In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Astrology, Alchemy, Magic

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Texts
  • Encyclopedias
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Journals

Renaissance and Reformation Astrology, Alchemy, Magic
Sheila J. Rabin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 01 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0007


Scientific developments in the early modern period have traditionally been called the “scientific revolution,” emphasizing the idea that modern rational attitudes toward the physical world replaced the premodern nonrationalist outlook, often called the occult. As scholars in the mid- to late 20th century looked more deeply into the matter, they saw that the situation was much more murky. Humanists, who supposedly rejected medieval thought in favor of a more progressive revival of ancient thought, continued studies in all fields that would today be considered occult; Marsilio Ficino added Hermetism and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola added Kabbalah to magic. Figures like Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, the reputed paragons of the new science, did not reject all prior streams of thought; both pursued alchemy. Nor were all forms of premodern pursuits dead ends in scientific inquiry; the pursuit of astrology, alchemy, and magic encouraged astronomical observation, scientific experiment, and new theories of nature. Thus, recent scholarship shows a much more nuanced view of early modern science; rather than a scientific revolution there was, perhaps, a broadening of inquiry in all areas that might have been seen at the time as related to understanding the natural world.

General Overviews

In these works we encounter the ubiquity of the occult in the Renaissance. Thorndike 1923–1958 and Shumaker 1972 principally describe thinkers and their texts. Yates 2002 tries to attribute the rise of the new science to the occult, whereas Thomas 1997 suggests that the occult declined with the rise of the mechanical philosophy. Webster 2002 gives a more social-historical view but also asserts the importance of alchemy and experiment.

  • Shumaker, Wayne. The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

    Looks at astrology, witchcraft, magic, alchemy, and Hermetism. Mostly descriptive. Close look at Renaissance writings for and against various subjects starting with Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s attack on astrology. Deals with both readily available and obscure works and authors.

  • Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Classic work on the occult in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Attributes its decline to the rise of the mechanical philosophy. Originally published in 1971.

  • Thorndike, Lynn. History of Magic and Experimental Science. 8 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1923–1958.

    DOI: 10.5962/bhl.title.35115

    Pioneering discussion of natural thought from early Christian times through the 17th century detailing both readily available and obscure works and authors. Although written in part to debunk the Burckhardtian view of the Renaissance, it shows how endemic astrology, alchemy, and magic were to Renaissance thought even in the period known as the “scientific revolution.”

  • Webster, Charles. The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine, and Reform, 1626–1660. 2d ed. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2002.

    Important revision of the traditional view of English science as movement toward modernity from Francis Bacon to Isaac Newton. Focuses on the social and religious background. Explores the pursuit of science among Puritans in the 17th century and shows that they concentrated on Paracelsian medicine, alchemy, and natural history in the Baconian tradition. Originally published in 1976.

  • Yates, Frances. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. London: Routledge, 2002.

    Building on the author’s work on Hermetism, this volume presents all early modern science as an outgrowth of a European-wide 17th-century occult movement. Originally published 1972.

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