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The Western Church and Astrology during the Early Middle Ages

  • M. L. W. Laistner (a1)


It is now nearly forty years ago that two scholars independently drew attention to Ambrosiaster's attacks on the paganism of his age. Cumont in a brilliant article, La polémique de l'Ambrosiaster contre les paiens, analyzed and discussed Quaestio CXIIII, Adversus paganos, and Quaestio CXV, De fato, of the writer whose identity must still be regarded as uncertain. The purpose of Souter's admirable monograph, A study of Ambrosiaster, was quite different. Primarily he was concerned to prove once and for all that the pseudo-Augustinian Quaestiones veteris et novi testamenti CXXVII were composed by the same author as the highly individual commentary on the thirteen epistles of St. Paul included among the works of Ambrose. The common authorship of the two works is now universally accepted. Souter's book was also a preliminary study for his definitive edition of the Quaestiones which appeared some years later in the Vienna Corpus.



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1 I wish to thank Professor A. D. Nock for a number of bibliographical hints and Dr. C. W. Jones for his help on computistical matters.

2 Revue d'hist. et de litt. relig., 8 (1903), 417–440.

3 Les religions orientales4, 290, note 63.

4 The following abbreviations have been used throughout: PL and PG refer to Migne's Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca, references being to volume, column, and, if possible, section. CSEL is the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, references being to volume, page, and line. The modern literature on ancient astrology is enormous, but it may be helpful to indicate a few works containing ample bibliographical information: Franz Boll, Studien über Claudius Ptolemaeus (Jahrbücher für classische Philologie, Supplementband 21 [1894], especially 181–238); Franz Cumont, Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain (ed. 4, 1929), ch. VII and 284–292; A. D. Nock, Sallustius, lxx-lxxv; J. Toutain, Les cultes paiens dans l'empire romain II, 179–223; W. Gundel in Pauly-Wissowa's Realencyclopädie, s. v. Heimarmene. The same writer's survey in Bursian's Jahresberichte 243 covers the period from 1907 to 1933. It must, however, be used with caution, as it is not always wholly trustworthy. Thus, for instance, Gundel states (p. 147) that Duhem's discussion extends from pp. 459 to 494 and is devoted to an examination of the Church Fathers' views on astrology and particularly Augustine's at different periods of his life. Actually the astrological part of Duhem's chapter extends only from 454 to 460 and Duhem confines himself almost exclusively to examining the fifth book of the City of God! The reference to Boll's article in Zeitschrift für neutestamentliche Wissenschaft should be vol. 18 (1917–18), not 17 (1916). Gundel also omits to mention J. K. Fotheringham's article in Journ. Theol. Stud. 10 (1909), 116–119.

5 In particular there is the unfortunate tendency, as we shall see, in both official and unofficial references to astrology to group it with magic, augury, divination, and other pagan rites and superstitions. Cf. below, page 264, also Apostolic Constitutions, 8, 32, 11 (ed. Funk, I, 536, 3–9).

6 Cf. the judicious remarks of A. D. Nock in Gnomon, 15 (1939), 363–364.

7 R. H. Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the O. T., II, 382–383.

8 Cf. numerous references listed by P. Wendland, Philos Schrift über die Vorsehung, 24, note 1.

9 Tertullian, de idol. (CSEL, 20, 38, 3 ff.); Lactantius, Inst. (CSEL, 19,167, 1 ff.); Hippolytus, PG, 16, 3056C–3090A.

10 Methodius ap. Photium, PG, 103, 1140C ff.

11 Hierocles ap. Photium, ibid., 702D–703A.

12 PG, 76, 1052B.

13 CSEL, 50, 342, 13–16 — legitur namque cautum in quodam iuris libello aliquando mulierem quinque peperisse: quomodo subreptum est fatis, ut huic soli hoc natura decerneret, quod non erat fati? quod si fati fuisset, aliquantae hac sorte oneratae fuissent.

14 Cf. Boll, Studien, 183 ff.

15 Cf., for example, PG, 103, 864A (Diodorus); PG, 45, 169B–C (Gregory of Nyssa); Rhein. Mus., 55, 332 (Julian of Halicarnassus); PG, 1, 1410B, 1412A, 1414B–C (ps.-Clement); CSEL, 50, 323, 5–9, 324, 17–19, 344, 3–21 (Ambrosiaster); and generally Boll, op. cit., 202 ff., Nock, Sallustius, lxxii and 19.

16 PG, 45, 168B–C.

17 Ibid., 165B.

18 Ammian., 26, 10, 15–19; cf. Otto Seeck, Geschichte des Untergangs der antiken Welt, V, 79 and 458 with the references there given.

