Astrologer Ralph Kraum’s Copy of the Tuckerman Tables

In the early 1960s Bryant Tuckerman realized that the latest computer technology could be put to good use calculating historical planetary positions.[1] He published a two-volume ephemerides, providing tables of planetary positions from 601 BCE to 1649 CE. The “Tuckerman Tables” quickly became the standard reference for historians of astronomy. While more recently on-line resources might have begun to erode the usefulness of the “Tuckerman Tables,” they remain an excellent resource when working with old reports of planetary positions, especially conjunctions, oppositions, and other inter-planetary aspects.

Historians of astronomy were not the only group of scholars who turned to the “Tuckerman Tables” when evaluating historical sources and events. Astrologers eagerly purchased and used these tables in their efforts both to understand the past and to assess astrology’s ability to explain the present. One such astrologer was Ralph Kraum, who in March 1965 purchased his copy of Tuckerman’s Planetary, Lunar, and Solar Positions, A.D. 2 to A.D. 1649 at five-Day and Ten-Day Intervals direct from the American Philosophical Society for $7.50. Kraum’s copy is filled with charts and fragments of astrological and astronomical calculations as he cast nativities for a wide range of historical figures. In many instances, he recorded the person’s name on the piece of paper as well as his own name and the date. On 6 April 1965, one of the first nativities he calculated with Tuckerman’s tables was Emperor Justinian’s, which he compared against the chart found in Maurice Wemyss’s More Notable Nativities. Unfortunately, Kraum did not record either the final version of this chart or his interpretation of it. On 1 July 1965 Kraum calculated the planetary positions for Montaigne’s natal chart, and again compared his numbers to Wemyss’s chart. Appropriately, in 1965 Kraum calculated planetary positions for Nostradamus’s nativity and then in 1967 Kraum twice calculated various data for John Dee’s nativity. In 1969 he calculated planetary positions for Elizabeth of York, wife of King Henry VII. He noted that Elizabeth’s birth date was uncertain. On the back of a receipt for a “400 day globe” that he purchased for $2.94 from E. W. Reynolds in October 1953, Kraum evaluated some possible dates for Elizabeth’s birth before concluding that she “must have been born on 1465 Feb. 11.” Ferdinand V and Isabella of Spain attracted Kraum’s attention in 1965. Dozens of other slips of paper bear the traces of Kraum’s efforts to calculate horoscopes for historical figures.

Kraum’s efforts to calculate famous nativities was not merely a hobby. He was continuing a practice that astrologers had begun at least as early as the fifteenth century, when Martin Bylica amassed a collection of hundreds of horoscopes. He returned to these charts again and again, refining his calculations, adding notes and highlighting different features, and adjusting his interpretations. By the sixteenth century collecting and comparing famous nativities had become a key aspect of an astrologer’s professional. The Italian astrologers Luca Guarico and Giordano Cardano competed with each other through their published collections of genitures. The practice of calculating and recalculating horoscopes in order to understand better how to interpret the celestial positions continues even today. When Kraum scoured his copy of the Tuckerman Tables for the data that he could use to evaluate and judge the work of his predecessors, he was practicing critical astrology. For centuries astrologers have turned a critical eye on their own work and that of their predecessors and competitors.[2]

In addition to horoscopes for famous people, Kraum left the remnants of his efforts to calculate the important celestial data for eclipses and significant planetary conjuctions—he covered more than dozen sheets of paper calculating relevant data for the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction that occurred on 18 December 1603 and compared his results to those by an astrologer named Robson.[3] Kraum was also interested in historical transits of Venus, calculating planetary positions for the a number of them as early as 23 May 60 CE.[4] Kraum seems to have been particularly interested in the transit on 24 November 1639 (England was still using the Julian calendar; according to the Gregorian system, this transit occurred on 4 December 1639).

Ralph Kraum’s copy of the Tuckerman Tables, opened to the pages for the 1639 transit of Venus (Source: Author’s collection).
Ralph Kraum’s copy of the Tuckerman Tables, opened to the pages for the 1639 transit of Venus (Source: Author’s collection).

The transit that year was the first observed by European astronomers: Jeremiah Horrocks and William Crabtree. Horrocks had corrected previous astronomical tables that had indicated that Venus would just miss the sun—he probably corrected Philip Lansberge’s tables. Lansberge seems to have rejected Kepler’s elliptical orbits and thus predicted that Venus would just miss the sun. Horrocks recalculated the positions and predicted that Venus would in fact cross in front of the sun’s disc.

