How medieval people described solar eclipses

Solar eclipses are one of our most remarkable episodes of natural phenomena. This was true as well in the Middle Ages, which are told in ten accounts from around the medieval world.

There are thousands of accounts of solar eclipses from medieval chronicles, scientific works and other sources. Most are quite short with few details. However, some offer interesting details, including how people and animals reacted to them. Whereas, medieval astronomers were able to predict the coming of an eclipse with a great detail of accuracy, one imagines that most people would only know that it was occuring when it happened.


In several of the accounts, the writers saw the eclipse as an omen or sign foretelling that great events were about to happen. They would try to connect the celestial event with the downfall of a kingdom or the death of a ruler. Other accounts are more concerned with providing scientific details. Here are ten accounts:

England –  June 20, 540

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains 20 accounts of eclipses between the years 538 and 1140. Here is one of them:


This year the sun was eclipsed on the twelfth day before the kalends of July; and the stars showed themselves full nigh half an hour over nine.

Constantinople, Byzantine Empire – December 22, 968

The History of Leo the Deacon describes an eclipse that occurred just before Christmas:

While the emperor was thus engaged in Syria, about the time of the winter solstice an eclipse of the sun took place, such as had never occurred before, except for the one that took place at the time of the Passion of the Lord on account of the madness of the Jews, when they committed the great sin of nailing the Creator of all things to the Cross. The nature of the eclipse was as follows. On the 22nd of December, at the fourth hour of the day, in calm, clear weather, darkness covered the earth, and all the brighter stars were visible. One could see the disk of the sun dark and unlighted, and a dim and faint gleam, like a delicate headband, illuminating the edge of the disk all the way around. Gradually the sun passed by the moon (for the latter could be seen screening off the former in a direct line), and sent out its own rays, which again filled the earth with light. People were terrified at the novel and unaccustomed sight, and propitiated the divinity with supplications, as was fitting. At that time I myself was living in Byzantium, pursuing my general education.

Cairo, Egypt – December 13, 977

Cairo was still a new city in the tenth century, and here we have a report where a group of scholars met to watch an eclipse:

This solar eclipse was in the early morning of Thursday the 28th of the month of Rabi ‘al-Akhir, in the year 367 of al-Hijrah… (date on Persian calendar)… We, a group of scholars (ten names are given), attended at al-Qarafah (a district of Cairo) in the Mosque of Abu Ja’far Ahmad ibn Nasr al-Maghribi to watch this eclipse. Everyone waited for the beginning of this eclipse. It began to be perceived when the altitude of the Sun was more than 15 degrees but less than 16 degrees. (Those) present all agreed that about 8 digits of the Sun’s diameter were eclipsed, that is (a little) less than 7 digits of surface. The Sun completely cleared when its altitude was more than 33 degrees by about 1/3 of a degree, as estimated by me, and agreed by all those present.

Drawing of a solar ellipsis in Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis., by Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius -Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, ms. NKS 218 4°.

Cluny, France – June 29, 1033

The 11th-century chronicler Rudolph Glabber includes an account of a partial eclipse. Glabber’s writing is heavily skewed to being very religious with a millenarianism feel. He was also loose with the truth, with one example being the story at the end of this section – the Pope would be forced to leave Rome, but this probably did not happen for another three years.

In that same year, a thousand after the Lord’s Passion, on Friday, 29 June, the twenty-eighth day of the lunar month (of June), there occurred a terrible event, an eclipse or obscuring of the sun from the sixth to the eighth hour. Now the sun itself took on the colour of sapphire, and its upper part it looked like the moon in its last quarter. Each saw his neighbour looking pale as through unto death, everything seemed to be bathed in a saffron vapour. Then extreme fear and terror gripped the hearts of men, for they understood that this omen portended some dreadful affliction which would fall upon mankind. That very day, the feast of the birth of the Apostles, in the church of St Peter, some of the Roman princes conspired together and rebelled against the Roman Pontiff. They sought to kill him, but failed and only expelling him from his see. But, as we have already said, because of this and other insolent deeds, the emperor hastened thither and restored him.

Baghdad – June 20, 1061

Ibn al-Jawzi records this:

On Wednesday, when two nights remained to the completion of Jumada al-Aula, two hours after sunrise, the Sun was totally eclipsed. There was darkness and the birds fell while flying. The astrologers claimed that one-sixth of the Sun should have remained [uneclipsed] but nothing of it did so. The Sun reappeared after four hours and a fraction [of an hour]. The eclipse was not in the whole of the Sun [i.e. it was not total] in places other than Baghdad and its provinces.

Muhammad ibn Muhammad Shakir Ruzmah-‘i Nathani – Solar Eclipse – Walters W65913B

England – March 20, 1140

The chronicler William of Malmesbury reported this eclipse that took place while England was in the midst of a civil war.

There was an eclipse throughout England, and the darkness was so great that people at first thought the world was ending.  Afterwards they realised it was an eclipse, went out, and could see the stars in the sky.  It was thought and said by many, not untruly, that the king would soon lose his power.

Brauweiler, Germany – October 26, 1147

The monk who wrote the Annales Brunwilarenses writes about this eclipse:

1147. On Sunday, the 7th day before the Kalends of November, a solar eclipse occurred at the 3rd hour and persisted until after the sixth. The eclipse stood fixed and motionless for a whole hour, as noted on the clock [horologium]…. During this hour, a circle of different colours and spinning rapidly was said to be in the way.

China – June 25, 1275

Here is the first of two accounts of an eclipse that took place:

Te-yu reign period, 1st year, month VI, day keng-tzu, the first day of the month. The Sun was eclipsed; it was total. The sky and Earth were in darkness. People could not be distinguished within a foot. The chickens and ducks returned to roost. (It lasted) from the hour szu (9-11 h) to the hour wu (11-13 h); then it regained its brightness.


The second account:

The Sun was eclipsed; it was total. Stars were seen. The chickens and ducks all returned to roost. In the following year the Song dynasty was extinguished.

Avignon, France – January 31, 1310

From Ptolomaei Lucensis Historia ecclesiasticae:

1310, on the last day of January, at the 8th hour at Avignon, there was an eclipse of the Sun and it was unusually eclipsed, and was remarkably scintillating. There appeared just as at nightfall a single star, according to the opinion of the crowd. Then indeed a notable semicircle was seen, which lasted beyond the ninth hour.

Salamanca, Spain – July 29, 1478

From an account by a priest named Andrés Bernáldez

That year of one thousand four hundred and seventy-eight, twenty-nine days of the month of July, Saint Martha’s day at noon, the Sun went into an eclipse, the most frightening that ever those who were born until then saw, as the Sun was completely covered and it stood black and the stars appeared as it were at night; which lasted jammed that way for a very long while, until been uncovered little by little, and people were in great fear, and they fled into the churches, and never again did the Sun return to its color, nor the day made clear as the days before it used to be, and so it became very hazy.

Further Readings:

Stephenson, F. Richard, Historical Eclipses and Earth’s Rotation (Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Stephenson, F. Richard, “Investigation of Medieval European Records of Solar Eclipses,” Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol. 41 (2010)

Stephenson, F. Richard, and Said, S.S., “Accuracy of Eclipse Observations Record in Medieval Arabic Chronicles,” Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol. 22 (1991)

Usó, María José Martínez, and Castillo, Francisco J. Marco, “The total eclipse of the sun of July 29, AD 1478, in contemporary Spanish documents,” Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol. 54:2 (2023)

Top Image: Getty Museum MS. LUDWIG XV 4