Month: February 2013

Meteorites and Comets in Pre-Modern Europe

Today’s many news reports on the meteor that crashed to earth in Russia reminds us that comets, meteors, stones falling from the sky, and other blazing stars have long fascinated people. This morning’s meteorite attracted all the more media attention because it was unexpected. In a world where all meteors and comets were unexpected, they often terrified onlookers and were always portentous.

In his Natural History Pliny reported that Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, famous for having explained eclipses, used his astronomical knowledge to predict that various stone would fall from the sun. So marvelous were these stones, Pliny reports, that “A stone is worshipped for this reason even at the present day in the exercising ground at Abydos—one of moderate size, it is true, but which the same Anaxagoras is said to have prophesied as going to fall in the middle of the country.”

Many chronicles include reports of fiery stones—typically, these are probably comets—which are then related to significant historical events. The Hartmann Schedel’s Liber chronicarum, typically referred to as the Nuremberg Chronicle, contains a number of images of comets (the BSB’s beautiful color copy is available here).

One of the more famous images comes from the Bayeux Tapestry, where we see a group of onlookers marveling at a comet streaking across the sky (typically, this is understood to be Halley’s Comet):

The comet on the Bayeux Tapestry
The comet on the Bayeux Tapestry

The earliest datable and surviving meteorite crashed to the ground on 7 November 1492 near Ensisheim. It immediately became a set piece in Sebastian Brant’s political rhetoric. Brant enlisted the meteor in support of Emperor Maximilian’s efforts to unite the empire under his control and interpreted it as evidence of the Emperor’s success in his struggles against the French.

Sebastian Brant’s broadside interpreting the Ensisheim meteor in 1492.
Sebastian Brant’s broadside interpreting the Ensisheim meteor in 1492.

In Albrecht Dürer’s famous Melancholia a comet can be seen shooting across the sky (there is a digital version of Dürer’s Melancholia at the BL).

Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia with its prominent comet.
Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia with its prominent comet.

Every time a comet appeared, astrologers and other experts rushed to compose texts that promised to reveal what the comet meant. In 1468 and again in 1472 the Polish astrologer Martin Bylica along with numerous other astrologers across Europe wrote judicia that they dedicated to local princes and kings. Bylica dedicated his to the Hungarian king, Matthias Corvinus, and ensured him both times that these comets augured well for his military struggles with, first, the Bohemians and, second, the Austrians. Comets and other portentous phenomena graced the title pages of numerous pamphlets. Again, many of these are comets rather than meteors. In some cases, it is difficult to know what the author witnessed. Johannes Virdung’s Ußlegung und erclerung der wunderbarlichen kunftigen erschrocklichen ding … den mann Comet nent (from the copy at the BSB) is a typical example of this.

Johannes Virdung’s Ußlegung and its comet.
Johannes Virdung’s Ußlegung and its comet.

In every case, these celestial phenomena were analyzed to reveal either their role in shaping history, in the case of the chronicles, or for their influence on contemporary society, in the case of Brant and many of the pamphlets in the sixteenth century. Celestial phenomena were always overflowing with meaning and significance. While we draw different meaning from today’s meteor, we are no less interested in it.

While we probably should take Elly’s suggestion and forge a sword, we would be arriving late to the swords-forged-from-meteors party. Not only is King Arthur’s Excalibur purportedly forged from a meteor (for example, in Marion Zimmerman Bradly’s The Sword of Avalon), Marvel Comic’s Ebony Blade was carved from a meteor for the Black Knight. And then, more recently, Harvey Abramowitz, an engineering professor from Purdue University Calumet, apparently forged his own sword from a meteorite.

Update: Go read Medieval Robots’ post and learn about Terry Pratchett’s meteorite sword.

STS in the Liberal Arts, A Workshop

In April I am participating in “Science and Technology Studies (STS) in the Liberal Arts,” a conference on the role, if any, of STS in an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum. While some of the themes are pragmatic, the goal of the conference is to bring together faculty from liberal arts colleges across the country to articulate how and why STS should be part of the undergraduate experience.

