Christopher M. Cevasco, Author

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Anglo-Saxon Astronomy, Over Easy

AlfredThrough the successful defense of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from would-be Viking conquerors, King Alfred the Great of Wessex (pictured at left in a 13th-century illuminated genealogy) had become the strongest of the Anglo-Saxon sub-kings by the time of his death in AD 899. His efforts paved the way for a united England to be ruled over by his sons and descendants in a (nearly) unbroken line until the Norman Conquest in 1066. But Alfred is remembered not only for his military successes but for his cultural legacy; he encouraged literacy among his nobles, established schools for children, and had several major Latin works translated into the vernacular Old English tongue. One of the works Alfred translated was the Consolation of Philosophy by the 6th-century Roman philosopher Boethius, a work written in alternating sections of prose and metrical verse while the author was imprisoned for treason and awaiting his own execution; it considers among other matters the question of how evil can exist in a world under God’s governance and is widely considered one of the most influential Western works on medieval Christianity.

Soon after Alfred translated the Consolation, a group of Old English alliterative poems was adapted from the Consolation’s Latin meters, possibly by Alfred himself. These poems are called the Metres of Boethius (or sometimes the Lays of Boethius). One particularly interesting feature of the Metres is the way in which the Earth as a celestial object is described. Contrary to what might be expected from the so-called “Dark Ages”, the world in the Metres is not flat with edges over which ships might fall. Instead, we get such descriptions as the following:

It is equally easy     upward or downward
For this earth of men    to move at will;
This is most like     to an egg, where lieth
The yolk in the middle,     yet the shell moveth
Around outside;     so standeth the world
Still in its station;     with the streams round it,
The stirring floods,     the air and stars,
While the gleaming shell     round all glideth
Every day,     and long hath done so.
 
-  The Lays of Boethius, Lay XX, lines 167-175.

Of course, Alfred was mistaken in believing the sky and stars–the albumen and “bright shell” of his egg–traveled around the earth. That belief was not remedied until Copernicus and Galileo put forth their theories in the 16th and 17th Centuries. But in light of the egg simile in the Metres, it seems clear the 9th-century Anglo-Saxons were not wholly in the dark about the spherical shape of the planet. Even earlier, the venerable Anglo-Saxon monk Bede himself wrote in AD 725 in his treatise, De temporum ratione (The Reckoning of Time), that the earth’s roundness was “not circular like a shield but rather like a ball.”

This is not to say the understanding of the shape of the world permeated Anglo-Saxon society. There were many without access to Boethius, those who couldn’t read, and the typical ceorl who spent his days working his lord’s fields and who lacked sufficient leisure time to study science or philosophy. These men and women might well have assumed the earth was flat. But those who could read and write, those Anglo-Saxons who studied the writings of the past and contributed their own writings for the future, were quite capable of seeing the sphere beneath their feet notwithstanding the popular misconception that they lived in darkness.

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