the monarch at their nexus. Placing these changing yet fundamental courtly structures at the origin of his analysis provides a historically astute model for others to follow that tempers the role of the Church and nuances the processes which gave rise to discrete technical or intellectual types of knowledge, reifying social pressures through royal sanction or dissent. As a useful survey and focused review of individual texts, Ryan's book supplies a helpful complement to a burgeoning literature, fostered in part by the Pennsylvania State University Press, Magic in History Series; consider, for example, recent and classic books such as Jean-Patrice Boudet, Entre science et nigromance: Astrologie, divination et magie dans l'Occident médiéval (XIIe-XVe siècle) (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2006); Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998); and Benedek Láng, Unlocked Books: Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008).

In the Introduction, "Traveling South," Ryan argues that the tumultuous nature of the late medieval period contributed to an interest in astrological study. Even a clergyman, such as Pierre d'Ailly, famously joined an interest in apocalyptic matters with a syncretist appreciation for the uses of sidereal observation in the prognostication and assessment of events (15). Ryan nicely assesses multiple aspects of this problematic in his evaluation of late medieval struggles such as the Black Death or the Great Western Schism. Astrological and astronomical analysis supplied a causal, historical justification for certain outcomes, and therefore in the fourteenth century provided one conceptual lens through which prelates and potentates alike sought to understand their world. Emphasizing astrological and occult treatises alongside traditionally hegemonic royal documents or theological tractates, permits an emic analysis of the late medieval court of Aragon while simultaneously privileging the utility of countervailing scientific discourses (16). This methodological footing celebrates the role of "variability" in scientific and occult treatises without falling back upon a strict genealogical project tracking the morphology of conceits or turns of phrase (17). The plurality of ideas and their diverse deployment supply conceptual linchpins for the erection of a history of the late medieval Crown of Aragon that draws on all modalities of cultural expression. This is important to underscore and a true contribution of the book. Rather than advance a pessimistic and reactionary view of late medieval culture in perpetual response to endemic turmoil, the accounts on the ground of hardship justify the ways various courtly stargazers turned their eyes heavenward.

Although medievalists who have been working in the field will find some of the introductory information in Chapter One platitudinal, the easy impassioned way Ryan negotiates complex bodies of information renders the text readily accessible for neophytes and undergraduate audiences. This is actually another key aspect of the work. Utterly recondite information is deeply researched and fluently relayed to the reader in Part One, presenting a cogent synthesis and interpretation of disparate complex narratives formerly published in a variety of western languages. This makes the book a welcome contribution to the materials which can be appropriately assigned for undergraduate or graduate university lecture courses or seminars discussing magic, mysticism, and the role of the liberal arts in the medieval world. The historiographic overview (21-28) quickly recounts key components of Augustine's qualms concerning astrological prognostication before rightly delving into the more nuanced appraisals of such matters by Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) and William of Auvergne (d. 1249). In effect, Ryan has rendered an up-to-date, succinct but supplemental summary assessing late medieval uses for and reactions to various forms of divinatory practice akin to the historiographic review in Valerie Flint's classic The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991). Rather than offer a hackneyed apology for Aquinas' general view permitting heavenly influence upon the physical stuff of bodies but not the free will of individual souls, Ryan teases apart the complexities of Aquinas' view offering a useful framework for his book and further discussions of demonology or celestial consultation at late medieval courts (28-35). In addition, scholars of Franciscan history and apocalyptic literatures will appreciate the contextualization of Peter John Olivi (d. 1298) and John of Rupescissa (d. ca. 1366) within the vatic or eschatological discourses that framed astrological practice within the lands of the Crown of Aragon, as like-minded processes motivated by the interpretation of recent events or prognostication through otherworldly intervention (42-54).

Chapter Two importantly offers a gendered critique of one disparaging manner in which astrological study was disregarded during the late medieval period, assessing whether practitioners of such arts were in fact "juvenile, simple, or womanly" (58). Given the intertwining pedagogical role of clerics as spiritual guides and arbiters of knowledge who were schooled at medieval universities, questions of knowledge and power necessarily brought courtly practice under the intense scrutiny of the Church for the puerile and learned alike. Ryan interestingly situates this discussion relative to various modalities of prognostication including the lecture of omens or portents like comets in the night sky and related Islamic concerns, introducing the topic with the work of Anselm Turmeda (d. after 1423) before turning to an exegetical review of John of Salisbury's (d. 1180) critiques of courtly occult practices in the Policraticus. In general, the occult nature of astrological exploration was not a univocal and universal cause for concern, although nascent humanist ideals cast aspersions upon superstitious approaches to self or political governance. Noble courtiers were vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation by alchemists and astrologers inter alia with potentially baleful outcomes for a kingdom. Ultimately, John of Salisbury's critique permits natural omens as beneficial signs supplied for a savvy professional whether seafarer, physician, farmer, or ruler, while condemning unwarranted reliance upon stars for prognostication, and by extension the determination of a course of political action. Astronomy could thereby be recuperated without the taint of astrological tradition (55-67). Ryan rightly notes that Salisbury witnessed during his lifetime the twelfth-century transition in the schools, which infused European natural philosophy with Aristotelean traditions and Arabic learning. By the late thirteenth century, Roger Bacon (d. 1292), drawing upon the Secretum Secretorum, would champion the utility of astrology for canny courtiers who could forestall the deleterious effects of crisis or the eschatological End of Days through prediction (65-70). This, however, was an optimistic countervailing appraisal of astrology. The chapter concludes with a review of Nicole Oresme's (d. 1382) condemnation of astrological study at the court of Charles V (d. 1380) of France.