19 CSEL, 50, 334, 16–17; cf. generally Cumont in Revue d'hist. et de litt. relig., 8, 419, and Souter, A study of Ambrosiaster, 31 ff.; 168 ff.

20 PG, 37, 424–429.

21 Ibid., 430A.

22 CSEL, 40, 209–221; CSEL, 50, 345, 8–16.

23 CSEL, 40, 323, 4–324, 9.

24 Aug., Epist. 246 (CSEL, 57, 583, 17–585, 17).

25 PL, 17, 1044D–1047B; the passage cited is on 1045A–B.

26 J. A. Fabricius, Codex apocryphus novi testamenti, I, 115 — ἀστέρα παμμεγἐθη λάμψαντα ἐν τοῖς ἄστροις τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ἀμβλύνοντα τοὺς ἄλλους ἀστέρας ὤστε μὴ φαίνεσθαι αὐτούς. Ignatius, Ephes. 19, in Kirsopp Lake, Apostolic Fathers, I, 192 — ἀστὴρ ἐν οὐρανῷ ἔλαμψεν ὑπὲρ πάντας τοὺς ἀστέρας, καὶ τὸ φῶς αὐτοῦ ἀνεκλάλητον ἦν, καὶ ξενισμὸν παρεῖχεν ἡ καινότης αὐτοῦ. τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ πάντα ἄστρα ἄμα ἡλίῳ καὶ σελήνη χορὸς ἐγένετο τῷ ἀστέρι· αὐτος δὲ ἦν ὑπερβάλλων τὸ φῶς αὐτοῦ ὑπὲρ πάντα.

27 Fabricius, op. cit., 173.

28 PG, 31, 1469C ff.

29 Diodorus, PG, 103, 877A — δύναμίν τινα θειοτέραν εἰς ἄστρον μὲν σχηματιζομένην, Chrysostom, PG, 57, 61 ff. — δύναμίς τις ἀόρατος εἰς παύτην μετασχηματισθεῖσα τὴν ὄψιν.

30 PG, 46, 1133D. That this is an authentic work by Gregory has been disputed by some, maintained by others. Cf. O. Bardenhewer, Gesch. der altkirchl. Lit., 3, 208. Boll, Zeitschrift für neutest. Wiss., 18,40–48, scarcely concerns himself with the Eastern Fathers' interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem. The modern rationalism of Fotheringham (Journ. Theol. Stud., 10, 116–119) suggested that the star was Mars.

31 CSEL, 50, Quaestio LXIII.

32 See below, pages 268–269.

33 PL, 26, 619 ff.

34 CSEL, 59, 128, 22–25. The two quotations from the prophets occur also in Diodorus (PG, 103, 876A-B).

7 Journ. Theol. Stud., 17 (1915–16), 323, 81 ff. That the Arian bishop Maximin, not Maximus of Turin, was the author of this sermon has been shown by B. Capelle, Revue bénédictine, 34 (1922), 81 ff.

36 PL, 17, 58A. A. Souter, A study of Ambrosiaster, 31–33.

37 PG, 45, 165A; CSEL, 50, 323, 10–18; Journ. Theol. Stud., 17, 329, 262 ff.; CSEL, 50, 333, 4–19; CSEL, 32, i, 119, 15–120, 2.

38 Cod. Theod. (edd. Mommsen and Meyer), ix, 16, 4; ix, 16, 6; ix, 16, 8; page 913.

39 Mansi, Concilia, 3, 1004, para. xv; 9, 775, para. ix and x.

40 PL, 54, 679A–B.

41 Ibid., 685C; 218B–C; 434A.

42 PL, 67, 74B.

43 Ibid., 54B; 156A–B; 168C; Ferrandus, ibid., 955C; Cresconius, PL, 88, 876C.

44 Maximus, PL, 57, 483C; Caesarius, see the indexes in Morin's edition of the sermons; Martin, De correctione rusticorum (ed. C. P. Caspari), passim; M. L. W. Laistner, Harv. Theol. Rev., 31 (1938), 270–271 with references there given; Monum. Germ. Hist., Epist., IV, 21, 33–34.

45 J. T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance, 198; 228–229; 276–277; 288; 331.

46 Sermo XVIII (ed. Morin, 82, 15) and LIX (249, 8 ff.) — Dicit homini serpens ille per mathematicos et Manicheos, ne confiteatur homo peccatum. Per mathematicos sic loquitur: Numquid homo peccat ? stellae sic sunt positae; necesse est ut faciat homo peccatum. Dicit ergo per mathematicos, quia stella facit ut homo peccet; nam ipse non peccat. Sic blasphemias convertit in deum: creator enim stellarum deus est.

