Masculine Mars? Planetary degrees in medieval astrology
Updated: May 13
I handed in my PhD thesis earlier this week, so I finally have time for a new blog post. It’s another small step towards the blogging task I’ve been putting off for months: using my son’s horoscope as a way in to understanding medieval astrology.
This chart has been pinned above my desk for some months:
Much of my research investigates how medieval astronomers found the locations of the planets, using instruments and tables. I explained in an earlier post how, in order to cast a nativity (an astrological analysis of the moment when someone was born), the first step was usually to find the locations of the planets in the 12 astrological houses. The chart above is a traditional layout (here’s the same layout used in a 9th-century horoscope, copied in the 14th-century manuscript at the centre of my research). It shows the cusps (boundaries) of the houses, and the locations of the planets within them. They start in the middle on the left, and go round anticlockwise. So in my chart, the first house starts at the 4th degree of Capricorn, the second house starts at the 16th degree of Aquarius, and Mars was at the 29th degree of Capricorn.
Now, the location of the planets in the zodiac was thought to determine the strength and nature of their influence. But this basic astrological axiom could be interpreted in many ways.
The Declarations, a brief manual written for “The Queen” (probably Philippa of Hainault, the wife of Edward III) by the great astronomer Richard of Wallingford, who was Abbot of St Albans 1327-36, begins thus:
If there be a question made of the nativity of a man, and the planets be in masculine degrees, that shall be to him a strength. And if there be a question made of the nativity of a woman, and the planets be in feminine degrees, that shall be to her a strength.
What are masculine and feminine degrees? Ptolemy (whose Tetrabiblos is as important a text in astrology as his Almagest is in astronomy) had written that the stars were masculine when they rose and set before the Sun, and feminine when they followed it. But here we see a different doctrine, in which certain degrees within each sign are assigned one or other sex.
Here, as on so many other topics, medieval astrologers were following the authority they knew as Alkabucius or Alchabitius. This was (Abu as-Saqr ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Uthman ibn ‘Ali) al-Qabisi, a 10th-century Syrian who, along with the 9th-century Persian Albumasar (Abu Ma’shar), wrote the works of astrological theory that were most popular in the Middle Ages. Al-Qabisi stated that the first 11° of Capricorn were masculine; the next 8° feminine; and the last 11° masculine again. Each sign was divided in a similar way (but always in different proportions) into between 3 and 7 groupings of masculine and feminine degrees.
You’ll already have worked out that for my little boy, Mars was in a masculine degree on the day of his birth. (Matters weren’t always this easy: in a table found with one copy of Richard of Wallingford’s Declarations, individual hours of the week were assigned sexes. On the other hand, the 11th-century Persian scholar al-Biruni thought the whole idea of masculine and feminine degrees was confused and lacking in substance.)
Anyway, if I use al-Qabisi’s layout for little ADJF’s horoscope, Mercury is also masculine; all the others (the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun and Venus) are feminine.
This could be interpreted in a number of ways, depending on what we’re interested in: are we investigating the subject’s health, wealth, chances in life and love? And how do we balance this information against other data in the horoscope concerning the Signs and planets? I’ll explain some of this in the next post (coming soon!), when I talk about the very important doctrine of planetary dignities, which considers the locations of the planets in the Signs and their relationships with each other.
For now, though, we can say that Mars and Mercury are strong in my son’s nativity. Mars, according to al-Qabisi,
indicates tyranny, bloodshed, conquering, highway-robbery, wrongful seizure, the leadership of armies, haste, inconstancy, smallness of shame, journeys, absence, indulgence in love-making, miscarriages, middle brothers, and the management of riding animals. (translation by Burnett, Yamamoto and Yano)
Meanwhile Mercury suggests
public address, rhetoric, and activities which arise in mathematics like business, calculation, geometry, philosophy, taking omens, sorcery, writing, poetry, and all kinds of calculation . . . It indicates fear, fighting, killing, enmity, tyranny, opposition, prosperity, craftsmanship, kindness in deed, investigation, and everything else concerning commerce and contentions.
Does this mean that little A is going to be a tyrannical accountant? Well, it does run in the family. But the more important point is that it took an experienced astrologer to interpret all the data in a horoscope. This whole post is based on just the first two sentences of Richard of Wallingford’s Declarations, and already we have a bewildering array of options. What I thought was a simple little square diagram turns out to be surprisingly complex – in my attempts to read it, I’m beginning to understand why astrology was thought to be such an advanced science in the Middle Ages.