ROMANIAN ASTROHUMANISM (V)
OLD METEOR OBSERVATIONS
An article by
Andrei Dorian Gheorghe and Alastair McBeath
(Vice-President of the International Meteor Organization)
first published as
METEOR BELIEFS PROJECT:
MANUSCRIPT REPORTS OF METEORIC ACTIVITY OVER ROMANIA
(the Journal of the International Meteor Organization),
Design: Gabriel Ivanescu
A collection of 15th to 19th century reports of meteoric,
or possibly meteoric, events, is presented,
drawn from manuscripts originating in the area of modern Romania.
Aside from the popular beliefs represented in some of these,
it seems there may also be important records of either strong Leonid
or Andromedid activity from 1605 and 1765,
neither year previously noted for producing such.
If the first of these was the Andromedids, this may be the earliest-known
European record of this shower, although the identification is uncertain.
The second event, whatever its source, seems to show a very early appreciation
of the radiant effect, from long before it was first supposed recorded,
during the 1833 Leonid storm.
In 1912, the noted astronomer Victor Anestin presented a paper
to the Romanian Academy in Bucharest, entitled 'Comets, Eclipses and Fireballs
observed in Romania between 1386 and 1853 from Manuscripts and Documents'.
Much of this work was re-presented, with additional information by
Vasile and Damaschin Mioc in 1977, in their book
'The Chronicle of Romanian Astronomical Observations',
published in Bucharest (Scientific and Encyclopedic Publishing House).
We have drawn on both sources here, Anestin's via the Romanian Academy Annals,
and have translated the texts into English for the first time, as far as we are aware.
This has allowed us to compile a catalogue of what were, or may have been,
meteoric or meteoritic events, witnessed from the general area
of modern Romania between 1495 and 1884.
For each entry, we have given the relevant translated text extracted from
the manuscript, plus, where appropriate, the Gregorian calendar date as given
by Anestin or Mioc & Mioc (as parts of Romania other than Transylvania
did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until the early 20th century,
this can create problems), and the name of the manuscript's author.
At the end of each item, we have added notes to highlight the probable nature
of the event, or further discussion, where this was felt necessary.
All our comments are given in square parentheses, thus '[ ]'.
Unfortunately, Anestin and Mioc & Mioc gave only limited information
on their manuscript sources, so we have normally given just the chroniclers' names here.
Those we do have a little more on, typically the titles of their texts, are as follows:
For Transylvania: Czack - 'Ephemeris';
Georgius Krauss - 'Tractatus', 'The Transylvania Chronicle';
Thoma Tartler - 'Diarium'; Teutsch - 'Nebenarbeit', 'Zugabe'.
For Wallachia: Ilie Corfus - 'Notes'.
For Moldavia: Iordachi Varnav - 'Ceaslov'.
The three regions mentioned roughly equate with the following areas
of modern Romania:
Transylvania - the lands west and north of the Carpathian Mountain ranges;
Wallachia - the plains between the River Danube and the Carpathians,
as far north as the Danube delta, including modern Dobruja
(between the Danube and the Black Sea);
Moldavia - the area between the River Prut and the Carpathians, north of Wallachia.
The modern Moldavian Republic, formerly known at times as Bessarabia,
is not included in the survey discussed here.
All the areas noted have had variable boundaries through the ages,
and the delineations above are approximate only.
Regarding the dating of events, we note that some overnight events may be
plus or minus a day, dependent on when the manuscript's author considered
one date ended and the next began (sunset, midnight or sunrise).
As there is often no way to be sure, almost all the overnight dates
have this level of uncertainty about them.
2. Catalogue of events
One item, from Transylvania.
1495: ...In these days, an extraordinary sign appeared in the sky.
We heard about it from those who saw it,
and thought that it should not be forgotten.
Nicolae, the friend of Sigismund, going to Buda to visit his king and master,
saw and heard in the village of Solta a strong light among the clouds,
accompanied by an immense thunder.
Suddenly, frightened by the novelty of this thing, Nicolae threw himself
on the ground, and after that, looking at the sky, he saw the Virgin Mary
and her Son, surrounded by a very bright nimbus, which passed down
through the clouds towards Buda...
[Probable daylight acoustic fireball.]
All items from Transylvania.
1558: ...On July 26, three stones fell from the sky to the Cross Field,
weighing 13, 14 and 15 kg...
[Probable meteorite fall. The meteorites have not survived.]
1558: ...On the Field of Cristur, three stones fell from the sky,
weighing 15 kg...
[Probable meteorite fall. Most likely another record of the previous event.]
1589: ...The town of Iaz was hit by a stone from the sky;
all that town was burnt, excepting the house of the preacher, on June 16...
[Probable meteorite fall. The meteorites have not survived.]
