Licit medicine or ‘Pythagorean necromancy'? The ‘Sphere of Life and Death’ in late medieval England


  • As well as Historical Research's editors and referees, the author is very grateful to Antonia Fitzpatrick, Peregrine Horden, Peter Murray Jones, David Juste, Sophie Page, Simon T. Parsons and Catherine Rider for advice, encouragement and references. Images are published with the help of a grant from the late Miss Isobel Thornley's bequest to the University of London.


The ‘Sphere of Life and Death’ is an onomantic divinatory device present in around sixty-two manuscripts of late medieval English provenance. It is an example of illicit divination, and as such is condemned in various theological and legal tracts. However, at the same time, one of the most frequent manuscript contexts of this device is medical, as it claims to predict the life or death of a sick person. This article aims to show that the ‘Sphere’ was at the same time both licit medicine and illicit divination, and that we must take a less rigid approach to the categorization of such devices.