47 Sermo CXCIII (744, 31–34). Yet in the second century a Christian apologist had used the pagan names of the week without demur. Justin Martyr (Apol., I, 67), speaking of the Passion, wrote: τῆ γὰρ πρὸ τῆς κρονικῆς ἐσταύρωσαν αὐτοῦ καὶ τῆ μετὰ τὴν κρονικήν, ἤτις ἐστιν ἡλίον ἡμέρα, φανεὶς τοῖς ἀποστόλοις αὐτοῦ καὶ μαθηταῖς ἐδίδαξε κτλ. No example of ἡ κρονικὴ in this sense is given in the new edition of Liddell and Scott.

48 McNeill and Gamer, op. cit., 277 and 306.

49 Monum. Germ. Hist., Script. Merov., I, 863, 12–15; and cf. generally M. L. W. Laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe, 99. It is significant that only one manuscript containing the whole of Gregory's treatise survives, though the introductory section on human and divine Wonders was copied frequently.

50 Cassiod., Inst. (ed. Mynors), 156, 23–157, 2. The Augustine reference is to the De doctrina Christiana (PL, 34, 57), where the African Father expresses the opinion that astronomy is harmless, but of little value for the study of Scripture. It is best avoided because astrology is related to it.

51 PL, 70, 505B — astrologiam … quam etiam nobilium philosophorum iudicia damnaverunt.

52 Etym., 3, 27, 1–2. One possible source of confusion, it is well to remind oneself, is to be found in the words astrologia, astrologus themselves. In classical Latin these had been used invariably both for the science and the pseudo-science and their exponents. Astronomia, astronomus came into use only in the Silver Latin Age and later (cf. Thes. linguae latinae, s. v.). Now, although astronomia, astronomus became more and more common, the older words continued to be used in both senses even by one and the same writer. Bede, for example, employs astronomia in E. H., 4, 2, but in his commentary on the six days of Creation, in the sentence stellae quas planetas, id est, errantes, vocant astrologi, the last word obviously signifies astronomers. Similarly, in D. T. R., 36, a passage derived from the Latin Josephus, astrologia and geometria are coupled and described as gloriosae utilitatis. More than a century later John the Scot consistently writes astrologia and its derivatives, when he means astronomy; cf. PL, 122, 866B; 869C — astrologiam cuius maxima vis est motus siderum per loca et tempora considerare; and in 716C he speaks of astrologica supputatio, astronomical reckoning. In the earliest library catalogues the work of Hyginus and sometimes the Latin Aratus are described as liber astrologiae, and this title is found side by side with liber astronomiae as late as the fifteenth century. Hyginus himself had of course employed astrologia consistently to mean astronomy, but it is easy to see how the uninitiated student in the Middle Ages might be led astray by the survival of this earlier Latin usage. For the popularity of Hyginus and the Latin Aratus in the Middle Ages cf. Max Manitius, Handschriften antiker Autoren in mittelalterlichen Bibliothekskatalogen, 80–82, who lists 43 manuscripts varying in date from the early ninth to the sixteenth century.

53 Etym., 4, 3, 4.

54 Ibid., 8, 9.

55 Liber numerorum (PL, 83, 188B); for the seven genera in Aldhelm see Monum. Germ. Hist., Auct. Ant., XV, 71, 23 and 277, 5. Cf. also below, page 272.

56 PL, 75, 865C.

57 PL, 76, 1110A–1114B.

58 In Monum. Germ. Hist. Auct. Ant., XV, 73, 6–10, he mentions the signs of the zodiac, unde mathematici fatum, fortunam, vel genesim aut suprema Parcarum fila … se divinare et praenoscere posse ridiculosa stoliditate arbitrabantur. There is a similar passage on 269, 5–7.

59 Bede, D. T. E., 3 (PL, 90, 302 ff.); Irish computus, ibid., 653B; Ambrose, Hex., 4, 4, 14 (CSEL, 32, i, 121, 13–122, 10). As Ambrose's discussion closely resembles that of Procopius of Gaza, Wendland (Philos Schrift über die Vorsehung, 35, note 2) not unreasonably assumed that both writers were indebted to a lost work by Origen. Origen's exposition as given by Eusebius (Praep. evang., 6, 10, 74) is divergent. The words in atomo in Bede's quotation from I Corinthians are no doubt taken from Ambrose, who also cites this passage of Scripture. For this translation of the Vetus Latina, which is found also in Tertullian and Augustine, Jerome's Vulgate reads in momento.