1593: ...Small flying lights and burning vapours,
which suddenly showed themselves in the sky's expanse, and strongly spread
a lot of fire, struck horror into mortal souls...
[Possibly a strong meteor shower, or perhaps an auroral display?]
1596: ...On a time was seen in the sky from the Turkish country,
something like an outburst of fire, explained as a strange sign in the sky
and a sign of victory...
[Perhaps a fireball, or possibly a brief auroral outburst?]
1599: ...On the fourth day of April, at 10 o'clock in the evening,
some fire fell with a rumble from the sky...
[Probable acoustic fireball.]
1599: ...In the same summer, various kinds of burnings and fiery globes
terrified the people's souls in different places...
[Possibly bright meteors, possibly lightning-induced fires and ball-lightning?]
All items from Transylvania.
1603: ...On March 25, a noise was heard in the air during the day,
just like a gun salvo, such that the people threw themselves
on the ground in fear...
[Possibly a daylight acoustic fireball, but perhaps genuine cannon fire.]
1604: ...In this year, in May...there appeared in the sky many falling stars
and flying strips...
[Probable strong meteor activity.]
1605: ...On Good Friday, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, while the sky was clear,
it thundered strangely, just like gun salvos, and the echo
was heard in all directions...
[Possibly an acoustic daytime fireball, but perhaps genuine gunfire.
Good Friday was on April 8.]
1605: ...Around May 17, there were the following unusual things in Arpasel.
Smoke like a big cask dropped from the sky, the forest of Arpasel
was set on fire, the green trees and the earth burnt for two weeks with much smoke.
Also, masses of gun salvos and trumpet sounds were heard.
in the Arpasel forest...
[Possibly a daylight fireball, with or without a meteorite strike,
combined with a forest fire; possibly a deliberate attack to burn the forest
with incendiary explosives, or perhaps an unusual lightning strike?
There is no follow-up report of what the king's man found in the forest,
1605: ...On November 15, a clear and luminous night,
it was as if it rained stars, at first many stars, bigger and more luminous,
after that small and big stars in a great number,
which extinguished themselves before arriving at the earth...
[Meteor storm. There is a problem with the date, as this does not coincide
with the expected Leonid maximum in the early 17th century,
which should have been around November 6 or 7.
Some Far Eastern reports from 1602 suggest strong activity on October 27,
November 6, 7 and 11 (Roggemans, 1989, p. 161), but nothing in 1605.
If the date has been wrongly corrected, there could be a shift of + - 10 days
from that above, which could mean it might have been November 5
(in which case this could be a previously unrecorded strong Leonid event),
or November 25 (if so, it may be the earliest-known European record
of the Andromedids.
The previous earliest was 1741 (Roggemans, 1989, p. 169)).
Unfortunately, there is no way to be sure, other than to hope additional records
from this year might shed more light.]
1605: ...December 24...A few days before was a giant noise in the air,
just like two armies fighting each other...
[Possibly an acoustic fireball, possibly the sound of a genuine gun-battle.
Note the record is under December 24, but the event occurred
an unstated "few days" earlier.]
1607: ...On November 27, at the seventh hour of the night, on a clear moon,
an appearance of light, fire, fell from the sky, with a noise and an earthquake,
in the town of Bicsad and other places...
[Probably a bright acoustic fireball, possibly a meteorite fall.]
1609: ...In the same year, one day, after 7 o'clock in the evening
a celestial lightning was seen, which transformed itself into a burning lance...
[Possibly a fireball, or perhaps an auroral display?]
1615: ...The day of January 5.
Even at daybreak, a luminous appearance was seen, just like fire
falling from the sky, or a rainbow,
followed by thunders and earthquakes...
[Possibly an acoustic fireball near dawn, but the "rainbow" reference
especially might suggest an auroral display, or perhaps even a genuine rainbow
near dawn, which would be reddened by the sunrise, and very high in the sky.
Rainbows indicate showery weather, which could also account for
the fire falling - if it was actually rain seen falling from a cloud
catching the sunrise - and the later thunder.]
1640: ...After that, some fire fell from the sky...
[Perhaps a fireball, but unhelpfully very vague.]
1647: ...On September 27, in the evening, strong roaring was heard in the sky,
from the west, as if there were cannon salvos.
Later, it was found that these were heard over the whole world,
and it was something like a forecast of future grief and the terrible destruction
of our poor country...
[Perhaps an acoustic fireball, but it is more likely
to have been genuine gunfire.
We should mention that on 1648 October 24 at Munster, Germany,
three 70-cannon salvos were fired to signal the end of the Thirty Years' War.
There is no suggestion this is what was reported here, but war had been raging
across much of central Europe for the previous three decades.]
1650: ...On October 9, in the afternoon, all of Transylvania heard
loud roars in the air, just like cannon salvos.
