Friday, September 9, 2011

Chapter Five: Practica teütsch

When I started working on Printing and Prophecy, I planned to exclude astrology as a fundamentally different kind of thing. That plan didn't last long. There proved to be too many authors who wrote in both modes, or who drew on both astrology and prophecy, that I had to admit that both astrology and prophecy are two different ways of writing about the future in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

So if I was examining prophetic pamphlets, that meant I had to look at astrological booklets as well. And there were hundreds of practicas - astrological prognostications for a single year - published between 1470 and 1550. I managed to look at a few hundred of them.

The practicas belonged to a highly stereotyped genre, but not everything that calls itself a practica actually is one. Up through 1550 (and in many cases for decades beyond that), the prototypical practica is a small quarto booklet of 4-8 leaves, written in the vernacular, divided into something like 8 chapters covering a set of standard topics, identified with an author's name, and illustrated on the title page with a woodcut of anthropomorphic planets. This, at least, is the typical German form. There were Italian and Dutch and French practicas as well, but the German version has a distinctive form that was worked out during the 1480s and early 1490s, initially in the practicas of Wenzel Faber of Budweis, but taking its final form in the practicas of Johannes Virdung from the Nuremberg press of Friedrich Creussner. Virdung published more practicas than any other astrologer over a career that lasted into the late 1530s, but he didn't entirely escape the collapse of the practica market in the decade between 1500 and 1510, when every other practitioner exited the field and the number of editions and authors printed dropped dramatically and recovered only in the 1520s.

Practicas at first glance look like tedious astronomical observations interspersed with astrological mumbo-jumbo, but a second look will reveal that they're actually fascinating microcosms of early modern society. Like prophecies, they distill society's hopes and fears, but the practicas also spend a good deal of time contemplating society's current structure. Most writing about the future, it turns out, is primarily concerned with the present.

At first, there were various competing systems for describing people: nobility, clergy, and commoners, for example; or Christians, Muslims, and Jews. But the structure of society that eventually predominates divided people by occupation according to planets. So soldiers were naturally considered to be children of Mars (but so were iron workers). Merchants and scholars were children of Mercury, while astrologers went back and forth over attributing book printers to Mercury or to Venus (along with women, musicians, and people driven by lust). Categorizing people according to planetary occupations turns out to be an extraordinarily flexible and expandable way to describe a society in the midst of flexing and expanding. Rather than promoting reform or revolution, practicas promoted the stability of the existing order by raising fears of disaster while offering obedience and unity as ways to mitigate or avoid calamity. With a few exceptions, practicas illustrate the printing press as an agent of the status quo.

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