Kraum put a small checkmark in the margin to note the date for the transit of Venus (Source: Author’s collection).
Kraum put a small checkmark in the margin to note the date for the transit of Venus (Source: Author’s collection).

Kraum covered three sheets with numbers and astrological data. How long the transit lasted, the positions of the planets (including Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto), the medium coeli and the ascendent. He also noted twice that Horrocks was the first person to witness a transit of Venus.

Kraum’s efforts to determine the relevelant astrological information from the transit of Venus in 1639. Kraum also noted on this piece of paper that Horrocks was the first person to observe a transit of Venus (Source: Author’s collection).
Kraum’s efforts to determine the relevelant astrological information from the transit of Venus in 1639. Kraum also noted on this piece of paper that Horrocks was the first person to observe a transit of Venus (Source: Author’s collection).

Unfortunately, Kraum did not record how he interpreted this information. As with his other astrological calculations, he was doing more than simply passing time. Kraum was trying to use astrology to understand his world, and the transit of Venus offered him some glimpse into that world. As did the conjunctions between Saturn and Jupiter.

Kraum enjoys two claims to fame. Beyond the world of professional, practicing astrologers, Kraum gained renown for his famous clientele—he was a prominent astrologer to the actors in Hollywood. Notably, he was one of Ronald Reagan’s early astrological counsellors. Apparently, during his acting years Reagan began seeking advice from astrologers, long before Nancy brought Joan Quigley into the White House. Amongst astrologers, Kraum gained some fame for his work on the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction that occurred in 1365. He clearly spent considerable time and energy thinking about this conjunction. The most complete and elaborate chart to survive in this book is Kraum’s chart for this conjunction.

Kraum’s chart for the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction. He returned to this chart at least twice to correct or add information (Source: Author’s collection).
Kraum’s chart for the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction. He returned to this chart at least twice to correct or add information (Source: Author’s collection).

Here Kraum adapts the theory of great conjunctions, which correlated the conjunctions between Saturn and Jupiter with broad, large-scale changes on earth. There were three types of conjunctions: great conjunctions occurred every 60 years, greater occurred every 240, and greatest occurred after 960. The rarer the conjunction the greater the effects on earth. These effects ranged from the rise and fall of religions and kingdom, to the appearance of plagues and epidemics. Kraum seems to be applying a form of this theory in his analysis of the “Mutation Conjuction” in 1365.

We may not agree with the intellectual system of astrology, but it cannot be dismissed as simple or uncritical. The trail of intellectual breadcrumbs Kraum left behind provides tantalizing glimpses at the rigor of his system and the self-imposed evaluation that occurs. It is hard to see these scraps of paper as part of some elaborate ruse to swindle customers out of their money. It also does not seem that Kraum was disingenuous in his belief. Moreover, Kraum’s work reveals a person skilled in positional astronomy, a person who seems almost to enjoy the calculations. Whatever he was doing, it cannot be equated to horoscopes in the daily newspaper or written off as the dogmatic ravings of a money-grubbing fraudster.

[This post was originally “An Astrologer’s Intellectual Breadcrumbs” at PACHS. Josh Spero’s post on second-hand books and their owners, at History Today, prompted me to repost it here.]


  1. Tuckerman wrote his program in Fortran and compiled it on an IBM 704. Then, when he calculated the positions for his second volume, he opted for “the faster, and more advanced solid-state [IBM] 7090.”  ↩

  2. Whatever charges might be leveled at astrology, the lack of critical self-analysis is not one of them. Given the intellectual framework within which astrology makes sense, astrologers have long been admirably evaluative of their own practice and the conclusions they have drawn from their charts. Astrologers apply this criticism equally to competing astrologers as well as to their own work.  ↩

  3. Vivian Robson, perhaps?  ↩

  4. I confess that I was surprised to see his interest in transits of Venus. I did not realize that astrologers found these transits to be astrologically meaningful. But for Kraum they seem to occupy a position at least as important as eclipses.  ↩

A. R. Wallace and “preter-human intelligences”

In “Wallace’s Woeful Wager” Dana Hunter tells the story of A. R. Wallace’s bet with John Hampden about the shape of the earth. In her version, Wallace—“venerable 19th century man of science”—was duped by scheming, doltish, young-earth creationists who assailed science with Biblical passages and ignored evidence in defense of their flat-earth beliefs. Hunter is right: there was no way Wallace was going to win that bet. Hampden and his friends were not going to be convinced by Wallace’s evidence. But that’s the problem with evidence, it is never free of the bias people bring to it. Wallace himself suffered from a similar problem: like Hampden he ignored or explained away inconvenient evidence and assailed science with arguments from authority.

