Tag Archives: Natural History

A Two-Comet Year

Looking forward to the year ahead, as we all tend to do at this time, I notice that not only is this the “year of the snake” and the year of the (Pantone) color emerald green, but also a year in which there will be two great comets visible in the northern hemisphere. I’m working on an academic project on changing perceptions of wonder in the early modern era, and few things were as wonderful as a truly “Great Comet” blazing a very visible trail through the sky, so this is one of those times where past and present, scholarship and blog intersect, which is very exciting. It’s a rare year that one comet is visible to the naked eye, so the possibility of two is extraordinary. Comet PANSTARRS will be the first comet of 2013, appearing only in the southern hemisphere for the first two months of the year, but by the middle of March it should be visible in the north. The recently-discovered Comet ISON, so bright that it might even be visible at daylight if it doesn’t break apart or flame out, will make its appearance towards the end of the year.

Both before and after the sixteenth century, comets were portents of a potentially cataclysmic event or great change:  plague, earthquake, the fall of a regime, all of course the wrath of God bearing down on sinful people. Omens were always ominous. In political terms, comets were “the terror of kings”, and one of the first images of a comet, likely Halley’s comet, is in the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry, which records the Norman Conquest from the Norman point of view. Isti mirant stella:  they gaze in wonder at the star, blazing over King Harold II’s head, foretelling his defeat and death.

comet Bayeux

Halley’s Comet did not return until 1456 (when it was associated with the conquests of the Ottoman Turks in eastern Europe), but there were bright “hairy” stars recorded by European chroniclers in 1264 (predicting the death of Pope Urban IV) and 1402 (again–the advances of the Turks).  The first image below, from a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript, shows a man looking upon a particularly bright (and hairy) comet with wonder, a mixture of fear, awe, and curiosity, and I think that balance tips towards the latter in the early modern era. As evidence, look at the amazing second image below, of what I often describe in class as a “comet party” viewing (and drawing) the Great Comet of 1577:  these people are not quaking in fear; to the contrary, they look rather celebratory.

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Comet of 1577

British Library MS Royal 6 E VI, c. 1360-75, England; Woodcut by Jiri Daschitzsky, Von einem Schrecklichen und Wunderbahrlichen Cometen so sich den Dienstag nach Martini M. D. Lxxvij. Jahrs am Himmel erzeiget hat (Prague: Petrus Codicillus a Tulechova, 1577).

The changing perception of comets isn’t quite as straightforward as these two images indicate; in fact, early modern descriptions and representations of comets are a mixed bag, some very “scientific”, others very allegorical. Below, two sixteenth-century men of science depict comets of their time in very different ways:  while Peter Apian attempts to chart the course of the comet of 1532, physician Ambroise Paré presents blazing stars as fearful “swords of the heavens”, like the “mortal darts” of John Milton’s Paradise Lost a century later:  Incensed with indignation, Satan stood Unterrified, and like a comet burned, That fires the length of Ophiuchus huge In th’ arctic sky, and from his horrid hair Shakes pestilence and war.

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L0021174 Ambroise Pare, Les Oeuvres, 1579: fearful comet

The comets of Peter Apian (1532) and Amboise Paré (1579), Wellcome Library, London.

The comets of the seventeenth century provoked fear and trepidation, but they also provided empirical celestial evidence of a more predictable universe.  The Great  Comet of 1680 (to which ISON might be connected) was viewed through the telescope and utilized by Newton to verify the accumulated theories and hypothetical laws of the previous century and therefore “complete” the Scientific Revolution, and the Comet of 1682 became “Halley’s Comet” after his colleague Edmund Halley utilized historical and scientific analysis to connect it to comets of the past and the future.  I don’t really see much of this rational spirit on display over here in the New World, where Increase Mather called the Comet of 1680 a “terrible sight indeed” and the colonial government of Massachusetts proclaimed a general fast in order to cease “that awful, portentous, blazing star, usually foreboding some calamity to the beholders thereof.”

Comet of 1619 BM

Comet over Rotterdam Verschuier1680

Engraving of the Comet of 1619 after Adriaen van de Venne, British Museum; The Great Comet over Rotterdam, December 26, 1680 by Lieve Verschuier, Historisch Museum, Amersterdam (note the crowd below with their measuring devices).

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially after Halley was proven posthumously correct with the return of “his” comet in 1758, comets were perceived with a more modern sense of wonder on the part of both the scientific community and the general public. The blazing comet of 1811 inspired all sorts of cultural expressions, and was tied to a positive outcome (for once):  a conspicuously good year for wine production. And even better than wine (or at least on a par), the return of Halley’s comet in 1835 inspired a completely new category of jewelry:  comet pins.

