Note: This post has been updated with additional information.
Did a UFO buzz the Frankish army in 827 CE? It’s doubtful. This is a weird game of telephone that grows progressively more ridiculous as authors repeat each other’s mistakes and make new mistakes as well. Once again misunderstanding Latin seems to be the culprit in generating a UFO sighting that didn’t happen. To understand how this came about, we need to start at the beginning of the story, with an anonymous Latin text called the Vita Hludowici Pii (Life of Louis the Pious), whose author is known only as “the Astronomer.” Composed around 835 CE, the text is a biography of Louis (Ludwig) the Pious (778-840), the son and successor of Charlemagne. The author is known as the Astronomer because he casts himself as a diviner of the heavens, reading the history of the Frankish kingdom through signs seen in the sky. Many candidates have been proposed for his identity, but none is widely accepted.
In describing a military disaster that befell Louis’s son, Pepin I of Aquitaine, in Spain in 827, the Astronomer discusses a sign that appeared right before the ill-fated battle. A single sentence in chapter 41 reads, as I translate it: “Truly, during the nighttime terrible armies in battle lines preceded this calamity, red with human blood and burning with the pallor of fire.” In other words, a ghostly premonition of the upcoming battle appeared before the assembled forces. The same event is also recorded around 840 CE in the Annales Regni Francorum for 827, as I translate from the critical composite of the various manuscript texts: “Premonitions of this disaster were believed to have been seen many times in the sky, armies in battle lines and their terrible nocturnal flashing as they dashed about in the air.” This is a rather standard form of medieval portent—one of hundreds of accounts of phantom soldiers that medieval minds imagined fought in the twilight hours. (You will recall that the dark clouds seen before the luminescent hat invasion of 1577 were similarly described as a black army doing battle in the sky.)
But it isn’t what ufologists made of it.
The two sentences attracted the attention of Michel Bougard, a Belgian professor and ufologist, who wrote about it in an August 1975 article in the Belgian UFO journal Inforespace (no. 22). Thanks to a request from Nablator, the French skeptic Uncle Dom gave us the chance to read the French-language version given by Bougard, which I translate into English:
Einhard notes further that in Spain during the expedition of Pepin I, second son of Louis the Pious, in 827, strange things happened (Ludovic Pii Vita [sic] manuscript): “…in truth, disaster was preceded by terrible appearances of things in the air. During the night they were sometimes of pale light, and sometimes of bright light, red like blood.”
Bougard, as David Bradbury notes, repeated the text in his 1977 book La chronique des OVNI. He then had his text his adapted into English by Jacques Vallée and Chris Aubeck for Wonders in the Sky (2009). Here is how the latter authors, trying to avoid paying licensing fees for using his translation, state in paraphrase that Bougard described the passage, which of course they never read in the original: “Eginard writes that ‘terrible things in the sky’ were observed during the night while Pepin I was at war in Spain. The objects emitted lights, pale or red in color.” Vallée and Aubeck add that “Here again, the interpretation is difficult: meteors are not ‘pale and red.’”
Bougard sure did a number on this text! The author he attributes to the text, “Eginard,” is better known as Einhard, the author of the Life of Charlemagne. Einhard was also once believed to have been the author of the Royal Frankish Annals, and is typically identified as the editor of its first three sections, though this is not conclusive. However, the passage from the Annals we’re interested in comes from the fourth section, the only one whose author can be determined: Hilduin of St. Denis. (Not coincidentally, he is also often claimed as a candidate to be the Astronomer!) It is likely that in his ignorance of the philology of the Annals, which in older editions were published as the Annals Which Are Said to Be of Einhard, Bougard thus attributed to Einhard a conflation of the two passages referring to Pepin’s vision, that of the Annals and that of the Astronomer, which the modern ufological text runs together despite their differences.
The Astronomer, in the Life of Louis the Pious, doesn’t specifically place the vision in the sky (though it is implied), and was quite specific about what the “things” or “objects” in the sky were: lines of battling soldiers. He says nothing about them emitting light, and in fact describes the redness specifically as human blood, which soaked the pale glow of their fiery appearance. By contrast, Hilduin, in the Annals, does place the events squarely in the sky, but he multiplies them and leaves out the colors that play such a big role in the Astronomer’s version. Vallée and Aubeck are ignorant of all of this, despite looking up the proper citation of the text (which they did not read), and don’t even notice that their own quotation-summary simultaneously attributes the same words to Einhard (whose name they never translate from its Francophone equivalent despite providing it in English when discussing him earlier in the book) and to the Astronomer, whom they call by the Latin “Astronomus” and think of as a formal name.
What’s interesting is that our ufologists aren’t the only ones to reach the wrong conclusion about the Latin texts. Writing an article on medieval red rain in The Long Morning of Medieval Europe (2008), the Simon Fraser University medievalist Paul Edward Dutton translates the passage from the Astronomer as describing “frightful rays at night, glowing red with human gore and blazing with the brightness of fire.” Now they’re rays! How did that happen?
The trouble all of the authors have seems to stem from the Latin word acies, which can mean “sharpness,” “a sharp edge,” “brightness,” “mental acuity,” “the eye,” “lines drawn up for battle,” or “an army arrayed in battle lines” depending on the context and usage. The Romans famously applied it to a legionary formation. “Sharpness” and “an army arrayed for battle” are the primary meanings, with the others tending to be figurative or poetic. I translated the word in my translations as “armies in battle lines,” but “armies” would likely work fine, too. Dutton has taken the passage to refer to glowing sharp edges in the sky, even though this doesn’t make any sense in terms of a battle premonition. The ufologists simply throw up their hands and translate the word as “things” or “objects.”
And thus Latin defeats them all! The glowing objects in the sky or space rays only exist due translation problems. Taken in context and with a better translation, the vision of an army in the sky is much clearer, and can be seen as part and parcel of the medieval tendency to see various anthropomorphic forms in roiling clouds lit by the reddish rays of the setting sun.
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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