Astrology in pre-Renaissance medicine

            At a time Michelangelo made history with his hammer and chisel, medical students shuffled into lectures. One student in particular was Jacopo Berengario da Carpi (1460-1530CE). In a recent publication co-authored by myself, the claim that astrology played a major role in medicine was promoted. This article serves to clarify and defend this statement by delving into astrology earlier roots in Western medicine.

University of Bologna

            The university at Bologna, where Berengario trained, predates both universities at Padua and Naples. Proper organization of a university in Bologna began in the early 11th century. Formally a liberal arts school, the University of Bologna catered to students of Dictamen, a field which focused heavily on drafting legal documents. The study of law flourished with Italian political, commercial and intellectual growth. Bologna was indeed a law school first, cemented in fame through its early faculty who published seminal manuscripts in civil law

            Medicine entered the university curricula in 1260 CE through the work of Thaddeus of Florence. However, the prior introduction of Aristotelian philosophy in the school of liberal arts supplied the framework for Aristotle’s physics and physiology to become the cornerstone of medical education. The field of mathematics supplied the foundations for astrology. Medical courses at the university had been provided before 1260, however clergymen were the sole providers. Pope Honorius III dictated in 1219 CE the prohibition of clergy to teach medicine, curtailing the medical program until Thaddeus.

            The future of the medical program remained trusted in the faculty, whom brought fame to Bologna. Notably, the field of surgery was promoted and with the anatomical dissections of Mondino de Liuzzi (c1270-c1326 CE), Bologna was poised to become a mecca within the Italian medical circles.

Astrology at Bologna

            The University of Bologna rose to success in medical education by the end of the 13th century with two events: the demise of the school at Solerno and the proliferation of Arabic medical authors. Historians argue this Arabic influence without doubt influenced progress within the field of medicine. These new texts focused on the medicine of Galen and Hippocrates, but also introduced a new astrological approach. Thus, the field of astrology fell under the umbrella of the medical university.

            The medical school embraced students of not only medicine; they welcomed those studying surgery, philosophy, astrology, logic, rhetoric and grammar. However, only students of medicine were granted status as “full citizens of the academic republic” entitling them to voting privileges. Students with voting power could elect professors to chair [read: lecturer] positions appointed by the municipality. Note that students of other fields mentioned above could elect among themselves voting members to represent their interests.

            As an aside, further distinction in voting was made among students of medicine by 1379 CE. Students who funded their own education received a higher weighted vote in the election of professors. Whereas, students who lived at others’ expense [i.e. charity, dependents, servants] were not afforded the same voice as their fellow students of means. However, this practice may not have occurred at other neighboring universities.

            The role of mathematics represents an important influence on the university teachings. Arabic translations to Latin of Euclid began to flourish in the early 11th century, around the time the university at Bologna was established. In addition, Arabian algebra and arithmetic was infused into Italian academe through Leonardo Fibonacci (c1170-c1250 CE). His 1202 CE publication Liber Abaci [Book of Calculation] promoted the Hindu-Arabic numerals to replace that of Roman numerals, among many other principles. Mathematics and medicine shared a much more intimate connection during the Renaissance, made possible through their common link of astrology. Not to mention that Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 CE) began his career studying medicine in Pisa.

Roger I of Sicily at the Battle of Cerami in 1061 (1860)

            Astrology was revived in Italy with the importation of Arabic teachings, and served to quell the misconceived minds of those emerging from the Middle Ages. A new, fresh perspective on medicine began with hopes to clarify superstitious medical treatments and disease process. Appropriately, in the 11th century the island of Sicily continued to be under control of Arab Muslims. Thus, Sicily was a nidus to feed Italy Arab thoughts until the Norman invasion of c1030 CE. Even after this conquest, Sicily remained a cultural mecca attracting scholars of all fields, not to mention translating Greek and Arab texts to Latin. Culminating in the introduction of famous medical texts, like that of Avicenna.

            Human curiosity into future events secured a place for astrology in Italy; despite the political unrest generated by predictions focused on the demise of leaders [not unfamiliar to pundits today].  While some used the field to get wealthy, natural astrology centered on planetary movements, a parent to astronomy, and believed to hold the secrets to all that was mundane in life. Centuries of persecution and plague primed the medieval mind to look upwards to the stars for life’s answers.

