Tuesday, April 23, 2019

British vs. Irish Christianity

The previous post discussed some aspects of Celtic Christianity found in the British Isles that differed from the "mainstream" Rome-based Christianity. There were "local" differences between practices in Ireland and England as well.

Monasteries in Ireland adhered to a much stricter rule than the typical Rule of St. Benedict. Fasting and corporal punishment were more common in Ireland than British monasteries or elsewhere. By the 9th century, most monasteries were conforming to the Benedictine style.

Baptism was also different in Ireland, although we do not have a clear description of it. Bede claims that Augustine of Canterbury found the Irish baptismal rite to be "incomplete" compared to the Roman custom, although what was left out is not explained.

One of the biggest differences was the practice of "Judaizing": observing Jewish rites instead of the newly developing Christian versions. One of the biggest examples was, of course, the observance of Easter on a date more closely conforming to the Jewish Passover. This was one of the main points of contention at the Synod of Whitby. Adhering more closely to laws found in the Old Testament could be a problem. In the mid-8th century, an Irish preacher named Clement Scotus was condemned for heresy, partially because he promoted Old Testament laws such as requiring a man to marry the widow of his brother. Paul's Letter to the Romans in the New Testament made clear that Christians were absolved from following the old law through Christ's sacrifice. Rejecting the Old Testament's list of injunctions and rules was therefore an important part of distinguishing Christianity from Judaism.

Much of what was different about Irish Christianity was inspired by the preaching of Columbanus, and we should talk about him next.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Celtic Christianity

We have discussed the Synod of Whitby in 664, which debated whether Roman-based or Iona-based Christianity should prevail. "Celtic Christianity" might be a better term for what was being followed in the British isles, since it was a collection of practices that was found among the Celtic-speaking peoples of the early Middle Ages. We've discussed the Easter date controversy, but there were other differences: how monks should be tonsured, how the sacrament of penance should be performed, etc.

The typical method of tonsure to denote your status as a monk is seen in artwork, and clearly represented the crown of thorns: it shaved a circle at the top of the head and below the ears, leaving a ring. We do not have artwork from the time depicting the Irish tonsure, but it appeared to run from ear to ear over the head, rather than around.

Regarding penance, the Irish form was a private matter: the penitent Christian confessed to a priest in private and was given a form of penance to undergo privately. This does not seem strange to modern Roman Catholics, whose churches have confessionals: a small room for the penitent with a grill connecting it to a small room where the priest sits, so that the two can speak with anonymity. On the continent, early Christian penance was a public affair, with those wishing to participate appearing in sackcloth and confessing as a group.

Another practice that found expression in Britain and Ireland was the idea that one must travel away from one's home as part of the religious life. This peregrinatio pro Christo [Latin: "exile for Christ"] became popular later when St. Augustine of Hippo claimed one should be an exile in this world while awaiting the Kingdom of God.

The term "Celtic Christianity" is a convenient one, and should not be construed as evidence that there was a formal set of rules for all of the Celtic world as opposed to the Roman world. Ireland had some of its own preferences. Britain, like the rest of the world, placed religious authority with the bishop of a diocese. In Ireland in the early Middle Ages, the abbot of a monastery was considered a more significant authority than the bishop.

I'll talk about some additional divergence between the early Irish and British churches next.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Date of Easter

Easter is the "floatiest" of floating holidays in the Western calendar. The 7th century saw a very serious debate over how the date should be determined. The debate was between the Ionan and the Roman traditions. The Ionan tradition is so-called because it was promoted by the Irish monks on the Isle of Iona.

According to John 19:14, Pilate presents Jesus to the Jews on the "day of the preparation of Passover."  Early Christianity probably celebrated Easter based on Passover, which is always the 14th of the lunar month of Nisan. The First Council of Nicaea in 325 decreed that Easter should be divorced from the Jewish calendar and celebrated on a Sunday. An 84-year lunar-solar cycle was used to calculate the date for awhile.

Developing an accurate calendar based on the actual length of the year was an ongoing problem until the Gregorian Calendar, and the date of Easter was calculated in several different ways for centuries, resulting in different dates being used by different Christian factions. There was a time in Northumbria when the king and queen actually celebrated Easter separately.