Comet of 1811 Thomas Rowlandson BM

Comet Brooch, France V and A

Thomas Rowlandson’s caricature of comet-viewing in 1811, British Museum; French paste comet brooch, c. 1950, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Best Bedside Books 2012

Well, it’s the time of year for lists, lots of lists:  best and worst, most important, so on and so forth, lists of ten things that characterize the passing year in one way or another. I’ll do my part with a best books list, with a qualification:  these are titles that were published in 2012 which I consider to be essential for bedtime reading, or bedtime reference, to be more precise. I do like to read in bed before I sleep, but I drop off quite rapidly, so I need a quick hit of compelling information, and/or some visual stimulation, before I’m gone. I’ve given up fiction altogether for this purpose, and I never read any sort of academic history later at night:  my bedside books need to be “dippable”; I will pick up one or the other from the stack–too tall for the bedside table–and dip into it every other night or so, in order to see or learn something before I fall asleep (books that do not perform these services leave the stack rather quickly). Several amazing natural histories were published this year which are perfect for this purpose, so I’ll start with them.

Natural Histories cover

Natural Histories. Extraordinary Selections from the Rare Book Archive of the American Museum of Natural History Library. Edited by Tom Baione.  Sterling Signature, 2012.

Nothing fascinates me more than the merger of art and science and this first book illustrates that historical merger in an extraordinary way. It is the ultimate gift and coffee table book, as it comprises a collection of historical sources relating to every branch of natural history from anthropology to zoology, succinct yet substantive contextual essays, and lots of images, as well as frame-ready prints, but it is also incredibly informative and inspirational. Similar in its historical range and the compelling nature of its images is the National Library of Medicine’s Hidden Treasure, and rather more whimsical (yet still empirical) is Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.  A 21st Century Bestiary. These books are just visual feasts, and I also learn something every time I pick them up.

Hidden Treasure

the-book-of-barely-imagined-beings-a-21st-century-bestiary

Hidden Treasure:  the National Library of Medicine.  Edited by Michael Sappol.  Blast Books, 2012; The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson.  Granta Books, 2012.

I’ve been interested in folklore for quite some time, and an amazing new edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published this year: this bicentennial edition of The Annotated Brothers Grimm was edited and annotated by Maria Tatar, Chair of the Program in Mythology and Culture at Harvard.  It really is a definitive edition, and also includes many classic illustrations.  There’s nothing better than reading Grimm fairy tales before you fall asleep:  food for dreams!

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The Bicentennial Edition of the Annotated Brothers Grimm. Edited by Maria Tatar.  W.W. Norton, 2012.

I always have architecture and design books in my bedside stack, also good for dreaming, and the ones I purchased this year are American Decoration by Thomas Jayne and London Hidden Interiors by Phillip Davies.  Their titles are self-explanatory. I love Jayne’s traditional style, and with its 180 properties and 1200 photographs, Hidden Interiors is positively encyclopedic.

Book Jayne

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American Decoration:  A Sense of Place, by Thomas Jayne. Monacelli Press, 2012. London Hidden Interiors, Phillip Davies. An English Heritage Book, Atlantic Publishing, Ltd., 2012.

Both art history and history texts seldom function well as bedside books, as they require a bit more sustained concentration. If they are far removed from my academic interests, sometimes I can make them work out of sheer ignorance/ interest and curiosity (or if they have relatively short chapters!)  Right now I have two books in these categories by my bed, both very recently published:  Eleanor Jones Harvey’s The Civil War and American Art, which is the companion volume to the exhibition that’s on right now at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and Todd Andrlik’s Reporting the Revolutionary War, which presents a narrative of the American Revolution through contemporary newspaper reports, including several from the Salem Gazette.

CivilWar_500

Reporting

Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Civil War and American Art. Yale University Press, 2012; Todd Andrlik, Reporting the Revolutionary War. Before it was History, it was News.  Sourcebooks, 2012.

Salem is a “walkable city”, and I think more places in car-obsessed America should be walkable cities, which is why I purchased urban planner Jeff Speck’s Walkable City. How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time. I’m learning a lot from this book, but I do think it is better read in the daytime rather than just before bed. And last but not least, a perfect bedside book that my brother just gave me for Christmas:  Simon Garfield’s Just My Type. A Book about Fonts. This was actually published in 2010, but I also have another Garfield book that was published this year, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, (Gotham) so together they can fill out my top ten list.  Typography and cartography: two very interesting, yet contained topics.  Perfect for end-of-day reading.

Walkable City

Just-My-Type

Jeff Speck, Walkable City. How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012; Simon Garfield, Just my Type. A Book about Fonts. Gotham reprint, 2012.


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