Friday, May 14, 2010

Back to 1608 : of festivities and prodigies

The fantastic apparitions which alledgedly happened in Genoa in August 1608 has been the subject of many ufological discussions ever since the rediscovery of the French canard (chapbook) by Guy Tarade in the late 1960s. Following up on a series of discussions on the subject, I hereby present a condensed version of a much more detailed article I have been writing on the subject and in which I present some contemporary documents which might have served as a possible source of inspiration for the author of the 1608 French canard. The article is also a pretext for bringing in some thoughts about the historical and ufological treatment of 17th century prodigy literature. 

The nautical celebration on the Arno river in Florence

On the 3rd of November 1608, an amazing show was staged on the Arno river in Florence. This representation, based on the Argonautica of Appolionius of Rhodes as rewritten by Francesco Cini, was staged as part of the three weeks-long celebration of the marriage of Cosimo II de Medici and Maria Magdalena of Austria. It consisted of a naval battle complete with various vessels decorated with all sorts of mythological apparatus and a reenactment of the Golden Fleece retrieval with Cosimo in the role of Jason. The staging was as magnificent as could be Medici representations of the time and it didn't miss to impress high ranking guests from all over Europe and every beholder present that day on the banks of the Arno river.

Fortunately for us, a few accounts have survived of this splendid representation along with engravings of the scene and of the vessels. Apart from Francesco Cini’s Argonautica, the main source is a booklet by Camillo Rinuccini entitled Descrizione delle feste fatte nelle reali nozze de Serenissimi Principi di Toscana D. Cosimo de Medici e Maria Maddalena Arciduchessa d’Austria (Florence, 1608). As far as iconographical sources are concerned, an interesting engraving by Matthias Grueter representing a general view of the event on the Arno river (ill. 1) is inserted in Rinuccini’s work and independent contemporary engravings by Remigio Cantagallina and Giulio Parigi depict each of the vessels involved.

Using both these textual and iconographical sources, we can piece together an almost precise idea of what the naval event looked like. Among the twelve decorated vessels sailing on the Arno that day, four of them stand out as far as similarities with the Genoa apparitions are concerned. Here is how Rinuccini describe them:

Vessel of Iphiclus and Nauplius (ill. 2)
« Seguiva dietro a Giasone Iflico, e Nauplio, rappresentati da Adamo Ermanno di Rotnehan [sic], e dal Baron di Losenstein Tedeschi. La nave loro, per esser que’due Argonauti figliuoli di Netunno, era finta uno scoglio di spugne, pieno di coralli, e muscho, e a prua veran due cavalli marini, che mostravano tirare il carro di Nettunno, che era la poppa, e le ruote si vedevan mezze nell’acqua, e girar camminando, e sopra il Carro stava Nettuno col tridente, e a suoi piedi i Cavallieri. »(Rinuccini 1608, p. 60).

« Following [the vessel of] Jason were Iphiclus and Nauplius, represented by Adam Herman von Rotenhan and by the Baron von Losenstein, [both] Germans. The two Argonauts being sons of Neptune, their ship was made as a fake sponge rock, full of corals and moss, and at the bow were two seahorses seemingly pulling the chariot of Neptune which was the stern. The wheels which were half submerged, were turning, and on the chariot stood Neptune with [his] trident and knights at his feet. »

Vessel of Glaucus (ill. 3)
« Glauco Dio marino in questo sur’una barca spinta, e governata da Tritoni, venendo incontro a questa armata, cantando [...]. » (Rinuccini 1608, p. 63)

« Glaucus, the Sea God on a boat driven and governed by Tritons coming to meet this army [and] singing […]. »

Vessel of Idmon and Mopsus (ill. 4)
« La barca seguente era Idmone, e Mopso figliuoli, e Sacerdoti d’Apollo, il quale sedeva in poppa, sopra un bellissimo carro circondato di nugole. Il timone era governato da un vecchio, con l’ali, figurato per lo Tempo soggetto a’moti del Sole: e la prua era il Serpente Pitone, che gettava fuoco per bocca, e moveva l’ali, fra le quali, sul piano della prua, per insegna del ministerio di questi Sacerdoti, era un’altare da sacrifizii, col fuoco acceso, e tutto il d’intorno della barca, era dipinto d’animali sacri ad Apollo. » (ibid, p. 62)

« The following boat was that of Idmon and Mopsus, sons and priests of Apollo, who sat on the stern on a beautiful chariot surrounded by clouds. The rudder was governed by an old man, with wings, figurating Time subject to the motions of the Sun: and the bow was the serpent Python, which threw fire from his mouth and moved his wings, between which, on the floor of the bow, as a sign of the ministry of these priests, was a sacrificial altar, with burning fire, and all around the boat were painted animals sacred to Apollo. »

Vessel of Herakles (ill. 5)
« La prua figurava un’Idra spirante fiamma da tutte le teste, la parte di dietro della poppa ritraeva un mascherone d’un mostro, alla cui bocca era incatenato Cerbero, che serviva di timone(...) » (ibid, p.58)

« The bow figured a hydra breathing fire from every head, the part below the stern portrayed the figure of monster, to which mouth was chained Cerberus, which served as a rudder. (…) »

We might rightly object that none of the descriptions above corresponds in every detail to the description given in the canard. However, each one of them share common features with the Genoa apparitions and one can only wonder whether the author of the canard could have used the nautical festival on the Arno river clearly not as a direct source but rather as a source of inspiration.

It seems obvious enough that the horrible figures covered in scales and holding serpents of the canard do represent, or are influenced by the mythological tritons:
« […] les uns estoient en figures humaines ayant des bras qu'ils sembloient estre couverts d'escailles, & tenoyent en chacune de leurs mains deux horribles Serpens volans, qui leurs entortilloient les bras, & ne paroissoyent que depuis le nombril, en haut hors de la mer […] »
Similarities are evident enough if we compare them to the accompanying figures of Glaucus and Iphiclus vessels on the Arno, as clearly depicted on Parigi’s engraving (ill. 2 and 3) and which represent half-immerged tritons, albeit winged, holding serpentine blowing horns.

