04 March, 2007

Lunar eclipses and the 'Dark Ages'

Did anyone else watch the lovely lunar eclipse last night? I gather it was visible across a lot of the world, including all of Europe and eastern parts of the Americas. The BBC has a handsome picture gallery here if you missed it.

Eclipses are strange and eerie phenomena, even with a rational explanation for their cause. It’s tempting to assume that past ages regarded eclipses with superstitious awe, explaining them as magic, or monsters eating the sun, or something similar. Particularly in post-Roman Europe, whose popular sobriquet “The Dark Ages” implies an image of savages huddled in mud huts burning cakes and waiting for some external agency – William the Conqueror, or the Renaissance, or whatever – to come along and turn the lights back on. As ever, the reality is more complicated and more interesting.

Bede, scholar and monk at the monastery at modern Jarrow in Northumbria, wrote a treatise in about 725 AD called On the Reckoning of Time. His main purpose was to set out, probably for the instruction of students, the correct methods of measuring time and constructing a Christian calendar. This was far from an academic exercise, as disputes over the dating of Easter provoked endless arguments in the early Christian church, on a few occasions leading to (or perhaps being used as an excuse for) outright schism. Bede’s book is most commonly cited now as the source for the names of the early English months and the consequent sidelight these throw on English paganism, but his treatise displays detailed and accurate knowledge of the motion of the sun and moon, the shape of the earth and the pattern of the tides, derived from other books and from his own observations. For example, Bede knew that the earth was spherical

It is not merely circular like a shield or spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions
--Ch. 32
and explains that this spherical shape governed the difference in day length between summer and winter in the northern hemisphere. Bede’s source for this was Pliny’s Natural History, with a comment that it can be verified by observing the heavens from a village close to a large mountain. Just as the mountain will get in the way of seeing the sun and stars from the village, so, on a larger scale, the spherical shape of the earth gets in the way of seeing the sun from high latitudes in winter. Interestingly, this indicates that Bede, despite being a devout orthodox Christian, was happy to use learning from non-Christian sources (he comments elsewhere in the book that Pliny was a pagan), and that he considered empirical observation to be useful in testing statements found in books.

Bede also explained the tides as the waters of the ocean following the motion of the moon. Earlier sources thought that the high tide was caused by additional water pouring into the ocean and thus that the high tide occurred at the same time in all places. Bede, however, had information that the tide along the coasts of Britain rises in some places at the same time as it falls at others, and thus he argued that the idea of extra water pouring into the oceans was wrong. He did not know how the waters of the oceans could follow the moon around (there was a while to wait before gravity was discovered), but he could observe that they did and that this observation could be used to test a theory and prove it wrong (Ch. 29).

Bede knew that solar eclipses occurred when the moon came between the sun and the earth, and lunar eclipses when the moon passed through the earth’s shadow, and that as a result solar eclipses can only happen when the moon is new and lunar eclipses can only happen when the moon is full. He quotes Pliny’s Natural History as the source, with a rather rueful comment that Pliny was a pagan, and then backs it up with a Christian commentary from St Jerome arguing that the daytime darkness recorded in the Gospels at the time of the crucifixion could not have been a solar eclipse because the crucifixion occurred at Passover, held at full moon, and solar eclipses can only happen at new moon (Ch. 27).

So it’s fair to say that Bede would have understood last night’s eclipse as a natural phenomenon. It’s also fair to say that Bede was at the intellectual apex of his society – probably his nearest modern equivalent would be an Oxbridge professor or maybe a top-flight consultant – and his ideas may not have extended very far into the rest of society. Quite possibly much of the population did see eclipses as terrifying supernatural portents. But it's not justified to assume that everybody did.

Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3

23 comments:

Alex Bordessa said...

I saw some of the eclipse last night, and instantly called it a Blood Moon ... Doubtless appearing in a novel at some point I - though I reckon I may not bother if some pedantic beggar is going to say there wasn't a lunar eclipse at the time I chose ;-) Perhaps somewhere on the internet there'll be a programme which shows the occurence of lunar eclipses back to lord knows where

Gabriele C. said...