60 Sidonius, Epist. (tr. Dalton), 8, 11, 9 ff.

61 D. T. R., 28; D. N. R., 24. That the moon influences the growth of plants and animals is an opinion found in an agricultural writer like Palladius (cf. De la Ville de Mirmont, Rev. des études anciennes, 8 [1906], 155 ff.). Yet Palladius was one of the authors recommended by Cassiodorus to his monks (Inst., ed. Mynors, 72, 11).

62 Lupus, Epist., 8 (ed. L. Levillain, I, 68).

63 Another comet appeared in 842 and was visible for several months. Nithard (ed. Ph. Lauer, 108) relates that it could be seen at the time that Louis the German and Charles the Bald signed their famous pact.

64 Cf. the index of G. Becker, Catalogi bibliothecarum antiqui.

65 See E. C. Richardson in A. von Harnack, Gesch. der altchrist. Literatur, I, 229 ff. The Einsiedeln manuscript (264) was copied partly in the ninth, partly in the tenth century (G. Meier, Cat. codd. mss. qui in bibl. mon. Einsidl. servantur and W. M. Lindsay, Notae latinae, 455). For Turonensis 267 (late 10th c.) see E. K. Rand, Manuscripts of Tours, I, no. 197 with Plate CLXXXVIII, 1, reproducing the end of Book 1 and the beginning of Book 2. For the Namur manuscript (Grand Séminaire, 37; 11th c.) see P. Faider, Catalogue des MSS. conservés à Namur, I, 462. This codex is in one respect unique; it alone preserves the early Latin version of I Clement. This was published by G. Morin in Anecdota Maredsolana, II, where a detailed description will be found (iii-v).

66 For his text of the revised version of the Quaestiones Souter used four MSS of the ninth, three of the tenth, and one of the thirteenth century, and there are others. But as his stemma codicum (CSEL, 50, xxxii) shows, these extant MSS presuppose many earlier ones now lost. The MSS of the commentary are listed in Souter's A study of Ambrosiaster, 14–16; but a definitive edition of this work is still to seek owing to the death of successive editors (cf. Souter's recent comment in Journ. Theol. Stud., 41 [1940], 304).

67 Monum. Germ. Hist.: Epist., VI, 198, 36 ff.

68 C. W. Jones, Bedae Pseudepigrapha, 83–84.

69 Cf. Recogn. (PG, I, 1408A): Denique cum Mars centrum tenens in domo sua ex tetragono respexerit Saturnum cum Mercurio ad centrum, luna veniente super eum plena, in genesi diurna, efficit homicidas et gladio casuros, sanguinarios, ebriosos, etc. These passages and also Acta Sebast. (PL, 17, 1045) — quod tempus tuum a malitioso Marte susceptum est aut Saturnus apocatasticus fuit — may be added to the long list of examples, mostly from Greek writers, collected by A. D. Nock, Sallustius, lxxiii, note 54, to illustrate the malign activities of Mars and Saturn.

70 PL, 90, 898A.

71 A. Van de Vyver, Les plus anciennes traductions latines médiévales (Xe-XIe siècles) de traités d'astronomie et d'astrologie, in Osiris, I (1936), 658–691.

72 M. L. W. Laistner, Bulletin of the J. Rylands Library, 7 (1923), 421–456. See A80, C12, D11, E13, H1, M3, S25. The alternative definition given for ephemerisannalis computatio continens seriem totius anni descriptam — almost certainly refers, as Dr. Jones kindly informs me, to lists of solar and lunar letters, such as are frequently found in computistical manuscripts.

73 W. M. Lindsay, Class. Quart., 15 (1921), 38–40.

74 For the solitary mention of Manilius cf. Max Manitius, HSS antiker Autoren in mittelalterlichen Bibliothekskatalogen, 72–73; for Firmicus Maternus, ibid., 172–173. The manuscript once at St. Maur des Fossés may be, according to Sittl, the extant codex, Paris. Bibl. nat. lat., 7311 (cf. W. Kroll and F. Skutsch in their edition of Firmicus, II, vii). Manitius assumed that the Regensburg manuscript was a copy of Firmicus. But is this certain, seeing that no author's name is given in the catalogue, but only the title, De creatione vel super mathesin?

75 Manilius, ed. Housman, V, xviii.

76 Or possibly in the eighth century. But if the Insular Manilius was copied in the British Isles, it need not have been older than the ninth, since the Insular script survived there long after it had disappeared on the continent in Insular centres.

The Western Church and Astrology during the Early Middle Ages

  • M. L. W. Laistner (a1)


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