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Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England.

Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England. By Patrick Curry (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989. 238 pp.).

Of the many secrets leaked from the Reagan White House, probably none brought forth more scorn from intellectuals than the report that Reagan and his wife Nancy regularly consulted their astrologer before making decisions conceming affairs of state. Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England provides a historical background to that scorn. Patrick Curry summarizes in his concluding chapter how, from a height of acceptance by both the radical and conservative fringes of the intellectual elite during the Interregnum (1649-1660), belief in the veracity of astrology declined to the point that it became "common sense" only for participants in what Curry labels, "plebeian" culture:

English judicial astrologers paid dearly for their moment of glory during

the Interregnum. Astrology en tout was caught up in the ensuing wave of

elite revulsion (and to some extent, popular exhaustion) against

enthusiasm. Efforts by judicial astrologers to escape its effects by

reforming astrology into a rational natural philosophy ... failed.

Unchecked, those effects extended far beyond the persecution of

astrologers as dangerously irresponsible prophets, the censorship of

their almanacs as 'oracles to the vulgar', and the diatribes of divines,

natural philosophers and men of letters. The genteel identification

of astrology as enthusiastic, and therefore (like enthusiasm itself)

vulgar, became fixed in the minds not just of a few authorities but

of an entire social class--a development only made possible by the

unprecedented degree of patrician withdrawal and self-consciousness

after 1660.... [I]t [astrology] survived in the eighteenth century only

beyond the pale (albeit an enormous area) as a part of plebeian life

and thought (157).

Beyond providing the details of this development, Prophecy and Power concerns itself with explicating the history of astrology in England in the context of broader transformations in English and European cultural history. The explication turns on the ideas of many theorists of culture, but none so much as Peter Burke, E. P. Thompson and Antonio Gramsci. From Burke, Curry takes an awareness that the "reform of popular culture" in Europe involved the "withdrawal of the governing and educated elite from the social and cultural world of the great mass of people in which it had formerly felt free to participate (153)." Curry feels, however, that by building on E. P. Thompson's idea of the creation of social classes in eighteenth-century England he can take Burke's idea one step forward:

In early modern England, the reform of popular culture occurred

principally in the form of a new and momentous split between patrician

and plebeian culture, which appeared after the Restoration of 1660.

It divided neither the wealthy and the poor, nor the aristocracy and

the commoners, but the respectable, or "better sort" on the one hand

and the great mass of labouring people, or the "vulgar" on the other


Adding to Thompson the work of J. C. D. Clark, Curry illustrates that the push behind the creation of the patrician-plebeian split came from the intelligentsia, aided by ongoing processes of social advance by the middle classes and economic marginalization of the labouring classes. He accepts Cobbett's warning that "When farmers become gentlemen their labourers become slaves" (155). "Thus," he concludes, "a working class, increasingly self-conscious (and therefore potentially self-directed) came into being" (155).

This conclusion forms the basis for Curry's insistence that there is "no justification for refusing social class its due weight in pre-industrial history," though he modifies the point by stressing (again following Thompson) that class can be both economically and culturally determined (157). This modification, that culture can determine social class, provides the foundation for a critique of the self-contradicting dichotomies historians such as Jacques Le Goff posit between exclusivist and inclusivist mentalities, between "class" mentalities and "unifying" mentalities. For Curry such dichotomies are resolvable if theorists recognize the differences between ideologies and mentalities.

Ideology Curry defines only in its adjectival case:

The only acceptable definition of 'ideological' ... is therefore something

like those activities and situations in which there is a consciousness of

contested representations of the world in play, in which social action

takes the form of more or less explicit attempts to order or reorder the

world (159-60). It is telling though that the best Curry can do for a definition of mentalities is to follow a distinction first suggested by Marcel Proust between "ideas" and "idiom," the latter, as the substance of mentalities being, at once social, a of life, and intellectual, a set of ideas" (161).