To call A. R. Wallace a “venerable 19th century [sic] man of science” stretches our comfortable notions of “man of science” and ignores the fact that for many 19th-century “men of science” Wallace was, well, not all that venerable.[1] Science, for Wallace, included all sorts of ideas that we would now reject, ideas that undermine the rational science vs. dogmatic religion framework that animates Hunter’s post. Take, for example, Wallace’s provocative pamphlet The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural that was dismissed by many of the scientists he sent it to.[2] Here he argued against miracles as violations of the laws of nature, but argued for “preter-human intelligences”—“intelligent beings [that] may exist around and among us, unperceived during our whole lives, and yet capable under certain conditions of making their presence known by acting on matter”—and the power of mediums to summon spirits.

Over the next few decades his belief in spirits and other spiritual forces continued to grow. He became convinced of his own ability to focus mesmeric energy, despite the medical profession’s opposition to mesmerism, which he dismissed out of hand as ignorance and prejudice. In his autobiography, My Life, Wallace says:

…I found that I had considerable mesmeric power myself, and could produce all the chief phenomena on some of my patients; while I also satisfied myself that almost universal opposition and misrepresentations of the medical profession were founded upon a combination of ignorance and prejudice.

Wallace’s biography and his Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1896) attest to his unwavering belief in spirits and his own mesmeric powers as well as those of his brother.[3] Conviction and belief shaped Wallace’s interpretation of evidence and trumped the arguments of experts. He reported knocking sounds and tables floating in the air and other evidence of “preter-human intelligences” acting in our world. In many instances, Wallace’s evidence is nothing more than the reports of witnesses he considered reliable and who hold important posts in society, that is, authorities. In other cases, he experienced the phenomena himself—it’s hard to know what Wallace experienced when he says:

I will only state here that I was so fortunate as to be able to see the simpler phenomena, such as rapping and tapping sounds and slight movements of a table in a friend’s house, with no one present but his family and myself, and that we were able to test the facts so thoroughly as to demonstrate that they were not produced by the physical action of any one of us. Afterwards, in my own house, similar phenomena were obtained scores of times, and I was able to apply tests which showed that they were not caused by any one present. A few years later I formed one of the committee of the Dialectical Society, and again witnessed, under test conditions, similar phenomena in great variety, and in these three cases, it must be remembered, no paid mediums were present, and every means that could be suggested of excluding trickery or the direct actions of any one present were resorted to.

Whatever Wallace experienced, he knew what it demonstrated. Wallace’s refusal to see evidence (e.g., of trickery) or entertain other explanations for the evidence (e.g., fraud) looks a lot like Hampden’s refusal to consider evidence that contradicted his beliefs.

There’s a symmetry in all this. Hampden and Co. ignored or interpreted evidence to suit their beliefs. Wallace ignored or interpreted evidence to suit his beliefs. Now Hunter treats both Hampden and Wallace as evidence to suit her own beliefs.

I am not offering some backhanded defense of Hampden (or attack of Wallace)—he was a nut job (as was Wallace in his own way). I am trying to draw attention to the ways that Hunter’s caricature of Hampden does little to help us understand what he was doing and why it was kooky, just as her sanitized version of Wallace similarly prevents us from understanding this “man of science.” Both versions distort the past by projecting our values and prejudices onto that past and thereby obscuring any lessons that we might learn from it.[4] And, in the end, casting the Wallace-Hampden wager as an early version of our science (i.e., reason) vs. religion (i.e., stupidity) debate ignores evidence that doesn’t suit our present beliefs.


  1. Christine Garwood does a nice job explaining how and why Wallace’s peers were upset that he even accepted Hampden’s bet. Wallace had, they thought, undermined science by implying that the shape of the earth was debatable. Moreover, Wallace did not have the expertise to defend the shape of the earth—that should have been left to an astronomer like Astronomer Royal George Airy. See Christine Garwood, Flat Earth. The History of an Infamous Idea, pp. 79–117.
    Wallace’s continued belief in spiritualism and mesmerism put him at odds with many of his contemporaries, who increasingly thought poorly of him for it.  ↩

