Today I have an interesting, if somewhat unusual, bit of Latin translation from Wonders in the Sky (Penguin, 2009), the deeply flawed collection of pre-twentieth century UFO reports by Jacques Vallée and Chris Aubeck, who pretend toward a scholarly rigor they utterly lack. This particular account of a medieval meteor or comet sighting, widely reproduced across the internet from Wonders, seemed so straightforward that it surprised even me how utterly and completely the two authors failed to understand it.
Jacques Vallée and Chris Aubeck present the following “translation,” which they claim comes from Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora, a medieval manuscript compiled in the 1230s, 1240s and 1250s. The text covers the night of July 24, 1239 and reflects Matthew’s eyewitness account of events seen from the abbey of St. Albans in England. The authors, though, confuse Matthew’s moniker “Paris” for a location and incorrectly claim that the event occurred in France rather than England. Matthew was dubbed “the Parisian” because he was educated in France, but he lived and worked in England (and occasionally Norway) for most of his life. The material in quotation marks below the authors attribute directly to Matthew, and the material afterward is their overconfident commentary on the same:
“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."
So who’s ready to guess what they screwed up this time by dint of not either understanding Latin very well or not actually reading the original material? Oh, there is so much they got wrong—and a few parts that simply don’t make sense. Both sides of what? Worse, at the end they mistranslate volare (to fly) as velle (to wish), unaware apparently in looking up the first person singular headword in a dictionary that volo (wish: infinitive velle) is irregular, while volo (fly: infinitive, volare) is regular. They mixed up the similar-looking words. I’ll be damned where they got “both sides” or a “great light” from the Latin text. If I had to guess—and this is only a guess from their previous efforts—the translation is probably mediated through a French paraphrase that they mistook for a quotation, but from where I can’t imagine.
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)
I have confirmed Giles’s translation against the Latin; it is correct, plus or minus your feelings about how medieval people differentiated between blue and purple, and I might have translated the bit about the hemisphere differently: “as it is seen in our hemisphere.” Given that this translation has been in print since 1889, I can’t imagine how Vallée and Aubeck screwed the text up so badly unless it was sheer incompetence or utter dishonesty.
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)!
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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