How medieval chroniclers interpreted solar eclipses and other celestial events

More than 800 years ago, around the year 1195, Gervase, a monk stationed at Canterbury Cathedral, included a series of meditations on mostly celestial natural phenomena in his chronicles. In this he was far from unusual. Medieval monastic thinkers often recorded celestial events such as eclipses.

Most of the medieval skies were observed by eye. If they did not observe the event themselves, chroniclers would rely on an eyewitness or other written records for the details.

Technologies such as the astrologer – an early tool for mapping the stars – were common in medieval Europe from the 12th century, and were known much earlier in Islamic regions (influenced by Islamic civilization). Although early European celestial chroniclers used astronomical models translated into Latin from Greek and Arabic, they did not have telescopes and none of the other technological peoples have access to them today.

Gervase lived in a world where nature was believed to be closely related to human activity. The ancient and medieval globes placed the Earth at the center of the universe, with a series of spheres surrounding it, divided into two zones.

Below the Moon, there were these spheres of the elements: earth and water, air, fire. Above the moon came the spheres of the planets: Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and then the stars, fixed in constellations.

In the context of a sphere, ancient and medieval thinkers all worked on the principle that what is above affects what is below. It is important to understand that this explains the serious attention given to astrology in ancient and medieval thought. Planets, according to them, had effects on human life. Natural phenomena, in this way, were connected and central to understanding that world.

Astrology, and the discipline related to astrology, had a direct practical application in human activities at the time, from the religious study of the calendar and events to medicine and agriculture. The uses of Astrology in working out the times of medical procedures or the weather were widely recognized. The philosopher and scientist Robert Grosseteste (c.1170-1253) explained this in his treatise On the Liberal Arts (c.1200):

When she is planting, the waxing moon is in the eastern quadrant or midheaven and in aspect with the lucky planets… she will powerfully move the vital heat in the plant and speed up and strengthen its growth and fruit.

By Unknown Author - Tapisserie de Bayeux, Public Domain

By Unknown Author – Tapisserie de Bayeux, Public Domain

According to Gervase, the purpose of writing a chronicle was to record the deeds of kings and princes, and to record miracles and miracles. Chroniclers then directly correlated the period between celestial phenomena and political change – bearing in mind that most, if not all, chronicles were written after the fact. The Melrose Chronicle, compiled in the 13th century, notes:

A comet is a star that is not always visible, but is most often seen on the death of a king, or the destruction of a kingdom. When seen with a crown of bright rays, it signifies the death of a king; but if he has unwashed hair and he throws it out, as it were, that is equivalent to the destruction of the country.

A famous example is the appearance of Halley’s comet in 1066, which contemporaries associated with the change of the English regime: from Harald Godwinson to William the Conqueror, who took control after the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

One of the most remarkable things about Gervase was the precision with which he described natural phenomena, especially those he seemed to understand. One example is his account of what can now be recognized as ball lightning.

Another example, from September 13, 1178, involves observing the “horns” of the partial solar eclipse rotating to a point towards the Earth. Gervase says that he was an eye-witness of this eclipse.

Viewers of today’s solar eclipse, the April 8, 2024 eclipse in San Diego, California, will be able to see something very similar to the observation described by Gervase, with the Sun’s horns rotating and pointing toward vertical down. Modeling helps us predict that the view of the moon in San Diego will be very close to what Gervase sees, given the exact location and timing. Elsewhere in the United States, the view of the eclipse will be a little different.

Also in 1178, Gervase records in similar detail how witnesses who reported this saw the image of the Moon split in two. Our analysis suggests that this is likely due to seeing it through a column of warm air. And Gervase was not alone in detailing this. The English Benedictine monk Matthew Paris described a spectacular display of halos around the Sun in 1233:

These suns made great spectacles, and were seen by more than a thousand credulous persons; and some of them, in commemoration of this extraordinary phenomenon, painted suns and rings of different colors on parchment, so that such an extraordinary phenomenon might not escape from human memory. Later in the same year there was a cruel war and terrible bloodshed in those counties, and a general tumult took place throughout England, Wales, and Ireland.

Today’s heavenly spectacles

These days, celestial spectacles are seen as simple expressions of the riches of the natural world that are explainable, at least in principle.

However, despite the predictive success of, for example, the theory of gravity and classical dynamics, there are still problems that cannot be predicted. Some can be deceptively simple – for example, the double pendulum or the Rott pendulum (a pair of pendulums forming a “chaotic” system, whose motion cannot be predicted mathematically).

Others include meteorological phenomena and weather forecasting – and here, in many ways, we are in a similar position to medieval chroniclers.

In long-term weather forecasting, for example, we can observe, but still cannot accurately predict future outcomes, such as extreme weather. The medieval chroniclers saw miracles in the heavens as a manifestation. It might be useful for us to relearn why, and draw our own perspective on the interconnections of things.

This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Giles Gasper receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK, and The Leverhulme Trust

Brian Tanner does not work for, consult with, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article this, and has not disclosed any relevant connections beyond their academic appointment.

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