Astrology, Magic & Jacquetta of Luxembourg

Astrology, Magic & Jacquetta of Luxembourg

by James W. & Peggy M. Baker

The association of magic with astrology may seem unremarkable today. Both arts are now classified as “occultism,” i.e., beliefs and practices rejected as spurious by mainstream Western culture. The situation was considerably different in the 15th century, when Jacquetta of Luxembourg, mother-in-law of a king, was accused of witchcraft. At that time, astrology and magic were both accepted as fundamental to the function of the universe, albeit contentious and suspect in practice.

In medieval Europe, astrology and astronomy were largely synonymous. The relationship between the two, however, was essentially the opposite of how they are now regarded. Astronomy was considered to be the more conceptual and less useful of the pair. Astrology – applied astronomy as it were – was thought practical and effectual. It was often included in the standard liberal arts curriculum of the day. Even into the late 15th century, during the time of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), astronomers were expected to be proficient astrologers. Far from being simply scientists, they were required to use their increasingly accurate observations in the service of their patrons.

A scientific-minded monk using calipers, a quadrant and other astronomical instruments.

A scientific-minded monk using calipers, a quadrant and other astronomical instruments.

The study of the heavens had played a major role in classical culture. It then fell into disuse during the Dark Ages. Between the early 6th and late 12th centuries, astrology had essentially ceased to exist in Western Europe. Astrological concepts were known in broad outline but the practical details had been lost.

Then, in the 11th century, the works of classical astrologers such as Ptolemy, Firmicus and Manilius were discovered in Arabic sources. The ancient arts were revived following the recovery of these long-lost texts. The revival was controversial. Some theologians rejected astrology, in particular, as uncanonical and possibly heretical. Other scholars, however, were eager to better understand the workings of the cosmos.

The general consensus was that the stars did indeed influence worldly events. They directed not only the affairs of monarchs and nations, but also the weather. Our word “meteorology” still reflects this, the term being derived from a Greek root denoting “celestial phenomena.” Astrological foreknowledge of climate and weather were of crucial interest to farmers and sailors.

The interest of monarchs was far wider, and their bankrolls were far heftier. The primary impetus for increased astrological activity, therefore, came from the courts of princes and prelates. Anticipating the outcomes of war, succession, politics and diplomacy was as important to kings and courtiers as weather prediction was for their inferiors. According to scholar Jim Tester,

“By the end of the fourteenth and the early years of the fifteenth century, the courts of Europe, lay and ecclesiastical, were fairly thickly strewn with astrologers. They were consulted by everyone …” (A History of Western Astrology, Boydell Press, p. 196).

Simply knowing what was (supposedly) going to happen wasn’t enough, however. People also wanted to control future events. This is where magic came into the picture.

Magic and Astrology

In 1477, Oxford scholar and astrologer John Stacy was arrested. He was charged with having engaged in a magical plot against Sir Richard Beauchamp at the instigation of Richard’s unfaithful wife Elizabeth. The evidence? Stacy had made “magical” and malevolent lead figures, which were a form of medieval “voodoo dolls.”

Tortured to reveal more about the crime, Stacy exposed a three-year-long conspiracy against King Edward IV. Astrology and rumors were being used to undermine the king’s authority. Such an application of astrology was considered treasonous. Stacy was executed. His was not the first case of “fatal astrology.” Some thirty-seven years earlier, Thomas Southwell had used astrology to ascertain the date of King Henry VI’s death. Southwell “escaped” the grisly executions meted out to his cohorts only by dying in prison.

Stacy’s use of magical leaden figures indicates that he had other occult skills in addition to the astrological.

Eight years earlier, in 1469, similar magical lead figures had been discovered. The discovery resulted in the accusation of witchcraft against Jacquetta of Luxembourg. It was alleged that the figures were part of a magical plot (a successful one!) to cause King Edward IV to marry Jacquetta’s daughter Elizabeth Woodville.

