Renaissance Astrology and the Vagaries of Markets

J. P. Morgan is supposed to have said, “Millionaires don’t use astrology; billionaires do.”

Morgan would have known. He hired the best astrologer money could buy, the famous Evangeline Adams, whose clients also included Enrico Caruso, J. Paul Getty, Wallis Simpson, and Mary Pickford.

Evangeline Adams, the twentieth century’s most famous astrologer

Operating out of a suite in the Carnegie Hall Building, Adams is said to have predicted the duration of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight within 22 minutes, forecast the stock market crash of ’29, and guessed Rudolf Valentino’s death within a few hours. A shameless self-promoter, the matronly Adams would dress up as a gypsy and read palms at clubs and private parties. She charged $50 for a 30-minute consultation and employed a brigade of secretaries to type up mail-order readings for her out-of-town clients. In 1914, Adams won a highly publicized court case that had challenged her right to practice astrology as a profession.

Morgan was hardly the first billionaire (or would-be billionaire) to consult an astrologer; nor would he be the last. In fact, merchants and bankers had been seeking the help of astrologers at least since the Renaissance. In that age of unparalleled mercantile opportunity and incalculable risk, businessmen sought every conceivable way of predicting market fluctuations.

Trade in East Asian spices was the mother lode in the Renaissance, and pepper was its black gold. Of all the East Asian spices, pepper was by far the most widely used. Once a costly and rare spice that graced only the tables of the wealthy, by the sixteenth century pepper was considered the “seasoning of rustics,” fit even for the lowly beans and peas of peasants. Though no longer exotic and fashionable, due to its huge demand pepper still fetched exorbitant prices.

A Portuguese monopoly, the pepper trade could net astonishing profits while risking ruinous losses: it was no business for the timid. Yet, because the price of pepper was incalculable and jumpy, trade in the commodity offered unparalleled opportunities for speculators.

 

Harvesting pepper in Asia, from a French manuscript of the ‘Book of Travels of Marco Polo’ (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms Français 2810 folio 84)

All of this contributed to making commodity trading in cities like Antwerp, one of the centers of the northern European spice trade, an extremely hazardous enterprise. Spice traders often bought cargoes while still at sea, giving the King of Portugal (who always needed the money), large advances, and repaid themselves by charging high prices. Any mistake in guessing at future prices could be disastrous. Where was a merchant to turn for aid in such uncertain circumstances?

Naturally, to an astrologer.

That seems to have been the case with the Lienhard Tucher, a highly respected German commodities trader in Antwerp. In the 1540s, Tucher corresponded with a Nuremberg astrologer named Christopher Kurz, who claimed to have devised an astrological system by which he could foretell the prices of pepper and other spices.

“Trade in spices requires great foresight,” Kurz informed Tucher. Though himself a professional astrologer, Kurz warned the merchant against consulting his competitors: “For our astrologers aforetime have written much, but little with reason.” Kurz preferred to find his own rules by experiment. After three years of searching, he claimed, he had discovered a system for predicting a fortnight in advance the prices of pepper, ginger, and saffron. “I think God has given it to me,” he told Tucher. “In the same manner I have known how to show for the matter as touching cinnamon, nutmegs and cloves from one market to another.” Kurz assured Tucher that his system was already in use in many business houses in Antwerp.

That, evidently, was enough for Tucher. The merchant was convinced. He diligently followed Kurz’s advice and became a highly successful commodities trader—although how much he owed his success to Kurz’s prognostications we do not know. Tucher even inquired about the Infante Philip (later Philip II), sending Kurz exact details concerning his birthday. Kurz cast a sad horoscope. “A worse nativity hath not come to one this year past,” he wrote; then, in the same breath, continued, “Cloves will be profitable and it could do no damage to make trial with eight or ten sacks.”

Tucher was hardly an isolated example of a Renaissance businessman turning to an astrologer for advice. Venetian merchants consulted experts such as Bartolomeo Raines, a specialist in geomancy and astrology, for help in predicting market fluctuations. Another astrologer, the friar Aurelio di Siena, was brought before the Venetian Inquisition on charges, among others, of using astrology to determine “whether merchants would have good fortune on their expeditions.”

Anxious merchants and ship-owners routinely sent for astrologers when a cargo ship was delayed. When a merchant planned a voyage to a distant market town, he would in all likelihood have consulted an astrologer to choose the appropriate day to embark. Astrologers even answered questions about the risk of pirates.

Today’s merchants and financiers turn to other experts—such as economists—for many of the same answers. In his biography of the Renaissance astrologer and polymath Girolamo Cardano, Anthony Grafton makes a revealing parallel between the social roles of the Renaissance astrologer and the modern economist:

Like the economist, the astrologer tried to bring the chaotic phenomena of everyday life into order by fitting them to sharply defined quantitative models. Like the economist, the astrologer insisted, when teaching or writing for professional peers, that astrology had only a limited ability to predict the futures. Like the economist, the astrologer generally found that the events did not match the prediction; and like the economist, the astrologer normally received as a reward for the confirmation of the powers of his art a better job and higher salary.

The similarities do not end there, however. Just as cutthroat competition among astrologers defined the Renaissance practice of the art, today’s economists encounter fierce disagreements among their ranks. Economists disagree over policy, prediction, and matters of theory. They even disagree about why they disagree. Christopher Kurz’s warning against competitors has an almost exact parallel in today’s arguments among economists about whether stimulus or austerity is the better path to getting us out of the current recession.

Renaissance astrologers provided a host of services that no other experts could provide. They served a plethora of servant girls asking about future husbands, widows wondering whether or not to remarry, men asking how rich their proposed brides were (or whether they were virgins), wives and husbands wondering whether their spouses were cheating on them, fathers and mothers inquiring about the life expectancies of their children. Practically every conceivable kind of domestic problem, question, or entanglement was vetted in the astrologer’s consulting room.

The astrologer’s consulting room. Frontispiece to to John Melton, ‘Astrologaster’ (1620).

In the absence of experts such as economists, marriage counselors, and financial advisors, Renaissance people turned to astrologers, because there was nowhere else to turn. In a chancy world where the “human factor” continually befuddles our best predictions, it’s fair to ask: are we, with our experts, much better off?

SELECTED REFERENCES

Richard Ehrenberg, Capital & Finance in the Age of the Renaissance: A Study of the Fuggers and their Connections, translated by H. M. Lucas (New York, 1928).
Anthony Grafton, Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer (Cambridge, MA, 1999).
Guido Ruggiero, Binding Passions. Tales of Magic, Marriage, and Power at the End of the Renaissance (Oxford: 1993).
Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (New York, 2004).

5 Comments to Renaissance Astrology and the Vagaries of Markets

  1. November 28, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    The Tuchers were a leading Nürnberger trading family so it’s no surprise that Lienhart Tucher consulted a Nürnberger astrologer.

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