Astronomical and Atmospheric Observations in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in Bede

Astronomical and Atmospheric Observations in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in Bede

By Heinrich Härke

The Antiquarian Astronomer, Vol. 6 (2012)

Abstract: Textual sources of the early Middle Ages (fifth to tenth centuries AD) contain more astronomical observations than is popularly assumed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists some 40 observations of astronomical and atmospheric events for the just over 600 years it covers. But the contexts in which these are set show that eclipses, comets, meteor showers and aurorae were seen as portents of evil events, not as objects of early scientific curiosity.

The case of Bede in the early eighth century shows that this was true, to an extent, even for the educated ecclesiastical elite. Bede’s eclipse records also appear to show that astronomical events could be used to explain unusual phenomena such as the postulated volcanic ‘dust-veil’ event of AD 536.

Introduction: Chronicles and narrative histories of the Early Middle Ages contain a number of entries relating to astronomical events and atmospheric phenomena. Sometimes, their number is surprising given the ‘Dark Age’ context: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, reports astronomical and related observations in no fewer than 38 of its annals. Before one attempts to draw conclusions from this concerning the pursuit of science in this period, it is necessary to consider the historical and social context, and more specifically the nature of the written sources in which such observations are reported. Having done this, we will look at the list of relevant entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and discuss some of the implications.

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Top Image: The Venerable Bede in an illustrated manuscript – Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek / Cod. 47 f. 1v

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