In this case, no one knew who made those lead figures. It is suggestive, however, that the figures turned up in Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire, only a couple of miles from Grafton Regis. The Woodville manor was in Grafton Regis; it was the site of the secret marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. It is also where Sir Richard Beauchamp’s unfaithful and unhappy wife, Elizabeth (Stafford) Beauchamp, was born. It is also suggestive that the dolls, or figures, were made of lead. Dolls were more commonly made of wax, or other materials, while lead was usually used for “curse tablets.” Perhaps Stacy had been responsible for all of the images!

Putting Magic Into Use

How did Stacy know how to use the figures? He may have consulted a magical manual called the Picatrix. This Arabic text had been translated into Spanish and Latin in the 13th century, and was well known in England.

In order to make an “image for the destruction of an enemy,” the Picatrix instructed that one should

“Make an image in the form and likeness of the one you wish evil, in the hour of Mars, with the Moon in Scorpio; and if you are able, make the ascendant unfortunate, putting an infortune in the ascendant or forming a bad aspect to the ascendant, and put the infortune in aspect with the lord of the ascendant; and make unfortunate the lord of the ascendant and the lord of the fourth house, and make them aspect each other, or make unfortunate the lord of the ascendant in the fourth house, or have it received by a malefic in the fourth house or the ascendant. And when the image is made, bury it head downwards outside the city in which your enemy lives, and it shall be as you wish” (Picatrix: The Classical Medieval Handbook of Astrological Magic, trans. by John Michael Greer and Christopher Warnock; Adocentyn Press, 2010; p. 43).

The European discovery of the Picatrix, and other books composed by Arabic authors on astrological and image magic, also had a strong influence on western medicine. By the 15th century, astrology had become more than a method of divination. It was also the theoretical framework by which orthodox medicine cured disease. The classic text was Marsilio Ficino’s 1489 De vita libri tres (“Three Books on Life”). Ficino’s work established astrological principles that were accepted as legitimate in Western science and medicine until the 18th century Enlightenment.

A “volute” was a chart used to determine the most astrologically favorable time for medical treatments. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

A “volute” was a chart used to determine the most astrologically favorable time for medical treatments. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

The use of astrology had, indeed, now widened. It had not, however, lost its original purpose. Astrology’s service of the occult remained equally important. Astrology continued to be used in ritual magic, as men attempted to gain control of astral forces to manipulate events.

In one spectacular example, ritual magic was used to avert the threat posed by a particularly unfortunate astrological configuration. The supposed “victim” was the highest official in Christendom – the Pope! The rite to protect the Pope, which was worked in 1628, is described by D.P. Walker in Spiritual Magic from Ficino to Campanella (The Warburg Institute, 1958, p. 205-12).

It seems that Pope Urban VIII had been making astrological predictions about the deaths of his associates. Some of his rivals in the Spanish-French factions at the Papal court put together their own prediction. They claimed that the Pope would die in the wake of the comet that was predicted for that year. Urban took this very seriously indeed. He called in a specialist, Tommaso Campanella.

The Pope and Campanella entered a room and sealed it magically. They then proceeded to create a miniature magical zodiac on the floor with lamps and candles, in order to offset the unfortunate effects of the real zodiac outside. They remained in the room for ten days, drinking wines specially imbued with the appropriate astrologically selected herbs. Then, they were able to emerge. The Pope was safe. Urban promptly issued a bull making it illegal for anyone to predict the death of a Pope.

Astrology: A Cosmic System

The premise underlying the use of astrology in magic was that everything in the cosmos was interrelated through a pattern of sympathies and antipathies. The universe was thought to be a larger single entity or “macrocosm.” It was reflected in the human being as a “microcosm,” a small self-contained system. Just as an individual person’s spirits worked within the human body, so the larger cosmic attractions and repulsions affected the world.

An astrologer studying the secrets of the universe.

