In all the excitement of yesterday’s solar eclipse, you may have learned that eclipses are common: most calendar years have four eclipses (two solar and two lunar), with a maximum of seven eclipses (though this is rare).1 What makes a solar eclipse special, at least for some people, is when it takes place at a time and in a place where we are able to experience near or complete totality—when the entire face of the sun is covered by the moon.
One such total solar eclipse was visible on the morning of March 29, 1652 over the British Isles.2 The path of totality fell directly over Scotland, with a partial solar eclipse visible for thousands of miles around. Dr. John Wybard, viewing the totality from Carrickfergus, Ireland, observed that
“The Moon, as if at that moment, and unexpectedly, threw itself so very nimbly between the entire path or circuit of the Sun’s disc (in so far as it appeared to our sight); so that it seemed to move in a circle or roll around, like a plate or upper mill-stone; with the Sun, glowing or rather shimmering, all around its rim or edge.”3
The ancient Greeks and Chinese were the first to successfully predict eclipses, and so by 1652, early modern Europeans were quite skilled at calculating when these and other celestial events (from the mundane to the fantastic) would occur. Almanacs were issued annually by different sources, all claiming to be the most accurate, to aid the populace in determining everything from when it would be best to plant their crops, to when the stars would be best aligned to go on a journey or make a big purchase. “Judicial,” or predictive, astrology (what we today would likely call simply “astrology”) was often combined with scientific information such as the time of sunrise or high tide, as the sun, moon, planets and stars were thought by many to have a supernatural influence on the lives of men, governments, and countries. Eclipses, as impressively dramatic as they are, were often viewed as especially important, and usually a sign of impending disaster or divine displeasure.
In 1652, William Lilly and Nicholas Culpeper were two of many “judicial astrologers” who were making predictions about the forthcoming solar eclipse. Each produced, as usual, an almanac for the year: William Lilly the highly popular Merlini Anglici ephemeris, which he published every year from 1647 until his death in 1681, and Nicholas Culpeper his Ephemeris for the Year. Both included special predictions about the eclipse, and also published separate pamphlets with more detailed and extensive predictions. Lilly published at least two other pamphlets related to the eclipse: Annus Tenebrosus, or The Dark Year, which focused specifically on the solar eclipse and the two lunar eclipses that were due, and a more general work titled An easie and familiar method whereby to judge the effects depending on eclipses…, meant to help the common person make their own predictions.
In his lengthier predictions, Lilly pulled out all the stops, claiming that (among other terrible events) the English could expect to see disputes over sea and fishing rights, treachery from the Dutch, “tumults and seditions” within the court of the Ottoman Empire, “poverty and beggary” in Scotland, a threat to the friendship between Russia and Poland, division in Sweden and Denmark, and general excess of “shipwrecks, storms, pyracies, and without the mercy of God, strange murmurings” across the globe. Not even the Pope escapes Lilly’s predictions, and is promised “danger either of death, or some private misfortune.”
Nicholas Culpeper, in his Catastrophe Magnatum: or, The Fall of Monarchie, is no better. He predicts earthquakes, pestilence, murrain (an infectious disease commonly afflicting cattle and horses), “strange massacres, desperate tumults, fire and sword,” invasion by the Turks, and apparently the downfall of most nations in Europe. He has little confidence in his fellow men to resist the eclipse’s negative influence, writing, “good people, I cannot flatter, neither can I perswade my self you will act honestly during the effects of this eclipse. I speak not to those in England, but generally to all those in Europe, horrid Tumults, Murthers and Mutinies are threatned, cruel massacres; the Commoners are subject to bee impudent and insolent against their Magistrates…” He concludes with a message to anyone who doubts him, saying “a few years will shew whether what I have written be true or false; and he that carps at me before he knows that, shews rather his own folly, then my weakness.”
Although it’s doubtful that all of the predictions Lilly and Culpeper made were correct, they were of course broad enough for considerable interpretation. However, the seventeenth century saw the sharp decline of trust in judicial astrology. Barely a week after the eclipse occurred, an anonymous pamphlet appeared, entitled Black Munday turn’d white, or, The astrologers knavery epitomized : being an answer to the great prognosticks and gross predicitons of Mr. Lillie, Mr. Culpeper, and the rest of the society of astrologers concerning the eclipse of the sun on Munday last… The pamphlet excoriated Lilly and Culpeper, among others, for “falsities and contradictions” appearing in their predictions, both of how the eclipse was to proceed, and of how it might influence men’s lives. Chief among the pamphlet’s complaints are that Lilly in particular predicted “an Egyptian darkness” would fall over London, and since London only received a partial solar eclipse, it was still light enough to read indoors (as another observer recorded). The pamphleteer concludes his work with this biting paragraph:
I shall not need to quote any more of his ridiculous absurdities; but conclude with his gross Predictions concerning the Eclipse on March 29. which (according to his Calculation) should have been the greatest that ever eyes beheld in this latter age. Certainly, this argues a great want of faith, and a spiritual darkness; for although there appeared enough to satisfie rational men that there was an eclipse; yet we may observe, that he made the two great Luminaries, and ordereth their course sitteth in the Circle of the Heavens, and will not give His honour unto any other; but drew back the Clouds like a Curtain, and caused the Sun to shew his pleasant Rays and comfortable Beames during the whole time of the eclipse, to the confutation of the great Astrologers, who by the help of Tycho were able to guess at the time of the eclipse, yet could not tell whether the day would be cleer or cloudy…
So much for William Lilly and Nicholas Culpeper. Judicial astrology was viewed with increasing skepticism and scrutiny, and was mostly out of fashion as a serious art by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Joseph Burroughs, an English Baptist minister, gave a rousing sermon against superstitious interpretations of eclipses in particular in 1715. His reasoning is both religious and scientific—on the one hand, he says, we shouldn’t buy in to judicial astrology because this is what “heathens” do. On the other hand, he notes, “neither the Sun, nor the Moon, nor any other of the Celestial Bodies, are able to do us any Mischief of themselves…there is no reason to believe that the Ordinary motions of the Heavenly Bodies do really portend any Threatening at all.” (Folger 186791)
But, if you care to know, here is what Lilly has to say about solar eclipses in Leo (as the 2017 eclipse was yesterday) in his easie and familiar method:
In the first Face or Decanate of Leo, it premonstrates the Death of some certain famous Prince as also great scarcity of Corn and grain; if the Prince misse death, he avoyds not the occasion of many misfortunes and consumption of Treasure.
In the second Decanate it threatens great tribulation, and many damages unto Kings, Peers, and Prime of the Nobility; what is meant of persons of quality, must have relation to all Magistrates.
In the third Decanate, it presages Captivities, besieging of Towns, Plunderings, Profanation of holy places, a scarcity of Horses, or a destructive Murrain amongst them.
Take it as you will.
- According to Time & Date
- The March 29 date is based on the Julian calendar, which Great Britain followed until 1752, when they switched to the Gregorian system we use today. In the Gregorian calendar, the date was April 8th.
- Wing, Vincent. Astronomia instaurata, or, A new compendious restauration of astronomie in four parts…London : Printed by R. and W. Leybourn, for the Company of Stationers, MDCLVI.  Special thanks to Sarah Powell, EMMO paleographer, for the translation from Latin.