Some of the questions that will frame our discussion include:

  • Are there emerging methods for teaching in programs that bridge the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences?
  • How might we make connections with small and large businesses, government agencies, and NGOs, who could possibly employ our STS graduates?
  • How can the core competencies of an STS graduate be articulated on the open job market? How can we be sure we’re addressing these at small liberal arts colleges?
  • Are there strategic ways of building relationships to other multidisciplinary fields, such as Media Studies and the Digital Humanities?
  • How might collaborations between small liberal arts colleges foster fundable undergraduate opportunities across or between institutions?
  • What modes of curricular organization already exist for undergraduate STS programs?
  • How could we align general education, major, and minor courses to enhance the educational experience for students in STS programs and to highlight the contributions that STS makes to campus-wide discussions?
  • How could we tailor the content of STS classes for our diverse students, who generally have greater or lesser interest in science or engineering as subjects and as careers?
  • How could we integrate cutting-edge issues into the curriculum, especially since our seniors seem so interested in what’s new? Could we do so through a junior seminar on current STEM, maybe a class that incorporates interviews with leading scientists and policy makers?
  • How can we use relevant technologies to enhance our teaching?
  • How should we understand the relation between the STS curriculum and the sciences, and what role should science courses and science faculty play in STS within the liberal arts colleges?
  • How might wider recognition of STS contribute to ongoing reflection on the character and role of the “liberal arts & sciences” for the 21st Century?

What are other ways to think about the relationship between the undergraduate curriculum and STS? How else can we teach STS? Are there other issues that spring to mind? And most broadly, how do we justify committing precious student time and effort to STS or history of science in a curriculum and society that increasingly privileges science and pre-professional subjects over more humanistic ones?

Bylica the Astrologer

One night at his dacha, Stalin looked up from his meal of bread, sausage, and smoked carp to consider a matter of celestial importance. With him in the study were Comrades Kaganovich and Molotov, who stood at the far window arguing about a constellation. The one said it was Cassiopeia, the other Orion. Stalin wiped the crumbs from his mustache, eager for the debate. Such matters had fascinated him since his youth in the seminary, when he’d often tilted back on his heels to puzzle over the stars. He never had been able to make sense of the heavens. Where other saw bears and scorpions and chained ladies, he saw only a messy splatter of light.

Molotov returned to the low table around which they had gathered, while Kaganovich circled the room, defending his position at great length and with great volume. He provided Molotov with Cassiopeia’ß mythological origins, and drew meaning between each of the bright dots in the sky. He gestured. He laughed at perceived errors in logic. And he even touched on phrenology, a philosophy he refused to endorse in the end, but one he still found worthy of mention, considering Molotov’s limited grasp of the sciences and the flat spot on the back of his head. Stalin was impressed. He grunted and gave short nods of approval. But Molotov could not be so easily swayed, just as he could not be bothered to fortify his defense. “It is Orion,” he said, simply and completely, before smiling as if only a fool would believe otherwise.

Kaganovich lunged at Molotov’s throat, causing …

Stephen Eirik Clark’s “Kamkov the Astronomer” opens with a scene that is uncannily similar to what apparently happened in the Hungarian Diet in 1468. In the diet Corvinus arranged and presided over a contest between two astrologers, Martin Bylica and his former student Jan Stercze, as they debated the proper technique for ascertaining the correct and precise time of birth used to calculate a natal horoscope, a practice called rectifying a geniture. In front of the assembled lords, Corvinus declared Bylica the winner of the debate and offered him a position at court where he remained until his death. Stercze’s future was, apparently, so promising (see this article for more on Bylica and Stercze).

Soviet postage stamp from 1957 (from here).
Soviet postage stamp from 1957 (from here).

Clark’s “Kamkov the Astronomer” imagines brilliantly all the details, the back story, and the personal interactions and motivations that the gaps in our historical evidence prevent us from knowing. I haven’t read the other stories in Clark’s collection, Vladimir’s Mustache and Other Stories, but the volume is worth the cover price just for “Kamkov the Astronomer.”

American Pharmaceutical Association Plaque

This plaque commemorates a rather boring looking spot on 7th Street just off Market, marking another significant location in Philadelphia’s rich history of science (a few blocks away is the Caspar Wistar plaque). Apparently, “nearby” was a building where pharmacists from eight states met to create the American Pharmaceutical Association. What, exactly, is this plaque doing? How near is nearby? A few feet? A block? Does it matter? What does it mean to commemorate a spot near some historical location? Whose interests are served by this plaque?

The plaque commemorating a building nearby.
The plaque commemorating a building nearby.

This plaque joins 140 other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission plaques that commemorate some location “nearby.”

Forms of Divination in Early Modern Europe

St. Augustine rarely passed up an opportunity to condemn divinatory practices. We commonly recall Augustine’s condemnation of astrology where he invoked the example of twins who have experienced radically different lives or suffered from different illnesses (see City of God, book V). But he didn’t shy away from condemning other mantic practices, as in the chapter “Concerning the Hydromancy Through Which Numa Was Befooled by Certain Images of Demons Seen in the Water.” By the end of the sixteenth century, Augustine’s text was frequently printed with Juan Luis Vives’s commentary, which added a laundry list of divinatory practices to Augustine’s chapter denouncing hydromancy:

TO (a) Hydromancy] Diuination by water. Diuination generally was done by diuers means: either by Earth, Geomancy: or by fire, Pyromancy (or Ignispicina, found by Amphiarans as Pliny saith:) or by smoake, Capnomancy: or by birds, Augury: or by intrailes, Aruspicinae: (vsed much by the Hetrurians, and by Ianus, Apollo’s sonne, amongst the Heleans, and after him by Thrasibulus who beheld a dogge holding the cut liuer) or by a siue, called Coscinomancy, or by hatchets, Axinomancy, or by Hearbes, Botinomancy, the witches magike, or by dead bodies, Necromancy, or by the starres, Astrologie (wherein the most excellent are called Chaldeee, though neuer borne in Caldaea): or by lottes, Cleromancy: or by lines in the hand, Chiromancy, or by the face and body, Physiognmy: or by fishes, Icthyomancy (this Apuleius was charged with:) or by the twinckling and motion of the eies called Saliatio, & the Palmique augury. Then was there interpretation of dreames, and visions, or sights of thunder or lightning, noyses, sneezings, voices, and a thousand such arts of inuoking the deuills, which are far better vnnamed. Hydromancy I haue kept vnto the last: because it is my theame: It is many-fold: done either in a glasse bottle full of water, wherein a Childe must looke, (and this is called, Gastromancy of the glasses belly) or in a basen of water, which is called Lecanomancie, in which Strabo sayth the Asians are singular. Psellus de damonibus, affirmeth this also and sheweth how it is done: that the deuills creepe in the bottome, and send forth a still confused sound, which cannot bee fully vnderstood, that they may be held to say what euer come to passe, and not to lye.

Although Vives’s list includes a wide range of mantic pracitces—e.g., Capnomancy, Pyromancy, Axinomancy, Cleromancy, Botinomancy—over the next 150 years many more would be added.

In 1664 A General Collection of Discourses of the Virtuosi of France, upon Questions of all sorts of philosophy and other Natural Knowledge made in the Assembly of the Beaux Esprits at Paris, by the most Ingenious Persons of that Nation included a discussion on divination: “Whether there be any Art of Divination.” One of the interlocutors seemed skeptical, claiming

Whereby it appears, that there is no Art of Divi|nation: Art being a body of precepts tending to some profitable end; whereas were Divination certain, it would cause nothing but either despair or negligence; and precepts being of things happening necessarily or most commonly; that whose cause we know not cannot be known by precepts. And therefore all your Soothsayers, Augurs, Sorcerers, Fortune-tellers, and the like, are but so many Impostors.

But the second interlocutor was less suspicious. He recognized different forms of divination: from God, prophecy; from devils, conjuring; purely natural, prognosticaiton or conjecture. Prophecy depended on divine inspiration. Natural divination was astrology and other rules of thumb—“plague is fore-told by the flourishing of Roses or Violets in Autumn” or “Mice running away from an house presignifie its downfall or burning.” He reserved his efforts for divination grounded in demonic influence and greatly extended Vives’s list:

This Divination is of two sorts. The first is call’d Daemonomancy, when the Devils themselves give answers out of Caves or Images; sometimes by beasts, men, or most frequently by women, rendring oracles by their mouths, stomacks, or bellies, but for the most part ambiguous and doubtful, for fear of being mistaken. The other is call’d Mangania, or Goetia, the most detestable species of which is Necromancy, which draws answers from the mouths of the dead. Others, more remarkable, are, 1. Hydromancy, or Divination by water, into which they pour drops of oyle, or cast three little stones, observing the sections of the circles which they describe. 2. Lecanomancy, by a basin of water, at the bottom of which the answers are heard, after casting thereinto some plates of Gold and Silver, and precious stones, engraven with certain characters. 3. Gastromancy, by glass bottles full of water, in which a big-belly’d woman, or an innocent child, beholds images. 4. Catoptromancy, by Looking-glasses. 5. Crystallomancy, by crystal cylinders. 6. Dactylomancy, by enchanted Rings, like that of Gyges. 7. Onychomancy, by anointing the nail of a child with oyle or tallow, and holding it towards the Sun they see in it what they demand. 8. Aeromancy, by conjurations of the Air. 9. Coscinomancy, by a sieve, and sizzars. All which species of Divination presume either an express or tacite compact with the Devil. But there were three without compact, 1. Aruspices, who drew conjectures from the entrails and motions of beasts sacrificed, from the figures made by melted wax cast into water, call’d Ceromantie, or Daphnomancy, from the crackling of burning Lawrel, Omphalomancy, when by the knots and adhering to the navil and secundines, the Mid-wives fore-tell how many Children the new deliver’d woman shall have afterwards. Amniomancy, foretelling the Childs fortune from the red or livid colour of the coat Amnios. Parthenomancy, to discover Virginity by measuring the neck, or drinking powder’d Agat, which she that is no Virgin vomits up again. 2. Augures, or Auspices who divin’d from birds, beasts, prodigies, and accidents, as Pliny reports of the Servilii, that they had a piece of brass money which they fed with Gold and Silver, and it increas’d when any good was to befall their Family, and diminish’d upon some approaching evil. 3. Unlawful Lots are Cleromancy, which comprehends Homer and Virgil’s Lots. Alectriomancy, by a Cock eating corns of wheat lay’d upon the Letters of the Alphabet. Oniomancy, by names; Arithmancy, by numbers.

Dictionaries that promised to explain difficult terms were quite popular and regularly included the range of mantic practices, such as Thomas Blount’s Glossographia, or A Dictionary Interpreting All Such Hard Words of Whatsoever Language or Elisha Coles’s An English Dictionary Explaining the Difficult Terms that are Used in Divinity, Husbandry, Physick ….

Long lists of divinatory practices also appeared in texts on witchcraft. Henry Holland’s A treatise against witchcraft: or A dialogue, wherein the greatest doubts concerning that sinne… considers the many forms of divinations Satan’s means of knowing the future.

Somewhat surprising is the list of 45 differnt forms of divination found in Randle Holme’s The Academy of Armory, or A Storehouse of Armory and Blazon…:

The several ways by which Fortunes are foretold.

Chiromantickes, are such as take upon them to tell Fortunes by the Lines of the hand. Chiromancer.

Chiromancy, is the Art of telling Fortune by such Lines.

Palmestry, is the Art of telling Fortunes by the Lines in the Hand.

Prognosticator, a Fortune Teller, one that declares things to come.

Prognosticate, or Prognostication, is a foretelling of what shall be and happen, or things before they come to pass.

Divination, a telling of things past, or to come, to predict, foretel, conjecture, or have the fore-knowledg of future things by a Divine Spirit or Revelation.

Physiognomy, the Art of Judging or conjecturing the Fortune of a Man, by the Lineaments of his Face and Body.

Diagnosticate. Diagnostick, a foreshew of Fortune, and things to come to pass, by the scituation of Moles on the Face, or other parts of the Body.

Physnomists, is the telling of Fortune by the Line in the Forehead. A contraction from Physiognomy.

Hieroglyphica, a pretence or vain curiosity or predicting things by the foldings or wrinkles in the hand, or Engraving or Drawing in Pictures before hand, Emblems of things that shall come afterwards to pass.

Dreamer, or Dreams, is a foretelling of things by Dreams, an Interpreter of the signification of Dreams, and what events will follow.
Astronomy, and Astronomer, is the Art of, and the foreteller of things done and past, and what shall happen to any person; a Prediction from Birth and Nativities, by the ruling of the Planets, when such and such things happened.

Cabalistical, or Pythagorean, or Apollonian Invention of numbers, by which the future event of things are and may be predicted.

Astrology, the Science of telling of things through the motion of the Stars and Planets; an Astrologician, Astrologier.

Constellator, and Constellation, is the teller, and the Art of telling of Fortune by Nativities; as whether the party born under such and such Constellations, shall have Health or Diseases, live long or die shortly; also what fortune or misfortune doth attend him, &c.

Auspicium, or Soothsaying, is the telling of good and bad Fortune by the flying of Birds.

Augury, is divination or Fortune telling by their Singing or Chirping or Crowing.

Atuspicana, is a kind of Southsaying, from the things that happen at Sacrifices, and by the things on the Altar.

Etispicium, a foretelling of the event of things, by the inspection of the intrails of Beasts Sacrificed.

Sorcilegium or Lottery, is a telling of Fortune by casting of Lots or Dice, a Lottery or Fortune by Lots.

Oracles, are the telling of things to come, out of the mouth of dumb Images and Idols, by help of the Devil and Idolatrous Priests.

Magick, Witchcraft, Inchanting, Conjuration, is the doing or telling of the Fortune, and transforming the Body by the help of the Devil and Evil Spirits.

Prophecy, is the telling of things to come through the Gift of God, and Inspiration of his Spirit.

Tripudium, is a kind of conjecturing of things by Crums cast to Chicken in a Coop or Pen, which by their eating or not, they make their observation of good or bad luck: These are called also Auspicium coactum, or Pullarius, or Tripudum Solistivum.

Capnomantis, or Smoak Augurers, such as conjectured from the Flame and Smoak of the Altar, whether it rolled or tumbled in the Air, or continued long, which were unfortunate tokens, as the contrary were good. These kind of Augurers were called Capnomentes.

Hydromantia, is a Divination by Water, which is by calling of Spirits to appear in the Water.

Urim and Thummim, it was a Jewish kind of Revelation, by which God oft shewed the event of things; some write that they were two Ornaments in the High Priests Breast plate, but of what manner, or how they gave Answer is hard to resolve, Exod. 28.30. 1 Sam. 28.6.

Ephod, and Teraphim, were things also, by which the Jews and other Idolatrous People, as from an Oracle, sometimes received Answers to what was proposed Of these you may read Iudg. 17.5, and 18.5.6. 1 Sam. 30.7, 8. Zech. 10.2.

Observer of Times, one that distinguisheth Times and Seasons, saying such a day is good, such a day is nought, such an hour, such a week, such a month, such a year is lucky, such is unlucky for such and such businesses.

Inchanter, Sorcery, is a bewitching the senses and minds of Men, by changing the form of things, making them appear otherwise than indeed they are; these were such as resisted Moses, Exod. 7.11.

Charmers, is a muttering, soft speaking, or writing of some Spell or Charm, that shall either suffer such and such a thing to be done, or not be done; as one by speaking some Words in a strange Language or otherwise, shall cure the Ague.

Witchcraft, or consulter with Devils, or Familiar Spirits, as Witches and Wizards do, or being possessed by such Evil Spirits, have them speak out of their Bellies, as out of a Bottle; such a Diviner was the Damsel, Act. 16.16. as is thought by St. Augustin, and most Expositors.

Necromancy, is such Divination, as to consult with the Devil and Satan in the shape of a dead Man or Woman, as the Witch of Endor, who raised the Devil in the likeness of Samuel, to tell Saul the event of the ensuing Battel. 1 Sam. 28.7.8. &c.

Consulters by Staves, Rods, or Arrows, this is a doing of a thing by Lots; or else by measuring a Staff by the Thumb breadth, saying I will do so, and I will not do so, and as the last Thumb breadth falls out, so he determineth.

Uisions or Apparitions, this is an extraordinary way by which things have been revealed, and made known to us, as by good Angels from God, and evil Angels also as Tempters, of which see the Scripture, Exod. 3.2. Iosh. 5.13.14. Mat. 4.1.3. and 2 Maccab. 3.25.33.

Voices or Ecchoes, by it is meant a Voice from Heaven, declaring the Will of God, this took place in the giving of the Law, Exod. 20 4. and took place in the second Temple, 2 Macab. 2.21. Mat. 3.17. when Visions and Inspirations were not.

Inspirations of the Holy Ghost, whereby the persons were enabled to Prophesy, and to speak with unknown Tongues, and Interpret, Act. 2.3.4.

Aeromantia, is a Divination, or telling of Fortune by the Air.

Aleuromantia, is a Divination by Corn, as Barley and Wheat mixed together.

Gastromantia, is a Divination sounding out of the Belly; the Devil speaking in a person possessed.

Oscinum, a South-saying by Singing, or Singing Birds.

Alectryomantia, Divination by the Crowing of a Cock, or from a Cock Stone, or a Stone found in the Maw or Gizard of a Cock, of the bigness of a Bean, and in colour like Christal.

Geomantia, is a kind of Fortune telling, by making of circles or pricks on Paper, or on the Earth, and so by their numbers conjecture the event of things, which is Englished Geomancy, viz. a Sorcerer, Enchanter, a Conjurer or Diviner by Pricks.

Pyromantia, is a Divination by Fire.

Uromantis, is one that can divine somthing from the sight of Urines, a Urine Gaser, a Caster of Waters.

Prognosis, or Signa Prognostica; are signs and tokens in a patient whereby it is known what will become of him, whether for life or death. Prophasis is also a fore knowledg of Diseases, and in Diseases by antecedent and succeeding causes, to fore-tell the Event of things and what will undoubtedly happen to the sick party.

For various reasons not everybody accepted all forms or sometimes any form of divination. Divination was, according to some, a pact with the devil or only possible for God. For other people, some forms of divination were natural and acceptable but nevertheless often inaccurate. Yet many people seemed to place some faith in divination. Consequently, we find parodies of such people. Barten Halyday seemed to mock some of them in his comedy Technogami: Or the Marriage of the Arts.

The most famous paradoy of divinatory practices has to be Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. At one point, Epistemon suggests to Panurge that the two visit Herr Trippa and seek his counsel about whether or not Panurge should marry. For a full chapter Herr Trippa rattles off all manner of divination, some rather amusing and other unusual: tyromancy, or divination by cheese; gyromancy, walking in circles until you fall down; sternomancy interprets marks on the breast; sycomancy reads fig leaves; anthropomancy studies human entrails. Every one, according to Herr Trippa, confirms that Panurge is going to be inevitably cuckolded and “beaten and robbed by your wife… as soundly rubbed with pepper as any falcon infested with vermin.”

Whether or not a person believed in divination, early modern Europe was clearly rife with such beliefs. What we find less frequently is evidence that people actually practiced these forms of divination. Not only do we not find manuals or notebooks of recording consultations, too many of these practices are ephemeral and leave no trace of their having been practiced: cheese rots, fires and echoes die out, water evaporates, smoke dissipates. Alas.