It was too cloudy here to see anything. :(

Rick said...

Not visible here.

I imagine the knowledge of Bede filtered out somewhat into the society - if only awareness that a learned man somewhere understood it, which would be vastly reassuring.

elena maria vidal said...

I missed the eclipse but saw pictures of the red moon.

I was about to do an article about the dating of Easter, especially by the Irish, who had a different day from most everybody else. I find this sort of thing intriguing.

Bernita said...

Too cloudy here as well.
An excellent, excellent post, Carla.
I must check out the A-S Chronicles to see how eclipses are mentioned there.

Lucy Ann White said...

uqbxeaapHi Carla
We have a wonderfully clear sky here in Kent and so could see the eclipse really well. It's such an amazing phenomenon that one can understand how past cultures imaginined it to be an omen.
Lucy http://www.lucyannwrites.blogspot.com
PS I like your blog - design and content - probably because our interests are similar: will add it to my favourites.

Lucy Ann White said...

That will teach me not to be in such a hurry and forget to press the preview button won't it! This new laptop of mine is too quick for it's own good - one wrong tap and spelling gets a life of its own. Lucy

Carla said...

Alex - Great idea! You could always head off any pedants with a comment in the author's note that you made the eclipse up. There's a catalogue of lunar eclipses going back to about 3000 BC here, produced by someone from NASA. I haven't figured out how to use it to calculate where the eclipse would be visible from, but I'm sure it's possible.

Gabriele - what a shame for you! The pictures in the BBC link I posted give you a pretty good idea of what it looked like.

Rick - I wonder if there was a differentiation between a scholar understanding a natural phenomenon and a priest reading portents, or whether both counted as understanding the event?

Elena - there's a lot about the various ways of calculating Easter in the introduction to the translation. It looks immensely complicated! No wonder there were disagreements over it in the church.

Bernita - shame you couldn't see it. Would be interesting to see what the ASC has to say. Lunar eclipses are fairly common and I don't know if they were recorded. There's a line in Annales Cambriae that I can remember that says "Days as dark as night" which could conceivably be a total solar eclipse if it isn't just chroniclers' license. It's in the semi-legendary upper reaches of the Annales, about AD 449 if memory serves, so the date is probably less than reliable.

Lucy Ann - Hello, and thanks for dropping by. It was a good view, wasn't it? Certainly the best I can remember for a long while - last time I think it was too cloudy to see anything. Hope you continue to find the blog interesting!

Alex Bordessa said...

Cripes - I knew a link to past lnar eclipses would be somewhere on the net - thanks for pointing me to it :-)

Carla said...

You're welcome, Alex. If you work out how to use the data to tell where the eclipse would be visible from, I'll be interested to know!

Rick said...

I wonder if there was a differentiation between a scholar understanding a natural phenomenon and a priest reading portents

Good question. On some level I suppose not. Yet I admit to a mental image of the contrast between a ranting Druid* and the calm voice of knowledge explaining how it is as natural and predictable as the tides.

On the one hand, that image obviously reflects my own background, and modern attitudes. On the other hand, I suspect there's a real and general difference between mystical and worldly explanations - especially in the context. No medical explanation of death makes it less terrifying, so we continue to seek mystical understanding. But for an eclipse, a worldly explanation can be all the difference between terrifying and cool.

* Back before the last generation or so, when Druids became Wise and Noble. Not that the English would have paid any heed to Druids of either sort.

Carla said...

Rick - yes, I see the same contrast, and I'm also not sure whether that's just my modern rationalist outlook projected back. I don't think it's entirely a modern attitude, though. Bede's On the Reckoning of Time evidently values logic and rational thought, so he might have made a similar distinction, and I think the desire to know how things work and why things happen is fairly fundamental in the human mind.
I wonder how long the druids lasted after Suetonius invaded Mona? Probably quite a long time in some form or other, as religious cults are hard to get rid of altogether. I wonder if some of them just turned into Romano-British priests in the same way that the British gods acquired double-barrelled Roman names - if Sulis can become Sulis Minerva, maybe the druid of the shrine could just change his robes and do the same? And the ones who were doctors and lawyers and poets might not even have to do that.