Eventually, the differences became too important an issue to allow to exist, and the Synod of Whitby was conferred in 664 to resolve the issues. The strongest voice for the Roman tradition was Wilfrid, who argued:
  1. it was the practice in Rome, where the apostles SS. Peter and Paul had "lived, taught, suffered, and are buried";
  2. it was the universal practice of the Church, even as far as Egypt;
  3. the customs of the apostle John were particular to the needs of his community and his age and, since then, the Council of Nicaea had established a different practice;
  4. Columba had done the best he could considering his knowledge, and thus his irregular practice is excusable, the Ionan monks at present did not have the excuse of ignorance; and
  5. whatever the case, no one has authority over Peter (and thus his successors, the Bishops of Rome).
Both sides agreed that Jesus had "given Peter the keys"; after that, both sides had to agree that Rome should lead the way.

How exactly do we calculate Easter? It's simple: Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. If the equinox takes place on 21 March, and is a full moon and a Saturday, then Sunday the 22nd is Easter. This actually happened in 1818, but won't happen again until 2285. If the full moon falls on the day prior to a March 22nd vernal equinox, and 28 days later the full moon falls on Sunday, then Easter is the following Sunday. In 1943, this happened, and Easter happened at its latest possible date, 25 April. This will happen again in 2038.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Frankpledge

The oath of frankpledge (mentioned here) was a promise of mutual aid between members of a community, used throughout several centuries of the English Middle Ages. When I say "members of a community" I really mean male members over a certain age, exempting clergy and knights, who owed allegiance to different authorities.

Pursuing a sheep stealer
Early Anglo-Saxon society had a practice known as frith-borh ["peace pledge"]. The borh was a way for certain individuals to take responsibility for those under their care, assuring that they would be turned in for crimes or appear before the court if accused. A master was responsible for his slaves, or a person for his family members, or a lord for those living on his land. This was a very informal system of appointing responsibility.

A little later came the Anglo-Saxon custom of tithing, which meant a "thing of 10." Ten men would agree to be a tithing, which existed primarily to agree that they would promise to surrender to the authorities one of their group who broke the law. It was a voluntary grouping, and only local men were eligible. To be eligible, you had to possess property that could be forfeit if you were deemed guilty of something. Women, children, slaves, people passing through—none of these needed to join a tithing since they had no property that could be confiscated if they neglected their duty.

It was not until the reign of King Henry I (c.1068 – 1 December 1135) that the frankpledge gets mentioned in his codified laws. It was originally an informal method of creating civic obligation. Unlike the London Wardmote of a later date, the frankpledge was administered by a sheriff on his bi-annual tourney around the country. At this time he was to be paid a token penny, but also he took the opportunity to fine infractions of the law. The potential for corruption was great enough that the Magna Carta included limitations on the sheriff's exploitation of frankpledge.

The Black Death (1348-50) disrupted the use of frankpledge by reducing the numbers of the oath-taking groups through death and re-location in the pursuit of jobs. Although it survived in the 1400s, a growing national structure of constables and justices of the peace took on more and more responsibility for maintaining order. There is still a holdover of the tithing and frankpledge in the Riot Act of 1886 in England, which indirectly levies damage costs on the local population after damages from rioting.

The Oath of Frankpledge shown here comes from the Liber Albus, the White Book of the laws of London, which was discussed here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Anonymous IV at Notre Dame

[Mindful of the tragedy at Notre Dame of Paris on 15 April, 2015, I re-present this post from 2012.]

In the post on the Las Huelgas Codex I mentioned that many of the pieces in the codex were new to scholars, but some were familiar. Where else had they been seen?

Notre Dame Cathedral
The collection of recorded polyphonic music produced by composers working at Notre Dame Cathedral from c.1160-c.1250 is referred to as the Notre Dame School of Polyphony. A majority of medieval polyphonic music up to this time was committed to parchment by the Notre Dame School.

This does not man, sadly, that we can set a manuscript in front of a modern musician and have the notes played as they were intended to be heard. Differences in musical notation and rhythm make it close to impossible to know precisely how these pieces were performed centuries ago. For us to make an attempt is only feasible because of analyses of music written by a handful of people. Franco of Cologne was one, John of Garland another (best estimates are that he was keeper of a bookshop in Paris who edited two treatises on music), and the later writing of the industrious student known only as Anonymous IV.*

The "Alleluia nativitatis" by Pérotin
Thanks to Anonymous IV, we have contemporary definitions of what is meant by organum (a plainchant melody with one voice added to enhance harmony), discantus ("singing apart"; a liturgical style of organum with a tenor plainchant and a second voice that moves in "contrary motion"), the rules for consonance and dissonance, and other terms and rules of polyphony.

