Astrology and Morbus Gallicus

An early woodcut of a man suffering from the scabies—or morbus gallicus or, as we like to call it today, syphilis—is attributed to Albrecht Dürer. This woodcut illustrated a poem by the Nürnberg city physician Theodericus Ulsenius, his Vaticinium in epidemicam scabiem.

Dürer’s syphilitic man that illustrated Ulsenius’s poem on the scabies, from wikipedia page on Dürer.

Like most physicians, Ulsenius explained how the disease had been caused by a series of planetary conjunctions. The most important conjunction, a so-called major conjunction because of its rarity—occurred in November 1484, when Saturn and Jupiter met in the sign of Scorpio. A year later, Mars and Saturn conjoined in the same sign. The woodcut indicates this astrological cause clearly in the upper portion, where four planets are shown along with the sun in Scorpio with the date prominently written in the middle.

Detail of Dürer’s woodcut showing the planetary causes for the morbus gallicus.

This astrological explanation was common in the early pamphlets on the morbus gallicus. In the same year Joseph Grünpeck published Latin and German pamphlets on the disease. In both he adopted the exact same model to explain the advent of the disease. Although he accepted that the morbus gallicus was a punishment from God for blasphemous behavior, the material cause were the planetary conjunctions in 1484 and 1485.

The title page from Joseph Grünpeck’s Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra.

Far from being some sort of quack, irrational superstition, these astrological explanations were incredibly logical. They 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 to explain the progress of the disease through Europe, its symptoms, and why sexual intercourse often caused the disease (for more, see this post).

The woodcut from Johannes Stabius’s Pronosticon (1503) illustrated the astrological causes—the planetary conjunctions—that he discussed in the poem

The celestial sphere with its zodiac was commonly used in 15th- and early 16th-century woodcuts to depict the astrological sources of terrestrial events. A few years later, Johannes Stabius composed a poem to celebrate his crowning as imperial poet laureate. His poem discussed the effects of another major conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter as well as other conjunctions that occurred in 1503/1504. His poem was printed as both a broadsheet and a pamphlet and illustrated with a similar woodcut:

In these two cases the woodcuts accurately illustrate the conjunctions discussed in the texts. It would be interesting to survey other such woodcuts and see if the conjunctions and planetary positions discussed in the text are represented in the woodcut or if printers started recycling woodcuts. It would be nice to know if the woodcuts for these ephemeral texts were produced for these texts or were generic illustrations.