Subject:          Medieval references to impacts?
To:      (Cambridge Conference)
Date sent:        Fri, 15 Aug 1997 03:58:59 -0500 (CDT)

The Cambridge conference list has been quiet recently, so I thought I'd pass
along some possible medieval European references to impact events which I
haven't seen referenced in this context before.  Having said that, no doubt
someone here will offer a dozen citations in which these events were
discussed as records of potential impact events.

The first record comes from the _Anglo-Saxon Chronicle_:

     A.D. 679.  This year Elwin was slain, by the river Trent, on the
     spot where Everth and Ethelred fought.  This year also died St.
     Etheldritha; and the monastery of Coldingiham was destroyed by
     fire from heaven.

Does "destroyed by fire from heaven" refer to an airburst or impact?
I'm quoting from the translation by James Ingram (London, 1823), available
online at:

Gregory of Tours in his _History_ (of the Franks) describes a couple of
interesting events which might be impact-related.  I'm quoting from the
translation by Lewis Thorpe published by Penguin Books, 1974.

Gregory describes events in 580 A.D. (V.33, pages 295-296):

     In the fifth year of King Childebert's reign great floods
     devasted parts of the Auvergne.  The rain continued for twelve
     days and the Limage was under such a depth of water that all
     sowing had to cease.  The River Loire, the River Allier (which
     used to be called the Flavaris) and the mountain-streams which
     run into this latter were so swollen that they rose higher
     above the flood-level than ever before.  Many cattle were
     drowned, the crops ruined and buildings inundated.  The River
     Rhone, at the spot where it meets the Saone, overflowed its
     banks and brought heavy loss to the inhabitants, undermining
     parts of the city of Lyons.  When the rains stopped, the trees
     came out in leaf once more, although by now it was September.
     In Touraine this same year, one morning before the day had dawned, a
     bright light was seen to traverse the sky and then disappear in the
     East.  A sound as of trees crashing to the ground was heard throughout
     the whole region, but it can hardly have been a tree for it was audible
     over fifty miles and more.  In this same year again the city of
     Bordeaux was sadly shaken by an earthquake.  The city walls were in
     great danger of collapsing. The entire populace was filled with the
     fear of death, for they imagined that they would be swallowed up with
     their city unless they fled.  Many of them escaped to neighboring
     townships. This terrible disaster followed them to the places where
     they had sought refuge and extended even into Spain, but there it was
     less serious.  Huge rocks came cascading down from the mountainpeaks of
     the Pyrenees, crushing in their wake the local inhabitants and their
     cattle.  Villages around Bordeaux were burned by a fire sent from
     heaven:  it took so swift a hold that homesteads and threshing floors
     with the grain still spread out on them were reduced to ashes.  There
     was no other apparent cause of this fire, so it must have come from
     God.  The city of Orleans blazed with a great conflagration.  Even the
     richer citizens lost their all, and if anyone managed to salvage
     anything from the flames it was immediately snatched away by the
     thieves who crowded around.  Somewhere near Chartres blood poured forth
     when a loaf of bread was broken in two.  At the same time the city of
     Bourges was scourged by a hailstorm.

Is Gregory describing the effects of one or more airbursts?  Except for that
bloody bread, of course.

Gregory also describes events in October of 585 A.D. (VIII.24, page 455):

     While I was staying in Carignan, I twice during the night saw
     portents in the sky.  These were rays of light towards the
     north, shining so brightly that I had never seen anything
     like them before:  the clouds were blood-red on both sides,
     to the east and the west.  On a third night these rays
     appeared again, at about seven or eight o'clock.  As I gazed
     in wonder at them, others like them began to shine from all
     four quarters of the earth, so that as I watched they filled
     the entire sky.  A cloud gleamed bright in the middle of the
     heavens, and these rays were all focused on it, as if it were
     a pavilion the coloured stripes of which were broad at the
     bottom but became narrower as they rose, meeting in a hood
     at the top.  In between the rays of light there were other
     clouds flashing vividly as if they were being struck by
     lightning.  This extraordinary phenomenon filled me with
     foreboding, for it was clear that some disaster was about to
     be sent from heaven.

Is Gregory talking about an aurora?  Perhaps noctilucent clouds, possibly
airburst-induced?  A few pages later Gregory goes on to say:

     This same year two islands in the sea were consumed by fire
     which fell from the sky.  They burned for seven whole days,
     so that they were completely destroyed, together with the
     inhabitants and their flocks.  Those who sought refuge in
     the sea and hurled themselves headlong into the deep died an
     even worse death in the water into which they had thrown
     themselves, while those on land who did not die immediately
     were consumed by fire.  All were reduced to ash and the sea
     covered everything.  Many maintained that all the portents
     which I have said earlier that I saw in the month of October,
     when the sky seemed to be on fire, were really the reflection
     of this conflagration.

Was this an impact event, possibly accompanied by a local impact-induced

We need to be careful when interpreting such events since there is a
tendency for observers to meld unrelated phenomena that occur near each
other in time, and therefore to assume spurious cause-and-effect
relationships. Last November's purported impact in Honduras provides a good
contemporary example.  Initial reports stated that a bright fireball
impacted and caused a landslide, fires, and a crater.  Later reports stated
that the landslide was unrelated to the bollide.  No evidence of a crater or
any impact debris was found near the site of the landslide.  Eyewitnesses
merged these unrelated events because of the temporal synchronicity.  There
is also the natural tendency to add spurious details.  Still, I think the
accounts by Gregory are worth considering.

CCCMENU CCC for 1997