Observing Signs, Wonder, Portents, And a Belief in Astrology: These are Things Melanchthon and Zwingli Had in Common

I think everyone knows that Melanchthon had a penchant for astrology.  Luther chided him about it regularly.  But he wasn’t alone in the 16th century in holding such views.  Zwingli too had an affinity for such things (though of a milder sort than Melanchthon).  This was especially the case in the dreadful atmosphere of mid Summer, 1531:

As the year wore on it was increasingly plain that war was inevitable, and Nature seemed to Zwingli to prophesy disaster. Zurich was again visited by the plague, though not in severe form. Like others of his time, Zwingli believed in signs and portents and had a lingering faith in astrology. So he was greatly disturbed at an extraordinary communication from Schenkenberg, near Brugg, in Aargau, some seventeen miles north by west of Zurich, written by the magistrate of the village and dated July 29, 1531, to the effect that on July 24th blood had been seen issuing in a stream from the earth!

Other equally circumstantial reports of uncommon physical phenomena were:

  • that at Zug, some fifteen miles south of Zurich, on Lake Zug, a shield had been seen in the air; on the river Reuss, which runs into Lake Zug, shots were heard at night;
  • on the Bruenig Pass, some twenty-five miles south of Luzern, flags flew in the heavens,
  • and on the Lake of Luzern phantom ships sailed filled with ghosts in warriors’ garb.
  • At Goostow, in the county of Gröningen, belonging to Zurich, a poor peasant woman, Beatrice of Marckelssheim, bore a child that had two heads with faces, three legs, and three arms, but only one body. Two of the arms hung from the sides as usual, but the third came out of the back between the shoulders, and had on the end two hands clasped. Two of the legs were also normal, but the third hung from behind for all the world like a tail! One of the heads died in the birth, the other lived a short time after it.

But still more alarming was the comet, of which Zwingli writes, on August 16th: “Some have seen a comet here in Zurich for three nights. I for one only, i. e., August 15th; what we shall see to-day, the 16th, I don’t know.” Bullinger thus relates the incident:

“Upon [St.] Lawrence [day, Thursday, August 10, 1531], appeared at sunset a right fearful comet whose long and broad tail stretched to mid heaven. The colour was pale yellow. And when Zwingli was asked what it meant by George Müller, abbot at Wittengen, as standing in the churchyard of the Great Minster, near the Wettinger House, they contemplated it together, he replied: ‘Dear George, it will cost me and many an honest man his life, and truth and Church will yet suffer; still Christ will not desert us.’ ”*

Doesn’t the baby of Goostow sound like Joel Watts? Anyway, I think it would be unfair of us to look down our noses at the notion that astrology is even remotely sensible. Their world was different than ours and the views held by its residents deserve to be judged on their terms not ours.
*Huldreich Zwingli: The Reformer of German Switzerland (1484–1531) (pp. 350–352).