European studies blog

18 September 2013

A Lisbon earthquake pamphlet of 1757: but not the Lisbon earthquake; and the last gasp of heliocentrism

Every day we learn new names for ever-more finely honed genres. ‘Biography’ has given way to ‘life-writing’, but what about Pestschriften (accounts of plagues), or the genre-defining Historia tragico-maritima (a collection of accounts of shipwrecks, published in Lisbon, 1735-37),  ethopoeia (character delineation), epyllion (a miniature epic), psychomachia (battles of the virtues and vices), epithalamia (wedding-songs), or topothesia (the description of an imaginary place)?

As yet there seems to be no name for writings on earthquakes, but the genre definitely exists. For example:

Noticia certa de hum fatal successo, acontecido na cidade de Constantinopla, e o espantoso fenomeno, que nella se vio no dia vinte e seis de Novembro proximo de 1756. (Lisboa: Domingos Rodrigues, 1757) RB.23.a.18023

This eight-page pamphlet describes tremors which struck the Ottoman capital in November 1756. 

The Phenomena website lists 131 weird weather events from 1741 to 1760 (two in Constantinople, 1752 and 1754), but hasn’t caught this one.

The Portuguese, still traumatised by their own earthquake of 21 December 1755, were naturally hungry for news of similar phenomena.

1556_comet_and_earthquake_in_Constantinople Cropped (BT)
An image of an earlier Constantinopolitan disaster from 1556: the comet being the harbinger of the quake (illlustration from a German broadside, image from Wikimedia Commons)

The anonymous author starts by saying that these exceptional movements of the earth should not be taken as proof of the theories of Copernicus, “in whose system can be seen equally the wit of that great mathematician, and the intrinsic incredibility of what he claims to demonstrate”.  “We have the certainty that the earth does not move, as Scripture so often teaches us”.

In this, he was simply following Catholic doctrine, but this doctrine was on its last legs: “In 1758 the Catholic Church dropped the general prohibition of books advocating heliocentrism from the Index of Forbidden Books” (Heilbron).

He recognises that we might experience partial movements of the earth: the causes can be either “merely natural, or the instruments of Divine Omnipotence, for the punishment of our faults”. 

The pamphlet related two consecutive events.

Most harm was done by fires, which destroyed over 25,000 households, and almost all the Seraglio; over 1000 people perished. One victim was the fire-starter herself, one of the wives in the Seraglio who wished to avenge herself on another who had replaced her in the Sultan’s affections.

The earthquake began around 11.45 a.m. on 26 November and lasted seven minutes and forty seconds. People were to be seen bathed in blood and tears and covered in dust. The fires made Constantinople like Troy.  By the time the inhabitants managed to halt the fire, 8000 had died. Water only started to flow into the fountains again after 24 hours, but its colour and smell showed it was undrinkable. 

At 10 p.m. a fiery stag with a sword in its antlers was seen in the sky, over forty palms in size.  It emerged that it had been sighted on the 20th, an omen. (Incidentally, the author does not find omens unChristian.)

The author is not an eyewitness: he acknowledges that he has extracted this information from “a letter”. This I imagine was a printed newsbook, and probably written in Italian, the lingua franca ofthe Ottoman Empire.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


John L.Heilbron, 'Censorship of Astronomy in Italy after Galileo', in McMullin, Ernan ed., The Church and Galileo, (Notre Dame, 2005), p. 307.  YC.2007.a.1076; m05/.25311

John Laidlar, Lisbon, World Bibliographical Series (Oxford, 1997), items 135-59.  9352.949100 vol 199


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