  2. Huxley’s response to Wallace is great (reproduced in Wallace’s My Life):

    I am neither shocked nor disposed to issue a Commission of Lunacy against you. It may be all true, for anything I know to the contrary, but really I cannot get up any interest in the subject. I never cared for gossip in my life, and disembodied gossip, such as these worthy ghosts supply their friends with, is not more interesting to me than any other. As for investigating the matter—I have half a dozen investigations of infinitely greater interest to me—to which any spare time I may have will be devoted. I give it up for the same reason I abstain from chess—it’s too amusing to be fair work, and too hard work to be amusing.  ↩

  3. In some of these stories Wallace and his brother abuse (or are duped by) Indian boys by enticing them into their home and sending them into trances. In return, Wallace and his brother would give them “a copper” or a little present when they released the boys from the trance:

    I will here only add that my brother Herbert also possessed the power, and that when we were residing together at Manaos, he used to call up little Indian boys out of the street, give them a copper, and by a little gazing and a few passes send them into the trance state, and then produce all the curious phenomena of catalepsy, loss of sensation, etc., which I have already described. This was interesting because it showed that the effects could be produced without any expectation on the part of the patients, and, further, that similar phenomena followed as in Europe, although these boys had certainly no knowledge of such phenomena. One day, I remember, when we were going out collecting, we entered an Indian’s hut, where we had often been before, and my brother quietly began mesmerizing a young man nearly his own age. He did not entrance him, but obtained enough influence to render his arm rigid. This he instantly relaxed, and asked the Indian to lie down on the floor, which he did. My brother then made a pass along his body, and said, “Lie there till we return.” The man tried to rise but could not, though several of his relatives were present. We then walked out, he crying and begging to be loosed. Thinking he would certainly overcome the influence we went on, and coming back about two hours later we found the man still on the ground, declaring he could not get up. On a pass from my brother and his saying, “Now get up,” he rose easily. We gave him a small present, but he did not seem much surprised or disturbed, evidently thinking we were white medicine-men. Here, again, it seemed to me pretty certain that the induced temporary paralysis was a reality, and by no means due to the imagination of the usually stolid Indian.  ↩

  4. Take, for example, Hampden’s pamphlet, The Popularity of Error. In it he defends the Bible and gestures to the Scriptures but doesn’t site any passages. Instead, it rehearses a simple set of common-sensical objections to both a spherical earth and a mobile earth. What jumps out of his pamphlet are not the Bible verses (there are none) but his opposition to Newton and Copernicus and his efforts to dismiss both as merely offering theories or hypotheses. There may be something interesting about the Hampden’s approach here and current efforts to dismiss global warming or evolution as mere hypotheses and theories. As there may be something interesting in his invocation of quotidian experiences as objections to increasingly abstract scientific theories. ↩

Two early pamphlets on the French Pox

Joseph Grünpeck had long aspired to a better career than teaching Latin to students in Augsburg. So in 1496 he seized an opportunity to advertise his skills to the Bürgermeister of Augsburg and, more aspirationally, to Emperor Maximilian I who passed through Augsburg in the fall of that year. At the core of Grünpeck’s efforts stood the French Disease and his two pamphlets describing its origins, spread, and symptoms.

The French Disease was sometimes called the great pox, the French pox, or simply the pox. These various names reflected the disease’s first appearance in the French troops besieging Naples. The French, understandably, didn’t like these names and called it the Neapolitan disease, claiming their troops had contracted it from Neapolitan courtesans. Whatever it was called, by late 1495 the French Disease had become an epidemic spreading up the Italian peninsula and through Europe. Maximilian had encountered the disease when he had marched his troops into Italy to liberate peninsula from French oppression (or, that’s how Maximilian cast it). Soon his troops were suffering and dying from some horrible disease nobody had seen before, so he retreated with his now infected armies. Within a year the French Disease was raging through the empire. At the imperial diet the following year, Maximilian issued his “blasphemy edict,” which blamed the irreligious practices of the German people for the spread of the French Disease throughout the empire. Maximilian established a set of fines associated with suspect behavior and a stiffer set of fines for anybody who came down with the disease (it seems unlikely that any of these fines were collected).

Grünpeck had first-hand knowledge of the French Disease and the emperor’s concerns about it. In 1495 he had fled the plague in Augsburg and traveled to Italy, only to run into the imperial armies as they fled the French Disease. Disheartened, Grünpeck returned to Augsburg and resumed teaching. In the fall of 1496 he published his Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra siue mala de Franzos in both Latin and German, which he dedicated to Bernard Waldkirch, Bürgermeister.

