Sunday, March 17, 2013

God shakes his fist at Berkshire: the 1628 'Hatford' meteorite

I was talking this last week to some of my students about Donne and terror, and this led me (via fear of God, plague, and prodigies) to Thomas Dekker’s pamphlet about the meteorite which brought hypervelocity to Berkshire in 1628, Look Up and Wonder.

The title page illustration (above) epitomizes the splendid muddle of the whole work. “This is a strange Chronicle, written by a strong hand … for God himselfe puts his owne Name to it”, says the pamphlet in its preliminaries (what God wrote in the skies, Thomas Dekker now puts into print). And as it was God who was sending a message to England at 5pm on Wednesday 9th April 1628, the sky gets filled, as the woodcut shows, with beings and objects. The Winds blow, a celestial army is ready for battle, and enormous cannon are placed up in the sky to discharge the quite substantial space rocks which fell to ground in Berkshire, and were dug up and collected.

Once the rocks are on the ground, Dekker can be quite factual about them. Up in the air, their prodigious nature of the sound they made was the thing of primary importance, and it was the terrific sound that prompted all those visionary beings and objects.

Dekker doesn’t really seem to have a very large amount of material about these dramatic events. Following the standard 17th century model for spinning out thin material, he moralises bravely, until he adjudges his reader to be in the right frame of mind (or maybe just impatient enough) to hear the actual details of this celestial warning. Even so, the pages of moralizing are not without their own interest.

Dekker certainly begins with great verve: “SO Benummed wee are in our Sences, that albeit God himselfe Holla in our Eares, wee by our wills are loath to heare him. His dreadfull Pursivants of Thunder, and Lightning terrifie us so long as they have us in their fingers, but beeing off, wee dance and sing in the midst of our Follies.”

I really liked God ‘hollering’. The cannon floating in the air suggested by these cataclysmic bangs and divine hollers seem to prompt Dekker to recollect a passage from the second book of Kings, where a carpenter’s axe-head falls into a river, but Elijah miraculously makes it float up to the surface again. That heavy artillery was floating up there in the sky primarily because cannon were the definitive, the sole source for stupendously loud bangs, so the sonic boom and the shock waves of the air-bursting bolide simply had to be products of a magnified and heavenly cannonade.

Lurking as a background anxiety seem to be the continental religious wars. Britain, Dekker reminds his readers, enjoys peace: “The Drum beates here, but the Battailes are abroad: The Barbed Horse tramples not downe our Corne-fieldes: The earth is not manurde with mans Bloud”.  Very loud bangs in heaven apparently (though this is not explicitly spelled-out) prompt the fear that such horrors may be about to spread to England. It will happen, we gather, unless England ceases to sin, sin being itself explosively dangerous: “our sinnes … daily lay traynes of powder, to blow us up, and confound us”.

So Dekker describes what was at first an amazing sonic event by assimilating it to the sounds of battle, and battle in turn justifies a sky full of celestial beings methodically working through the sound effects of war: “in an instant was heard, first a hideous rumbling in the Ayre, and presently after followed a strange and fearful peale of Thunder, running up and down these parts of the Countrey, but it strake with the loudest violence, and more furious tearing of the Ayre, about a place called The White Horse Hill, than in any other. The whole order of this thunder, carried a kind of Majestical state with it, for it maintayned (to the affrighted Beholders seeming) the fashion of a fought Battaile. It began thus: First, for an on-set, went on one great Cannon as it were of thunder alone, like a warning piece to the rest, that were to follow. Then a little while after, was heard a second; and so by degrees a third, until the number of 20. were discharged (or there abouts) in very good order, though in very great terror. In some little distance of time after this, was audibly heard the sound of a Drum beating a Retreat. Amongst all these angry peals, shot off from Heaven; this begat a wonderful admiration, that at the end of the report of every crack, or Cannon-thundering, a hizzing Noyse made way through the Ayre, not unlike the flying of Bullets from the mouths of great Ordnance: And by the judgement of all the terror-stricken witnesses, they were Thunderbolts.”

The Wikipedia’s general entry on meteorites says “Explosions, detonations, and rumblings are often heard during meteorite falls, which can be caused by sonic booms as well as shock waves resulting from major fragmentation events. These sounds can be heard over wide areas, up to many thousands of square km. Whistling and hissing sounds are also sometimes heard, but are poorly understood. Following passage of the fireball, it is not unusual for a dust trail to linger in the atmosphere for some time.”

