Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Some Uses of Eclipse in Early Modern Chronology

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Some Uses of Eclipse in Early Modern Chronology

Article excerpt

In 1628 the Roman diplomatic community chattered not only about politics and religion but also about celestial portents. An eclipse of the moon took place in January, one of the sun in December. Astrologers predicted the death of the reigning Pope, Urban VIII. Frightened, he both published a bull forbidding such predictions and, under the guidance of Tommaso Campanella, carried out rituals to avert their evil effects. Hidden in a sealed room, the two men hung white cloths, sprinkled rose-vinegar, and lit candles and torches to represent the luminaries and the planets. They listened to Jovial and Venereal music, handled stones and other objects connected with the same beneficent planets, and drank liquors distilled by astrological principles. The pope survived the astral menace-though he and his successors continued to fear both the malign influence of the stars and the astrologers whose predictions of the future carried a strong whiff of subversive journalism.1

Few practices of the seventeenth-century ecclesia triumphans had parallels in the sixteenth-century ecclesia reformata of Wittenberg. But these did. If Philipp Melanchthon scanned the skies with special concern when reports of comets reached him, even Martin Luther, who normally scorned astrological predictions, admitted that eclipses were "evil omens and portents, as are monstrous births." He also believed that they were happening more frequently than ever before in his own day-one sign among many that the end of time was approaching.2 Melanchthon's son-in-law, Caspar Peucer, eloquently described the power of eclipses in his 1553 Commentary on the Chief Forms of Divination: "We can see with our own eyes what vicissitudes [two recent] eclipses of the sun and moon, especially that of the sun, have caused for the empire, what disturbances they have provoked, what changes and quarrels they have portended for the realm of religion"-not to mention the drought that the solar one had caused in the proceeding year, which dried the deepest swamps and caused fresh fruit to rot.3 At all times, Peucer believed, men had found eclipses terrifying, "foreseeing, through a secret sense of nature, the disasters that would follow."4 At the political and confessional extremes of early modern Europe, and at many points between, men read eclipses as signs of victory or disaster, portents of a future that made them tremble with joy, horror, or both.

This paper concerns itself with a different and much less dramatic way of reading eclipses, one that also flourished in early modern Europe, and also crossed geographical and denomination borders. In 1590 Heinrich Bunting presented Heinrich Julius, Lutheran bishop of Halberstadt, with what he called a "a certain chronology and account of time, from the beginning of the world to the present." He described his work as compiled from more than two hundred works of history and "confirmed, in particular, by the Prutenic calculation," that is, by the 1551 Prutenic Tables of Erasmus Reinhold, the first to be based on the work of Copernicus.5

Bunting's book was only one of the many massive treatises on chronology that appeared in the second half of the sixteenth century. Like most of its rivals, it offered a detailed chronicle of human history, one that wove together strands of biblical and pagan, near eastern and western history. Like most of them, too, it included detailed analyses of the ancient calendars, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Egyptian.6 Bunting took pride in these features of his book, normal though they were. But he also called attention to another special attribute of his "theological, mathematical, and historical work": its "many fine astronomical pictures."7 These carefully engraved images of the sun and moon represented the eclipses that had accompanied many historical events. Based on long and exacting astronomical computations, they offered not just generalized icons of the sun and moon, but precise assessments of the degree of fullness each eclipse had reached, its duration, and its visibility. …

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