In Charlemagne’s day (748-814), astronomy was a blend of natural philosophy and religion, a study of the creation—and the creator.
Medieval people saw God’s hand in everything, from providing a good harvest to feed them through winter to healing the sick to deciding the victor of the war. So they would do what they could to gain God’s favor. Three days of litanies were part of the military strategy. In the medieval mind, searching the night sky for clues to God’s will made sense.
The universe had to be orderly, and Carolingians relied on Roman books to explain it: Pliny’s Natural History, Macrobius’s Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury, and Calcidius’s Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. Early medieval intellectuals placed Earth at the center of the universe and the sun, moon, and seven planets revolving around it in eccentric patterns—that is, circles within each other but not sharing the same center—and at different angles to the Earth’s plane. Planets, the keepers of God’s time, could also move in epicycles, loops along a circle.
King Charles himself took a keen interest in astronomy and corresponded with scholars about phenomena such as eclipses and the size of the moon. His biographer Einhard elaborates, “He learned how to calculate and with great diligence and curiosity investigated the course of the stars.” Charles passed on his interest in astronomy, along with the six other liberal arts, to his children, both sons and daughters. In a poem, the scholar Alcuin mentions a daughter gazing at the night sky and praising God, who created it.
The pursuit of knowledge fit into Charles’s imperial ambitions. In 780, he recruited foreign intellectuals, and in the decade that followed, workers were converting the royal villa at Aachen to a palace, one of many construction projects Charles would undertake.
Astronomical events were important enough to record in the annals. The year 810 saw two eclipses of the sun and the moon, and 812 had a midday eclipse of the sun. To Einhard, those eclipses, spots on the sun lasting seven days, and a ball of brilliant fire that fell from the sky during a war were among the signs that Charles was near the end of his life.
Einhard says Charles ignored the omens. Perhaps the emperor decided not to make a big deal of them publicly. But a year after that last eclipse, the 65-year-old monarch in declining health appeared to be putting his affairs in order. He invited his son Louis, the king of Aquitaine, to the assembly in Aachen, placed a crown on Louis’s head, and named him co-emperor. Charles also ordered that his grandson Bernard be called king of Italy, succeeding Louis’s late brother.
A few months after the assembly, a high fever and pleurisy sent Charles to his bed. He died a week later on January 28, 814. The annals say nothing about the sky that night.
Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel
Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers
P.D. King’s Charlemagne: Translated Sources
Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara
Planetary Diagrams for Roman Astronomy in Medieval Europe, Ca. 800-1500, Volume 94, Part 3, by Bruce Eastwood and Gerd Grasshoff
A History of Western Astrology Volume II: The Medieval and Modern Worlds by Nicholas Campion
Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe by Stephen C. McCluskey
Ordering the Heavens: Roman Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance by Bruce Eastwood
This post was originally published July 27, 2016, on Unusual Historicals.