The Coming of a “Little Prophet”: Astrological Pamphlets and the Reformation

Gustav-Adolf Schoener




On November 10th 1483 (Gregorian calendar), the Reformer Martin Luther was born under the sign of Scorpio. As long as Luther was an unknown monk – and, moreover, son of a simple family of miners—there was no reason for astrologers to show interest in his date of birth—that is, to cast his horoscope. It was only 40 years later, after Luther had caused an upheaval throughout the entire German scholarly world, in the royal courts, and among the clergy with his 95 theses, and the Reformation had been born, that the renowned Italian astrologer Luca Gaurico realised how suspiciously close Luther’s birthday was to the time of an already well-known planetary constellation: the “grand conjunction” of 1484, which also reached its astrological peak in November, in the sign of Scorpio.



The “Grand Conjunction” of 1484


“Grand conjunctions” had been known since the 8th and 9th centuries. The Arab (and Muslim) astrologers Mas'halla, Al Kindi, and Abu Ma'shar had developed the theory, interpreting “grand conjunctions” as indications of major historical and social (above all religious) change, frequently accompanied by natural catastrophes and epidemics. A “grand conjunction” connotes the meeting of Jupiter and Saturn, the two outermost and slowest planets, which occurs every 20 years and, depending on its particular features, points to more or less extensive changes in religious and secular power relations.  The “grand conjunction” of 1484 took place in the sign of Scorpio, and because in astrology this sign stood for radical, revolutionary events as well as for epidemics and widespread death, for astrologers this concentrated planetary energy (six planets were in Scorpio on November 25th, during a solar eclipse) could only be an indication of dramatic changes in all social spheres. Above all, the arrival of a “rebel” was expected to upset the religious and secular order.



Let us start at the very beginning


The astrologers of the Renaissance were already very familiar with the writings of the Arab astrologers. Abu Ma'shars’s work “De magnis coniunctionibus,” in particular, was considered a standard work in renowned universities, in aristocratic courts, and among the clergy. Latin translations of the text had been available since the 12th century. [i]   In this work, Abu Ma'shar systematically presents the theory of the “grand conjunctions,” and, with it, an extensive description of a ‘little prophet [ii] who would one day arrive. He would come from a country that stood under the sign of Scorpio. His physical form, character, and manner are described in detail. So, too, is the fact that he would attract many peoples and tribes with his new doctrine. [iii] However, nothing is said about what kind of religion he would belong to. These general predictions were thus familiar to 15th-century scholars and astrologers throughout Europe when they trained their sights on the “grand conjunction” of 1484. And they all now keenly anticipated the ‘little prophet.’




Pico della Mirandola


As the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) tells us, there had thus already been much excitement in the scholarly world of Italy for several decades prior to 1484. Pico himself heavily inveighed against astrology in general and against the prediction of this “little, deceitful prophet,” [iv] as he was also frequently described. In 1494 – ten years after the conjunction – he wrote: “How often have scholars announced the coming of the ‘deceitful prophet’ based on that ‘grand conjunction’? It is now 10 years since the conjunction, and nothing has happened.” [v] - Full of scorn and mockery, he then presents two earlier predictions that did not come to pass. [vi] But Pico also had personal reasons for being against astrology: three astrologers had predicted that he would die before the end of his 33rd year. He died soon after turning 32, shortly after having completed his polemical anti-astrological tract. - Self-fulfilling prophecy or not, the most recognised critic of astrology was dead, just as the astrologers had predicted. And that made it easy to overlook the fact that, for the time being, astrologers had been wrong about the “little prophet.” Against this background, it was now possible to give a new interpretation of the prediction of the ‘little prophet’ without harming astrology’s credibility.


Paulus von Middelburg


Among the Italian astrologers, the most important defender of the ‘little prophet’ was Paul of Middelburg, originally a Dutch cleric, professor of mathematics in Padua, and later Bishop of Fossombrone. He, too, did not fail to notice that no prophet appeared in 1484. But he had an astrological explanation for this, according to which the effect of this conjunction would last for 20 years – due, as he explained, to the character of the sign of Scorpio and subsequent eclipses. [vii] Middelburg published this extended forecast, dedicated to the Emperor Maximilian, in October 1484, [viii] shortly before the conjunction reached its peak. In addition to generally harmful effects for the peoples of Europe (among other things, he explained a syphilis-epidemic as being a result of the Scorpio effect), [ix] it contains a plethora of details about the “little prophet” in arrival that combine astrological and biblical elements. According to these, the prophet would be born in 1503, 19 years after the “grand conjunction,” and after 19 years of activity in his native country – since according to the New Testament a “prophet has no honour in his own country” – he would leave his homeland.