An astrologer studying the secrets of the universe.

The manner in which the interaction of the star-begotten impulses in natural objects enhanced or harmed a person formed the basis for both traditional medicine and “natural magic.” In the former, it was the supposed virtues of various herbs and stones that could be accessed to correct an individual’s humoral balance (the ultimate source of disease in traditional theory) and restore health. On the other hand, the “sympathy” between a suitably consecrated lead or wax image and the body of the person represented would wreak havoc on the internal humors of the victim.

Each of the heavenly bodies emanated a particular influence. Corporately, as the “celestial harmony” (also known as the “World Soul” or the Anima Mundi), they determined the mutable conditions on earth. Astral forces not only caused change but also determined the elemental composition of material things.

Everything below the moon was thought to be compounded out of the four basic elements: fire, air, water and earth. In humans, these are the four mixed substances known as the “humors.” They are generally labeled as “Sanguine,” “Melancholic,” “Choleric” and “Phlegmatic.” The humors are more than personality characteristics. They are grounded in medieval scientific concepts, particularly those of physiology, botany, geology and mineralogy.

The particular elemental qualities of each object or creature were determined by the composition or structure it received from the stars. Some herbs, for example, were “Sanguinary,” or hot and moist. These included borage, bugloss, parsley and mugwort. Sanguinary herbs brought life-enhancing effects to a person whose humoral imbalance indicated there was too much cold and dry “Melancholic” humor present.

Bugloss was a sanguinary herb. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Bugloss was a sanguinary herb. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Alternately, a person with a fever, or too much hot and dry “Choleric” humor, needed medicines that brought the opposite. Cold moist “Phlegmatic” herbs included lettuce, duckweed, purslane and peaches. The key point is that the herbs in question derived their qualities from astral influence.

This concept was perhaps best expressed by the Arab philosopher Al Kindi (ca. 801–873) in his work, On the Stellar Rays. Al Kindi provided a logically coherent and fairly mechanical account of magical action. He concentrated on the ways in which people could manipulate the astral emanations through words, images, inscriptions and sacrifices.

For Al Kindi, the world was governed by an immense complex of astral “rays,” collectively referred to as “celestial harmony.” This celestial harmony encompassed what we understand today as physics, chemistry and biology – plus natural magic.

Al Kindi’s work became well known in the 12th century. Along with corresponding concepts from Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, the ideas he expressed became familiar throughout Western culture in the later Middle Ages. These became the theories underlying the medieval concept of natural magic.

Natural magic was simply the knowledgeable application of hidden (or “occult”) interactions. These interactions, though inexplicable by the science of the day, still could be observed to “work.” This natural magic was opposed to forbidden “demonic magic,” in which the magician employed illicit spiritual beings to do his dirty work.

Natural magic, powered ultimately by astrological influences, was generally accepted as legitimate, if questionable from a legal and moral point of view. It was seen as mechanical rather than spiritual. The effects of natural magic were not supernatural, but merely beyond current understanding, the reasons behind their action having not yet been discovered. Admittedly, not all such magic was beneficial. Poisoning had always been considered natural magic in action. Poisoners had been identified with witches in both Biblical and classical sources. Poisoning, like other instances of harmful magic, was severely punished.

It was during the heyday of this astrological magic that John Stacy and his fellow co-conspirators undertook to influence royal politics by destabilizing the reign of King Edward IV. One of the conspirators was a member of the household of Edward’s brother George, duke of Clarence. The witchcraft scandal helped to bring about George’s final downfall and death.

Beneath the dangerously glittering pageant of Plantagenet politics, there simmered a shadowy underworld of sorcerers and renegade astrologers. Today, the “Game of Thrones” is more likely to involve modern spy craft, as well as international subversion and corruption funded by drug money and crooked banking. The methods may have changed, but the temptation of illicit political power ever remains!

Suggested reading:

The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, by Valerie I. J. Flint

Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas

Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark