“On July 24, 1239, at dusk, but not when the stars came out, while the air was clear, serene and shining, a great star appeared. It was like a torch rising from the south, and flying on both sides of it, there was emitted in the height of the sky a very great light. It turned quickly towards the north in the aerie region, not quickly, nor, indeed, with speed, but exactly as if it wished to ascend to a place high in the air."
This sequence of motion is not typical of a natural phenomenon, and it certainly was not a “star.”
To understand the correct translation, it’s important to note that Matthew just finished describing events occurring on the Continent to the Emperor Frederick II in his struggle with the Pope. Now Matthew cuts back to St. Albans where a wonder appears in the sky:
In the same year, on the eve of the feast of St. James, about dusk, before the stars had appeared, was seen in a clear blue sky, a very large star like a torch, which rose from the south, and flying along, not upwards, darted through the air, making its way towards the north, not swiftly, but as a hawk usually flies: when it had reached the middle of the firmament, which is in our hemisphere, it vanished, leaving, however, smoke and sparks in the air. This star was either a comet or a dragon, greater to the eye than Lucifer, having the form of a mullet, very bright at the foremost part of it, but at the hind part smoky and sparkling. All who saw this wonderful sign were struck with wonder, and did not know what it portended, but one thing is certain, that after the crops had been almost all choked by the protracted rains, the season was at this very hour changed into one of a most remarkable fertility, and preserved the ripe crops, which were only waiting for the sickle, and allowed them to be gathered in. (trans. J. A. Giles)
Suzanne Lewis, who wrote a book about Matthew Paris, provided her own partial translation in 1987, but it contains a lot of ellipses and some mistranslations (rendering jaculabatur as a passive verb when it is actually active, despite its form). She would like us to read the reference to draco as “the constellation Draco” rather than a dragon, but I can’t figure how it would make any sense for Matthew to have thought that the sign in the sky was a constellation when he explicitly says that the stars weren’t visible.
The original manuscript, unbeknownst to Vallée and Aubeck, contains an image of the event drawn by Matthew Paris himself, which later editors recognized as a meteor or a comet. According to the description provided by Lewis, in the image a red oval filled with gold paint has a light blue tail trailing from it, with red dots representing sparks. Further, had the authors read Matthew’s texts, they would have seen that he records numerous prodigies in the sky, and it was routine for medieval authors to use the word “star” when “meteor” is meant. That Matthew knew the difference between a star and a meteor is obvious elsewhere in his writings when Matthew says that if shooting stars “were “real stars (which no wise man could think), there would not have been one left in the heavens” (entry for July 26, 1243)!