As for the Genoese chariots driven by two fiery dragon-like figures fire, these are not unlike the fire-spitting serpent Python, which is usually depicted as a dragon in 16th and 17th iconography, on the bow of the vessel of Idmon and Mopsus (ill. 4) or the fiery-eyed Hydra of the vessel of Herakles (ill. 5).
« […] trois carrosses trainant chacune par six figures toutes en feu, en semblance de dragon. Et marchoient lesdictes carrosses, l'une à l'oposite de l'autre, & estoient lesdictes carrosses trainées par lesdits signes qui avoient tousjours leurs serpens, en continuant leurs cris espouventables […] »

Rinuccini also tells us that during the course of the nautical representation, cannons were fired « in tanto numero, e in tanta varieta, che imito a pieno il vero del legni grandi, e nimici » (p. 65), while in the canard, we learn that some eight hundred cannon shots were fired at the terrible apparitions on the sea (« […] & leur fut tiré quelque huict cens coups de canon […] »).

All these graphical similarities are enough to ask ourselves whether the author of the canard could have heard about the naval representation in Florence and subsequently drew upon it for his narration, eventually changing the location and dates. While no definitive proof can be offered here, it is nonetheless certain that a major event such as this one, along with its wonderful artifices and machinery, must have struck the minds of the beholders which counted high ranking envoys from all over Europe among them. And through these officials, news of the event must have spread quickly outside Florentine territory. It is thus not improbable at all that the author of the canard knew about this particularly spectacular representation when he began writing his leaflet, either directly through a written account or by way of rumor. But the nautical spectacle of Florence having occurred on the 3rd of November 1608 and the alleged Genoa apparitions in August, we still need to check whether the canard appeared before or after the Florentine festivities.

Thanks to a mention by the Parisian chronicler Pierre de l’Estoile, we know that the canard began circulating in Paris on December 10th 1608, that is more than a month *after* the nautical battle in Florence. However, we also know that the Parisian edition of the canard printed by Pierre Menier, drew upon an earlier copy, most certainly the editio princeps, printed in Lyon. It can be assumed quite safely that the delay between the Parisian and Lyonnese edition was relatively short as information between these two major cities moved quite fast. That means that the Genoa apparition story probably first began to be circulated in France sometime in early December, or at the earliest in late November. If this assumption is correct, this would have left just about enough time for the author of the canard to hear about the Florentine representation and use it as a factual basis for his prodigious narration, only changing the date from November to August and the setting from Florence to Genoa in order to cover his tracks. This was in no way uncommon in early 17th century prodigy literature and other examples exist of date or setting changes made by the authors in order to resell their stories. Moreover, this would also explain why events in Genoa were related almost six months after they had supposedly occurred.

Capuchin miracles

And this brings us to the motivation of the author for whom we might ask what he could possibly have gained from such an enterprise, apart of course from the relatively small financial retribution such authors received upon delivering their works. On the one hand, it does not really come as a surprise that a magnificent event such as this one might have given rise to a prodigious narration, either through way of successive oral deformation or simply by awe of the event itself. But on the other, we might still ask ourselves whether the author might have followed a deliberate agenda while building up his narration.

In an earlier article, we had already noted that some elements in the text of the canard hinted toward the fact that the author might have been either a Capuchin sympathizer or a Capuchin monk himself. This was supported by the fact that he almost certainly authored a few months later, in 1609, another canard entitled «Le terrible et espouvantable dragon apparu sur l’Isle de Malte… le 15 Decembre 1608» (National Library, Paris, BN K-15938) where a teratological issue was resolved by way of Capuchin intervention, just as was the case for the 1608 Genoa apparitions.

Capuchins, which were already very influential in the Italian peninsula, were at that same time beginning to grow exponentially in France. A recent study by Dominique Varry (Varry, D. « L’introduction des Capucins en Franche-Comté et le ‘miracle’ de Faverney’ », in Autour du Miracle de Faverney (1608), Faverney, 2008), shows that the exploitation of miracles was an important component of Capuchin discourse in order to propagate their views and gain influence, most notably in the popular layers. Miracles such as the one of Faverney, which occurred in May 1608, just a few months before the alleged Genoa apparitions, could only strengthen the Capuchin reputation.
It is thus plausible that the author intended to exploit yet another striking event in such a way as to stress out to a popular public the wonders of the Capuchin order which was actively acting for the Counter-Reform. The magnificence of the celebrations of the marriage of Cosimo II and Maria-Magdalena of Austria in Florence might have given him such an opportunity.

As a final note on the subject, it is important to remember that the 17th century prodigy literature was certainly not phantasmagorical, or at least not entirely. In effect, it would certainly be wrong to consider these leaflets as mere misperceptions of natural events by some culturally « lower minded » as this approach would fail to take into account the crucial fact that in the early 17th prodigy literature, the message conveyed by a prodigy or wonder was much more important than the nature of the event itself.

Moreover, considering prodigy literature in terms of errors or deceptions would lock the historian into a «realist» approach of historiography, failing to take into consideration the contribution of this whole literature to Renaissance culture and knowledge, and failing to explain these narrations in terms other than that of« superstition » or « irrationality ».

It might seem a paradox at first sight that the ufological treatment of prodigies might be related to this historiographic «realist» approach, but in fact they are more related than meet the eye. In effect, both of them share a similar and symmetrical conception by considering prodigies as epiphenomenal reflexes. In other words, both of them acknowledge misinterpretation as the basis of their understanding of prodigious narrations and experiences for which we obviously have difficulties finding *direct* modern parallels. It is my opinion that this shared approach if applied systematically misses the main point of 17th century prodigious narration which aims less to explain the nature of a phenomenon than to understand its consequences. It is this original reading, primarily based on symbolism that we, as modern readers, should not forget when dealing with such documents lest we offer a literal reading which would be completely anachronistic and imply some kind of « magical thinking » of old as opposed to an infallible rationalistic modern approach.

