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Ball lightning was seen in 1195, researchers find

Researchers have discovered what appears to be the earliest known account of a rare weather phenomenon called ball lightning, which took place in the year 1195. The findings are published in the Royal Meteorological Society’s journal, Weather.

Ball lightning, usually associated with thunderstorms, is unexplained and has been described as a bright spherical object on average 25 centimetres, but sometimes up to several metres, in diameter.

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Physicist Brian Tanner and historian Giles Gasper, both of Durham University, made the connection to a ball lightning event while exploring a medieval text written some 750 years ago.

The account, by the 12th-century Benedictine monk Gervase of Christ Church Cathedral Priory, pre-dates the previous earliest known description of ball lightning recorded in England by nearly 450 years. In his Chronicle, composed around 1200, Gervase stated that “a marvellous sign descended near London” on 7 June 1195. He went on to describe a dense and dark cloud, emitting a white substance which grew into a spherical shape under the cloud, from which a fiery globe fell towards the river.

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The Durham researchers compared the text in Gervase’s Chronicle with historical and modern reports of ball lightning.

“Ball lightning is a rare weather event that is still not understood today,” explains Professor Tanner. “Gervase’s description of a white substance coming out of the dark cloud, falling as a spinning fiery sphere and then having some horizontal motion is very similar to historic and contemporary descriptions of ball lightning. If Gervase is describing ball lightning, as we believe, then this would be the earliest account of this happening in England that has so far been discovered.”

Prior to this account, the earliest report of ball lightning from England is during a great thunderstorm in Widecombe, Devon on 21 October 1638.

Professor Giles Gasper adds, “The main focus of Gervase’s writings was Christ Church Cathedral Priory in Canterbury, its disputes with neighbouring houses and an Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as chronicling the actions of the king and his nobles. But he was also interested in natural phenomena, from celestial events and signs in the sky to floods, famine, and earthquakes.”

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19th-century engraving depicting ball lightning – Wikimedia Commons

The researchers looked at Gervase’s credibility as a writer and a witness, having previously examined his records of eclipses and a description of the splitting of the image of the crescent moon. Professor Gasper added: “Given that Gervase appears to be a reliable reporter, we believe that his description of the fiery globe on the Thames on 7 June 1195 was the first fully convincing account of ball lightning anywhere.”

The article, “A marvellous sign and a fiery globe: a medieval English report of ball lightning,” by Giles E. M. Gasper and Brian K. Tanner, appears in Weather. Click here to access the article from Wiley Online.

Extract from the Chronicle of Gervase of Canterbury where the medieval monk describes the ball lightning phenomenon. This is the earliest known description of ball lightning in England to have been found. Image courtesy The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. Reference: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.4.11, p.324.

Top Image: Ball lightning – photo by Joe Thomissen / Wikimedia Commons

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