There was a lot of chatter last week, both on and offline, about a reported plot by the United States to ‘blow up the moon’ at the height of the Cold War. Drilling down into the detail of the story, the plot centred around setting off a nuclear bomb on the moon, with the accompanying mushroom cloud terrifying the enemy of the time.
Coinciding with the story, here in the north-west of England, we had some beautifully clear, frosty nights, and the full moon sat there in the sky in all its un-bombed glory. I had to wonder about the guy who decided it might be a neat idea to discharge a nuke up there. Perhaps he had the rather stern children’s encyclopaedia we had as children. In answer to the question ‘What is the Moon like?’, it stated: ‘The Moon is very different from Earth. There is no air, no weather and no life.’ Fair enough. But it went on: ‘It is a dreary, dusty place that is boiling hot by day and freezing at night.’ Whoa! Yes, there may be extremes of surface temperature. But dreary? I don’t remember Armstrong’s ‘One small step…’ being followed by a polite yawn. And dusty? It’s moon dust, people: not pet hair and dead skin.
What Mr Moon Bomb and Encyclopaedia of the Unimaginative have in common is a total disregard for the moon’s huge influence on mankind. That influence has been both practical and cultural. (Mr Moon Bomb might also have missed the lesson on the earth’s tides.) Those influences of course change over time.
Medieval European astronomy had the Earth at the centre of the Universe, with the moon, the sun and every other planet following our globe. God was responsible for this perfect celestial order. One of the things determined by this order was medical treatment. Physicians’ treatment manuals had details of the location of the sun and the moon, as well as planetary movements. The time of onset of an illness was important in determining both the cause and the treatment. Instructions for the bleeding of patients took account of which planetary house the moon was in.
For the medieval world, planetary alignment could have far more deadly implications for health. John Kelly, in his superb book on the Black Death, The Great Mortality, cites the Compendium de epidemia per Collegium Facultatis Medicorum Parisius. The Compendium is the work of the Paris medical masters of the time in trying to explain the plague epidemic. In it, they conclude that responsibility for the plague is due to a ‘configuration of the heavens’ on 20 March 1345, leading to a ‘deadly corruption in the air.’ Jupiter, deemed to be ‘wet and hot, and drawing up evil vapours from the earth’, and Mars, hot and dry, came together and ignited vapours that were spread by high winds. Given that between 1345 to 1350, millions of people died from the plague (estimates range from one half to one third of the entire population of western Europe), it must have made the planets a terrifying presence.
The other source of terror comes from the moon’s mythology. Humans losing their sanity or being transformed into wild beasts have long been attributed to a full moon. Werewolves make their documented appearance as far back as 500 BC, with the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar imagining he had become one. Reports of werewolves persisted across central Europe well past the medieval period and into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We’re less afraid of werewolves now, preferring them instead to be the moody (and surprisingly un-hairy) third of an angst-and-fang-ridden love triangle.
Okay, so historically the moon’s had pretty bad press as some arbitrary harbinger of death and destruction. But for all of the fears, the moon served older civilizations than ours very well. Our modern western society likes its artificial light- NASA’s photographs of the world at night light up the location of our urban sprawl, our determination to take on the night and win. Our medieval ancestors had no such weapons against the dark. What we consider to be easy, getting from A to B outside of daylight hours, was hazardous in the extreme for them. Travel was often planned around the moon, where its light could make a journey possible. The phases of the moon were common, necessary knowledge. As well as travel, people hoed, planted and mowed by moonlight. Thatchers could work by its light. There are Swedish accounts of the very poorest carding wool by moonlight.
Most people in medieval society could not read or write and knowledge was passed down orally. Yet by the 17th century, with the revolution of printing firmly underway, one of the most popular printed work was the almanac. An almanac charted the moon’s progress in monthly tables, as well as providing other information. A. Roger Ekirch’s wonderful At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, tells of one in three families in England possessing one. That’s an astonishing 400,000 copies. In early America, almanacs were the most popular publication after the Bible. And in these almanacs, we find each full moon named. In England, the first full moon after the winter solstice (December 21) was ‘the moon after Yule’, followed by the wolf and Lenten moons. The harvest moon and the hunter’s moon are also included in there, terms with which we are probably still familiar. But the egg moon, the flower moon? American versions differ: in one, January is the wolf moon, followed by snow, storm, pink, flower, strawberry, buck, sturgeon, harvest, hunter’s, beaver and cold. In another version, February is the hunger moon, November the frost moon.
In my medieval thriller, The Fifth Knight, I have several scenes that happen at night. The story is based on Thomas Becket’s murder, which took place on December 29, 1170. So I had to make sure I had a Yule moon in there, and the night sky had to reflect what was happening as the story unfolds in time. I think my characters who fight, chase, die and fall in love by moonlight and starlight, would be horrified by the proposed actions of Mr Moon Bomb.
Horrified too, I believe, would be the real inhabitants of the medieval world. I think they would have been a lot happier with Mr Eugene Shoemaker. Shoemaker was a legendary planetary geologist who died in a car accident in 1998. He had dreamt of going to the moon, but a medical disorder prevented that from ever happening. Instead, he taught the Apollo astronauts to be field geologists. As a tribute to him, some of his ashes were carried to the moon aboard the Lunar Prospector space probe in 1999. The capsule carrying his ashes was inscribed with the following passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
And when he shall die
Take him and cut him out into little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Next time you see that big old moon, say hi to Shoemaker- a man that gave to the moon, instead of trying to blow it away. I love it that he’s there, and not the remains of a bomb. I’m sure the medievals would too.
Note: The Fifth Knight can be found on Kindle Serials at The Fifth Knight. At this time, only US customers can purchase the serialized format. The book will be released in complete format by Thomas & Mercer in 2013.