What follows is a character description that Middelburg borrowed from Abu Ma'shar: Under the influence of Scorpio, he would have an “ugly body,” “black and brown spots on his right side, lap, and feet.” His hair would be “reddish and glitter (like Mars),” his clothing “white as that of the monks” (as indicated by the moon and Jupiter). [x] Furthermore, he would have an “exceptional intellect,” interpret the Holy Scriptures in an “exceptional and wonderful way,” introduce new “ceremonies” to the Church, and “do signs and wonders.” Evil spirits would flee and those possessed by the devil would be saved by his mere appearance. However, he himself would not do what he advised others to do, and would often “be a hypocrite and lie.” Like a scorpion, he would often spill his poison. And, finally, he would be the “cause of great bloodshed.” [xi] Middelburg thus describes the “little prophet” as an ambivalent figure, since, as he explains, “little prophets” are sometimes false (like Mohammed), sometimes true (like Francis and Dominic). At the end of the passage, scepticism takes the upper hand: “Even though this prophet does many signs and wonders, one should not follow him,” he warns, for already in the New Testament Jesus, too, warns against false prophets. [xii]





Johann Lichtenberger


This, more or less, was the essence of the “little prophet’s” profile according to Middelburg. Johann Lichtenberger (1440-1503), a German priest from the Rhineland and an astrologer in the court of Emperor Frederick III, was familiar with Middelburg’s work, yet he now wrote his own prediction. The first Latin edition appeared in Heidelberg in 1488, [xiii] and the first German translation in 1490. [xiv] Lichtenberger extended the historical arc further than Middelburg had: He situated his interpretation of the conjunction of 1484 within the series of Judeo-Christian “last days of the world”, and peppered it with non-Christian prophesies as well. Quotes refer hither and thither to Joachim of Fiore, Bridget of Sweden, Francis, Merlin, and the Sybil’s oracles. [xv] According to him, the following could be expected: The Church would experience great storms, princes and emperors would fight one another, and life on earth would threaten to become hell for the common people (due to war, illness, natural catastrophes and immorality). And, in the midst of all this, the ‘little prophet’ would make his entrance, as already described by Middelburg. The “end of the world” will then follow, and the “Antichrist and his sect” will appear before an age of peace ensues.


Contrary to Middelburg, Lichtenberger was not an academic scholarly type; his entire piece is a rather unsystematic compilation of various sources with only very few original thoughts. The entire passage about the “little prophet” is copied word-for-word from Middelburg. Middelburg angrily reacted to it in 1492, accusing Lichtenberger of plagiarism [xvi] —however, without any consequences and (probably) without any response from Lichtenberger. But it was Lichtenberger, not Middelburg who enjoyed public success! For he wrote not only in Latin, but in the German and Italian vernacular as well. Not to mention that he appeals to the emotions! He supplements the text with many images (woodcuts), with a total of 45 pictures illustrating the individual prophesies. The effect on the public was vast: Up through 1530 alone – during the years of the fiercest clashes between Luther’s supporters and his Roman Catholic opponents – 32 editions appeared. [xvii]


Yet another thing contributed to the popularisation of his work: Johann Gutenberg’s introduction of letterpress printing in 1440 had made it possible to publish mass editions not only of books but of smaller written works as well. Since 1499, the printing of such “pamphlets” had caught on in Germany. In a matter of just a few hours, several thousand copies could be printed (the average was 1,000 copies per edition. With 3,000 to 4,000 copies Luther’s Reformation pamphlets were bestsellers). [xviii] As a pamphlet with several 10,000 copies, illustrated with many images, Lichtenberger’s prediction thus became a mass-media event. Other astrological pamphlets also contributed to this mass-media-stirred atmosphere; many astrologers (including Johann Carion) predicted a great flood for all of Europe in 1524/25 – the result of another “grand conjunction,” that of February 1524 in the sign of Pisces. These two prophesies (the flood of 1524 and the ‘little prophet’ following from the conjunction of 1484) thus now flowed together as a single current, encountering the zeal for reform in humanistic circles, but also influencing the common people through Reformation preachers who acted as disseminators. However, they also created and exacerbated apocalyptic fears. 






Martin Luther and his Horoscope


But where was the “little prophet”?


