Marcellus Palingenius Stellatus

Zodiacus Vitae
Book 11, Aquarius

Palingenius was an Italian poet (Pier Angelo Manzolli of Stellato?) About whom precious little can be ascertained. He published his epic philosophical poem, Zodiacus Vitae, which was divided into twelve books, one for each sign of the zodiac, in the 1530's, which is to say that it is a pre-Copernican text. It is also a book published prior to the inception of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, begun with the Council of Trent (1545-63). He managed to die quietly before his book (probably published in the early 1530's) before the Catholic Church burned his heretical bones and Pope Paul IV placed his book upon the very first Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or Index of Prohibited Books, in 1559.

This greatly increased his popularity among Protestants, and the poem did brisk business in England. At the age of nineteen, Barnabe Googe zealously undertook the translation of Zodiacus Vitae, publishing the first three books in 1560. A version with the first six books translated appeared in the following year, and finally, the complete translation, The Zodiake of Life, in 1565, republished in 1588. The Latin edition first appeared in 1572, and went through no fewer than six subsequent printings in the ensuing decades.

The poem as a whole presents an unorthodox philosophy, but this is not to say it is particularly original. It is an odd mash of traditional sentiments and beliefs, and novelties old and new. For example, in "Aquarius," the book concerned with astronomy which is presented here, one finds an essentially Ptolemaic construction, but with some interesting variations. Yet what is perhaps its most controversial point, the suggestion of a plurality of worlds, can be traced to a decree by Étienne Tempier, bishop of Paris, in 1277. Palingenius' principal aim was not dogmatic, but rather social commentary, partly through satire, and he attempted to dissociate himself from many of the ideas he presented. Nevertheless, this was not 1277, and the atmosphere for independent thinkers in Catholic countries was becoming decidedly unhealthy in the wake of Luther's ninety-five theses. The specifics of Palingenius' offenses in Zodiacus Vitae offended are unknown, but it has been conjectured that the eleventh book, "Aquarius," would have been sufficient in itself to cause its condemnation.

Students are given a copy of Googe's translation of "Aquarius" which MATC has transcribed into modern type, though not into modern spelling.

The first questions put to the class are literary ones: Can we describe the form of the poetry? Are there any recognizable poetic conventions? What genre would you place it in? Do you have to make up a new category? Finally, with the publication information supplied to the class, do you like it? Do you think it's good, whether or not you like it? Is it literature with a capital "L" or with a small one? After discussing why we read what we read, and who makes such decisions at various times, I confess (assuming the class hasn't already come to a consensus) that I don't find Googe's translation to be very good poetry, but I do find it very interesting to read. For example:

All Starres are not of bignes like, for many lesse there bee,
And in such sort, as comprehend no man may them we see:
Such cramped grammar and twisted sense for the sake of rhyme and meter is not at all pleasing. But the notion that there are stars invisible to the human eye, some seven decades before the telescope could prove such a thing, or the claim that some stars "do in compasse farre exceede both seas, and earth, and all," surely make both this text and its subsequent influence worthy of study.

Students are asked to identify what they believe in the text to be orthodox Ptolemaic/Aristotelian statements, and which they find to be heterodoxy or heresy.

For Creatures doth the Skies containe and every Starre beside
Be heavenly townes and seates of saincts, Where Kings & Commons bide