20 March 2015
Visions in the sky: a 17th-century eclipse
Today people in some parts of northern Europe will see a total solar eclipse. Others, including those here in London, will see the sun partially obscured.
Eclipses are a source of excitement in our age. Hotels in the regions where today’s eclipse is total were no doubt booked up months ago by keen eclipse-hunters, as happened in 1999 when a total eclipse was visible in many parts of Europe. But although the science behind eclipses has been understood since ancient times, in the pre-modern age knowledge could be tempered with superstition even among scholars. For the less learned, eclipses, like other celestial phenomena, were sources of amazement and terror, interpreted as portents or omens of disaster. Perhaps this is why early witnesses claimed to see in such phenomena exaggerated images of mythical, divine or demonic figures.
The seven Capuchin monks who set out walk from Ober-Laibach (modern-day Vrhnika in Slovenia) to Loitsch (Logatec) on 28 January 1664 would not have been uneducated men, but when they witnessed that day’s partial solar eclipse, they saw in it a series of bizarre visions. They left an account of these, which the British Library holds in two different broadside versions.
On their journey the monks were alerted by a traveller coming towards them to the fact that the sun looked strange. Looking up, they saw on the sun’s face a tall, thin man followed by three smaller figures. Next a troop of infantry appeared, which gave way to two church towers. These were replaced by “two mighty black men on horseback” and a host of other riders, all shooting. At this the monks “began to sigh, pray and cry fervently to God for help” until the riders disappeared. Finally another rider appeared, this one “all white and light”, stronger and more terrifying than the first two, also leading a host of riders who almost covered the sun. These fought for a quarter of an hour, while the monks redoubled their prayers. After they vanished the sun “was blue in the centre and bloody all around the edges” and did not shine for some two hours.
After his dramatic description, we might expect the writer to offer some kind of interpretation of these fearsome visions, but he simply says “This was the moon which became lost in the sun” and ends his account. Clearly he understood the basic nature of the event the party had seen, yet he is no more interested in giving a scientific explanation than an allegorical one. The account thus seems caught between the worlds of belief in signs and wonders and of rational scientific knowledge.
But there is perhaps a rational explanation for the visions which the monks saw. Today we are always issued with firm instructions about how to view an eclipse safely, but our 17th-century travellers would have been looking directly at the sun, risking serious damage to their eyes, and certainly causing them to see spots which imagination could turn into visions.
So if you are watching today’s eclipse, watch safely, and enjoy the reality of one of the sky’s most fascinating sights without the terrifying and harmful visions.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies