Chapter 4 - From 'Signs and Wonders' to Law in the Heavens
The Theological View
Few things in the evolution of astronomy are more suggestive than
the struggle between the theological and the scientific doctrine
regarding comets - the passage from the conception of them as
fire-balls flung by an angry God for the purpose of scaring a
wicked world, to a recognition of them as natural in origin and
obedient to law in movement. Hardly anything throws a more vivid
light upon the danger of wresting texts of Scripture to preserve
ideas which observation and thought have superseded, and upon the
folly of arraying ecclesiastical power against scientific discovery.
"When beggars die, there are no comets seen;Galeazzo, the tyrant of Milan, expressing satisfaction on his deathbed that his approaching end was of such importance as to be heralded by a comet, is but a type of many thus encouraged to prey upon mankind; and Charles V, one of the most powerful monarchs the world has known, abdicating under fear of the comet of 1556, taking refuge in the monastery of San Yuste, and giving up the best of his vast realms to such a scribbling bigot as Philip II, furnishes an example even more striking.
But for the retention of this belief there was a moral cause. Myriads of good men in the Christian Church down to a recent period saw in the appearance of comets not merely an exhibition of "signs in the heavens" foretold in Scripture, but also Divine warnings of vast value to humanity as incentives to repentance and improvement of life-warnings, indeed, so precious that they could not be spared without danger to the moral government of the world. And this belief in the portentous character of comets as an essential part of the Divine government, being, as it was thought, in full accord with Scripture, was made for centuries a source of terror to humanity. To say nothing of examples in the earlier periods, comets in the tenth century especially increased the distress of all Europe. In the middle of the eleventh century a comet was thought to accompany the death of Edward the Confessor and to presage the Norman conquest; the traveller in France to-day may see this belief as it was then wrought into the Bayeux tapestry.
Nearly every decade of years throughout the Middle Ages saw Europe plunged into alarm by appearances of this sort, but the culmination seems to have been reached in 1456. At that time the Turks, after a long effort, had made good their footing in Europe. A large statesmanship or generalship might have kept them out; but, while different religious factions were disputing over petty shades of dogma, they had advanced, had taken Constantinople, and were evidently securing their foothold. Now came the full bloom of this superstition. A comet appeared. The Pope of that period, Calixtus III, though a man of more than ordinary ability, was saturated with the ideas of his time. Alarmed at this monster, if we are to believe the contemporary historian, this infallible head of the Church solemnly "decreed several days of prayer for the averting of the wrath of God, that whatever calamity impended might be turned from the Christians and against the Turks." And, that all might join daily in this petition, there was then established that midday Angelus which has ever since called good Catholics to prayer against the powers of evil. Then, too, was incorporated into a litany the plea, "From the Turk and the comet, good Lord, deliver us." Never was papal intercession less effective; for the Turk has held Constantinople from that day to this, while the obstinate comet, being that now known under the name of Halley, has returned imperturbably at short periods ever since.
But the superstition went still further. It became more and more incorporated into what was considered "scriptural science" and "sound learning." The encyclopedic summaries, in which the science of the Middle Ages and the Reformation period took form, furnish abundant proofs of this.
Yet scientific observation was slowly undermining this structure. The inspired prophecy of Seneca had not been forgotten. Even as far back as the ninth century, in the midst of the sacred learning so abundant at the court of Charlemagne and his successors, we find a scholar protesting against the accepted doctrine. In the thirteenth century we have a mild question by Albert the Great as to the supposed influence of comets upon individuals; but the prevailing theological current was too strong, and he finally yielded to it in this as in so many other things.
So, too, in the sixteenth century, we have Copernicus refusing to accept the usual theory, Paracelsus writing to Zwingli against it, and Julius Caesar Scaliger denouncing it as "ridiculous folly."
At first this scepticism only aroused the horror of theologians and increased the vigour of ecclesiastics; both asserted the theological theory of comets all the more strenuously as based on scriptural truth. During the sixteenth century France felt the influence of one of her greatest men on the side of this superstition. Jean Bodin, so far before his time in political theories, was only thoroughly abreast of it in religious theories: the same reverence for the mere letter of Scripture which made him so fatally powerful in supporting the witchcraft delusion, led him to support this theological theory of comets - but with a difference: he thought them the souls of men, wandering in space, bringing famine, pestilence, and war.
Not less strong was the same superstition in England. Based upon mediaeval theology, it outlived the revival of learning. From a multitude of examples a few may be selected as typical. Early in the sixteenth century Polydore Virgil, an ecclesiastic of the unreformed Church, alludes, in his English History, to the presage of the death of the Emperor Constantine by a comet as to a simple matter of fact; and in his work on prodigies he pushes this superstition to its most extreme point, exhibiting comets as preceding almost every form of calamity.
In 1532, just at the transition period from the old Church to the new, Cranmer, paving the way to his archbishopric, writes from Germany to Henry VIII, and says of the comet then visible: "What strange things these tokens do signify to come hereafter, God knoweth; for they do not lightly appear but against some great matter."
Twenty years later Bishop Latimer, in an Advent sermon, speaks of eclipses, rings about the sun, and the like, as signs of the approaching end of the world.
In 1580, under Queen Elizabeth, there was set forth an "order of prayer to avert God's wrath from us, threatened by the late terrible earthquake, to be used in all parish churches." In connection with this there was also commended to the faithful "a godly admonition for the time present"; and among the things referred to as evidence of God's wrath are comets, eclipses, and falls of snow.
This view held sway in the Church of England during Elizabeth's whole reign and far into the Stuart period: Strype, the ecclesiastical annalist, gives ample evidence of this, and among the more curious examples is the surmise that the comet of 1572 was a token of Divine wrath provoked by the St. Bartholomew massacre.
As to the Stuart period, Archbishop Spottiswoode seems to have been active in carrying the superstition from the sixteenth century to the seventeenth, and Archbishop Bramhall cites Scripture in support of it. Rather curiously, while the diary of Archbishop Laud shows so much superstition regarding dreams as portents, it shows little or none regarding comets; but Bishop Jeremy Taylor, strong as he was, evidently favoured the usual view. John Howe, the eminent Nonconformist divine in the latter part of the century, seems to have regarded the comet superstition as almost a fundamental article of belief; he laments the total neglect of comets and portents generally, declaring that this neglect betokens want of reverence for the Ruler of the world; he expresses contempt for scientific inquiry regarding comets, insists that they may be natural bodies and yet supernatural portents, and ends by saying, "I conceive it very safe to suppose that some very considerable thing, either in the way of judgment or mercy, may ensue, according as the cry of persevering wickedness or of penitential prayer is more or less loud at that time."
The Reformed Church of Scotland supported the superstition just as strongly. John Knox saw in comets tokens of the wrath of Heaven; other authorities considered them "a warning to the king to extirpate the Papists"; and as late as 1680, after Halley had won his victory, comets were announced on high authority in the Scottish Church to be "prodigies of great judgment on these lands for our sins, for never was the Lord more provoked by a people."
While such was the view of the clergy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the laity generally accepted it as a matter of course, Among the great leaders in literature there was at least general acquiescence in it. Both Shakespeare and Milton recognise it, whether they fully accept it or not. Shakespeare makes the Duke of Bedford, lamenting at the bier of Henry V, say:
"Comets, importing change of time and states,Milton, speaking of Satan preparing for combat, says:
"On the other side,
Incensed with indignation, Satan stood.
Unterrified, and like a comet burned,
That fires the length of Ophiuchus huge
In the arctic sky, and from its horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and war."
We do indeed find that in some minds the discoveries of Tycho Brahe and Kepler begin to take effect, for, in 1621, Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy alludes to them as changing public opinion somewhat regarding comets; and, just hefore the middle of the century, Sir Thomas Browne expresses a doubt whether comets produce such terrible effects, "since it is found that many of them are above the moon." Yet even as late as the last years of the seventeenth century we have English authors of much power battling for this supposed scriptural view and among the natural and typical results we find, in 1682, Ralph Thoresby, a Fellow of the Royal Society, terrified at the comet of that year, and writing in his diary the following passage: "Lord, fit us for whatever changes it may portend; for, though I am not ignorant that such meteors proceed from natural causes, yet are they frequently also the presages of imminent calamities." Interesting is it to note here that this was Halley's comet, and that Halley was at this very moment making those scientific studies upon it which were to free the civilized world forever from such terrors as distressed Thoresby.
The belief in comets as warnings against sin was especially one of those held "always, everywhere, and by all," and by Eastern Christians as well as by Western. One of the most striking scenes in the history of the Eastern Church is that which took place at the condemnation of Nikon, the great Patriarch of Moscow. Turning toward his judges, he pointed to a comet then blazing in the sky, and said, "God's besom shall sweep you all away!"
Of all countries in western Europe, it was in Germany and German Switzerland that this superstition took strongest hold. That same depth of religious feeling which produced in those countries the most terrible growth of witchcraft persecution, brought superstition to its highest development regarding comets. No country suffered more from it in the Middle Ages. At the Reformation Luther declared strongly in favour of it. In one of his Advent sermons he said, "The heathen write that the comet may arise from natural causes, but God creates not one that does not foretoken a sure calamity." Again he said, "Whatever moves in the heaven in an unusual way is certainly a sign of God's wrath." And sometimes, yielding to another phase of his belief, he declared them works of the devil, and declaimed against them as "harlot stars."
Melanchthon, too, in various letters refers to comets as heralds of Heaven's wrath, classing them, with evil conjunctions of the planets and abortive births, among the "signs" referred to in Scripture. Zwingli, boldest of the greater Reformers in shaking off traditional beliefs, could not shake off this, and insisted that the comet of 1531 betokened calamity. Arietus, a leading Protestant theologian, declared, "The heavens are given us not
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