As he concludes:

By implication, mentalities and ideologies are best seen as inseparably

linked ends of a continuum: the former more universal, habitual and

assumed, the latter--because they are conflictual and ambitious--more

particular, conscious and explicit.... Ideology is at the sharp end of

changes in mentality ... [b]ut mentality acts both to limit and undermine

the former (when resistant), and cement it (when in sympathy) (161-2).

After 1660, the ideology of class determined the response to astrology in England, patricians rejecting it as vulgar, plebeians fashioning it to become "the emblem of labouring people's attachment--increasingly static and repetitive, because defensive--to the rhythms and remedies of 'natural' time" (161). Even Curry concedes, however, that plebeian culture more than just resisted patrician encroachment. To explain astrology's survival, he turns to the ideas of Gramsci as recently amended by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Instead of looking for the extinction of plebeian beliefs, we should look for the ways in which patricians established hegemony over those beliefs:

The alternatives of domination on the one hand and independence on the

other are too Manichean; hegemony supplies the missing link. We cannot

expect to find pure types; there was naked coercion in the late

seventeenth century, and it remained a constant possibility thereafter,

mixed with lengthy periods of semiindependence in the eighteenth. But

another, essential aspect of this history is the way in which the idea

of cosmic effects and influences was articulated so as to destroy the

authority of astrologers in favor of a 'sound' interpretive elite. That

campaign was hegemonic not only in its interestedness and its

commonsensicality, but its cross-class character(167).

Patrician culture could not destroy astrology, but it could contain it. At least, that is, until the ,mid-nineteenth century, when fractures within the cultural elite led to renewed middle class fascination with the subject.

Curry seems oblivious to the dangers inherent in trying to understand the mental world of one cultural group via references to that group in the writings of another. Perhaps there was a cultural group in early modern England which self-consciously identified itself as 'vulgar.' But a sense of what that group meant by the term still would be far more useful to the historian than all of the meanings attached to the term by those who self-consciously saw themselves as the "better sort." No matter how much leeway one wants to grant Curry to make his case, the one-sidedness of his research has to be condemned as both excessive and counter-productive. Imagine a history of a modern "plebeian" pastime such as professional wrestling based on the comments of followers of a more "patrician" sporting entertainment such as golf or those of members of the cultural elite. Could you come to a conclusion about the appeal of professional wrestling from such information? Could you determine why a cultural group would appropriate the activity as part of their identity? From the information Curry provides it is impossible to determine whether or not astrology was an aspect of a reactionary plebeian ideology. All that is certain is that patricians portrayed it as such.

The study suffers from an even greater methodological failing. Curry notes that astrology's brief moment of broad-based popularity occurred during the Interregnum when the monopoly over the marketing of written materials concerning astrology exercised by the Company of Stationers had been revoked. After the Restoration, that monopoly was reestablished by the Crown, with the result that all almanacs--the chief vehicle for the dissemination of astrological information--were censored, and astrologers and book sellers with radical leanings were hounded out of the trade. The Company of Stationers retained its monopoly on texts throughout the period Curry studied, farming out the production of, yet keeping all the profits from the sale of Francis Moore's Vox Stellarum, the most popular of all early modern almanacs with annual sales of 25,000 copies by 1738; 107,000 by 1768; 353,000 by 1700; 560,000 by 1839 (101). The Company of Stationers controlled the market in astrological ideas in England, yet Curry consistently ignores its influence over astrological practice. If his concept of hegemonic control has any historical substance, however, the most obvious level at which it must be discernable is the decisions and actions of the Company. Or to put it another way, only after the Company's actions have been shown to have in no way determined plebeian and patrician sensibilities concerning astrology can the more global cultural forces Curry identifies be acknowledged as causative. Curry's explanation of the decline of astrology in early modern England is arguably brilliant. But he never confronts the evidence which would validate it.

Andrew Barnes Carnegie Mellon University
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Author:Barnes, Andrew
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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