The first edition of Joseph Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra (1496) (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).
The first edition of Joseph Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra (1496) (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).

Grünpeck argued that the French Disease had astrological causes. He detailed a series of planetary conjunctions that had produced a number of catastrophes culminating in the advent of the French Disease. A major conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter at 6:04 pm on November 25, 1484 had set things in motion. Such major conjunctions between the outer two planets often signaled (caused?) dire events on earth. These two planets had conjoined at 23°43’ of Scorpio, a sign ruled by Mars. A solar eclipse on March 25, 1485 had worsened the effects of the conjunction. Finally, Saturn and Mars had conjoined at 9° of Scorpio on November 30, 1485. There was good evidence for the cumulative effects of these conjunctions: Germany had been suffering from droughts and famines since the middle of the 1480s; war between the Empire and Charles VIII of France was raging in Italy; the plague had become endemic in many southern German cities, breaking out each summer; and a number of earthquakes had occurred in the early 1490s. Worst of all, Grünpeck explained, “in addition to all this there came the cruel and unheard of and unseen sickness, the French Disease, which also the aforementioned conjunction has brought here from France into Italy, and after that into Germany.”[1]

Grünpeck’s astrological argument provided a logic for the French Disease’s early appearance in the French troops besieging Naples and the Italians, as well as its spread into the English and Germans. Combining his astrological argument with standard humoral medicine, Grünpeck could also account for the pox’s symptoms—the black, stinking, oozing sores that seemed to concentrate in the genitals as well as the fevers and burning in the limbs—and its close association with sexual activity. Grünpeck’s explanation drew on the characteristics of the zodiacal signs, the natures of the planets, the influences planets and signs held over various parts of the body and different countries, as well as the typical dispositions of people. Far from some superstitious claptrap, astrology provided Grünpeck and his readers a compelling account of the French Disease’s advent, spread, and symptoms, an account grounded in logic and evidence.

Grünpeck’s astrological diagram indicating the location of the planets at the moment of creation (Source:  The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).
Grünpeck’s astrological diagram indicating the location of the planets at the moment of creation (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).

Grünpeck’s text was quite successful, both in helping him secure a position at the imperial court—he was soon appointed imperial secretary and later crowned poet laureate—and in finding a market. Both his Latin and German texts were reprinted, and soon pirated copies were published in other cities in southern Germany. A few years later new pirated copies were still being published.

Joseph Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra [1500], a pirated copy printed in Cologne (Source:The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).
Joseph Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra [1500], a pirated copy printed in Cologne (Source:The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).

While the text of these pirated copies varied little, usually reflecting local dialect, the woodcuts illustrating the text were often quite different. Printers would use any vaguely relevant woodcut to illustrate the title page. Sometimes, as with the copy of Grünpeck’s text that was printed in Cologne ca. 1500, the printer seemed simply to use whatever woodcut was handy. The printer added, almost as an afterthought, an astrological woodcut at the end of the text.

Personifications of Saturn and Jupiter illustrate the last page of Grünpeck’s text printed in Cologne (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).
Personifications of Saturn and Jupiter illustrate the last page of Grünpeck’s text printed in Cologne (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).

Unfortunately for Grünpeck, his meteoric rise from Latin teacher to imperial secretary came to an abrupt end in 1501 when he contracted the French Disease. According to his own account, he was returning home from a party one evening when suddenly he was gripped by a burning fever and aching in his joints and limbs. He knew immediately that he had the dreaded French Disease. He was ostracized from the court. His only hope of returning to the court lay in finding a cure. While he struggled to find a cure he endured “a thousand abscesses around his genitalia” and agonizing mercury treatments—various ointments rubbed directly into open sores—before he finally overcame the disease. He chronicled his sufferings in his Libellus de mentulagra alias morbo gallico (1503), which he published to advertise his return to health. Amazingly, he was able to reintegrate into the court and enjoyed a long career there free from any symptoms of the disease. He died 30 years later from old age.

These two editions of Grünpeck’s pamphlet are in the Historical Medical Library at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The first edition was owned by local luminary S. Weir Mitchell. A Civil War surgeon, Mitchell worked in a couple hospitals here in Philadelphia where he was able to study the neurological effects of amputation. Mitchell was the first to describe what we now know as phantom limb syndrome, in his poignant “The Case of George Dedlow.” Mitchell (or one of his contemporaries) added a few minor marginal notes and corrections to the text.

S. Weir Mitchell’s copy of Joseph Grünpeck’s Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra (1496). (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).
S. Weir Mitchell’s copy of Joseph Grünpeck’s Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra (1496). (Source: The Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia).

