Librarian’s Pick #4: The Character of a Quack-Astrologer

Over the course of Trinity Term 2020, the library staff at St. John's College will be taking you on a 'tour' of some of their favourites among our special collections. Every Monday, we will upload a new note on the item of the week. Read on to discover more about our chosen items...

The Character of a Quack-Astrologer: or the Spurious Prognosticator Anatomiz’d

– Nadia Azimikorf, Graduate Trainee

Of the many printed pamphlets held by the St John’s College Library, one sheds a fascinating light on the world of seventeenth-century astrology. The middle years of the seventeenth-century in England are best characterised by the English Civil War and the Commonwealth, but it was also ripe with astrological publications. This pamphlet, The Character of a Quack-Astrologer, was printed in 1673, at a time when the reputation of astrologers was starting to wane with the ease into the eighteenth-century. However, it still provides an insight into the world of astrological thought in the seventeenth-century.

The pamphlet is attributed to the astrologer William Ramesey, and initially claims to be an attack on those he deems to be a ‘quack astrologer’. The ‘spurious prognosticator’ Ramesey is examining and “anatomising” is thought to be John Gadbury, although no individual is directly named within the pamphlet.

Ramesey was a Royalist (unlike many seventeenth-century astrologers), who as well as studying astrology, was a medical doctor. He was admitted MD at Cambridge in 1668 by royal mandate, and is thought to have been physician-in-ordinary to King Charles II. Ramesay was born William Ramsey, but added the ~e~ to his surname in 1626, as he believed he was paternally descended from Egypt, and Ramesey was thus the true spelling. His most famous work is the 1653 Astrologia restaurata, which covers multiple astrological theories and practices. Having received his early education in London, he was prevented from coming up to Oxford due to the Civil War. He was instead educated at St Andrews and Edinburgh, before returning to London in 1645.

London in the middle of the seventeenth-century was a hotspot for astrological thought, as the Society of Astrologers was founded, and hosted (almost) annual dinners between 1649 and 1658. These dinners were seen as a means for discussion and debate surrounding the astrological practices of the time. Interestingly, political talk was supposedly not permitted during these dinners, suggesting that astrology went beyond Royalist and Puritan loyalties. The Society of Astrologers thus provided a place for some “scientific” discussion before the creation of the Royal Society.

The commitment of these astrologers to their intellectual world can be seen not just through their Society, but also through the astrological almanacs they produced. Many astrologers were also medical doctors – including one of the most renowned astrologers of the seventeenth-century, William Lilly. Lilly combined his medical ideas with his astrological ones, and was patronised by Elias Ashmole. After the Restoration of the Monarchy, astrology in the public sphere started to decline, until its resurgence in the nineteenth-century.

As one of the few Royalist astrologers, Ramesey was one of the few astrologers who may have benefited from the Restoration. The pamphlet held by St John’s presents his views on quack astrology during the reign of Charles II, when the annual Society of Astrologers dinners had ended, but astrological publications were still being produced. This not only places the pamphlet in the midst of astrological debates during the seventeenth-century, but it also sheds light on the traits that were considered important within astrology at this time. By discrediting the quack astrologer, Ramesey is making a case for the traits that create the true astrologer.

This first page of the pamphlet introduces the ‘quack astrologer’ as a variety of names and terms, from ‘a Wizard unfledg’d’ to ‘the Cub of a Conjuror’. This quack astrologer is therefore not the opposite of a true learned astrologer, but merely one who hasn’t yet learned the laws and practices of astrology to their full extent.

The ‘spurious prognosticator’ Ramesey is thought to be attacking in this pamphlet is Dr John Gadbury, who was a contemporary astrologer of Ramesey. What initially appeared to be a warning against those less versed in astrology than the author, instead turns out to be an argument against Ramesey’s competition in the field of astrology. As Gadbury had studied astrology with both William Lilly and Nicholas Fiske, and published numerous works on both astrology and astronomy, it is difficult to objectively argue that Gadbury was a “quack astrologer” but Ramesey was not. Gadbury’s almanac was published for several years, and is commemorated on his gravestone at Westminster Abbey. While this speaks to his astrological professionalism (within the seventeenth-century context), his first almanac of 1655 forgot to include the anniversary of the Guy Fawkes plot – a big mistake in the world of astrological almanacs, and one which he was berated for within the astrological community. Ramesey’s assertion that his spurious prognosticator’s ‘mighty ambition is to write an Almanack, which he doubts not will make him more famous than either Copernicus or Kepler’ does not attack Gadbury’s almanac itself (which would have been printed for nearly eighteen years at the time of Ramesey’s Quack Astrologer publication), but instead attacks the ambition behind the publication of this almanac. This implies that, in Ramesey’s opinion, the motives behind astrological practices are of more or equal importance to the practice itself. The pamphlet continues to show a high regard for classical learning within astrology, and rebukes the quack astrologer for his lack of distinction between Ptolemy and Euclid, and for his pretence at knowing Greek and Latin.

The pamphlet ends on an interesting note of advocating for a monotheistic God ruling the universe over the quack astrologer’s belief that ‘the wise man rules the stars’. This ends on a powerful note regarding the nature of astrological debate, rather than the attack of an astrologer’s character, as the title of the pamphlet suggests.

References

Ramesay, William (attributed). The Character of a Quack Astrologer. London, 1673.

Curry, Patrick. “Ramesey [Ramsay], William (1627–1676?), physician and astrologer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  September 23, 2004. Oxford University Press. <https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-23101&gt;.

Curry, Patrick. The Decline of Astrology in Early Modern England, 1642-1800. University College London, 1986.

“John Gadbury”. Westminster Abbey. https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/commemorations/john-gadbury.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. Peregrine Books, 1978.

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