The debris-field for this air-bursting meteorite was extensive (these fields are usually elliptical in shape, with the heaviest portions of the space rock traveling furthest). Dekker centres his account, rather enigmatically, on Hatford, which he describes as a town. But Hatford has always been a tiny village, from the time of the Domesday book to the present. He perhaps misunderstood the geographical prejudices of a local informant. Hatford is very close to Stanford in the Vale, a far more obvious reference point. But something must have happened there at Hatford. The Meteoritical Society’s website very confidently places a Google pin just to the west of the village:
but I do not know on what basis they do that - i.e., whether it means ‘this is where Hatford is’ or ‘a piece landed here’. Their figure for the weight of the Hatford meteorite is 29 kilograms, and I don’t know how this figure was arrived at either. Dekker indicates earth-impacts over a larger area, and says one collected stone, broken on impact, weighed together 24 pounds (about 10 kilos).

For the largest earth-impacting fragment mentioned in the pamphlet fell somewhere near Baulking. The two Letcombe villages (Dekker does not specify which Letcombe he means) are about ten kilometers away from Hatford: the pamphlet documents another fragment landing there, which was impounded by the sheriff. That well-known landmark White Horse Hill gets mentioned as a site of special terror (Dekker is cited from here in the OED as the first recorded user of the idiom ‘terror-stricken’), and it’s about eight kilometers west of the Letcombes. Dekker also mentions a ‘Sheffington’, and that baffles me. This area suggested (amounting to some 80 square kilometers) includes both a Shellingford and Uffington, so I wonder if they have coalesced on some blotted or scribbled notes, or in muddled recollection of a verbal report. Especially in the mysterious ‘Sheffington’, “all men …were so terrified, that they fell on their knees, and not only thought, but sayd, that verily the day of Judgement was come. Neyther did these fears take hold only of the people, but even Beasts had the self-same feeling and apprehension of danger, running up and down, and bellowing, as if they had been mad.” In the woodcut, the man digging and the man on the ground are perhaps meant to be the same person, busy working at one moment, overthrown by terror the next. If animals as phlegmatic as cows thought the Day of Judgement has arrived, then these must indeed have been terrifying phenomena.

Dekker seems to regard Berkshire as a long way away from his London readers (“Nothing is here presented to thine eyes, to fright thee, but to fill thee with Joy, that this Storm fell so far off, and not upon thine own Head”). It’s a pity he wasn’t more thorough about where fragments landed, so one could get a sense of a debris-field. The empty downlands to the south probably had unobserved pieces fall. An air-bursting meteor can generate hundreds of fragments. But it was a stony, ‘chondritic’ meteorite, so a search across winter fields up near the Ridgeway with those convenient little magnets on sticks unfortunately wouldn’t work.

The piece that landed in Baulking gets described very well, with no fanciful accretions: “For one of them was seen by many people, to fall at a place called Bawlkin Greene, being a mile and a half from Hatford: Which Thunder-bolt was by one Mistress Greene, caused to be digged out of the ground, she being an eye-witness amongst many other, of the manner of the falling. The form of the Stone is three-square, and picked in the end: In colour outwardly blackish, some-what like Iron: Crusted over with that blackness about the thickness of a shilling. Within, it is soft, of a gray colour, mixed with some kind of mineral, shining like small pieces of glass. This Stone brake in the fall: The whole piece is in weight nineteen pound and a half: The greater piece that fell off, weigheth five pound, which with other small pieces being put together, make four and twenty pound and better.”

Twenty four pounds’ weight (plus) of material is impressive (about 10 kilograms). It was identified as stone rather than metal, and has the blacker fusion crust of a chondritic meteor. If it was shaped like a three-sided pyramid (“three-square” is not a helpful phrase), ‘picked in the end’ is perhaps a description of ‘regmaglypts’, the cavitations on the surface of a meteor after it has burned its way through the atmosphere. They were probably looking at something like this:
The shining bits of ‘mineral’ were probably the flakes of iron and nickel typically seen in such a meteor. The threatening cannons of heaven have fired, but there have been no casualties. Stones have fallen harmlessly (though very alarmingly) to the ground. All England needs to do is repent its sins, and God will not send the real scourge of real cannons discharging real cannonballs.