Luther’s posting of his theses in 1517, his defiant declaration in Worms in 1521, the threat of the denominational division of Germany against the backdrop of the Peasants’ War of 1524/25… Luther was the perfect candidate for this part. In the opinion of the astrologically educated public, he simply had to be the “little prophet.” It now became unimportant that the prophet was to have been born in 1503 – instead, it was recalled that he had been expected originally in 1484. Luther was born in 1483 – so he himself claimed. – But: was it right? - There was no way to know for sure. - Perhaps he had really been born in the autumn of 1484? - It was very tempting for his rivals and supporters alike to identify the year of his birth with the “grand conjunction.” And because no reliable certificates existed, the Roman Catholic astrologer – and Luther’s staunch rival – Luca Gaurico was the first to calculate his “true” date of birth, through “rectification”: The birth time was astrologically determined based on various events from Luther’s well-known biography (a method still used in contemporary astrology today).


Gaurico settled on October 22nd 1484, proposing 1:10 p.m. as the birth time. - Why this time? Because that way – with the tough and depressing ascendant Capricorn and Mars in Aries and in the 3rd house (the house of eloquence), and the “grand conjunction” in the 9th house (in the house of religion) – Luther’s entire aggressive, presumptuous, and heresy-spreading character appeared in an especially striking light. Those friends of Luther’s who also dealt with astrology – Philipp Melanchthon, Johann Carion, the Wittenburg mathematician Erasmus Reinhold, and the doctor Johann Pfeyl – were also convinced of Gaurico’s date, October 22nd 1484 – but not of the time of birth. Considering Luther to be much more philanthropic and positive, Melanchthon and Carion suspected he had been born at 9:00 p.m., while Pfeyl surmised 3:22 p.m. In both cases, Luther comes off better. (The horoscopes are annotated with the remark “coniecturalis” – conjecture.) Unmistakably, based on his time of birth, Luther was being fashioned to be either the “demagogically false” or “heroically true” prophet of Roman Catholic Christianity.


Phillip Melanchthon (Luther’s friend and comrade-in-arms, but unlike Luther a very active and dedicated astrologer) finally turned to Luther’s mother Margarethe for information. She revealed that the day of birth was without doubt November 10th (and not October 22nd), for Luther’s Christian name derived from “Saint Martin’s Day.” While she also seemed to be sure about the time (“around midnight”), the year remained unclear. And all astrologers remained convinced that it was 1484. But, many years later, Melanchthon would ultimately enter the year 1483 in the register of the deanery and in the biographies. [xix]





Luther’s Reaction


How did Luther himself react to Lichtenberger’s ‘little prophet’? He was of course familiar with the pamphlet, and he knew about the threat that the text and images communicated. And certain aspects of it even convinced him. He saw no reason to deny this prediction outright. To the contrary: Luther himself arranged for another German edition in 1527 (in the midst of the turmoil of the Reformation period) that included his own detailed, and surprisingly astrology- and prophecy-friendly, foreword. [xx] He wrote: “I consider the basis of Lichtenberger’s astral art correct… the signs in the sky surely do not lie.” However, while it may be an inexact art that often errs, “Lichtenberger was nevertheless right about many things, more with the pictures and figures than with his words.” [xxi] In other words, convinced as he was of at least the general tendency of the predictions, it seemed advisable to Luther to also identify with the “little prophet” – in spite of the little devil on his shoulder.


A colleague of Luther’s in Wittenberg, D. Justus Jonas, is said to have asked why he (Luther) should wish to republish Lichtenberger’s piece and judge it so positively considering that the ‘little prophet’ had a devil breathing down his neck. To which Luther is said to have replied: “Lichterberger was quite right. For the devil isn’t in my heart, he’s merely breathing down my neck through the Pope, the Emperor, and various potentates (princes). In my heart, Jesus alone dwells.” [xxii] In this case, Luther, usually quick to flout all non-Christian practices and cults, cannot evade them – in part because the prediction seems to have convinced him, in part because the widespread public debate compelled him to. And so he placed himself and his exclusively Christian, Reformation interests within the Arab-astrological perspective of historical interpretation. 


The Time after Luther


As for the age after Luther: When, nearly 100 years later, the 30 Years’ War broke out and it thus seemed confirmed that the “‘little prophet’ [would be the] cause of great bloodshed,” another six new editions of Lichtenberger’s pamphlet were published. Yet more followed shortly after the French Revolution (1793 and 1810). [xxiii] And, in 1864, the Catholic theologian Johann Friedrich (John Frederik) wrote reproachfully that the astrologers of the 15th and 16th centuries had been “preachers of the Reformation” and “creators of the Peasants’ War.” But that’s not clear, since Middelburg and Lichtenberger, the protagonists among the astrologers of the Reformation age, remained faithful to the Roman Catholic faith their entire lives. They saw the expected changes as harbingers of decline rather than reform. But clear is, that the supporters of the Reformation – and Luther himself – allowed themselves to be carried away by the wave of astrological predictions, and that they considered these predictions – reinterpreted positively – to be a virtual cosmic authentication of their concern.







