In which I learn to read Middle French…
Let us stipulate at the outset that the famed ufologist Jacques Vallée is French, so we should expect that his translation from his native language should be among the most accurate materials in the 2009 book he co-wrote with Chris Aubeck, Wonders in the Sky. Therefore, when I went to check on what the two authors claimed to be a medieval French account of a silvery flying saucer on the night of November 1, 1461, I was frankly surprised that it appeared that the authors had not actually read the original text they claim to cite. Granted, Middle French is not easy, and it is as different from modern French as Chaucer’s Middle English is to modern English. That’s still no excuse for the “translation” to bear only a passing resemblance to the original.
Here is how the authors translate a passage from page 189 of the printed edition of the third volume of the memoirs of Jacques du Clercq (also spelled Duclercq and Duclerc), an advisor to Duke Phillip the Good of Burgundy, the founder of the Order of the Golden Fleece. It describes events that took place in du Clercq’s hometown of Arras:
On this day of Our Lord, All Saints Day, there appeared in the sky an object as bright as burning steel, as long and wide as half of the moon. It was stationary for fifteen minutes. Suddenly, the strange object began to spiral upwards and then it spun around and rolled over like a loose watch spring, after which it disappeared in the sky.
Anyone who knows anything about history can quickly see that the translation is unlikely to be literally correct since watches hadn’t been invented in 1461, though clocks had used springs since the 1300s. That anachronism is what prompted me to try to find the original text, but after doing so, the Middle French vocabulary gave me no end of trouble, coupled with the fact that du Clercq seems to have used some words that appear in virtually no other author, and certainly no dictionary. I did my best, and there was only one word that I had trouble determining even its approximate meaning. That word is trincquilla, which apparently, as I learned from the comments below, was defined in the glossary to the memoirs that I did not know came with the book. That will teach me not to focus on the text without flipping through the whole book.
So let’s see what du Clercq really wrote, as best I am able to translate the Middle French, and as literal as I am able to make it:
It is said that in the year one thousand four hundred and sixty one, on the night of the day of All Saints, in the town of Arras and the surrounding countryside, there was seen in the sky a burning thing like a very long and thick iron bar, of four toises [about 8 meters], and about the same thickness, resembling the half-moon; it was in the sky for a long time, for the space of half of a quarter of an hour. And it appeared as bright as the full moon, or more so. At last this bar, which for a long time was meandering in such a manner [here the author draws a spiral], went up into the heavens; people from around and within the city all saw it.
Well, that’s certainly different, and more clearly a meteor.
So where did the wrong text come from? I know that in 1996, Luc Mary—a trained Classical historian turned ufololgist—writing in Le temps manipulé, published in French the text that Vallée and Aubeck have Anglicized, for it is in French word for word identical, and just as wrong. I don’t know whether it was the first appearance of this version, but I can’t find an earlier one. Given that Mary’s text is written in modern French, it would seem that Mary or an uncited source he used tried to translate du Clercq’s medieval French into a modern idiom (complete with rendering trincquilla as the apparently non-existent word trincquille) and in so doing introduced new elements into the paraphrase, with the “watch spring” apparently meant to render du Clercq’s spiral drawing into words. How our two authors came to accept this as the legitimate text while actively citing the correct text by edition and page, I can’t fathom.
This is especially perplexing because Vallée’s own English-language 1965 book Anatomy of a Phenomenon quotes the lines almost correctly: “A fiery thing like an iron rod of good length and as large as one half of the moon was seen in the sky for a little less than a quarter of an hour.” So what happened? Well, in 1965 Vallée lifted the quotation from Harold T. Wilkins’s Flying Saucers on the Attack (1954), which must have included the text from… well, you’ll see. Did Vallée conveniently forget his own citation of the (more or less) correct material? Mary, at least, has the good sense to hide his tracks: He claims that his version of the text is taken from a copy of du Clercq’s manuscript uncovered in Arras on January 1, 1954.
Now here’s the kicker: Mary appears to have misunderstood a 1954 news report about du Clercq’s “UFO.” On January 2, 1954, Arras town archivist Rene Lefevre found the passage in the original manuscript (the same manuscript published in 1823 and reprinted in 1836, and translated above)—which had never been lost—and made headlines by claiming that the object was a UFO. No claim was made that the text was unknown or unpublished. The UP, reporting the story, gave Lefevre’s version of the text, which is once again inaccurate: “On the night of All Saints’ Day 1461, a bright object about half the size of the moon was seen for almost a quarter of an hour. […] It flew around wildly and then darted off into the sky.” Note that this version doesn’t match Mary’s, nor the 1823 published edition, nor Vallée’s 1965 version! The story made English language newspapers just in time for Wilkins to enter it into Flying Saucers on the Attack, where Vallée found it.
I presume, though I cannot prove, that Mary was working from a 1950s or 1960s French article or maybe a UFO book that discussed Lefevre’s claim and paraphrased the text, though perhaps he was working from a French translation of Wilkins. Without references, there is no way for me to know. In either case, it seems that along the way someone mistook a paraphrase of du Clercq for the original wording, likely due to the challenges presented by the Middle French original. Whether the innovations in the text derive from Lefevre, a journalist, or Mary, I sadly do not know.
However, it seems fairly clear that Vallée knew the story originally from a single sentence from Wilkins and mistook Mary’s (or Mary’s source’s) version for a fuller copy. I cannot account for how Vallée and Aubeck managed to correctly cite the original text while translating a faulty paraphrase, unless they borrowed the citation from a secondhand source and never bothered to check whether the text they copied actually appeared where they said it did.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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