Astronomy and the Body

In the Middle Ages, some believed the movement of astronomical bodies to affect the human body, and thus took those movements into consideration when deciding on appropriate medical treatment. Demonstrating this is the Zodiac Man

Images of the Zodiac Man are most often found in medieval manuscripts containing astronomical, astrological, medical and time-keeping content. It is based upon the understanding of microcosm and macrocosm: an ancient theory, which resurfaced in the Middle Ages, that the same structures and patterns were to be found in physical beings of vastly different scales. According to this perspective, man could be seen as a microcosm of the universe, and his body parts thus aligned with the constellations. From this, their makers theorised that astronomical movement could have ramifications on the body and so should be taken into account in medical practice. As Sian Witherden explains, 'the Zodiac man is typically accompanied by a text explaining that operating on any of these body parts is unwise when the moon is in that particular sign'.* 

Below are a variety of examples of the Zodiac Man, which are categorised according to the place the manuscript was made. 

Short bibliography

F. Saxl, ‘Macrocosm and Microcosm in Medieval Pictures,’ Lectures, Vol. 1 (London, 1957), pp. 58-72

*S. Witherden, ‘Balancing Form, Function and Aesthetic: A Study of Ruling Patterns for Zodiac Men in Astro-Medical Manuscripts of Late Medieval England,’ Journal of the Early Book Society 20 (2017), pp. 79–109, above quotation from p. 80

The Saxl Project: Led by Kristen Lippincott and run jointly with the Warburg Institute (University of London), the website aims to provide complete digital access to over 250 medieval and Renaissance illustrated astronomical and astrological manuscripts. So far, images of constellations from different manuscripts have been collected and curated in the 'Illustrations' section, allowing one to explore the iconography of each star sign and how it has changed over time.