As a matter of fact, the authors of the canards, those short leaflets sold in the streets, were in all probabilities and in most cases neither deliberately confabulating nor misinterpreting, but rather struggling to give sense to uncommon happenings. Many examples show that most of the time they relied upon real factual events. Sometimes these would clearly be prodigious in the strict sense of the term, but more often than not, exaggeration would follow the spread of rumor. As a consequence, lesser striking events could grow, either deliberately or not, and be reshaped into major prodigies. In fact any event that would present some irregularities compared to the normal course of nature had the potential of being considered as a prodigy as could any uncommon humanly event provide matter for a prodigious narration.

And that might have been just the case for our 1608 Genoa story. Diego Cuoghi’s earlier researches on the subject had already shown that the Genoa apparitions were with pretty good certainty a non-event as it was not corroborated by local chronicles. What remained to be understood were the motivations of the author behind his narration. While admittedly not entirely satisfactory as far as this last question is concerned, the present documents might at least offer an explanation as to the source of inspiration for the story itself.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Did Alexander the Great really see UFOs ?

Among the famous historical stories one frequently finds in ufological literature and all over the Internet is the supposed UFO sightings of Alexander the Great.

It apparently began in 1959 when American writer and broadcaster Frank Edwards wrote the following in his book Stranger than Science :

"Alexander the Great was not the first to see them nor was he the first to find them troublesome. He tells of two strange craft that dived repeatedly at his army until the war elephants, the men, and the horses all panicked and refused to cross the river where the incident occurred. What did the things look like? His historian describes them as great shining silvery shields, spitting fire around the rims... things that came from the skies and returned to the skies."
(Edwards, Frank. Stranger than Science. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1959).

Possibly inspired by Frank Edwards' claim, Alberto Fenoglio wrote in 1966 in the Italian ufological periodical Clypeus :

"During the siege of Tyre in the year 332 BC, strange flying objects were observed. Johann Gustav Droysen  in his History of Alexander the Great [Geschichte Alexanders des Grossen (1833)] does not cite it intentionally, believing it to be a fantasy of the Macedonian soldiers.
The fortress would not yield, its walls were fifty feet high and constructed so solidly that no siege-engine was able to damage it. The Tyrians disposed of the greatest technicians and builders of war-machines of the time and they intercepted in the air the incendiary arrows and projectiles hurled by the catapults on the city.
One day suddenly there appeared over the Macedonian camp these "flying shields", as they had been called, which flew in triangular formation led by an exceedingly large one, the others were smaller by almost a half. In all there were five. The unknown chronicler narrates that they circled slowly over Tyre while thousands of warriors on both sides stood and watched them in astonishment. Suddenly from the largest "shield" came a lightning-flash that struck the walls, these crumbled, other flashes followed and walls and towers dissolved, as if they had been built of mud, leaving the way open for the besiegers who poured like an avalanche through the breeches. The "flying shields" hovered over the city until it was completely stormed then they very swiftly disappeared aloft, soon melting into the blue sky."
(Fenoglio, Alberto. "Cronistoria su oggetti volanti del passato - Appunti per una clipeostoria", Clypeus no. 9 (1st semester 1966), p. 7, translated from the Italian and cited by Drake, W.R. Gods and Spacemen in Ancient Greece and Rome. London, 1976, pp. 115-116)

Unfortunately for us, neither Edwards nor Fenoglio cared to mention their sources, giving rise to decades of confusion as to the historicity of these two alleged UFO sightings by Alexander the Great and his army. 

Fenoglio's riddle being, in my opinion, the easiest to solve, I will begin by him. He says that five "flying shields" flew in triangular formation and that, after some time hovering over the walls, a lightning-flash came from the largest of these shields and struck the walls of Tyre. Unfortunately, there is no mention whatsoever of such an event outside of ufological literature. I won't even comment the laughable statement by Fenoglio who dares to say that Johann Gustav Droysen did not mention it on purpose.

However, going back to the closest sources we can get, one might ponder this quote from Quintus Curtius, one of the main classical authorities on Alexander, who says that during the siege of Tyre, in 332 BC (between January and August) :

Clipeos vero aereos multo igne torrebant, quos repletos fervida arena caenoque decocto e muris subito devolvebant. Nec ulla pestis magis timebatur: quippe, ubi loricam corpusque fervens arena penetraverat, nec ulla vi excuti poterat, et quidquid attigerat perurebat, iacientesque arma laceratis omnibus, quis protegi poterant, vulneribus inulti patebant.
(Quintus Curtius Rufus, Historia Alexandri Magni, lib. IV, cap. V)

Furthermore, they [the Tyrians] would heat bronze shields in a blazing fire, fill them with hot sand and boiling excrement and suddenly hurl them from the walls. None of their deterrents aroused greater fear than this. The hot sand would make its way between the breastplate and the body; there was no way to shake it out and it would burn through whatever it touched. The soldiers would throw away their weapons, tear off all their protective clothing and thus expose themselves to wounds without being able to retaliate.
(From Heckel, W. and Yardley, J. Alexander the Great : historical texts in translation, 2004, p. 147)

This is as close as we can get to Fenoglio's "flying shields" by looking at ancient sources and I believe this passage from Quintus Curtius is the basis Fenoglio used for his version, whether intentionally or as a result of a (hard-to-believe) misunderstanding or mistranslation.

One possibility is that Fenoglio stumbled upon this quote from Quintus Curtius while looking for the source of Frank Edwards' story. We can't tell for sure whether he considered (or intended) it to be one and the same as the latter's or just a similar but independent story but in any case, W.Raymond Drake treated both cases as two different stories, in his 1976 book, Gods and Spacemen in Ancient Greece and Rome.

A close examination of Frank Edwards' story shows that it mentions the war elephants of Alexander. Now, Alexander only began using war elephants after his successful victory over Darius III in Gaugamela (supposedly in Iraq, east of Mosul), on October 1st, 331 BC. Supposing it ever happened at all, the sighting mentioned by F. Edwards must then have occurred after that date, restricting our search to the Persian and Indian campaigns of Alexander, in between 331 and 323 BC.