One "ironic" result of the writing of Anonymous IV is that. through him, we know the names of two composers who would otherwise have been lost to obscurity. He writes about Léonin and Pérotin with such detail and feeling that, although Anonymous would have lived several decades after they lived and composed, they were presumably so famous that their reputations lived on in the school. Léonin and Pérotin are some of the earliest names of artists that we can actually link to their works.

As much as we have been given by the treatise of Anonymous IV, his own identity and details of his life are unknown. Two partial copies of his work survive at Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, England; one is from the 13th century, and one from the 14th. Clearly, his work was considered important enough to copy and preserve—but not his name. He was likely an English student who was at Notre Dame for a time in the late 13th century. Thanks to his interests, we understand more about the development of medieval polyphonic music than we otherwise would have.

*His name is the inspiration for a modern female a capella group.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Dick Whittington and His Cat

Dick Whittington buying his cat
A popular figure from English folk tales is Dick Whittington. He is based on Lord Mayor of London Richard Whittington (c.1354-1423), who started as a wealthy mercer, became a money-lender who helped the King, was elected to several positions, and donated a great deal of money to good causes.

More than 150 years after his time, his name started getting used for ballads, a play, and numerous stories of the "rags to riches" variety. There are different versions of his story, but we can present the main elements:

A poor orphan, Dick Whittington, seeks his fortune in London. Falling asleep on a stoop of a wealthy family, he is given a place to sleep and work as a scullion, cleaning the kitchen. He lives in a rat-infested garret, which is made safe because he has a cat (which he bought for a penny that he earned from shining shoes). Eventually, glad of a room but resentful that he is not paid money for his work, he leaves the house. During his journey, he hears the "London Bells" ringing, and they seem to be telling him to "Turn again, Whittington" and tell him he will become mayor. He returns to the house.

Skipping over a bit (a great deal, actually), there is a situation overrun by rats and mice. Dick's cat turns out to be exemplary at dealing with the rodent problem, and he is subsequently offered a great deal of money for the cat. Whittington becomes rich, marries his master's daughter (Alice Fitzwarren, which was the name of the real Whittington's wife), joins his new father-in-law in business, and is later elected mayor of London three times. (He was actually mayor four times, but once was when the king appointed him.)

The folk tale of a man with a useful cat is not unique to England. Two Italian versions are known. A German version is known from the 13th century. A 14th century Persian chronicle tells the same story of a widow's son who made his fortune because of his cat's hunting ability. Although the motif is found much earlier than the English version, the Aarne-Thompson classification system calls it the "Whittington's cat" motif.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Mayor Richard Whittington

One of the most prominent mayors of the City of London in the Middle Ages (and perhaps of all other eras) was Richard Whittington. He was born sometime in the 1350s into a well-to-do family, but as a younger son would not have expected to inherit anything substantial; he was therefore sent to London to learn to be a mercer (a merchant who deals in cloth). Fortunately, he was good at the trade, and by 1388 he was selling to the royal court. He used his growing wealth to become a moneylender, rather than buy property. This ingratiated him to many prominent people; King Richard II was borrowing from him in 1397.

By that time he had been a councilman, an alderman, and a sheriff as well as a powerful member of the Mercers' Company. In 1397, Mayor Adam Bamme died. London and the King were in the middle of a serious dispute: asserting mismanagement, King Richard had appropriated London's real estate. Richard forced London to accept Whittington as mayor. Richard owed Whittington money, and could simply default on the loan. If Whittington wanted his money, he would work with Richard to resolve the dispute. Within days, they struck a deal by which London would receive back all its real estate and right to self-government in exchange for £10,000. That was in June; in October, the citizens elected Whittington mayor in his own right.

In all, he was elected mayor 4 times (though not consecutively). When Richard II was deposed in 1399, Whittington's situation did not suffer: he also had business dealings with Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, and so he remained on good terms with the (new) King. He also loaned large sums to Henry V, and continued to be successful, as a member of parliament representing London, and even as a judge in usury trials in 1421! Henry V also appointed him supervisor of the funds for rebuilding Westminster Abbey.

