Thursday, November 7, 2013

Medieval Meteors

Woodcut showing meteorite coming to Ensisheim.
Today is the anniversary of the first meteorite the exact date of whose fall to Earth has been recorded. It was in 1492, around noon, when a young boy heard an explosion and observed a rock fall from the sky, burying itself in a wheat field outside the town of Ensisheim in what is now France (but was then Austria). The sound of the explosion was heard up to 150 kilometers away. Townspeople came to investigate and found a 127-kilogram triangular rock in a pit a meter deep. They retrieved it from its trench and immediately started chipping pieces from it, until a local authority stopped them, ordering the rock to be delivered to the steps of the local church and preserved pending an investigation.

But that was far from the first meteor or meteorite recorded.* The Journal for the History of Astronomy in 1978 published "Meteors, Meteor Showers and Meteorites in the Middle Ages: From European Medieval Sources." The article lists every meteoritic phenomenon it could find by carefully scouring historical texts, and includes items such as:
453 or 454 — Tres magni lapides (three big stones). Three meteorites fell in Thrace 
518 — Alius ignis . . . instar scintillarum (another fire sparklike). A meteor. Date uncertain. Theophanis Chronographia 
557 — Discursus stellarum (moving stars). A shower lasting the whole night that caused terror. Date uncertain. G. Cedrenus
There are several pages of entries. Meteoric phenomena could be seen as good or evil, often depending upon their proximity to events in the lives of the observers.

As for the Ensisheim Meteor, it currently resides in the Ensisheim museum and is toasted every year by The Brotherhood of Saint-Georges of the Guardians of the Meteorite of Ensisheim. Maximilian I (1459-1519), son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, visited the rock shortly after its fall and declared it a wonder from Heaven. He took some chips for himself and a friend. After years of people taking parts of it away, the rock is now roughly spherical and has been reduced to about 56 kilograms. I guess everyone wanted to have their little piece of Heaven.

*A meteor (first coined in the 16th century, from a Greek word meaning "lofty") is a rocky object that streaks through the atmosphere, heating up via friction and creating a streak of light; a meteorite is a meteor that reaches the ground. A small percentage of meteorites are composed of nickel and iron.

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