Unfortunately, none of the classical historians who treated Alexander's life talk of an event who might look similar to the one described by Frank Edwards. That leaves us with the second thread of possible sources, the one which originates with the Pseudo-Callisthenes (4th century AD) and gave rise to the incredibly rich medieval genre known as the Alexander Romance. This genre which has more roots in literature than in historiography extended Alexander's life with various marvelous and prodigious events. It developed more or less independently in western Europe, the Byzantine empire and even the Arabic world, each adding its share of marvels to Alexander's life.

One of the key documents in the development of this genre is the Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem (the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle) which focuses on the marvels of Alexander's campaign in India. The letter itself is a fake, probably composed in the 4th or 5th century AD. It was extremely famous during the middle ages and was eventually inserted in the Pseudo-Callisthenes. A middle English version is also known to us.
The false letter of Alexander describes the marvels of India and is full of encounters with strange animals and beings, but the only celestial prodigy that is mentioned in the Epistola is the following:

Immediately after that the sky grew very black and dark, and from the dark sky there came burning fire. The fire fell to the earth like a burning torch, and the whole plain was burning from the fire's flame. Then men said that they thought it was the anger of the gods which had fallen upon us. Then I ordered old clothing to be torn up and used as a protection against the fire. After that we had a quiet and peaceful night, once our difficulties assuaged.
(Orchard, Andy.
Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript, Cambridge, 1995, p. 245)

Unfortunately, this does not compare to Frank Edwards claim. And even if it was the case, the historiographical value of the documents belonging to the Romance of Alexander genre being more than doubtful, it wouldn't account for much in terms of historicity.

We have to take note however of a striking element in F. Edwards' narration : the precision about the alleged flying crafts, these being supposedly described as "silvery shields". It comes as striking because of the name of an elite infantry unit of Alexander's army, namely the Hypaspists, who at the beginning of the campaign in India, in 326 BC, changed their names to Ἀργυράσπιδες (Argyraspides), the "silver shields", after decorating their shields with silver. The coincidence is remarkable enough to wonder whether the renaming of the Hypaspists led to a confusion between their silver shields and some supposed flying "silvery shields".

In any case, the absence of mention of such an event as the one described by Frank Edwards in any historiographical source must lead us to consider this case as extremely dubious. As a conclusion then, the bottom-line is that everything in these cases comes from unreliable and/or posterior sources with little to none historiographical value.

One might find it amusing however that, in a limited sense, the aforementioned ufo writers have somewhat become the spiritual continuators of the tradition of the Alexander Romance into our century, still adding marvelous events to it, as had done before them their medieval predecessors...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

1608/1609 : a dragon in Malta - and its relation to the August 1608 apparitions in Genoa

The following remarks are related to a French canard entitled Discours au vrais des terribles et espouvantables signes apareus sur la Mer de Genes, first printed in 1608 in Lyon.
Recent researches made by Diego Cuoghi in the Genoan archives have shown that the story related in the above French canard does not seem to reflect any attested historical event that might have been used as a basis for the Genoan apparition narration. This was a much needed and precious verification but does not yet provide an answer as to the motives of the author. A close study of the canard literature shows that their authors very rarely invented a story from the beginning to the end but rather preferred to draw upon a less spectacular event which they embellished with fabulous details and extrapolations. This had the clear advantage of giving more credence to their narrations. Moreover, it is undeniable that some canard narratives were actually based on real phenomena. It was not unusual however to see authors re-heating older stories, or changing locations, dates and proper names in order to re-actualize a story.
With these remarks in mind and with the observation based on Diego’s own researches in the Genoan annals showing that the story cannot be linked to any recorded historical event, thus making it very dubious, the problem remains to understand why the author of the canard would choose to invent such a story and locate it in Genoa. It would seem pointless to think that the author did this without any purpose.
I recently found out that another canard published shortly after the 1608 one could bring some new information and hint as to the motives of the author.
The document entitled “Le terrible et espouvantable dragon apparu sur l’Isle de Malte… le 15 Decembre 1608” and printed in 1609 (National Library, Paris, BN K-15938) relates the story of the apparition of a seven-headed dragon in the island of Malta followed by an earthquake in December 1608.
As far as the factuality of the story narrated in the 1609 canard is concerned, as is the case for 1608 Genoa, no clear factual event can be linked to it. There is a strong symbolical element in the description of the seven-headed dragon which is reminiscent of course of the dragon of the Apocalypse and which hints toward the non-factuality of the story.
One cannot rule out however that the Maltese seven-headed dragon story was built upon a less fabulous one, eventually drawing upon local lore. Extensive research would need to be done but a first look at Maltese annals of the period, most notably the one originating from the Order of Malta, shows no mention of anything particularly wondrous in or around December 1608, even less an earthquake as is mentioned in the canard. Worthy of note however, there is a Maltese tradition of a dragon that is linked to a local place called Dragonara. This is how M. Miège describes the tradition ascribed to this place:

“Chark el Hamien est un abîme profond, situé près la cale de Saint-Georges, et là se trouve un grand réduit d’eau appelé Dragonara, à cause du bruit qui en sort, et que le peuple crédule attribue à un monstre: ce retentissement est occasionné par les évolutions de grosses anguilles qui s’y multiplient à l’infini.” (M. Miège, Histoire de Malte, tome I, Bruxelles, 1841, p. 87).

We can note that the three expressions in bold somewhat parallel the description in the canard: a monster, a terrible noise and the great number of eels which, together, might have given rise to the belief in the existence of a multiple-headed monster. But, as oral-tradition has it, it is hard to tell whether this tradition already existed in the 17th century and whether it has anything to do at all with the story related in the canard, even if the parallel is, I must admit, highly tempting.

So, as is also the case for the Genoan story, there is nothing, or almost nothing, to corroborate the factuality of the event. But, whether the stories were completely made up or whether they re-used elements from other stories, eventually relocated and re-dated, the question of the author’s motives still remains to be answered.

While the 1609 canard does not really compare to the Genoan apparitions in terms of description, many elements in the text lead to the belief that both documents may have been authored by the same person, or at least that the latter was strongly and directly influenced by the former.
In support of this view are the following extracts from the introductory matter of both documents:

« Les prodiges qui nous apparoissent sans doute ce sont courriers et postillons célestes, qui nous denoncent les malheurs advenir, et semble qu’ils nous provoquent de courir aux remedes des prieres et aux jeusnes à celle fin d’appaiser l’ire de ce grand Dieu, lequel nous offençons journellement. Les Romains aussi tost qu’ils appercevaient des prodiges ils faisoient sacrifice aux Dieux pour appaiser leurs coleres par victimes et idolatrie. Et nous qui sommes Chrestiens nourris en une meilleure escole il faut que saintement nous presentions nos cœurs contriz, et repentans et humblement prier le Tout Puissant de nous pardonner nos fautes, et vouloir appaiser sa juste colere a celle fin que les malheurs qui nous sont preparez par la justice soyent destournez et chassez loing de nous par sa saincre misericorde. » (1608 Genoa).

« Les prodiges & miracles que nous appercevons journellement, ce sont postillons de ce grand Dieu, qui nous denonce par ces avant-courriers ce qu’il nous donne à l’advenir : Mais pour appaiser l’ire de ce Tout-puissant, il faut que nous nous mettions en bon estat, pour jeusner, & le prier d’un cœur penitent, à celle fin que par nos devotes prieres il detourne de nous l’influence de ses flots & autres dards calamiteux. Au temps passé les Payens faisoient sacrifice aux Dieux lors qu’ils appercevoient des prodiges. Et nous qui sommes Chrestiens nourris en une meilleure escole, devons nous presenter à ce grand Dieu, & l’invoquer souvent avec prieres lamentables, d’un cœur contrit & humilié, pour impetrer sa grace, à celle fin qu’il nous delivre de ces tribulations qui nous preparez par sa justice. » (1609 Malta).

The similar succession of arguments as well as the use of an identical terminology betrays either a single authorship or a direct influence. The fact that both documents were printed in a very short interval from one another seems to favor the former hypothesis.

But I believe that the most interesting and instructive element of comparison between the two documents does not reside in its introductory matter and can be found inside the narrative of the apparition itself. In effect, both documents involve the intervention of Capuchin monks as the resolving factor: in the Genoan as well as the Maltese story, it is by way of Capuchin intervention that the problem is resolved.
This detail is in my opinion a possible and plausible hint as to the real motives of the author(s) of both stories.

We have to consider that Capuchins which were already influential in Italy, and well-implanted in Genoa, were at that time trying to gain influence in France. The Capuchin intervention in both stories plausibly hints to the fact that the author might have been a Capuchin sympathizer or a Capuchin himself who exploited miraculous stories in order to forge a favorable image of the Capuchin order among a French readership when it was most needed. On more speculative grounds, we can propose that the stories have been located purposely in far away regions to render them less verifiable to their French public.

In our case, it thus seems plausible to think that the author(s) intentions were to stress out to the French public the wonders of the Capuchin monks in a time when most prodigious events were interpreted as apocalyptic warnings. And even if they objectively do not bring any more factuality, or non-factuality, to the events themselves, the parallels we can draw from both documents when studied conjointly, can at least help us to understand the motivation or part of it, which led the author(s) to spread these stories and what there was to understand from them.

But, while understanding the context can offer a better comprehension as to the motives of the author, it must be stressed that it offers just that, an understanding of the perspective the text was written in. It does not offer us any definitive evidence as to the factual or non-factual nature of the events described; in effect, one could always argue that the context offered an oriented interpretation but that the events themselves had factual roots, even if these were modeled around and transformed by the interpretation and orientation the author wanted to give to his text. But while the context does not explain the nature of an event, it still offers some keys to decrypt the subjective elements of a narration.

Whether a real dragon ever roamed out the island of Malta or whether apparitions were really seen in 1608 in Genoa is obviously dubious from the absence of other sources corroborating the stories, but let’s not forget that a good number of the readers receiving such stories, believed in them, or more precisely, thought about them as believable. And that alone, was sufficient to give materiality to the narration.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

1527 : Celestial phenomenon

In 2005, Thomas Le Claire, art dealer in Hamburg, revealed in its catalog of acquisitions (Katalog no. XVII) a most rare and previously unknown piece of art. It consists of an anonymous 16th century watercolor (gouache) painting on watermarked paper depicting a celestial phenomenon (named "comet") seen in 1527 along with a hand-written descriptive text in the lower part.

Pictorial depictions of celestial phenomena were not unusual for that time frame, we know of many which were printed along with the massive popular broadsides or in more luxurious books such as, among others, Lycosthenes' Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum (1557), or Cornelius Gemma's De naturae divinis characterismis (1575). These printed depictions however were often of poor quality and reproduced from rough woodcuts.
What really stands out with the present document is not only the fact that it is original, but more importantly hand-painted, and in colors.

The watermark on the paper, representing a beetle on a small shield, was used to determine the approximative date of execution of the painting (circa 1550) and offers a hint as to the identity of the anonymous painter (Swabia, Bavaria, possibly Augsburg).

We can thus determine that the painting was not executed immediately after the event but about 25 years later. The existence of another painting (probably by the same anonymous hand), similar in execution and depicting a monstrous birth in 1513 (held by the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, inv. no. C 92/4097) hints toward the idea that the present painting was part of a series or album of prodigious phenomena of which only two sheets, including this one, are known today.

Various 16th century authors have mentioned a particularly spectacular celestial phenomenon in 1527 clearly visible over western Germany. Most of them talk of a "comet" but do not agree on the month: some place its appearance on August 11, others on October or December 11. All of them, except Abraham Rockenbach in his De cometis... (1598, 1602), say that the phenomenon appeared only once and lasted for less than two hours. Rockenbach however says that it was visible for many days, an hour and a half each day. Being a later account, general consensus has always considered Rockenbach as mistaken.

The only contemporary source is a small 16-page booklet written by Peter Creutzer, pupil of astrologer Johann Lichtenberger, and printed the same year (Auslegung Peter Creutzers, etwan des weytberhümbten Astrologi M. Jo. Liechtenbegers [sic] discipels über den erschrecklichen Cometen... erschynen am xi. tag Weynmonats des MCCCCCxxvii. Jars ..., n.d. [1527], n.p.). The booklet was reprinted many times in German and even translated into Latin by Gerhard Geldenhauer/Noviomagus (De terrificio cometa, cui a condito orge similis visus non est, qui apparuit anno M.D.XXVII. mense Octobri... , 1527) and in French the following year (La terrible et espoventable comete laquelle apparut le XI. Doctobre lan M.CCCCC.XXVII. en Westrie region Dalemaigne..., n.d. [1528], n.p. - Seguin no. 226 & 227).

Creutzer's text is the basis from which all other later accounts derived, and among them, the handwritten text which accompanies the present hand-painting. The latter reads as such:

Im m d xx vii Jar ist neben den commetten gesehen / vil stramen als lang spieß dar zwieschen vil angesichter vnnd klainer schwerter vermist als sich ainer bleich rotten farb / zwischen dem sach man vil grosser flamen die gantz hell vnnd feurig schinen / vnnd die angesichter hin vnnd wieder gesehen mit haar vnnd bart ainer grawen wolcken farb als legen sie im blut stramen flissenden wasser durch einander zwirblen / als ob ob es als durch ein ander arbeitet das grausam gesehen hat / als etlich dies gesehen haben die send gestorben.

[In the year 1527 the comet was seen with many streaks like long spears, and in among them, many visages and daggers, all colored in pale red, and in between many enormous flames of bright and fiery hue, and here and there the visages appeared, bearded and hairy in gray as of clouds and as if in flowing water streaked with blood, glittering and sparkling, as if everything were in confusion – the whole hideous of appearance, so that some who had seen it died thereof.]

Creutzer's booklet contains on its front-page a woodcut image illustrating his most pictorial description of the phenomenon [see ill.]. This illustration has become quite famous, and found its way in Lycosthenes' Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum... (1557), Boaistuau's Histoires prodigieuses... (1560), Ambroise Paré's Des monstres... (1573, 1585), Cornelius Gemma's De naturae divinis... (1575), and all the way to Camille Flammarion in the 19th century.

Even though the phenomenon has been labeled as a comet ever since its description by Creutzer, many scholars today tend to consider it as an auroral display, mostly because of its highly picturesque description and depiction (spears, figures, blood, etc.).

The present painting offers a different view of the event. While there are no firm elements to support the idea that the painting was based on anything else than Creutzer's original description, its representation clearly differs from the other sources known to this day, in that it is closer to the representation of a comet-like phenomenon than that of an auroral display.

We have seen earlier that all sources, except A. Rockenbach, have described the phenomenon as of single and short duration, which is mostly the basis, along with the pictorial description, of its identification as an aurora borealis. Close examination of these sources however have shown that they all used the same single source, namely Creutzer's booklet, which is also betrayed by the evident reuse of the same illustration (with very minor modifications) over time.

With the discovery of this new and exceptional document, it is now possible to ponder whether the identification as an aurora should still stand and whether more consideration should be given to Abraham Rockenbach's account which describes a longer-term phenomenon, and therefore hinting toward a more "comet-like" phenomenon.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

UFOs in the past ? About two fakes spreading around the Internet....

The subject of UFO visitations in the past has engendered quite a bunch of speculations and has a literature of its own. Jumping on this train, multiple web sites on the internet do also provide their candid visitor with catalogs of some of the most bizarre and intriguing accounts made by our predecessors.

To our delight, these sites which more often than not copy and paste one another ad nauseum without any real scholarly research, brandish a few supposedly genuine images which are meant to illustrate their point.
We shall here examine two of these illustrations which are unfortunately very widespread all over the network.

The first of them is supposed to illustrate the apparition of a UFO during the siege of the castle of "Sigisburg" (in fact Syburg) by an army of Saxons in 776 A.D. Most of the sites attribute this illustration to "a 12th century manuscript, the Annales Laurissenses, written by a monk named Laurence" :

This is not a completely wrong claim, if we except the monk Laurence part which is the result of a misunderstanding of the name of the Annals and the date which is the date of the manuscript we know them from but not of the Annals themselves (Annals were often continued over multiple centuries by multiple authors: the Annales Laurissenses which are part of the Royal Frankish Annals, Annales Regni Francorum, extends from 741 to 829).
The Annales Laurissenses indeed contain an entry for the year 776 which reads as such:
[776] [...] and the same day, while they [the Saxons] were preparing for another assault against the Christians who were living in the castle, the glory of God manifested itself above the church inside the fortress. Those who were watching in the square outside - many of which still live today - said that they saw something resembling two large flaming shields of reddish color moving above the church itself. [...] (Annales Laurissenses Maiores, in MGH SRG 6, p. 44).
So the fact that a celestial phenomenon happened in 776 A.D. during the siege of the castle of Syburg is well established by the Annales Laurissenses. Now, what about the illustrations which we can find all over the internet? Can these possibly be some miniatures from a 12th century copy of the Annals as the sites claim?

It doesn't take a medievalist to see that the illustrations are too crude to be medieval miniatures. Their style does not match 12th century ones and they don't even look like book miniatures, more like color-sprayed frescoes. This is already highly suspicious but let's pretend they are genuine and do some research on the indications the web sites have given us.

The oldest manuscript known today which contains a copy of the Annales Laurissenses is known as the Lorsch Codex. This is where the Annales Laurissenses took their name, monasterium Laureshamense being the Latin name of the Lorsch monastery. The Lorsch Codex is indeed dated from the 12th century and is most probably the one referred to when talking about the provenance of the above illustrations. A fac-simile of the manuscript has been published by Karl Glöckner in between the years 1929-1936. The 1963 reprint of this fac-simile has recently been put online on the ALO site.

Unfortunately, even if the Lorsch Codex does contain some miniatures for initials, it does not contain our beautiful world-wide-web illustrations. These must have come from elsewhere.