The people of Cluj thought that they came from Oradea...
the people of Brasov thought that they came from Fagaras...
[Perhaps an acoustic fireball, but more likely to have been gunfire?]
1658: ...On April 19, in the morning,
a globe of fire fell on the new castle near Brasov…
[Possibly a fireball, but more probably ball-lightning.]
1661: ...At that time, at the end of summer, throughout Transylvania
was heard in the air strong roaring...
In the fortress of Fagaras, half of a very strong bulwark wall collapsed,
filling the moat...
[Possibly an acoustic fireball, but more likely to have been gunfire?]
1663: ...On September 8, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon,
some noises and roaring were heard from the sky in Transylvania,
...Moldavia, Wallachia and Hungary...
[Possibly an acoustic fireball, or maybe gunfire?]
1664: ...January 5. A large celestial sign appeared
in Transylvania and other places.
It was a big luminous fire, like a table burning with flames.
Finally, this sky-sign threw out fiery lightnings,
and disappeared with strong roaring and thundering...
[Probable bright acoustic fireball.]
1687: ...On the eighth day after the Sacred Trinity,
at 8 o'clock in the evening,
three small fire-clouds flew over Brasov and Mount Tampa,
seen from the whole of Barsa County…
[A fragmenting fireball?
The date would have been July 13 + 8 days = July 21.]
Locations are given with each item.
1707: ...January...On the 25th, in the afternoon, from the mountains,
over the forest near Fagaras, a frightful thunder and crack was heard,
and many men wanted the imperial garrison of Fagaras
to use its big and small cannons.
But after that, it was certain that in Fagaras County a strong storm had appeared,
and three stones fell from it,
on which Hebrew letters were seen...
[Possible meteorite fall?
The stones have not survived for modern examination.]
1709: ...On January 28, a nice, clear day, on the other side of the Buzau river,
was a thunder so loud that men and animals fell to the ground.
A few stones from the sky fell too, and they were carried to the court of the prince,
where all the people were astonished to see them...
But big, black stones fell only in two places...
[Probable meteorite fall.
The stones have not survived.
The date is given in the Julian calendar.
It would be February 8, Gregorian.]
1728: ...In December, before Christmas, a light fell on the roof
of the cathedral of Brasov...
[Possibly a fireball, but more likely lightning or ball-lightning?]
1765: ...November 12... In this month, on three consecutive mornings,
to the north was seen a strange light (which did not look like the dawn),
tightening itself into a circle, from which many falling stars
detached like candles, lighting the earth...
[Very strong meteor shower.
The fact the meteors were apparently seen on three consecutive mornings
suggests the Andromedids as the most plausible candidate,
a rare early report of the shower if so.
The date itself was extracted from earlier in the chronicle entry,
and the stock phrase "In this month" probably indicates some time
in November, beginning on or after this date.
November 12 would fit to the Leonids for this period (theoretical maximum
around November 11 or 12), but there are no other known strong Leonid reports
from the 1760s.
Leonid maxima persisting for two consecutive nights were recorded in
1698 (November 8 and 9) and 1787 (November 9 and 10)
however (Roggemans, 1989, p. 161).
The probable Andromedid radiant (a number of observed and
theoretical Andromedid radiants are known - cf. (Kronk, 1988, pp. 211--220))
would have been to the north-west in the hours before dawn in late November,
and the description implies an appreciation of the radiant effect long before
it was officially reported, during the 1833 Leonids.
It is possible some other phenomenon was present, perhaps an aurora,
though the coincidence of an identical aurora on three consecutive mornings
when very active meteor rates were present as well, seems unlikely,
assuming the chronicle entry to be reliable.
The note that the light was unlike the dawn could be taken as meaning unlike
the aurora too, given that the term 'aurora borealis' means literally 'northern dawn'.
The light could not have been dawn twilight in November,
as then the Sun rises to the south-east in Europe.]
1774: ...In April, in Wallachia, Dambovita County, near Targoviste,
there were the following incidents.
One morning before sunrise, in a clear sky, a small luminous cloud appeared,
which began to thunder, and from which many dark stones fell like rain.
a tombstone; some of them bigger, some of them smaller;
big like a punch, or small like a nut.
And they fell so fast that the big stones entered deeply into the ground...
and the small stones remained on the ground like hailstones...
Their smell was like mud, and a little like sulphur...
[Shower of meteorites.
The stones have not survived.
The dating uses the Julian calendar.
Depending on when the event took place, correcting by +11 days
to convert it to the Gregorian calendar might carry it into early May.]
1786: ...On September 8, a Tuesday, in the night, a very bright light appeared
in the sky that made light like the daytime, and from which fiery blazes fell,
extinguishing themselves in the air.
After its end, thunder like the roar of an earthquake came from the north;
the day after, Wednesday, it began to rain for four days...
