Tristram Shandy’s sky

The 18th-century English novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” (better known by its nickname Tristram Shandy – first published in 1759) reached its complete form in 1767. It was released in 9 volumes.

The Overthrow of Dr. Slop (Tristram Shandy)
The Overthrow of Dr. Slop (Tristram Shandy) by Thomas Rowlandson is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

Volume IV of Tristram Shandy has a passage describing the celestial positions of the Sun and planets on a specific date. The passage appears on Page 235 in the Penguin Edition 2003.

When I read that passage, I turned to Stellarium to check the (verifiable) accuracy of the statement. I wanted to “chart the planets” as described and I realized that I could use Stellarium to show the sky on that date.

Martin Luther’s astrological birth chart

Here is the passage from the book – it is from the section where we are being introduced to the treatise on Noses by Hafen Slawkenbergius.

In the section the narrator discusses the disagreements over whether an astrological charting of the planets at the date of his birth tells of the fate of the soul for one, Martin Luther:

Portrait of Martin Luther
Portrait of Martin Luther by Johann Michael Püchler is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0
“…determining the point of Martin Luther‘s damnation.

The Popish doctors had undertaken to demonstrate a priori ; that from the necessary influence of the planets on the twenty-second day of October 1483 —- when the moon was in the twelfth house — Jupiter, Mars, and Venus in the third, the Sun, Saturn, and Mercury all got together in the fourth — that he must in course, and unavoidably be a damn’d man — and that his doctrines, by a direct corollary, must be damn’d doctrines too.”

Martin Luther’s Birthdate for Stellarium

So, since the date was laid out so precisely, I typed that date into Stellarium and looked at exactly where the Sun and planets were described to be.

The Year 1483,

The Month, October,

The Day, 22.

The sky, was described reasonably accurately. You see the old Moon near Leo, the Sun in Libra (which would have been considered Scorpio in Sterne’s day), Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and Saturn, all lined up in groups as described in the passage.

Here is the image that Stellarium produced for that date:

Image of Stellarium sky showing the birthdate (Oct. 22, 1483) of Martin Luther as indicated in the novel Tristram Shandy
Image composition and overlay by Daniel Cummings © 2023

EDIT: Updated based on Martin Luther’s “new” birthday date.

Since the positions of the sky objects in the first chart were only close to those described in the passage, I moved the birthdate to Martin Luther’s “official” birthday on November 10th, 1483 to see the difference. And, it works better with this new date:

Second Image of Stellarium sky showing the “new” birthdate (Nov. 10, 1483) of Martin Luther as indicated in the novel Tristram Shandy
Image composition and overlay by Daniel Cummings © 2023

The difference in date might be an error in Laurence Sterne’s text, or it might be a difference in calendaring systems. The Gregorian calendar was not adopted Britain until 1752.

Oddly, (and the case may be made here that the Sterne date is an error) the difference between the date in the book and the date of Luther’s birthday amounts to 19 days, while the day change between the old (Julian) and new calendar (the Gregorian, adopted between 1582 and the 20th century) is 11 days. [Editor’s note: The shrug emoji was made for just this situation. 🤷‍♂️]

Astronomy is not astrology.

Please note: in the past, astrology and astronomy were one discipline, and the practitioner of astrology was often the court astronomer. These practices have now separated and astronomy is a full-fledged science while astrology is a charming, diverting pastime.

I hope you enjoyed the journey.

I highly recommend Tristram Shandy and Stellarium.

In each, on their own, there is a powerful genius.

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