Solar eclipses and the middle ages

solareclipseDr Anne Lawrence from the University of Reading’s Department of History examines what solar eclipses meant to our ancestors.

Looking forward to the solar eclipse? I am and I suspect much of the UK is too. Scientists in particular are chomping at the bit to record this once in a generation event, especially here at Reading where we have organised the National Eclipse Weather Experiment which we can all take part in.

But looking back through the history books excitement wasn’t the only emotion being felt leading up to an eclipse. These events had a shadowy effect not just on the weather, but people’s lives as well… or so it was believed.

In the 12th century the chronicler John of Worcester wrote: ‘in 1133 a darkness appeared in the sky throughout England. In some places it was only a little dark but in others candles were needed. … The sun looked like a new moon, though its shape constantly changed. Some said that this was an eclipse of the sun. If so, then the sun was at the Head of the Dragon and the moon at its Tail, or vice versa. … King Henry left England for Normandy, never to return alive.’

In 1140 William of Malmesbury recorded another eclipse. He wrote: ‘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.’

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