This light was seen in other remote places too...
(Cernica Monastery Manuscripts, Wallachia)
[A brilliant, fragmenting, acoustic fireball.
The date is Julian.
It would be September 19, Gregorian.]
1786: ...On September 8, at 7 o'clock in the evening, to the north in the sky,
there appeared behind the clouds something like the sun,
and all places were lit up as if by fire...
[A brilliant fireball; another report of the previous event.
The Gregorian date would be September 19 again.]
Locations are given with each item.
1818: ...On October 19, Saturday to Sunday, at half past three in the night,
there was a big light like that you can see on the moon.
And this light lasted half of a quarter of an hour.
The sky was as if it had been opened, and in its middle,
was something like a fire-dragon.
After this compressed, a stripe like lightning remained in the sky.
It lasted a little, and died...
[Probably an auroral display.
'Fire-dragon' might refer to a meteor, but the overall length and description
of the event makes a meteoric explanation extremely unlikely.
The date is Julian.
The Gregorian date would be October 31.]
1821: ...On June 27, the sky was split by a huge light...
[Probably a fireball, but perhaps an auroral display?
The Gregorian date would be July 9.]
1821: ...On August 20, Saturday, at 2 o'clock in the night,
there was a sign in the sky, to the north, a big bubble like a luminous house,
which brightened all the earth, and went into the west...
[Possibly a bright fireball, or perhaps an auroral display?
The Gregorian date would be August 31.]
1824: ...On July 30, at 1 o'clock in the night, there was a sign in the sky,
at first a tailed star, which became just like a snake.
It stayed half an hour, and hid itself...
(Iordachi Varnav, Moldavia)
[Perhaps a bright fireball leaving a very persistent train,
or perhaps an auroral display?
The Gregorian date would be August 10, so if a fireball, possibly a Perseid.]
1832: ...On February 25/26, between 10 and 11 o'clock,
on the horizon at Bucharest, a meteor was seen from the east to the south,
which, because of its unusual brightness and colour, red like fire,
it seemed just as if the Vacaresti district was burning...
[Perhaps a near-horizon fireball?
The direction makes an auroral display unlikely,
but another explanation cannot be excluded.
The date would be March 7/8 Gregorian.]
1847: ...On July 2, after I was awake at two hours after midnight,
I saw lights with many ornaments, shining like beautiful Paradise,
with wonderful burning brilliance.
I wiped my eyes, but also many faces of luminous appearance were showed to me,
like the burning of fire, from all directions.
They lasted more than a quarter of an hour.
I thought I was worthy to pass into eternal life...
(Father Bolos Filip, Transylvania)
[Probably an auroral display.
The Gregorian date would be July 14.
Although most Transylvanian chroniclers used the Gregorian calendar,
Fr. Filip was from Serbia, where the Julian calendar still held sway at the time.]
1866: ...On November 1, Tuesday, in the night there was a great sign in the sky,
like a roll turning like a crown, coming undone,
and dropping down millions of stars until the day, from the east to the west...
(Nita Andronescu, Wallachia)
[Meteor storm - the Leonids.
The phrasing suggests an attempt to describe the radiant effect seen
with a great meteor storm.
The corrected date would of course be November 13, Gregorian.]
1884: ...On February 20, Monday, at 12 o'clock,
there was to the north a foreign thunder, different to that we know...
[Perhaps an acoustic fireball, or gunfire?
The Gregorian date would be March 3.]
It is often difficult when working with medieval manuscripts,
or even those later ones prepared by people without scientific training,
to be certain what was being described when hunting for astronomical sightings.
It may seem that we have included a number of vague gun-like sounds
and probable auroral events, alongside the more obvious meteoric ones,
but we have preferred to err on the side of including too much,
than excluding something which might be important in future.
The number of wars raging across eastern Europe throughout the timespan
we have examined means that the people would have been generally familiar
with the sounds of distant gunfire of all sorts,
so at least some of the accounts preserved can be taken as
implying something different to that was being experienced.
This may be because of unusual atmospheric effects,
or may be because something meteoric had occurred.
The recovery of what may be the earliest European observation
of the Andromedids, from 1605, if not a hitherto unknown strong Leonid return,
together with another probable early Andromedid display,
lasting for several days in 1765, is both justification of, and some reward for,
the necessary efforts in working with such problematic material.
The beliefs and perceptions of the different witnesses are interesting too,
and we should be grateful they considered these things worthy of recording,
in however unusual or imaginative ways.
Kronk G. W. (1988). Meteor Showers: A Descriptive Catalog.
Enslow Publishers Inc.,
Roggemans P. (1989). Handbook for Visual Meteor Observations.
Sky Publishing Corporation.
© 2007 SARM
(Romanian Society for Meteors and Astronomy)