The later edition, the pirated edition of Grünpeck’s text, was owned by Samuel Lewis, a president of the College. His copy, unfortunately, contains no marginalia.

It’s easy to dismiss Mitchell and Lewis as merely collectors of old books, but there might be something more going on here than antiquarianism.[2] Mitchell’s passing corrections suggest a reader who wanted to know what Grünpeck said and why—no, Mitchell was not looking for an astrological explanation of the disease, but he was looking for a historical record of it. Perhaps Lewis and Mitchell were looking to the past for ways of understanding the disease they confronted. It would be interesting to look closely at the other 15 or so early tracts on the French Disease at the College to see who owned and annotated them, including two copies of Fracastoro’s Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus:

  • Conrad Schellig, Inpustulas malas morbum quem malum de francia vulgus appellat (1496)
  • Conrad Schellig, In morbum gallicum [uncertain]
  • Joseph Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra siue mala de Franzos (1496)
  • Niccolò Leoniceno, Libellus de epidemia quam uulgo morbum Gallicum uocant (1497)
  • Niccolò Leoniceno, Libellus de epidimia quam uulgo morbum Gallicum uocant siue brossulas (1497)
  • Corradinus Gilinus, Coradinus gilinus arctium et medicinae doctor de morbo quem gallicum nuncupant (1497)
  • Antonius Scanarolus, Disputatio Utilis de morbo gallico (1498)
  • Petrus Pintor, Tractatus de morbo fedo et occulto his temporibus affligente (1500)
  • Joseph Grünpeck, Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra siue mala de Franzos ([1500])
  • Martin Pollich, Responsio Martini Mellerstadt in superadditos errores Simonis Pistoris in medicina ad honorem almi gymnasii Lipcensis. (1501)
  • Niccolò Massa, Liber de morbo gallico noviter editus; in quo omnes modi possibiles sanandiipsum, mira quadam et artificiosa doctrina continentur, ut studiosi lectori patebit (1507)
  • Marco Gatinaria, Marci Gatinarie De curis egritudinum particularium noni Almansoris practica uberrima (1525) — this one includes four other tracts on the French Disease and is bound with a Guillelmi Varignane’s Secreta sublimia ad varios curandos morbos
  • Joannes Almenar Hispanus, Libelli duo de morbo gallico. Opusculum perutile de curatione morbi (ut vulgo dici solet) gallici ipsum perfecte eradicare ostendens (1528)
  • Wendelin Hock von Brackenau, Mentagra. Mentagra, sive tractatus excellens de causis preservativis, regimine & cura morbi Galli, sive (ut Galli dicunt) Neapolitani (1529)
  • Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus (1530)
  • Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus (1531)

As an aside: Fracastoro’s name for the disease, “syphilis,” continues to be used today. And despite the conceptual problems of projecting modern, germ-theory disease and the unbridgeable gaps in evidence and descriptions, many people identify the epidemic that gripped Europe from 1495 to 1520 as syphilis (in our modern sense).[3]

[This post is an updated version of my earlier post at pachs.net.]


  1. This quotation comes from my article, which contains a mind-numbingly detailed account of Grünpeck’s argument: D. Hayton, “Joseph Grünpeck’s Astrological Explanation of the French Disease,” in Responding to Sexual Disease in Early Modern Europe, ed. Kevin Siena (Toronto: CRRS, 2005), 241–74.  ↩

  2. Successful physicians and scientists still collect early works in their subjects. These collections seem to be motivated by antiquarianism or commemoration, efforts to find the origins of their subjects and to celebrate the progress that they have made. Rarely do practicing physicians or scientists look to the past for its intellectual content and what it might contribute to their own understanding of their discipline.  ↩

  3. J. Arrizabalaga, J. Henderson, and R. French argue that scholars should not equate the French Disease (or the Great Pox, as it was often called) with syphilis. See their The Great Pox. The French Disease in Renaissance Europe (Yale, 1997).  ↩

Washington Irving’s Columbus and the Flat Earth

For generations now American school children have learned that Christopher Columbus proved the earth was round. They have learned that the Church tried to prevent Columbus from sailing west to Asia, fearing that he and his seamen would sail off the edge of the earth or plunge into a chasm. They know that Columbus persevered and eventually overcame religious opposition. And they know that Columbus was right. At its core, the Columbus story pits humble rationality against dogmatic obscurantism in a sort of secular inversion of the David and Goliath story. Judging from the students in my intro classes, the Columbus story is thriving in American schools.