He was a magnanimous figure. Money from him helped to rebuild the Guildhall (used as town hall for centuries). He financed drainage systems for parts of London, a ward for unmarried mothers at a hospital, the rebuilding of his ward's church, and "Whittington's Longhouse," a public toilet that seated 128 and was situated so that high tide in the River Thames would flush it out. His will left £7000 to rebuild Newgate Prison, repair St. Bartholomew's Hospital, install public drinking fountains, and more.

Historians know him well, but schoolchildren in England know the name for things he never did, and we will look at that next.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

John Carpenter's White Book

The Liber Albus or White Book was the first compilation of the laws of the City of London. It was assembled in 1419 by one John Carpenter, the Town Clerk of London, with whom it is so closely identified that a statue of Carpenter in the City of London School for Boys shows him holding the book!

The earliest firm date for Carpenter is 18 December 1378 when he was baptized in Hereford Cathedral. Later information says he was 45 in 1417, when he became Town Clerk of London, which would mean he was born about 1372. Records frequently list him as John Carpenter the younger, to distinguish him from two other men of that name who were active at that time. Oddly (to modern sensibilities), one of the other John Carpenters was his older brother, to whom he left much property when John the younger died in 1442.

The White Book was completed in 1419, the first time all of English Common Law (at least, as it pertained to the City of London) was compiled in a single document. A large part of it is given over to the regulation of the food trade and civic order. One scholar discusses how the document was put together with a specific agenda; Carpenter and the mayor who ordered the work were aiming to establish the City of London as the recipient of "ancient and sacrosanct privilege" not enjoyed by the rest of England. (This may have been partially because the King seized London's real estate in 1392, claiming that the City had been mismanaged.)

The mayor who ordered the work was Richard Whittington, one of the more prominent mayors of that century. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, you may be recalling the English folk tale Dick Whittington and His Cat. Yes, this is that Dick Whittington! And he—if you did not suspect already—deserves his own entry next.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Local Government, Part 2

A modern Aleconner [link]
We know that, in medieval London, an alderman held an assembly called a Wardmote every other year, at which attendance by every male in the ward over a certain age (with some exceptions) was required. The purpose of these meetings was manifold.

One major occurrence was to administer the "Oath of Frankpledge"; this was an oath that imposed upon each attendee an obligation to civic duty. (Knights and some others were exempt, since they owed allegiance to different authority.) The oath:

You shall swear, that you shall be good and true unto the King of England and to his heirs, Kings, and the King's peace shall you keep; and to the officers of the City you shall be obedient, and at all times that should be needful, you shall be ready to help the officers in arresting misdoers, and those disobedient to the King's peace, as well denizens as strangers.  And you shall be ready, at the warnings of the Constables and Beadles, to make the watches and other charges for the safeguard of the peace, and all the points in this Wardmote shown, according to your power, you shall well and lawfully keep. And if you know any evil coven within the Ward of the City, you shall withstand the same or unto your Alderman make it known. So God you help, and the Saints.
Regarding the line "as well denizens as strangers": A "citizen" was a native; a "denizen" was a foreigner residing locally; a "stranger" was someone present without a fixed local address. The potentially disruptive behavior of strangers (who of course had no oath of obligation to the municipality) was a constant concern. Since visitors had to stay somewhere, innkeepers were made responsible for the actions of their temporary tenants. In 1384, in London, innkeepers were required to answer for the customers' actions if the customers stayed longer than a single day and night. A guest whose behavior required the attention of the authorities could cost the innkeeper a fine of £100.

After the oath came the elections. Various positions needed to be filled by the male citizens. The Beadle [Old English bydel: "a person who makes a proclamation] was responsible for disseminating information orally in a society without Twitter or newspapers. He was the first "social medium." Also elected for a two-year term were aleconners, whose enviable job was to test bread, ale, and beer for quality. Scavengers had the less enviable task of finding and removing trash from public spaces.

These practices helped to maintain order in a large city such as London, by dividing it up into Wards of a more manageable size and putting responsibility into the hands of people who were neighbors of those they policed and served. Although written laws and contracts were used at this time, the verbal contract of the frankpledge served to bind the men to their obligations. The frankpledge quoted above comes from the Liber Albus, the White Book. We should talk about that next.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Local Government, Part 1

A village meeting.
What was the level of communication between the typical medieval citizen and the authorities? What role did the citizenry play in legislation?