The role of astrology in medicine

It is necessary for the physician to know and consider the natures of the stars and their conjunctions, to that of various sicknesses and the critical days…Astrology is like the eye of a physician…” -Cecco d’Ascoli

            Astrology linked medicine to the mathematical sphere as noted previously, but to what end the reader may inquire. Physicians were expected to use astrological principles to predict a patient’s more critical days as well as develop treatment regimens based upon planetary movement.

Cecco d’Ascoli

            As above, astrology earned a chair in the school of medicine, but the field itself teetered on a narrow fulcrum. The use of astrology in medicine for the scientific prediction of events likely to occur in the future was supported by the Church, permitting both clergy and laymen to practice this conjuring. However, authors have written the ease at which astrology could branch into darker practice, including necromancy and fatalism. Such use was not tolerated by the Church.

            The most well-known chair of the astrology department at Bologna was Cecco d’Ascoli (c1257-c1327 CE). Cecco likely studied in Salerno, Naples or both. By 1316 CE, the Papal court at Avignon hired Cecco as physician under King Robert of Naples. As Pope Clement V made his exit, Jacques d’Euse succeeded as John XXII. d’Euse had also worked in King Robert’s court and trained in Naples in Civil/Cannon law. Cecco was in a prime spot in his career having both his King and Pope in his Rolodex.

            After a stint in Florence, the University of Bologna looked for Chair of Philosophy, and in 1322 CE Cecco accepted the position. At the time, Pope John XXII placed judicial hearings against a Bolognese bishop practicing fatalism at the university. Thus, times were precarious for the academic astrologer. Cecco himself would become the focus of investigation by the Church of San Domenico for transmitting fatalist thought. His punishment was less than severe; ordered to reconciliation, discontinuance of his scientific pursuits, and a 70 Bolognese pound fine. This investigation was brought about by Dino del Garbo, a rival physician, along with his son, Tommaso; both men did not approve of Cecco’s opinions on Sacrobosco’s De Sphera Mundi.

            Bitter feelings about Bologna sent Cecco back to Florence. Luckily for him, King Robert’s only son, Charles, was in need of a physician and astrologer, and Cecco filled the role in 1327 CE. However, the position was short lived, and Cecco was dismissed for fatalistic theories in a couple months. Charged as a relapsed heretic, Cecco was burned at the stake, a victim of the Inquisition.

In conclusion

            Medicine adopts, like many other scientific fields, a Kuhnian system of thought. When a paradigm shift occurs in practice, older methods not able to be answered by the new model are discarded, forgotten and ignored.  Seldom will one find in a modern medical textbook a discussion of astrology. However, medicine shares a strong connection to this pseudo-science some consider occult. Large, randomly-controlled studies have become the new model by which we as physicians test our hypothesis. We no longer use the planets to guide practice.

            However, pre-Renaissance physicians who swore by astrology likely reaped the benefits of wooing wealthy, powerful families to their practice. One can easily understand why an astrologically-backed treatment plan would supersede a treatment plan based on small population-based observations and anecdotal teaching. Astrology was sexy, and introduced incredible technology, like the astrolabe.

            When seldom an answer could be explained, physicians looked to the stars.


Rashdall, Hastings. The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon, 1895. Online.

Baddeley, Welbore St. Clair. Charles III. of Naples and Urban VI. London: W. Heinemann, 1894. Online.

Santo, Natale Gaspare De., et al “Berengario Da Carpi.” American Journal of Nephrology 19.2 (1999): 199-212. Print.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica. 11th ed. New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1910. Online.

Pace, E. (1907). The University of Bologna. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Online.

One comment

  1. thanks for another great post. In the age before modern science, the use of astrology should not be seen as ignorance, but one of many lines of research into our world at a time when what we called minor illnesses could kill, as well as plagues, famines, droughts, which with our modern access to communication and transport can alleviate. The use of astrology is actually a healthy thing – shows they were thinking in all directions. the fact that we still use it, albeit with some guilt, shows it still has something to offer.

    Date: Tue, 1 Apr 2014 04:21:12 +0000 To:

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