The astrological interpretation of history accompanied Christian Europe throughout the Reformation and into the 19th century. The “grand conjunction” of 1484 was merely one step toward the astrologically-marked Judeo-Christian “last days of the world”, for the great cycle of “grand conjunctions” was supposed to end in 1692.  And in 1789, “when Saturn will have completed 10 revolutions of the zodiac and the eighth sphere will have come to stand still” [xxiv] , was expected the “arrival of the Antichrist”, as the Paris cardinal Pierre d’Ailly predicted already before the Reformation in 1414. [xxv] But that, as they say, is another story.






[i] Richard Lemay: Abu Ma’shar and Latin Aristotelianism in the twelfth century, Beirut 1962. Auch: Eugenio Garin: La zodiaco della vita. La polemica sull’ astrologia dall trecento al Cinquecento, Roma 1976, 38.

[ii] A ‘little prophet’ was one who would not bring forth a new religion, but rather renew the established one.

[iii] Abu Ma’shars : De magnis coniunctionibus, Tract. I, Differentia tercia in scientia coniunctionum significantium natiuitates prophetarum…et signa prophetie eorum et quando apparebunt et ubi et quantitates annorum eorum.

[iv] G. Pico della Mirandola: Disputationes adversamastrologiam divinatricem, in: Opera Omnia, Hildesheim 1969. Reprint of Basel 1557, Bd. I, Lib V, 550.

[v] Pico 551.

[vi] The Jewish astrologer Abraham Judaeus had foretold that the Messiah would arrive in 1464 (ibid, p. 550). And Arnaldus Hispanius had predicted that the Antichrist would come in 1345 (ibid, p. 551).

[vii] This stretch of time for the effect of conjunctions had already been used by the ancient astrologer, Ptolemy. Claudius Ptolemaeus: Tetrabiblos. Reprint of 1553 ed. Berlin, 1923. Reprint of 1923 ed. Mössingen, 1995. pp. 100ff.

[viii] Paul of Middelburg, Prognostica ad viginti annos duratura, Coloniae 1484.

[ix] Middelburg ch. II.

[x] Middelburg ch. IV.

[xi] Middelburg ch. IV.

[xii] Mt 24.

[xiii] Johann Lichtenberger: Prognosticatio in Latino, Heinrich Knoblochtzer, Heidelberg 1488.

[xiv] Johann Lichtenberger: Prognosticatio zu theutsch Johannis Lichtenbergers, H. Knobl., Heidelberg 1490.

[xv] Dietrich Kurze: Johannes Lichtenberger. Eine Studie zur Geschichte der Prophetie und Astrologie, Hamburg 1960, pg. 37.




[xvi] Middelburg: Invektiva in supersticiosum quendam astrologum, Lübeck 1492.

[xvii] Kurze pg. 47.

[xviii] Hans-Joachim Köhler: The Flugschriften and their Importance in Religious Debate: A Quantitative Approach. In: Paola Zambelli: ‘Astrologi hallucinati’ – Stars and the End of the World in Luther’s Time, Berlin: 1986, pg. 154.


[xix] In a letter to Osiander from 1539, he still advocates the year 1484. Aby Warburg: Heidnisch-antike Weissagung in Wort und Bild zu Luthers Zeit, Heidelberg 1920 pg. 18.

[xx] Die weissagunge des Johann Lichtenbergers, german by Stephan Rodt, published by Hans Lufft, Wittenberg 1527.

[xxi] Lichtenberger 1527, Preface.

[xxii] This lies at the basis of Valerius Herberger’s later records. Valerius Herberger: Gloria Lutheri, Leipzig 1612, pp. 41-45.

[xxiii] Kurze pg. 47.

[xxiv] Pierre d’Ailly: concordantia astrologie cum theologia, Augsburg 1490, ch. 60.

[xxv] With regard to the year 1789, Pierre dAilly writes: If the world continues to exist until then, which only God knows, then many great and wonderful changes and transformations will take place in the world, above all with regard to legislation and religious sects Therefore it may be concluded with probability that precisely around that time the Antichrist will come with his law and his damnable sect, which will be extremely hostile and conflicting to the law of Christ (ch. 61). Laura Ackerman Smoller (Princeton University) has carried out a very detailed analysis of the significance of dAilly for the connection between astrology and theology in the Middle Ages and in early modern times. Laura Ackerman Smoller: History, Prophecy, and the stars the Christian Astrology of Pierre dAilly, 1350-1420. Princeton, New Jersey  1994.