Hopefully, I was given the solution to my perplexity by Daniel Guenther, fellow researcher in the field, who pointed the following 13th century Spanish fresco to me. The fresco depicts the journey of the three magi on their way to Bethleem:

As we can see, the comparison speaks for itself as both illustrations are very similar. Except of course for the star of Bethleem which has been facetiously replaced by a most representative spacecraft from outer space. As a result, this illustration should now be dismissed as a modern fake. My plea in this direction to the web sites propagating the image have still remained unanswered. This kind of sites like to claim that "the horrible truth disturbs the establishment". Well, in that case at least, the truth apparently disturbs them...

But let's move on to our second illustration. This one has been labeled "842 Angers" by an unknown Photoshopic hand and is supposed, as the label says, to illustrate the apparition of a celestial phenomenon over the city of Angers in 842 A.D. At least that's how most web sites present it :

As for the Syburg image, a quick look at the illustration already brings some suspicion about its supposed date. This one looks evidently more genuine but is more than reminiscent of the woodcut illustrations that were printed in 16th and 17th century leaflets, especially the ones printed in Germany. A rapid check in this direction allowed me to find the following document which I invite you to compare with the one above :

With the exception of the coloration, both illustrations are absolutely identical, except that the one above depicts the apparition of a comet over the city of Nuremberg in October 1580 and has no relation whatsoever with Angers nor with a mid-9th century date.

The German leaflet which was printed in Nuremberg by Hans Mack is well referenced and copies of it are held by two German libraries, one in Nuremberg (GM. 2806/1204) and one in Berlin (D-4 14-8).

As most similar leaflets it is known and referred to by its title: Erinnerung und Warnung / von dem jetzt scheinenden Cometen / so im disem Monat Octobris / dess jetzt lauffenden 80. Jars / erstmals erschienen. For some unknown reason, this document, which is an interesting piece in itself, has been reused and falsely relocated in terms of time and place from Nuremberg 1580 to Angers 842.

Apart from showing how erroneous information can easily spread on the internet, these two cases illustrate the fact that many self-proclaimed researchers and proponents of the idea of UFO visitation in the past do not make the necessary verifications to the documents they use. And that's without even speaking about competences in the historical field...

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The (extraordinary) origins of Joan of Arc according to Béroalde de Verville (1599)

Ufological literature have often used episodes from Joan of Arc’s life as evidence of early extra-terrestrial contacts.

I won’t go here into the detail of these controversial propositions which would be a subject of its own but suffice it to say that the fact that later authors and biographers often added extraordinary and fabulous events for dramatic purposes has in some cases contributed to blur the line between historical events and romance.

The present text follows a common classical tradition which consisted of remodeling the origins of high-stature or heroic individuals to add to their prestige. In this work, which is chronologically the first romance based on the story of Joan of Arc, the author, François-Béroalde de Verville (1556-1626) transposes the latter’s place of birth from the modest town of Domrémy to a remote utopia, the land of Sympsiquée, where Joan is born of the love of a French knight, Borandor, with the nymph Armeliane.

The land of Sympsiquée is an almost inaccessible island which can be found only by mariners of high virtue. The author locates it in the Persian Gulf and it is home to a utopian kingdom founded by a Greek prince, Heracleon. The latter possessed a golden book which contains among other cabalistic secrets, the destiny of Joan which is read to her when she reaches the age of fifteen. The revelation of the golden book teaches her of the necessity to travel to France in a mysterious flying ship built by Heracleon himself. Leaving with regrets the fabulous land of Sympsiquée, and accompanied by a few nymphs, Joan boards the celestial galley (“galère céleste”), travels over the seas and lands, and finally descend in a remote woody place of the Ardennes where she and her nymph companions use the flying ship as their home.

The rest of the story, while not less romanesque, is of less interest to our subject so I’ll not detail it here. Needless to say, everything related above is pure fiction from de Verville’s part, in a style not unfamiliar to the “roman chevaleresque”.

Source :

François-Béroalde de Verville. La Pucelle d’Orléans restituée par Béroalde de Verville. Paris, chez Mathieu Guillemot, 1599.

Discours XI

Il y avoit longtemps qu’estranger aucun n’estoit venu en l’Isle Sympsiquée & mesmes de Françoys, qui fust occasion que Borandor fut reçeu de meilleur œil, & que la Royne des Nymfes eut pour aggreable de prendre la charge de tout ce qui luy estoit necessaire. Or y avoit-il un statut en l’Isle escrit en une lame d’Or sur la porte du Chasteau, par lequel il estoit permis aux estrangers d’estre seulement un moys en l’Isle, & s’ils estoyent Françoys ils y pouvoyent estre quarante deux jours, lesquels expirez il falloit qu’ils rentrassent en leur vaisseau, ou qu’ils rentrassent en leur vaisseau, ou qu’ils demandassent congé de demeurer plus longtemps en l’Isle.

[Borandor tombe amoureux d’Armeliane, reine des Nymphes, ce qui lui permet de rester dans l’île. De leurs amours, nait Jeanne, futur Jeanne d’Arc.]

[…] Belles Dames encor faut-il que vous sçachiez un secret que vous trouverez estrange, non pource qu’il le soit, mais d’autant qu’il n’est gueres connu au commun, c’est que les enfans qui naissent en Sympsiquée, ont une particularité remarquable ; vous sçaurez les autres merveilles apres celles cy, si Dieu nous fait la grace de vous conduire de l’œil jusques en ce lieu de miracles naturels & artificiels : Les enfans venans à voir la clarté suyvent mesme ordre que les autres, & la difference n’aparoist qu’au septiesme mois, qu’il semble que la mort vueille generalement enlever ce que nature a produit, car on void les petits enfans comme deffaillir & devenir pasles, plus resemblans images de la mort, que creatures vivantes, les signes du trespas se collent sur leurs visages, & s’imprimans sur tout le corps le tient en ce piteux spectacle l’espace de cinq jours, apres lesquels on void une solution de continuité se faire generalle en la peau qui se fent comme la pellicule de l’amende qui est desechée, ainsi se faict une separation, & ce cuir mort tombe & sort de la dedans un enfant plus beau, plus parfaict & plus aggreable qu’au paravant. […] Notre belle Pucelle nasquit comme les autres enfans de Sympsiquée, & son pere voulut qu’elle eut nom Janne, pour ce que ses predecesseurs avoyent esté avancez par le Roy Jean leur Moecene duquel jamais la mémoire ne s’effacea de son cœur. […]