Municipalities in the Middle Ages were much smaller than what we usually have now. Considering that 95% of the population was agrarian and needed land for sustainability, there might be only a few dozen families in a couple square miles, looking to each other for trade and the mutual benefit that comes from knowing all your neighbors. Everyone, or representatives of families, could easily spread the word to gather at the village square to discuss matters that applied to the entire community.

What happens in a town the size of London, however? Estimates for the middle of the 14th century (post-Plague) put London at 25,000 to no more than 50,000. How do you keep that large a population involved by "scaling up" the village model of meeting in the square?

Well, you break it down into villages, or rather, "wards."

London was divided into 24 wards, 12 on each side of the Walbrook. (The Walbrook is/was a river that flowed north to south and emptied into the Thames. It is one of the "lost rivers" of London. Yeah, I'll explain that some day.) A 25th was added in 1394 due to post-Plague growing population.

Each ward had an elected official, the alderman. Every other year, the alderman was required to hold a "ward mote" (from the Anglo-Saxon moot = assembly) of the residents of the ward. Well, not all residents. Everyone over the age of 15 was required to attend, including servants. Unless you were a woman (your husband or father would represent you), or a knight (your allegiance was to the king, not the ward), or his squire (you do what your knight tells you), or a clerk (university students were not yet trusted to be useful members of society), or an apprentice (the master you were apprenticed to would handle it, thanks).

For convenience, meetings were held in the principal church in the ward. A beadle would call the roll—two rolls, actually, to separate freemen from servants—to make sure everyone was there who was required. Those absent were fined four pence.

What was on the agenda? We will look at that next.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Population Density

In the Middle Ages, how many people lived in how much space? An economist who writes about cotton, migration and other topics (and has written a piece on why Westeros has gone millennia without an Industrial Revolution) has compiled data on what we know about populations in medieval countries and tried to produce estimates of population density.

The first point he makes is that sustainable population in 800CE is not the same as that of 1000 or 1300. Conditions change all the time in a society that does not have control over disease or natural disaster. He cites a widespread previous figure of 30-120 people per square mile and rejects it. Taking the total area of a country and our best knowledge of that country's population, the math works out to far fewer people.

Therefore, he offers figures such as France with about 68/square mile in 1300, Italy with between 60 and 95 folk per square mile, England and Wales with 11-30, Scotland with somewhere between 4 and 8, and Sweden and Norway with 1-4. This, of course, neglects wide swaths of a country that might be uninhabitable.

Also, what about the tendency of people to cluster together for mutual benefit? Well, in the many villages that dot the land, populations of a few hundred dominate. In fact, it looks like self-sufficiency in a typical medieval village averages about 300 people. (Incidentally, this is the same figure a 2010 government study determined the average person has in the "personal network": the number of people you know well enough to say you "know" them. link) Also, a country that is 95% agrarian needs space for crops and livestock, and so population density is still fairly low.

But what about urbanization? Let's look at London.

Best estimates for London in 1000 CE are 5000-10,000; three centuries later it is ten times that number. That changes radically because of the Plague, however, and in 1350 the population has dropped by half, say 25,000-50,000. This presents enormous challenges for governance. How do legislative decisions get made and disseminated when you cannot get the whole village in one place?

We will look at that next time.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Albert of Saxony & Impetus

After the previous post on impetus, I wanted to introduce you to Albert of Saxony, who took Avicenna's idea a step further.

Albert of Saxony (c.1320 - 8 July 1390) was the son of a German farmer who became a bishop of Halberstadt after studying at the University of Prague, the University of Paris, and the Sorbonne. He went to Pope Urban V as an envoy of Austria to negotiate the founding of the University of Vienna, whose rector he became in 1353.

A pupil of Jean Buridan in his youth, he was influenced by Buridan's teachings on logic and physics. He worked out his own theory of impetus, based on his predecessors and adding the third or "final" stage of a moving object. Prior to this, it was accepted that
1. the initial force causes the object to move in a straight line (A-B)
2. the object deviates from its path as impetus fades (B)

To this theory, Albert added the third stage:
3. the impetus or force which causes the initial movement is spent, and gravity draws the object downward vertically (C), where it stops (D).