The only problem, as any historian or historian of science will tell you: it’s a myth.

Like any beloved myth, the Columbus story mixes truths and truthiness, something that seems so natural and so obviously true but isn’t. Columbus did face opposition. He did persevere. He did sail west. He did find land (not Asia as he had predicted and continued to believe but the New World). But these truths have nothing to do with the shape of the earth—Columbus and all his detractors knew that the earth was round. The truthiness in the myth lies, on the one hand, in the image of a dogmatic medieval Spanish Church that clung to a retrograde idea about the shape of the earth and refused to listen to reason and evidence. On the other hand, truthiness also inheres in the image of Columbus as a proto-modern, quasi-secular thinker guided only by reason and evidence. The truthiness is the reason 19th-century authors fabricated the myth and 21st-century educators continue to repeat it.

The seeds of the Columbus myth seem to grow from Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) (online here). Alexander Everett, Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain, had invited Irving to Madrid in the hopes that Irving would translate a recently published collection of documents on Columbus. When Irving got there and had a chance to read the collection, he decided

that a history, faithfully digested from these various materials, was a desideratum in literature, and would be a more acceptable work to my country, than the translation [he] had contemplated.

So he set out to write a history of Columbus. Irving enjoyed unfettered access to libraries, which he mined for his biography. He culled from manuscripts and published books a wealth of information. Despite the material at his disposal, the sources were at times silent or missing or not all that interesting. So Irving embellished. He wrote what should have happened, what surely did happen even if the evidence had since disappeared. He did what historians had been doing since Herodotus: he made it up. He seamlessly wove fact and fiction together into a “clear and continued narrative.”

Irving detailed Columbus’s thoughts about the size of the earth. Columbus examined earlier maps that depicted the known world that stretched from Canary Islands in the west to its eastern limits in China. The Portuguese had more recently explored further west to the Azores. According to Columbus’s calculations, only a third of the earth’s circumference remained unexplored. Moreover, based on his reading of Arabic astronomers, Columbus thought the length of a degree at the equator was shorter than the commonly accepted length. The third of earth’s circumference was, Columbus concluded, much smaller than that accepted by contemporary cosmographers. As Irving pointed out in various places, Columbus was aberrant in his beliefs, which beliefs were, in fact, wrong:

It is singular how much the success of this great undertaking depended upon two happy errors, the imaginary extent of Asia to the east, and the supposed smallness of the earth ….[1]

But a recitation of historical truths was boring, especially when Irving knew the confrontation between Columbus and the Council at Salamanca must have been dramatic. So Irving embellished a little when he described Columbus before the council. He enhanced the historical truths with truthiness—events that seemed so right, so natural, that must have happened even if there’s no record of them.

The Council at Salamanca was composed of professors of astronomy, geography, mathematics, as well as church dignitaries and learned friars, and convened to examine Columbus’s “new theory.” Most of the council members were biased against Columbus, “an obscure foreigner, without fortune, or connexions, or any academic honors.” In what must have been the acme of truthiness for Irving, he described the council benighted by “monastic bigotry” and assailing Columbus with Biblical citations. They rejected mathematical demonstrations that conflicted with scriptures or Church Fathers. At issue was not, however, the shape of the earth, but the possibility of antipodes:

Thus the possibility of antipodes in the southern hemisphere … became a stumbling block with some of the sages of Salamanca.

Members of the council invoked Lactantius, who connected the existence of antipodes to the shape of the earth. Irving quoted what has become the standard passage:

“The idea of the roundness of the earth,” he adds, “was the cause of inventing this fable of the antipodes with their heels in the air….”

A quick reading of Irving might confirm that the issue here was the shape of the earth, but in the next sentence he returned to the antipodes:

But more grave objections were advanced on the authority of St. Augustine. He pronounced the doctrine of antipodes incompatible with the historical foundations of our faith; since, to assert that there were inhabited lands on the opposite side of the globe, would be to maintain that there were nations not descended from Adam, it being impossible for them to have passed the intervening ocean.

The council’s grave objections focused on the existence of other humans, not on the shape of the earth.

Iriving described briefly a couple objections raised about the shape of the earth—passages from the Psalms and St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews—but these serve merely as a foil for the objections raised by “[o]thers, more versed in science, [who] admitted the globular form of the earth.” Their objections were grounded the knowledge that the earth was a sphere. They worried that it was impossible to sail across the torrid zone at the equator, that only the northern hemisphere was inhabitable, and that the circumference of the earth was so great as to require three years to sail across the Atlantic.

