Red lights in the sky, hunger in sight: aurora borealis and famine between experience and rhetoric in the early Middle Ages
By Andrea Maraschi
Revista de História da Sociedade e da Cultura, Vol. 18 (2018)
Abstract: The purpose of the present paper is to analyse the mental and cultural attitudes of early medieval people towards one celestial “unidentified” phenomenon: aurora borealis. Celestial signs were often – but not always – interpreted on the basis of biblical prophecies, as visible words through which God forewarned humanity of future major events like the death of a king, pestilence, or famine.
Attention will be mainly focused on the latter aspect, and specifically on the potential connection between the signs associated with the end of times in the Gospels, and actual records of aurorae, which were in turn interpreted as proving and confirming biblical prophecies. Aurora borealis seems to have generated anxiety about climate and hunger and to have enjoyed a particularly bad reputation, the reasons depending either on the moral purposes of related records, the rhetorical strategies they offered, or the actual emotional impact they had on the observers.
Introduction: If celestial ordinary phenomena such as meteors, comets, bolides, eclipses, solar haloes, parhelia and others were known to early medieval intellectuals and can be tracked in the sources, there is no scientific medieval classification of aurora borealis. Its relationship with solar activity was unknown, and it was mostly interpreted as an ill omen: it was believed it forewarned mankind of famine, bad weather, pestilence, war, the death of a king, and so on.
Top Image: Northern lights – Budir, Iceland – photo by Giuseppe Milo / Flickr