Chapter Three addresses the medieval view of the Iberian peninsula, where the Reconquista raged over much more than land. An ideological confrontation between orthodoxy and Judaism, Islam or occult practice reified the courtly continental and social misconceptions of Spain as a land of the magical "Other" (80-81). Ryan focuses more upon the historical significance Arabic, Islamic, and Jewish science with the corresponding Iberian translation projects had on the development of western astronomical and astrological traditions than the occasional desirable detail--for example, the rete is not even mentioned in the cursory description of the astrolabe and its uses. Ryan reveals, however, in this chapter his profound appreciation for and understanding of the complex scientific and occult treatises which supply primary sources for his larger study. The best demonstration of this exegetical acumen is Ryan's critical assessment of the Castilian version of the Picatrix prepared 1256-58 under the aegis of Alfonso X the Wise (d. 1284) (94-101). The Picatrix supplies the textual and conceptual linchpin, conjoining the courtly study of heavenly bodies throughout Iberia with the cultivation of necromancy or astral magical craft, thereby concluding Part One of the book (100-101).

Part Two begins with Chapter Four, in which Ryan applies the historical and methodological considerations which surfaced in the first three chapters of the book to the Aragonese reigns of Pere (d. 1387) and Joan (d. 1396). The central thesis of the book is that astrological and occult studies, which were cultivated with renewed enthusiasm by each of these kings, could be mercurially ignored or appraised as indicators of royal weakness by emissaries and local courtiers. This ambiguity derived from a willing courtly ambivalence toward scholarly occult study, when it was undertaken by powerful potentates who likewise tested their valor on the field of Mars, such as Pere (105-23). Otherwise, inward-looking dilettantes like Joan squandered the precious time requisite for successful governance of the Crown of Aragon with dissolute diversions such as hunting and the study of occult treatises (115-23). One way to interpret this information is to surmise that neither astrological nor astronomical science was intrinsically suspect; instead the personalities and choices of the rulers reflected well or poorly on their cerebral tools. Ryan prefers to fold his discussion of the legitimacy of occult study into his discussion of power in a Foucauldian manner. Knowledge and power mutually reinforced one another within a discursive formation that permitted courtly study of the stars in fourteenth-century Aragon, while in the best case scenario a strong ruler's intellectual refinement and ability to rule effectively were simultaneously exemplified in some way by such occult study. This situation could only be sustained when other expressions of might held critics at bay (123).

In Chapter Five, Ryan assesses various condemnations of Joan's fascination with prophecy and divination. One important contribution of the book is the extensive summary of one text by Nicolau Eymerich (d. 1399), an Aragonese inquisitor general, that is otherwise unedited and relatively unknown, Contra praefigentes certum terminum fini mundi, or Against Those Who Appoint a Certain Fixed Date for the End of the World (133-38). Presaging the End of Days was but one problematic and emblematic sign of Joan's personal and kingly "hubris" (134). The king was guilty of twin theological and epistemic infractions: he attempted to discern by various marginally Christian and occult pursuits that which was unwarranted for mortals to know, "the will of God" (125). Ryan cogently describes the complex interconnection of royal authority and suitably sanctioned pathways to knowledge endorsed by Christian courtiers and exegetes in this chapter, which stands alone as perhaps the best argued section of the book. King Joan's participation in occult study and practice legitimized it to a degree since he was a Christian King, whereas the ecclesiastical hierarchy including appointed officials such as Eymerich necessarily policed what could be considered heterodox practice. When conflicts between orthodox doctrine and desired courtly practice arose, Joan like his father, Pere, could banish Eymerich, but the judgment awaiting all souls was discerned to be an ineluctable coming threat (126-33). Eymerich, in any case, unequivocally links astrological divination with demonic, necromantic activity, leveling the strongest opprobrium against Joan (132-33). Bernat Metge (d. 1413) reiterated related charges in Lo Somni, emphasizing the dissolute nature of King Joan who favored diversions over his royal obligations. This for Metge appears to have included a tacit disapproval of Joan's discerned lack of virility, since he cultivated an interest in the occult that was matronly, at best, but unequivocally effeminate (145-53).

King Martí (d. 1410) accedes to the throne and reverses the courtly interest in occult affairs promulgated by his brother, Joan, as recounted in Chapter Six. Under Martí, Aragon experienced a revival of Christian orthodoxy, and countervailing spiritual discourses were typically silenced. Nevertheless, Martí respected the occult books in his library, and even he made courtly room for certain aspects of these sciences (154-59). On the one hand, the pervasive conservatism under Martí could just be considered a Christian corollary to the otherworldly interest in the occult fostered by his brother and father. Alternatively, Martí could be treated as a simple foil, which would insert a hard binary methodological paradigm (orthodox/heterodox) into the exposition. Ryan adopts a more nuanced approach. He offers a gendered analysis of the role of Queen Maria de Luna in the military and political confirmation of her husband's legitimacy, critically appraising Metge's dream narrative discussed at length in Chapter Five (162-66). Then he concludes with a discussion of the relative sliding scale of syncretistic entente between occult practice and Christian tradition found under the late medieval Crown of Aragon (167-71), points which are carried forward in the Epilogue (175).

In fact, the one real criticism of this compelling book is the occasional abrupt arrest of the narrative's development at precisely the moment the reader suspects Ryan is about to clarify some hidden mystery, given his evidently perspicacious insight, passion, and profound appreciation for this recondite material. Perhaps, that just enhances the anticipation for more focused articles and invigorating books from this author in the future.

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Author Biography

Eric M. Ramírez-Weaver

University of Virginia