A Medieval astrologer about Halley Comet in 1301

In the moment everybody is looking in the sky for the Comet Lulin, I believe of some interest reading what a Medieval astrologer wrote about the famous Halley comet in 1301.

This passage was so famous that many scholars believe that the Italian painter Giotto painted Halley comet in his  painting for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

Is it really like that? Searching a little in the Internet sea I found an interesting thread about another possibility, which could have some truth in my opinion.

Giotto is well known  because he painted the original frescos of  Palazzo della Ragione in the same city of Padua, which were inspired to the astrological work of Pietro Abano about images rising with 360 degrees of Zodiac. Giotto’s frescos were destroyed in a fire, and then reproduced again, the Medieval version of Astrolabium Planum which tourists can admire in their visit to the city.


So the same  Abano could have some influence here too; he writes that comets are  hot and dry exhalations, ignited. After a great fire the matter loses its red colour and it becomes black. And in fact in the painting the tail of the comet is almost black.

The text is written by an anonymous astrologer from  the collection edited by Lynn Thorndike Latin Treatises on Comets between 1238 and 1368 AD . My translation from Arcana Mundi- Antologia del pensiero astrologico antico (BUR, 1995)

Many thanks to Eddy in Skyscript forum, who checked for me Halley ephemeris for 1301.

In the year 1301, in the first day of September, a comet appeared in the West and was visible for a month and more. Because of its circular motion it was evident for experts that it was moving because of the motion of  the vault of the sky, from East to West.  Now, the cause of its motion was in the place it was produced, i.e. the upper part of air, because the comet moved  from East to West in a contiguous space between the Air region and the Fire one, in this way, because of motion of the Primum Mobile, the elements of the upper spheres move.

In the last day of  September 2 hours and 40 minutes after the sunset, I started to study carefully its motion.

I took the turquet (1) and determined the map of the sky on the ground of three stars I recognises Abramec (2), Alfecam (3), and Altayr (4) so I found that the longitude of the comet, by signs and degrees, was at 20 Scorpio and its latitude at 26 degrees north. And Mars was in that moment at 20 degrees of Scorpio, direct in motion, so Mars and the comet were almost in conjunction, if we consider their places not along the circle passing through the World Poles, but along the circle passing through the Zodiac Pole.

Going on with the observation for many nights, I found that the comet, in addition to the mentioned motion  carried by the Primum Mobile  from East to West, it  moved from North to South. And the day 6th of October, the feast of Sancta Fides, in the same hour after the sunset, I found its longitude to the 1st degree of Sagittarius and its latitude was of 10 degrees north.

Now, the cause of the motion of this comet from West to East according the order of the signs can be reasonably understood like delay and weakness of its motion in respect of daily motion. Since the virtue of the Primum Mobile is absorbed in a weaker way by the lower  and more distant things from the Primum Mobile, so the Fire and the Air, in its upper part, can be left behind the  daily motion of the Sun, so the Comet which is generated in those regions, make its revolution together with the Fire and the Air, but it is slower than the sky’s motion. For this reason the comet is behind the other celestial bodies which are in motion and so it seems to move against the sky motion, from West to East with a motion similar to the planets, but just because of its delay and the weakness of its revolution.

About the comet motion from North to South, I believe it’s the attraction motion, i.e. the Comet is attracted by Mars, from which was generated. Mars in fact, which was not exceeding the zodiacal southern latitude, was in aspect with the Comet, whose latitude was more than 20 N degrees. For these reasons the Comet seemed to move  from North to South toward East, so its eastern longitude  grew and grew while northern latitude decreased and decreased.

In the same way and for the same reasons its tail moved. In fact in the beginning of its appearance, its tail stretched toward North and following its motion moved Eastwards, inclining towards South to the stat which is called Altayr, i.e. Vultur Volans, which has a longitude of 21.15 Capricorn and a latitude of 29.25 N. And in this way,  slowly, it moved towards Mars.

So, after having carefully considered the nature and the temperament of the producing planet and of the receiving sign of the comet and its motion and every other detail about its nature, which I omit in  order to be brief, I will go to the judgement.
So I say that this comet, for its different and several causes, it means several accidents.
It means in fact strong winds and earthquakes in the regions which are in familiarity and sometimes a dryness of the air preceding profuse rains, but this because of “accidens”, i.e. because southern and western winds, which will cause clouds and rains.
And because of the corruption of the air,  death and plague, famine and illness to the genitals, to the bladder and lungs and pains for parturient women and miscarriages and difficult deliveries and plenty of visions.
It means that there will be many fights between powerful people, wars and murders, and the religion of Moors will be weaker, and on the Earth thieves and robbers will be more and more.
It means wars, quarrels and massacre, the death of the kings, princes and nobles, the coming from the West of a King’s enemy and the King violence on his people and his lust for money. It means at last the destitution of courters and the unfairness of their acts that will correspond to a great hardship for them. So, Mars was in Scorpio, in which it has many rights because it has here the triplicity and the domicile: having 8 points (5) will make stronger the meaning of the comet.
These judgements are based on the most important astrologers, Ptolemy and Albumasar and Aly Habenragel.

And many poets talked about the meanings of a comet. Virgil in facts wrote in the ninth book of the Aeneid:

“Sanguinei lugubre rubent de nocte comete”

Lugubre, gloomy: he used the name as an adverb. And he calls the comets “sanguineos”, bloody because they mean bloodshed.
Claudianus adds, talking about the comet:

“Et nunquam celo spectatum impune comete

A comet was never seen  in the sky  without a disaster.
And Lucanus, talking about the  wonders when the war between Pompeus and Caesar was near, says that the appearance of a comet means a change in the kingdom.

(1) a medieval astronomical instrument designed to take and convert measurements made in three sets of coordinates: Horizon, equatorial, and ecliptic ones.
(2) Arcturus, alpha Bootis
(3) Alphecca, alpha Coronae Borealis
(4) Altair, alpha Aquilae
(5) 5 because of domicile and 3 of triplicity

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