The Planetary Portent of 1524 in China and Europe
Pankenier, David W. (Lehigh University)
Journal of World History, September (2009)
In late February and early March of 1524 there occurred in Aquarius-Pisces an impressively close grouping (10.5°, or the width of a hand span) of all fi e planets ordinarily visible to the naked eye. This was the densest such gathering in five centuries. In both China and the West such planetary phenomena had long loomed large because of their presumed association with world-changing events on the grandest scale—the rise and fall of empires, changes of dynasties, the appearance of great prophets or sages—although reliance on reason gradually challenged those systems like astrology which claimed esoteric knowledge. But in early sixteenth-century Europe the Scientific Revolution still lay a few decades in the future, even though this was also the age of Copernicus (1473–1543), the fi rst to formulate a heliocentric theory of the solar system and the father of modern Western astronomy. In China, astronomer Guo Shoujing (1231–1316) had long since devised high-precision instruments for use in positional astronomy and the Shoushi calendar (1281), whose calculation of the length of the year of 365.2425 days anticipated the Gregorian calendar by some three centuries. But despite the growing intelligibility of the cosmos and the predictability of celestial phenomena, belief in astrology was still pervasive. This was especially true of the popular imagination in Europe, where age-old religiously and astrologically inspired millenarian ideas held powerful sway.