So let’s turn today to an odd item that appeared over at io9 yesterday, a discussion of a strange phenomenon seen in the sky over Canterbury on June 18, 1078 CE. The article, by Esther Inglis-Arkell, appears to be a summary of the Wikipedia entry for the medieval text’s author, Gervase of Canterbury, shorn of its specifics and injected with some opinion. The article is unworthy of review because it contains nothing original, but it is offers a useful comparison to the parallel passage presented in Jacques Vallée’s and Chris Aubeck’s Wonders in the Sky (2009), citing the same paragraph from Gervase’s Chronicle (entry for 1078).
Arkell has pulled a translation of about half of Gervase’s text for her article, quoted (secondhand I am sure) from J. B. Hartung’s 1976 translation, given in the journal Meteoritics (vol. 11):
This year on the Sunday before the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, after sunset when the moon was first seen, a marvellous sign was seen by five or more men sitting facing it. Now, there was a clear new moon, as was usual at that phase, its horns extended to the east; and behold suddenly the upper horn was divided in two. Out of the middle of its division a burning torch sprang, throwing out a long way, flames, coals and sparks. As well, the moon's body which was lower, twisted as though anxious, and in the words of those who told me and had seen it with their own eyes, the moon palpitated like a pummelled snake. After this it returned to its proper state. This vicissitude repeated itself a dozen times or more, namely that the fire took on tormented forms variously at random, and afterwards returned to its prior state. Even after these vicissitudes, from horn to horn, that means along its length, it became semi-black. This to me who writes this was told by those men who with their own eyes saw it, and who are willing to swear an oath that they have not added to nor falsified the above written.
It’s a serviceable translation, but one that has some important errors and seems to have taken the Latin words too literally as the equivalents of their later English derivatives. A more accurate translation is as follows:
This year, on the Sunday before the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, after the sun had set, in the luna prima [i.e., the first quarter moon], a marvelous sign appeared to five or more men sitting turned toward it. For the new moon was bright, as was usual in its newness; its horns stretched out to the east, and behold suddenly the upper horn was divided in two. From the middle of this division sprang a burning torch, throwing flames, coals, and sparks down a long way. Meanwhile, the body of the moon, which was lower, twisted as though disturbed, and to use the words of those who reported this to me, and had seen it with their own eyes, the moon pulsated like a beaten snake. After this it returned to its proper state. This change was repeated a dozen times and more besides, and the flame could be seen sustaining various torturous shapes, like the one mentioned before, and again returning to its prior state. And after these changes, (the moon) certainly was made half-black all along its length from horn to horn. The men who saw this with their own eyes reported to me that which I write, preparing to swear under oath and by their faith, in addition that they have added nothing false.
Inglis-Arkell notes this alternate view, proposed by University of Arizona scientists in 2001, but Vallée and Aubeck, as is their wont, seem uninterested in the original text. Here is how they present Gervase’s material, which they cite to a “University of Arizona news release”:
Gervase of Canterbury wrote that about an hour after sunset five witnesses watched as the upper horn of the bright new moon suddenly split in two. From the midpoint of this division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out fire, hot coals and sparks. The moon "writhed [and] throbbed like a wounded snake." This happened a dozen times or more," turning the moon blackish along its whole length."
Of course, this did not take place in the twelfth century AD, or archives all over the world would have recorded it! This begs the question "What did Gervase's contemporaries really see?" Did they observe the dramatic entrance of a comet into the Earth's atmosphere – or something even stranger? Were they even looking at the moon?