Modern physics would describe this progression as an example of inertia. It seems obvious to us, but these ideas and their descriptions had to start somewhere!

The careful, methodical way in which he laid out his thoughts, and his commentaries on Aristotle's Physics, made him more widely read in the Middle Ages than Buridan. The widespread distribution of his works spread the ideas of the University of Paris throughout Italy and central Europe.

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Theory of Impetus

1582 woodcut demonstrating
impetus with artillery
Impetus is the force or energy with which a body started to move. The term itself entered the English language in the 17th century, but the concept was studied long before that.

Aristotle thought that, for an object in motion to continue to move, it must have a continuous force behind it. John Philoponus in the 6th century thought rather that the initial force was necessary and did not need anything else, but that the initial force would therefore be only temporary; hence an object in motion's observed tendency to slow and stop. Avicenna in the 11th century agreed with him, calling the phenomenon "projectile motion."

In the 12th century, an Islamic philosopher, Hibat Allah Abu'l-Barakat al-Baghdaadi, recognized (finally!) that the motive force diminishes with distance from the mover.

Jean Buridan, writing in French in the 14th century, called this force "impetus" (from Latin impetere, "to assail"), and even expressed it mathematically: impetus = weight x velocity. Even he, however, treated impetus as if it were momentum. Modern physics distinguishes the two thusly: impetus is the initial force behind a moving object, momentum is "the quantity of motion of a moving body." It seems universally understood by anyone who has ever thrown a ball that Aristotle's option of a continuous motivating force is simply quaint.

Buridan understood that there was resistance (such as the air) that caused the impetus to fade. There was a case, however, in which impetus did not have resistance. God, when putting the celestial spheres in motion, did so in a way that created infinite impetus so that they would (obviously!) never stop moving.

To which the medieval world replied: Thank Heavens.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Birth of a Medievalist

This is a slightly different tack for DailyMedieval, but many fans of his fiction are unaware of his career as a medievalist.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (3 January 1892 - 2 September 1973) graduated college with a specialty in Old Norse before he went not fight in World War I. After the war, his first job was working for the Oxford English Dictionary, reviewing the history and etymology of Germanic words. He became an expert in Old Norse, Old English, Middle English, Old Icelandic, Gothic, and Medieval Welsh. He also taught himself some Finnish.

Later, at the University of Leeds, he produced A Middle English Vocabulary and a translation of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that is still in print.

One of his most significant additions to medieval studies was his long essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Delivered as a lecture in 1936, it argued for the beauty of the poem as Early English literature. Up to this point, Beowulf had been used largely as a primer on the language of Old English/Anglo-Saxon, and picked apart for its references to places and names that could be matched to historical facts.

He describes the attitude toward the poem with a parable:
A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man's distant forefathers had obtained their building material.
His essay created an atmosphere in which Beowulf could be seen as a poem worthy of being treated as a poem, not as an old document to be studied simply for clues to language and criticized as a dish-mosh of paganism and Christianity, mingled stories of heroism and monsters, history and myth.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Ultima Thule

A 1537 rendition of Thule
On New Year's Eve 2018, a NASA probe transmitted pictures of Ultima Thule, an object 4 billion miles from Earth. "Ultima Thule" is not your typical astronomical naming convention.

Ultima Thule, or the "ultimate Thule," was first described about 300BCE by a Greek explorer named Pytheas. It was supposedly about six days north of Britain, a place so far from the natural world that land and sea and air were no longer separate substances, but instead formed a strange mixture in which one could not survive.

A thousand years after Pytheas, Isidore of Seville (mentioned here, also involving astronomy) explained Ultima Thule as being so far north that there was no daylight beyond it, making the sea cold and sluggish.

As stories of explorers (verified or not) appeared, Thule was identified and re-identified with lands farther and farther from mainland Europe. St. Brendan's voyages suggested new lands that historians thought might refer to Thule. The later Middle Ages decided it must refer to Iceland or Greenland. In early modern times, Norway became the candidate to explain early stories of a land that far north.

In the 20th century, the idea of Thule was co-opted by certain German writers and politicians as the legendary origin of the Aryan race. Fortunately, the 21st century has given it a new connotation.