The Canterbury Tales

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Image (right) courtesy Sky and Telescope magazine


artist rendition of the Franklin


Image (right) courtesy Sky and Telescope magazine


That nyght and day he spedde hym that he kan To wayten a tyme of his conclusioun, This is to seye, to maken illusioun By swich an apparence or jogelrye-I ne kan no termes of astrologye- That she and every wight sholde wene and seye That of Britaigne the rokkes were aweye,Or ellis they were sonken under grounde.

-from the Franklin's Tale (Chaucer)


detail of illustration above - man and boy look to the night sky in the middle ages


POSTED 09 MAR 2000

the letter D illustration: man and boy look to the night sky in the middle ageso the many references to celestial events in ancient myths, legends and writings have a basis in reality? Not according to the conventional wisdom, which explains them as proof that our ancestors had fertile imaginations.

But some scientists are venturing across disciplines to speculate that the mentions of blazing skies, huge floods and high tides were based in observations of the skies rather than cut from whole cloth. Before electric lights, they say, comets and meteor showers were terrifying events that attained great significance in written and oral tradition alike. Moreover, in ancient and medieval times, before the advent of television that is, people used to pay far more attention to the night sky.

If you'll forgive us for putting it thusly, we've been showered with speculation in this ongoing debate. We'll check in shortly with an archeologist who believes he sees comets in ancient Hawaiian traditions.

First, let's deal with a new report about Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Sky & Telescope magazine. According to physics professor Donald Olson, of Southwest Texas State University, one of these 14th century English masterpieces records extremely high tides that were born of a rare configuration of Earth, sun and moon, not poetic license.

the letter Tillustration of 2 lovers at cliff sidehe poem in question, Franklin's Tale, concerns a young squire who wanted to befriend -- and then some -- a beautiful woman who lived in a castle on the rocky coast of France. To impress her, the squire paid a magician to make the menacing offshore rocks vanish. For a hefty fee, the magician performed an elaborate astronomical calculation and finally succeeded in making the rocks disappear on a day in December.

The easiest way to do this, of course, would be to raise the sea level well beyond the effects of the normal tides. According to Olson, Chaucer was something of an astronomer, so he probably knew that on Dec. 19, 1340, the sun and moon were aligned in an eclipse.

(Chaucer knew that the moon and sun affected the tides. He may not have known that gravity provided the force, but give him a break. He lived centuries before Isaac Newton!)

The eclipse itself would cause abnormally high tides, but the real kicker was that both bodies were as close as they get to Earth, further raising the tides to a level seen once in a century -- or less.

the letter What's the evidence?
What backs up Olson's unprovable assertion?

  • Some astronomers of the time knew that the sun and moon both affect the tides.

  • Chaucer knew enough astronomy to write a treatise on a navigation instrument called the astrolabe. Thus he presumably knew the cause of tides.

  • Chaucer's works contain other astronomical references.
artist's middle-ages rendition of the Franklin One question: The unusual configuration of the bodies occurred near Chaucer's birth, when he was likely gurgling Olde Englishe "gooe-gooes" rather than scrawling the polysyllabic scribble that later made him the bane of generations of English students. Olson responds in the article (he didn't bother returning our phone call) that the poet may have learned of the extraordinary eclipse while investigating the astrological situation of his birth.

the letter Aloha, astronomy
A similar concern with astronomical events surrounding a birth is evident in the genealogies of Hawaiian kings. W. Bruce Masse, of Los Alamos National Laboratory, says the names and traditions of certain royal chiefs seem to correlate with passing celestial events.

Masse says a ceremonial sign of royalty assigned to Palena-nui-a-haholani, who reigned about 1099-1120, translates as "week-long eye of the Milky Way." In 1053, when the chief was presumably born or circumcized, Masse says a long-tailed comet was visible in the Pacific -- and actually passed through the Milky Way. A similar comet, bright enough to be seen during the day, may have sparked the name "the sparkling, suspended stream" for a 15th century chief.

Masse contends that far more than comets have influenced traditions. He says texts from sources in China, Korea, Europe and elsewhere include references to 1124 temporary celestial events between 200 BC and 1800 AD, including star explosions, asteroid impacts, eclipses and meteor storms. Masse says there are several thousand other records of eclipses, meteorite impacts, fireballs, meteor showers, and other short-term celestial pheonomena.

Efforts like the ones we've examined cross disciplines, and that makes them controversial. But they can also be highly illuminating, especially when accompanied by good data or intriguing correlations. If Masse and Olson are on target, it may pay astronomers to look down at the printed page -- and for experts in the social sciences and humanities to look up at the heavens.

If nothing else, it's good for the neck to change positions.

--David Tenenbaum

The Celestial Basis of Civilization, W.B. Masse, Vistas in Astronomy, Vol. 39, pp. 463-77, 1995.
The Geoffrey Chaucer Page.

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