Whatever liberties Irving took in crafting his biography, he did not lose sight of historical truths. Instead, and perhaps more disturbingly, he enlisted those truths in the service of truthiness. In Irving’s version, Columbus had struggled against “errors and prejudices, the mingled ignorance and erudition, and the pedantic bigotry” of the Spanish Church that refused to listen to reason and evidence. His biography was less about Columbus and more about the timeless struggle between on the one hand rationality, science, individuality, and anti-aristocratic modernity and, on the other hand, a retrograde, oppressive, medieval Church. It was the story’s truthiness that appealed to other 19th-century authors.

Within a decade, William Whewell had published his History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) (online here). In a section on antipodes, he admitted that most people throughout history had known the earth was round. Only a few people who preferred scriptural evidence over physical evidence denied the sphericity of the earth. Lactantius, of course, and now Cosmas Indicopleustes, who says nothing about antipodes but offers an easily mocked tabernacle-shaped world and flat earth. Whewell then returns to the antipodes before concluding the section by casually remarking: “Tostatus notes the opinion of the rotundity of the earth as an unsafe doctrine, only a few years before Columbus visited the other hemisphere.” Again, Columbus and the shape of the earth.

By the latter 19th-century, the supposed truth of the Columbus story had completely replaced the historical truths. In works like John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) (online here) we read nothing of the reasoned objections raised by the Council at Salamanca or of Columbus’s errors. Instead we learn that his proposal’s

irreligious tendency was pointed out by the Spanish ecclesiastics, and condemned by the Council of Salamanca; its orthodoxy was confuted from the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Prophecies, the Gospels, the Epistles, and the writings of the Fathers—St. Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Gregory, St. Basil, St Ambrose.

In the end, Columbus prevailed and along with Vasco Da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan finally settled the question of the shape of the earth.

By the time Andrew White wrote his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) (online here), Columbus’s struggles to overcome a medieval Church that believed in a flat earth had become historical fact. Historical truth had surrendered to truthiness. White transformed Irving’s biased but still recognizable historical account into little more than agitprop:

The warfare of Columbus the world knows well: how the Bishop of Ceuta worsted him in Portugal; how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual quotations from the Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine; how, even after he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity, with which the theory of the antipodes was so closely connected, the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray.

Despite decades of historical work and dozens of articles and textbooks and, more recently, blogposts, the Columbus myth is alive and well in the United States. The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss recently invoked it. President Obama equated opponents of clean energy to people who opposed Columbus on the grounds that the earth was flat. The president received much applause when he said (at 0:55 in the video):

If some of these folks [opponents of clean energy] were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the flat earth society. They would not have believed that the world was round.

More recently still, Chris Impey, an astronomer at University of Arizona who claims to be interested in and knowledgable about history, fell prey to the Columbus myth in a lecture posted on YouTube, “Ancient Astronomy.” He identifies himself as “a student of history” and a member of a select group, “the educated extreme of the culture.” Yet moments earlier he lamented that

[t]here was a thing called the Dark Ages. There was a period of 700 or 800 years when all of the extraordinary insights of the Greek philosophers were utterly lost. People thought the world was flat. And truly thought the world was flat. There were demons that lurked at the edge of the map.

He underscores this claim in his video series “Teach Astronomy” (which is part of an online textbook). In the section on “The Dark Ages” he says:

In the fourth century with the fall of Rome and the sacking of the great library at Alexandria scientific darkness fell across Europe. Even the language of learning, Latin, splintered as warring tribes took over. The theology of the day was defined by Augustine, and the Christian church was mostly anti-science. The learning of the Romans and the Greeks was denigrated as pagan knowledge. Even the knowledge of the round Earth was lost for many centuries.

Impey’s comments reveal, I think, the power of the Columbus myth. It has become so central to the idea of modernity, that even a self-described student of history who is both smart and very educated—part of the “educated extreme”—is not motivated to do a simple internet search to fact check that part of his lecture and textbook. Whereas Irving had mixed truths and truthiness into a “clear and continued narrative,” subsequent authors have pruned the historical truths from the story, leaving just a myth that has become part of modern folklore.



  1. Irving’s biography also depicts Columbus as something of a zealot, motivated by religious and dogmatic convictions as much as anything. For more on Columbus’s religious motivations, see Columbus’s Voyage was a Religious Journey.  ↩