[Jeanne a grandi et est en âge d’accomplir son destin.]>

Discours XIII

[…] Tout enfant d’estranger reçeu, estant venu en aage doit aller au pays de son Père & y demeurer tant que par quelque acte genereux se soit fait paroistre, & ne retourner sans emporter la gloire d’un fait notable & vertueux. Par cette Saincte Loy, la Pucelle se sçachant obligée, & desirant en humilité obeyr à ceux qui avoyent puissance sur ces volontez & entrer en ce quelle devoit, voulut paroistre qu’elle sentoit bien son cœur & se monstreroit digne surjon de la famille des Areores […] Il fut advisé qu’il estoit temps de l’envoyer en France, & mit on ordre à ce qui faisoit besoin pour si beau voyage. Artalonde grande ayeule d’Armeliane ayant herité des memoires d’Heracleon (lesquels estoient conservez fort soigneusement, congnoissant par leur moyen ce qui se peut sçavoir des meilleurs & plus utiles secrets de l’art & de la nature) avoit autresfois inventé une galere Celeste dont l’industrie estoit non seulement admirable & magnifique, mais d’un usage de grand profit & commodité, par l’ayde de cette galere on pouvoit s’eslever sur l’espors des aers plus solides au haut ainsi que sur les mers, & maniant un timon qui faisoit mouvoir les organes on se conduisoit à plaisir, & le vaisseau se balançeant en ses proportions suyvoit la route que le vent luy donnoit par l’adresse de la conduite & du mouvement : Armeliane avoit bien conservé ce vaisseau, lequel elle donna à sa fille honneste compangnie pour la servir & assister, ordonnant son equipage tel que son rang & maison le requeroit : Elle luy bailla deux Demoyselles & deux servantes, un Escuyer & deux vallets, la plus ancienne des Demoyselles estoit Aldonze la Sage, qui avoit apris ainsi que les Areores à guider la galere, l’autre estoit Colizerpe la Belle qui avoit tant diligemment consideré ce qu’il falloit sçavoir pour la Cyrurgie, qu’elle estoit tres-experte comme en plusieurs autres sciences. […] La Belle delice qui est à l’instant de son partement & qui veut la bonne volonté de ses parens terriens, avoir la faveur du Pere Tout puissant, tombée és plus sainctes humilitez de devotion, va en ce lieu d’adoration pour invoquer la grace souveraine : Elle y entre accompagnée de la troupe devotte qui se trouvant au lieu sacré durant les Saints mysteres se contient en une Religieuse observation qui tesmoigne le zelle des ames fidelles. […]

La Pucelle tascha selon son humilité ordinaire de satisfaire à tous & laissant un vif regret dans les cœurs se mit en estat d’entrer en son vaisseau pour desloger. En cette despartie que larmes s’escouloyent de tous costez, que les beautez disant adieu se deguisoyent en infinies figures selon les opinions du regret qui se formoit en l’ame […] la Pucelle entrée dans sa Galere se donne route selon que l’intention se preparoit, ores sur le plain des mers & ores par le vague des airs, tant que relevée plus haut sur les Gaules elles esleut lieu propre à sa descente, pour s’accoustumer à nouveau pays, & chercher occasion de bien faire. Le vaisseau sagement conduit vint se rendre dans les Ardennes prez les limites de la Lorraine, en un endroit assez couvert & ou il sembloit que la fortune eut preparé le logis de la Pucelle, les arbres y estoyent droits & en quelques lieux s’espoissisans faisoyent un desirable ombrage, cette arrivée de bien futur à la France fut environ le mois de Mars. La Pucelle & ces gens se trouvans comme en lieu de conqueste loin de toute societé, ne laisserent de se bien accommoder faisant de leur galere ainsi que d’une belle & honneste petite maison, autour laquelle ils preparent l’endroit d’un jardin & firent la loge de leurs petits chiens, çelà ainsi preparé la Pucelle establissant une nouvelle vie y suyvit la mesme qu’elle pratiquoit en son Isle, attendant que la fortune luy presenta quelque occasion de s’avançer, ou qu’elle l’alla chercher. Ainsi se retirant en son petit racourcy de Palais, s’y venoit reposer aprez qu’elle avoit esté à la chasse au travers les buissons, & divers endroits des bois qu’elle alloit traversant selon que ses plaisirs la menoyent, son habit de chasse la rendoit presque semblable à la Deesse des forests que l’on void courant au travers des boys ou ses Nimfes l’accompagnent. […]

Thursday, February 12, 2009

KRAKEN, a new Cryptozoology journal

The first issue of the Cryptozoology journal, KRAKEN was published in December 2008.

Subtitled "Archives of Cryptozoology", KRAKEN will regularly publish original studies on a particular cryptozoological dossier and other studies dedicated to the epistemology and history of this domain, as well as to the numerous and rich controversies which have risen along its evolution.

In the first issue, the reader will find the transcription of a debate between Bernard Heuvelmans and a group of academics and researchers specialized in UFO studies. In this little-known document which was printed in very small numbers in 1981, the "father of Cryptozoology" discusses questions of method. This text is commented by Pierre Lagrange, editor of KRAKEN.

The editors' wish is to launch a rigorous reflection on the themes pertaining to this domain of research. Since the disappearance of the Journal of the ISC, Cryptozoology and the newsletter which was published by this organization, the study of hidden animals seems to have lost some ground. The editors of KRAKEN believe this is mostly due to the lack of place of publication and exchange.

Département de Cryptozoologie B. Heuvelmans,
Musée cantonal de Zoologie,
Place de la Riponne, 6
CH-1014, Lausanne

More info here.