The Man Who Saw The Future

REVIEW: Catherine Blackledge: A Biography of William Lily: The Man Who Saw The Future (Watkins, 2015).

William Lilly is clearly one of the more influential characters of seventeenth-century England: influential directly within both governmental and radical circles, and more widely in popular culture through his predictions, interpretations of prophecy, and handbook on the craft of astrology. Although appearing in every major work on seventeenth-century English astrology, he has few extant works of scholarship specifically dedicated to him. Derek Parker's Familiar To All: William Lilly and Astrology in the Seventeenth Century (1975) and more recently Ann Geneva's Astrology and the Seventeenth-century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars (Manchester University Press, 1995) have both focused on his work and to varying degrees on the detailed theoretics of astrology; whether medical, personal, or cryptographical. This biography instead concentrates on his working, social and political life, as lived through an especially fascinating period in English history - and is all the richer for it.

The biography's writing style, which Owen Davies describes in his foreword as 'an imaginative and sometimes speculative approach to her subject', is a joy to read: emphasising scene-setting and a flair for dramatic reveals, eschewing academic citation and generally avoiding wading into historiographical debates. The Sources and Notes at the end operate somewhere between end-note citation and broader further reading, and this biography bounds from one scene in the thoroughly eventful life of William Lilly to another.

Blackledge's admiration for Lilly is obvious, especially for his commitment to astrology. Yet also obvious is the author's own familiarity and proficiency with astrological techniques, conventions, and practices, which she manages to explicate to the reader with the minimum of complicated talk of essential dignities and so on, and with a careful sense of why and how such astrological activity was important. There is no astrological theory for theory's sake in this biography. Blackledge's biography exhibits both informed comprehension of his art, and attention to building out his world, in political and social - especially interpersonal - contexts. Blackledge emphasises Lilly's interest in democratising astrological knowledge, defending the art of the stars at the very time it was losing respectability in learned elite circles.

There is a clear effort to orient readers who might be new to early modern history, and especially its politics and practices. Plenty of direct modern comparisons are drawn: Lilly is said to be the 'nation's first media celebrity'; almanacs are 'the original personal organisers', and their predictions (especially the more apocalyptic ones, such as Black Monday) the first media events; even Tommaso Campanella's ritual space designed for Pope Urban VIII to counteract malign astral influences, an 'astrological safehouse'.

There are a few historiographical interjections, notably the refutation that the Parliamentary military campaign was 'shapeless'; pointing out rather that they were awaiting a particular astrological election - an election that culminated at Naseby. Blackledge follows Ann Geneva's careful political cryptography, picking out details that highlighted Lilly's expertise and discretion, such as his calculation of and speculations upon the king's nativity.However, a significant point of departure with Geneva - who has attempted to posit a discrete separation between astrology (and astrologers) and magic - comes from Blackledge's wider familiarity with the period's occult speculation and experimentation. The attention to the expressly magical activities of Lilly and his cohorts is both refreshing and edifying. It is an important contribution to the scholarship of Lilly and seventeenth-century astrology to hear of his books of spirits, Mosiacall rods, anti-witchcraft countermeasures, and sigils, alongside careful and clearly practiced analysis of his decumbitures and horary questions.

Overall, this book is full of the kind of human depth and warmth one desires from an historical biography: from accounts of the somewhat theatrical (such as William Pool's versified scatological revenge upon Justice of the Peace Sir Thomas Jay), to the thoroughly quotidian (such as listing Lilly's chores whilst in service to Gilbert Wright). And history should have room for the human. Such a biographical account is an important lively and welcome contribution to the study of the history, magic and people of this period.