"Eripuit Caelo Fulmen Sceptrumque Tyrannis": The Political Iconography of Lightning in Europe and North America, 1750-1800

Article excerpt

Introduction

THE LIGHTNING ROD HAS FREQUENTLY BEEN LABELED one of the most ingenious human answers to a threat posed by nature. Though now ubiquitous and unremarkable, this device is in fact a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, situated at the crossroads of cultural-intellectual history and history of the natural sciences. Hence, the lightning rod has been the subject of studies that stressed, to name just a few aspects, the circumstances of its invention, the sociocultural dimensions of its victory over superstition or its subsequent global distribution. Few authors, however, have attempted to link the manifold implications of this technical device to the larger horizon of the cultural meaning of lightning itself.

Even within the circles of Enlightenment philosophy and science, the rational explanation of thunder and lightning could not completely soothe the multiple fears instigated by and traditionally associated with them. Contrasting sharply with common narratives of unflagging scientific progress, many documents reveal the endurance of older beliefs and practices. As late as 1825, for instance, new church bells were inscribed Vivos voco. Mortuos piango. Fulgura frango ("I call the living.I mourn the dead. I break the lightning bolts."), demonstrating that bell ringing to distract lightning from hitting a church or a village was not at all as outmoded as late-eighteenth-century partisans of a consistent progress of mankind would have liked to have it.1

The sober scientific explanation that lightning is a discharge of electricity that can be safely channeled and controlled with technology- just as dike engineering can help to control stomi tides- did not necessarily lead to the disappearance of older ideas, metaphors, customs, and imageries. These persist and survive; they are able to govern individual narratives as well as collective and cultural memories for long periods of time ("longue durée"). Although the old representations - which illustrated certain forms of thought- get fewer and more subde, they partly maintain their former significations and partly acquire new meanings. Following concepts of cultural anthropologists or of art historians such as Aby M. Warburg, one has to acknowledge that lightning had actually become a very powerful symbol well before the Enlightenment. Condensing diverse theological, psychological, and cultural tensions, the motif of lightning in fact retained its former momentum in the second half of the eighteenth century. According to Warburg, it is a characteristic trait of such transformations that the energy that was once attached to a specific pictorial form can not only be transferred to different contexts but also employed for different purposes.

Based on the premise diat the full scope of the lightning rod can only be understood when we take into account the ideas associated with lightning itself, this essay seeks to demonstrate that the meanings that were attributed to lightning are intricately linked to longstanding traditions. Provided that both the former conventional and the new images of lightning are salient features accompanying the dawn of the lightning rod, this essay investigates in particular how the traditional iconography of lightning was quite suddenly overthrown in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. Because this text studies but a very small episode of the vast cultural history of lightning, it neither addresses the diverse, worldwide dimensions of the topic nor the time span from antiquity to the present.2 Although limited in scope, this essay isolates one particularly interesting aspect of the cultural history of lightning- namely its political iconography, that is, the différent political meanings that were ascribed to lightning in different contexts during the late eighteenth century in western Europe as well as in North America (i.e., in the thirteen East Coast states that founded the United States). However, in accordance with the factual distribution, the majority of my examples are directly related to the French Revolution. …