There isn't a really good medical explanation of death yet, which is probably why it's still frightening. The biochemistry and cell structures and tissues of a live animal are to all intents and purposes just the same as in one that's newly dead (otherwise transplants etc wouldn't work). So what's changed when the animal died? Maybe something to do with the capacity to keep them that way, some sort of maintenance and renewal ability, but that's really not a very satisfying explanation.

Bernita said...

Ah, found a couple:
538 - This year the sun was eclipsed, fourteen days before the clends of March, from before morning until nine.
540 This year the sun was eclipsed on the twelph day before the calends of July; and the stars showed themselves full nigh half an hour over nine.

Carla said...

Bernita - many thanks. Interesting that there were apparently two solar eclipses in two years, which sounds unusual as solar eclipses aren't as common as lunar. It would be interesting to compare the chronicle with astronomical data, if there's an equivalent of the NASA catalogue for solar eclipses, and see if it matches.

Bernita said...

You might like this one, Carla.
734 - The year was the moon as if covered with blood; and Archbishop Tatwine and Bede departed this life; and Egbert was consecrated bishop.

Rick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick said...

Carla - I imagine a lot of them became Romano-British priests. As you suggest, if my goddess is also Minerva, I can serve her in both aspects perfectly well.

Anyway, in spite of the hoo-ha about Druids both by Roman writers and modern neopagans, ancient priesthoods often weren't particular spiritual or mystical - it was all about the rites, and cultural status.

Much the same in many Christian cultures, after all; in Jane Austen an eligible young man might be a clergyman with no hint that he was expected to have a spiritual vocation, or be generally much different from his brother who was an officer.

Carla said...

Bernita - Thanks very much. That's an excellent description of how the lunar eclipse looked, isn't it?

Rick - Interesting point that being a clergyman in Jane Austen's world was just seen as another professional career, like the army or law or medicine. Maybe not so different from the position in late Republican Rome, when nobody saw anything strange in Caesar being a general, a politician, a lawyer and High Priest?

Rick said...

Not too much different at all, I think. It is a somewhat alien conception to us, because in the current era (at least in the US) clerics are presumed to have a calling - perhaps less to mysticism than to some form of moral activism - but not to regard religion as just another honorable profession.

Carla said...

Rick - it's interesting that the perception seems to have changed, isn't it? I wonder why?

Rick said...

Carla - Good question. Obviously there'd been elements of a special-calling concept earlier in Christianity, including what would become US Christianity; Cotton Mather was not just a gentleman following a gentleman's profession.

But I'd guess the big change here was the "Second Great Awakening," first half of the 19th century. Prominent clergymen took the lead in social causes like abolition of slavery, temperance, and the like. Generally US Protestantism became more evangelical in flavor, even the "mainline" churches such as Episcopalian (= Anglican), so ministers were expected to be more actively pastoral.

There's likely an analogy to the influence of John Wesley and similar people in Britain - which I suppose was already gathering steam well before Austen, but not yet influencing the social world she wrote about.

Carla said...

Individuals with a spiritual calling probably occur in all eras, possibly without much variation in frequency.

There was a similar-sounding association between religious movements and social reform in Britain in the ealy 19th century too, e.g. Quaker involvement in prison reform and the temperance movement etc. It may have been underway during Jane Austen's time and simply didn't feature in her novels - she's regularly accused of focussing on a narrow social circle, and she herself said she 'painted miniatures on ivory' or words to that effect. Although I'm sure I remember reading that British society at the time of the Napoleonic Wars was regarded as 'godless' by most of the rest of Europe, which would suggest that the shift came later. Perhaps in the 1830s with things like the Great Reform Act and the abolition of slavery and so on.

Rick said...

Agree about actual spiritual calling, which may indeed not vary that much, just be expressed in varying forms. Eras seem to very more in whether clergy are expected to have a calling, and likely to feel themselves that they should, even if they don't.

I'd guess that the trends you mention were bubbling up from below, but not relevant to Austen's work even if she was aware of them.