The Crown and the Cosmos: Astrology and the Politics of Maximilian I – Darin Hayton



The Crown and the Cosmos: Astrology and the Politics of Maximilian I, by Darin Hayton. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.

In his book, Darin Hayton shows how Emperor Maximilian I used astrology as an ‘instrument of political power’ (p2). Through detailed research of many original sources, Hayton is also able to convincingly establish that Maximilian himself was a keen amateur astrologer, constantly using predictive astrological methods in his decision-making. Over seven chapters, Hayton lays out his findings, focusing on six different men, Grünpeck, Brant, Stiborius, Tannstetter, Stabius, and Perlach who were employed by the emperor, offereing their individual astrological skills.

Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the background story, showing that Maximilian’s parents were also keen supporters of astrology. In 1452, the emperor’s father, Frederick, asked the astrologer Peuerbach to cast the nativity of Eleanor, his future wife. Later on, at Maximilian’s birth, Regiomontanus, who was Peuerbach’s student, was given the task to erect his birth chart.

Hayton intends his book to be a study of astrology’s function as a propaganda tool, and he states early on that ‘on a practical level, astrology could both guide and justify political action’ (p17), but his work also sheds much light onto the general use of astrology during the time of Maximilian’s reign.

Maximilian’s autobiographies, Weisskunig (The White King) and Theuerdank (Noble Thought)[1], which are disguised as chivalric novels, have astrology as their fundamental basis. Maximilian tried to show that princes should not only be well versed in astrology, they also needed to surround themselves with competent astrological practitioners. Particularly in Theuerdank wherein Maximilian, who takes on the fictional role of the main protagonist Theuerdank, finds himself surrounded by the fictitious characters Fürwittig (curiosity), Unfalo (accident), and Neidlhart (grudge or envy), personifications of adversaries that can befall him at any time. But Theuerdank (Maximilian) is also constantly accompanied by Ernhold, who personifies Mercury, and therefore astrology per se. On many occasions, Ernhold, which translates to ‘herald’, saves Theuerdank from harm.

Chapter 2 focuses on the predictions of two pro-Habsburg astrologers, Sebastian Brant and Joseph Grünpeck. Both men used a variety of mundane techniques, and here Hayton gives a short but useful overview, providing the reader with an insight into the world of conjunctionist astrologers. It becomes obvious that the author has delved into the depths of original source material, from early Latin translations of famous works by Albumashar and Alcabitius, to the books of Firmicus Maternus, or Leopold of Austria.

Sentences like ‘he [Grünpeck] took advantage of the urgent political situation and aligned his analysis with Maximilian’s political goals’ (p49) leave it with the reader to decide if Grünpeck and others were mainly interested in unbiased astrological prognostication or wrote pieces of political propaganda using astrological symbolism. Still, Hayton leaves no doubt that, at the time, astrology ‘was a traditional and academically respected body of knowledge’ (p201). Interestingly, the author also provides an extensive quote of a letter, written by Sebastian Brant to his friend Konrad Peutinger, stating: ‘Whether the stars really do influence earthly claims, … or have no effects at all, as our Pico believes, I was, alas, only too correct in my prognostications’ (p66).

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the teachings of astrology and the use of astrological instruments. In these interesting chapters, Hayton introduces the reader to Andreas Stiborius, who lectured at the University of Vienna. Stiborius saw himself as Regiomontanus’ successor, modelling his own lectures on the style of the latter. Hayton also introduces Regiomontanus’ friend and colleague, Georg Tannstetter, who lectured on the theory of epicycles, the use of astrolabes, ephemeris tables and astrological medicine. With his thorough and vivid descriptions of the available corpus of knowledge, but also the amount of technical challenges students had to master, Hayton is able to demonstrate without a doubt that, on the highest level, astrology was treated as a science. Emperor Maximilian I relied on the university’s astrological experts, who he drew into his court, but he also made great efforts to revitalise and re-establish the University of Vienna as a centre for astronomy and astrology.

Not only Andreas Stiborius but also Johannes Stabius, who was invited to the University of Vienna by Maximilian, produced astrological instruments for the emperor. Stabius mainly constructed paper instruments, which were cheap to produce, but could be hand-tailored for any particular need. His Horoscopium Universale, for example, was used by Maximilian to calculate the astrologically auspicious moments for negotiations and peace-treaties. But Hayton explains that these instruments were also used for political propaganda; distributed as gifts, they reinforced the emperor’s authority. Stabius wrote about one of his instruments, the Astrolabium Imperatorium, that he ‘distributed numerous copies, so that other people too will enjoy contemplating the rotation of the heavens’. (p113).

Chapter 5 investigates how wall calendars, annual judicia and practica were used as important instruments of Habsburg politics. Hayton also describes in great detail how style and depth of the astrological predictions, which built an integral part of the published material, developed over the years. His findings provide a fascinating insight into the way common people became used to, and often heavily relied upon, the information included in these affordable and widespread publications.

Chapter 6 introduces the reader to Andreas Perlach, who was a master at the University of Vienna and an adviser to the Habsburg court. During his career, he produced annual ephemerides and almanacs, which are explored in this chapter. Since 1499 Stöffler and Pflaum had produced their well-known ephemerides, but never provided extensive explanations how to use these. In 1518 Perlach changed this by publishing his Usus almanach seu Ephemeridum, an instruction manual for all ephemerides, together with his Almanac Novum. These two works made it possible for anybody interested in the subject and able to read Latin, to construct a horoscope and interpret it. We have to remember though, that this information was still only accessible for a small segment of the population, as it would take nearly another 30 years until the publication of the first astrological textbook in the German vernacular.[2]  Here Hayton adds a highly elucidating sub chapter, showing how Perlach’s readers used and annotated their copies of the Usus. Some underlined what was important to them, others added corrections in the margins or personalised the text in a way that was important to them. This clearly shows that by that time, astrology was not seen to be a secret, esoteric or ridiculed occupation, but was used by many people to suit their individual needs.

In chapter 7 Hayton shows how prognostications, based on celestial phenomena like the appearance of a comet or a planetary conjunction, were composed. He highlights the fact that these were also used as evidence of Maximilian’s preordained right to rule. This is demonstrated in three case studies, Stabius’ Prognosticon, Tannstetter’s Libellius consolatorius, and Perlach’s Des Cometen und under Erscheinung in den Lüften.

To sum it up, this highly recommended book provides a fascinating insight into the use and development of astrology during the 15th and 16th century. Hayton not only shows how astrology was used as a political or propaganda tool, he also provides much information about the transmission of Arabic source material in German spoken countries and the mechanics of distribution, with the aim to make astrological knowledge available to everybody.

[1] According to Julie Gardham in Maximilian I and Melchior Pfintzing: Teuerdank, University of Glasgow Special Collections.
[2] Astronomia Teutsch Astronomei, Augsburg 1545. Also see my annotated translation of this: A German Stargazer’s Book of Astrology, Mandrake of Oxford, 2014.