Rensberger’s Electional Astrology

Nicolaus Rensberger published his Astronomia Teutsch in 1569. A second edition was published in the following year, which seems to tell us something about the success of this book. In Rensberger’s 800 page tome we can find amongst chapters concerned with natal- as well as mundane astrology a chapter on elections. It comprises 31 pages and I think that this could be an important discovery, as it reflects the problems of the late 16th century astrologers.

The following is a translation of the epistle from the beginning of the chapter on elections.

 “Treatise of the election of times when something would be done; the author’s epistle to the reader.

People tend to ask most of the watchers of stars and astrologers to give them advice, at which hour and which day they should carry out what they wish to do, so it should be to their advantage. And although the famous Ptolemy did not publish a book concerned with these questions and elections of beneficial times, if somebody would busily read his books, he would find if he reads the rules in his books, that he did not omit telling us about these astrological things. Especially in the Centroloquio [sic], if he published it, he wrote about the best moment to begin with something and other questions. Although he says in Quadripartite that it would be a bad and unsuccessful thing. Some say that he, Ptolemy, never published such a book. Nevertheless we want to give the short basics which are necessary for this purpose.”

This may sound as if Rensberger felt the need to explain or even justify, why he included this chapter in his book. And indeed, if we have a closer look at the situation in 16th century Germany, we might understand why.

At that time Germany and particularly Wittenberg with its university were a hotbed of protestant astrology. Philipp Melanchthon was professor at Wittenberg University and he attracted a series of scholars who were all deeply interested in astrology. We know of Caspar Peucer, Melanchthon’s son-in-law, who was also a publisher, his friend Johann Gartze (Garcaeus), Johannes Schöner, who was a friend of Melanchthon and Erasmus Reinhold, to name only a few.

In the years around 1540, Philipp Melanchthon gave lectures about Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos at the Wittenberg University and Johann Reticus, a mathematician, taught astrology there. Much of the printed source material that underpinned this astrological knowledge was published by one Johannes Petreius, who himself was deeply interested in astrology.

The problem was that the protestant astrologers were not interested in electional astrology at all. They wanted to create a scientific astrology, oriented by natural philosophy. And, following Ptolemy, Melanchthon’s undisputed hero, whose work he translated straight from the Greek, they stated repeatedly that astrology could only show a person’s inclination but was unable to predict an actual decision. They claimed that man’s will had to be free. Therefore the divinatory part of astrology had to disappear.

In 1539 Johannes Schöner published his Opusculum Astrologicum. In it we can find another rare chapter on elections. Six years later, in 1545, he published his masterpiece De Judiciis Libri Tres, but without electional parts. It instantly became a bestseller and was soon hailed to be the best there was!

What I wanted to show here is that the protestant astrologers tried to abolish all traces of electional astrology from their books. This happened certainly for philosophical and religious reasons and we can trace the arguments about free will back as far as Pico della Mirandola. The unfortunate effect that was created was that from the end of the 16th century onwards electional astrology seems to have disappeared from the German literature. Rensberger on the other hand shows us that astrologers who could read Latin still had access to the works of Zahel, Abu Ma’shar and Bonatti, to name a few, and could so continue to answer the burning questions of the population that only electional astrology could answer.

3 thoughts on “Rensberger’s Electional Astrology

  1. Don’t forget the second Martin, Martin Chemnitz was a huge astrologer, and was the court astrologer for the Duke of Saxony, until he got into theology.

    • Hello Tzu Jan!
      Of course you are right.
      Martin Chemnitz (1522 – 1586) was the theological successor of Philipp Melanchthon. Before that he was, for a short period of time, the court astrologer of Duke Albrecht. In this position he succeded Petrus Hosmann who was also called Petrus Cnemiander.

      Best wishes,

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