Nearly every empire worthy of the name—from ancient Rome to the United States—has sought an Egyptian obelisk to place in the center of a ceremonial space. Obelisks—giant standing stones, invented in Ancient Egypt as sacred objects—serve no practical purpose. For much of their history their inscriptions, in Egyptian hieroglyphics, were completely inscrutable. Yet over the centuries dozens of obelisks have made the voyage from Egypt to Rome, Constantinople, and Florence; to Paris, London, and New York.
In recent years scholars have begun to acknowledge that the occult sciences were not marginal enterprises but an integral part of the worldview of many of our ancestors. Astrology was one of the many intellectual tools—along with what we consider to be the superior tools of social and political analysis—that Renaissance thinkers used to attack practical and intellectual problems. It was a coherent body of practices, strongly supported by social institutions.
This volume examines the transformation in ways of studying nature that took place in Western Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Some of the essays trace particular textual traditions, while others follow the development of scholarly and professional communities. Some concentrate on the internal analysis of primary sources, while others examine the spread of practices to larger groups.