Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Solar Eclipse, 1239 AD

Astronomers Studying an Eclipse, by Antoine Caron, 1571

"When I was six years old, the sun went dark."

Thus does one of the characters in my work-in-progress introduce herself.  It's an important part of her backstory:  the young Contessa left out on the balcony, forgotten as a terrifying celestial event drives the rest of her family indoors, pulling the doors tightly closed behind them.

What would a child in that situation do?  Would she peer at the darkening sun, possibly damaging her eyes permanently?  Would she scream in panic, or pound on the door and beg to be let in, or would her attention be drawn to the people she saw on the street below and to their reactions?

However she behaved, it's an event she would have remembered.  And such a solar eclipse did take place, visible in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, on 3 June of 1239.    

Illustration for Jules Verne's Around the Moon by Émile-Antoine Bayard and Alphonse de Neuville

Here are a few of the surviving eyewitness descriptions of that eclipse.

From Arezzo:  "... one Friday, at the 6th hour of the day, when the Sun was 20 degrees in Gemini and the weather was calm and clear, the sky began to turn yellow and I saw the whole body of the Sun covered step by step and it became night.  I saw Mercury close to the Sun, and all the animals and birds were terrified; and the wild beasts could easily be caught.  There were some people who caught birds and animals, because they were bewildered.  I saw the Sun entirely covered for the space of time in which a man could walk fully 250 paces.  The air and the ground began to become cold; and it [the Sun] began to be covered and uncovered from the west."   (Ristoro d'Arezzo, a 13th century Italian monk who wrote the first astronomical work in the Tuscan language, writing ca. 1282)

From Cesena:  "Almost all of the stars were manifestly seen in the sky and this appeared plainly to everyone.  There was also a certain fiery aperture in the Sun's disc on the lower part.  In verse:

'In the year one thousand, two hundred and thirty-nine
When June was beginning; on the third day;
The Sun was obscured, with its disc covered with darkness,
In full daylight the Sun became without light.
For a whole hour the Sun was dead and remote from us,
This marvel happened on the sixth day of the week.'"
 (Annales Caesenates, Anon.)

From Siena:  "On Friday at the 6th hour, the Sun began to be obscured as if by a veil and was covered in a clear sky.  At the ninth hour it was totally obscured, whence it gave no light; and as if a dark night arose with the result that a starry sky was seen, as on a clear night.  People lit lamps in houses and shops.  After some space of time it gradually became uncovered and restored to Earth, with the result that before the evening hour it was restored to its brilliance." (Archivo de Duomo di Siena)

From Florence:  "On the third day of June, the whole of the Sun was obscured aÉt the sixth hour and it remained obscured for several hours and from day it became night and the stars appeared; so that many people ignorant of the course of the Sun and the other planets marvelled greatly..."  (Storie Fiorentina, IV)

Illustration for Jules Verne's Around the Moon by Émile-Antoine Bayard and Alphonse de Neuville

From Lucca:  "In the year of our Lord 1239 there was an eclipse of the sun, wherein the light of day was horribly and terribly darkened, and the stars appeared.  And it seemed as though night had come, and all men and women had sore fear, and went about as if bereft of their wits, with great sorrow and trembling.  And many, smitten with terror, came to confession, and made penitence for their sins, and those who were at discord made peace with each other. And the Lord Manfred of Cornazano, who was at that time Podestà, took the Cross in his hands and went in procession through the streets of Lucca, with the Friars Minor and other men of religion and clerks.  And the Podestà himself preached of the Passion of Christ, and made peace between those who were at enmity.  This I saw with mine own eyes, for I was there, and my brother Guido di Adamo with me."  (Salimbene, Franciscan monk and chronicler, 1221-1288)

From a little further afield, Croatia:  "A wonderful and terrible eclipse of the sun occurred, for the entire Sun was obscured, and the whole of the clear sky was in darkness.  Also stars appeared in the sky as if during the night, and a certain greater star shone beside the Sun on the western side.  And such great fear overtook everyone, that just like madmen they ran about to and fro shrieking, thinking that the end of the world had come."  (Thomae Historia Pontificum Salonitanorum et Spalatinorum)

Jean Dodal Tarot trump, 1701-1715

You'll notice a difference in emphasis in these accounts.  I suspect that those who stressed the terror of the event, for men or beasts, were writing sooner after that day than the others, who were looking back at a phenomenon they knew they had survived and were, perhaps, conveniently forgetting how they had felt at the time and were reporting as if they had been calm, scientific observers.

But even the less dramatic accounts have their moments, and you can catch a glimpse of the chaos that must have defined the event:  seeing the stars in the daytime, "the Sun was dead and remote from us", the disoriented birds and animals. 

Nine years previous to this event, another solar eclipse elicited a much more laconic response from an English chronicler, one Roger of Wendover:

"It became so dark that the labourers, who had commenced their morning's work, were obliged to leave it, and returned again to their beds to sleep, but in about an hour's time, to the astonishment of many, the Sun regained its usual brightness."

It may be significant that in Croatia they shrieked and ran about like madmen, in Lucca they had religious processions and cancelled their vendettas, and in England they went back to bed.  But I'm not going to go there.

Incidentally, a solar eclipse occurring almost exactly a hundred years later almost cost one of Florence's great artists his sight.  Taddeo Gaddi, who had a fascination with light, damaged his eyes severely while studying the eclipse.  Perhaps what he went through at that time informed the compassion in his painting below:

Taddeo Gaddi, Sick Persons Praying for Healing

Quotes in this post, except for Salimbene, were taken from F. Richard Stephenson's book Historical Eclipses and Earth's Rotation.

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of being well over a hundred years old.


Jessica K said...

What a wonderful blog! I would love to follow you -- could you set up something whereby I could?

Tinney Heath said...

Jessica, thanks so much. I can try... I seem to have six people following me now, but I'm not sure how they did it. I am rather non-techie; I once tried to follow somebody's blog and nothing happened, so I just sort of peek at the ones I like when I remember. Not the best system. I'll see what I can do, though.