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A Kingdom of Stargazers: Astrology and Authority in the Late Medieval Crown of Aragon.

A Kingdom of Stargazers: Astrology and Authority in the Late Medieval Crown of Aragon. By Michael A. Ryan. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 214. $45.00.)

If "Africa begins at the Pyrenees," as northwestern Europe has long attributed to the Iberian Peninsula, it is hardly surprising that the Christian kingdoms of medieval Spain were long thought of as portals to obscure and occult knowledge that had originated in the exotic lands of the eastern Mediterranean. In this very entertaining book, Michael A. Ryan focuses on the history of astrological studies in the Crown of Aragon during the late fourteenth century and the influence of this forbidden knowledge on its European neighbors.

Ryan begins his study of the stargazing Iberian realms by following the tenth-century journeys into eastern Spain of the polymath Gerbert d'Aurillac, also known as Pope Sylvester II. These sojourns, important for mathematics and pure science, also exposed Spain's importance in the occult arts to an awakening Europe. In his next chapters, Ryan reviews Christian beliefs concerning astrology down to the fourteenth century by exploring the ideas of Saint Augustine alongside those of Saint Thomas Aquinas. These pillars of Catholic orthodoxy largely viewed the practice as a form of idolatry inspired by satanic forces. This explicit condemnation of the occult sciences began to fade as the fourteenth century dawned, while repeated natural disasters seemed to presage the arrival of the end times. To understand this transitional period, Ryan explores the thought-world of authorities such as the Spiritual Franciscans, Arnau de Vilanova, John of Rupescissa, and Roger Bacon.

After establishing the various intellectual positions of medieval Europe on the efficacy and moral implications of astrology, Ryan investigates the significance of the occult arts in Iberia by assessing the intellectual positions of Iberian authors of the "three faiths," such as Moses Maimonides, Abd Rabbih, and King Alfonso X of Castile. Despite their grudging admission that stars may hold some sway over human life, these writers claimed that true astral forces were blurred by the chicanery of "fortune-tellers, soothsayers, and magicians" (93).

In the second half of the work, Ryan moves from a study of intellectual theory into an examination of the use of astrology as a tool to enhance royal power. For Pere III (Pedro IV), the most long-lived and successful of the Aragonese sovereigns Ryan examines, astrology and its predictive value was closely connected to the protection and advancement of eastern Spain against its powerful neighbors. As a regular employer of astrologers, Pere himself came to be characterized as "a learned man in astrology" (123). Pete's first-born son, Joan (Juan) I, was linked to astrology by the inquisitor Nicolau Aymerich and by the royal courtier Bernat Metge in his book Lo Somni. Pere's second son, Marti (Martin) I, ended the Aragonese royal fascination with astrology and, ironically, with his death in 1410 ushered in the fall of the successful Barcelona dynasty, in place since the ninth century.

Ryan's work is a brilliant study of one phase of the history of science and magic in the later Middle Ages and, as such, is a worthy successor to the groundbreaking research of authorities such as Valerie Flint and Lynn Thorndike.

Donald J. Kagay

Albany State University
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Author:Kagay, Donald J.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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