Part of the burly charm of Dekker’s pamphlet is that it manages to give a hearty endorsement to the supernatural explanation of this messenger from the skies, and on the other hand to be dismissive of the more imaginative responses of those who were there:

“Many do constantly affirm, that the shape of a Man, beating of a Drum, was visibly seen in the Ayre, but this we leave to proove. Others report that he, who digged up the Stone in Bawlkin Greene, was at that instant stricken lame, but (God bee thanked) there is no such matter. Report in such distractions as these, hath a thousand eyes, and sees more than it can understand; and as many tongues, which being once set a going, they speak any thing. So now a number of people report there were three Suns seen in the Element; but on the contrary side, they are opposers against them, that will affirm they beheld no such matter, and that it was not so…”

I have cycled back and forth across this still lovely bit of landscape on many occasions. The villages are still villages, and tend to have well-built and beautiful churches. To the south, the Uffington White Horse, Dragon Hill, and Wayland’s Smithy beside the Ridgeway give mystery to the landscape. Not even Dekker can suggest why God would ever have wanted to shake his fist (“with fear and trembling casting our eyes up to Heaven, let us now behold him, bending his Fist only, as lately he did to the terror and affrightment of all the Inhabitants, dwelling within a Towne in the County of Barkshire”) at such a quiet region.

Update, September 23rd, 2013: I have been contacted by Mr Mark Crawford, who has been doing research into this historical meteorite fall, and web-publishes what he has assembled here:

To the historical sources, this adds a passage that Nehemiah Wallington, some of whose extensive compilations survive up in Manchester at the John Rylands library, copied out from a contemporary letter that had been published. It adds either East or West Challow to the debris field.



Saturday, March 02, 2013

Espadrilles of gannet-neck: St Kilda in the late 17th century

I’ve generally enjoyed the novels of Jim Crace, and was pleased to see from Adam Mars-Jones’ review in the LRB that another is out, with a setting both atopical and anachronistic. One feature of his invented village is (the reviewer notes) that nobody there owns a mirror, and this made for me a pleasing little connection to a late 17th century work that had actually reminded me (while reading it) of Crace’s fiction, Martin Martin’s account of his incident-filled visit to the Isle of St Kilda in 1694. Among the things Martin says about those male St Kildans who get to larger, more inshore islands, is that “they admired Glass Windows hugely, and a Looking-Glass to them was a prodigy”.

The text has the title, A Late Voyage to St Kilda, the Remotest of all the HEBRIDES, OR Western Isles of SCOTLAND. WITH A History of the Island, Natural, Moral, and Topographical. Wherein is an Account of their Customs, Religion, Fish, Fowl, &c. As also a Relation of a late IMPOSTOR there, pretended to be Sent by St. John Baptist (1698). The author of the Preface to the book (who tells us that Martin was himself from the Western Isles, went to university in Edinburgh and had met members of the Royal Society), makes an entirely persuasive point: “Men have Travelled far enough in the search of Foreign Plants and Animals, and yet continue strangers to those produced in their own natural Climate”.

St Kilda in the late 17th century emerges as an utterly fascinating mix of things: a Gaelic-Polynesian-Christian-Animist community of one hundred and eighty people, 18 horses, and 90 head of cattle, plus two thousand sheep dispersed over Hirta and the even smaller local islands. It’s a community so traditional in its ways as in places to recall the weird rituals of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast – yet so marginal, that you feel that had they dared deviate in the slightest from customs handed down over generations, that abandonment of the rigour necessary to survival in this place might have doomed their entire way of life. Secured by their extreme isolation from most of the perils threatened by other people, they lived a life that tolerated an astonishing degree of natural risk. Their voyages on their one open boat to the other islands and sea stacks around Hirta, the main island, involved life-threatening dangers both in launching and landing, then from currents and storms. For a main part of their diet, they harvested eggs and birds, suspended over the sea cliffs on ropes made of twisted hemp bound in leather. These daily hazards were not enough, it seems, for their courtship customs, like those of Easter Island, required foolhardy demonstrations of nerve and agility in climbs that modern free climbers could emulate easily enough, though Martin is hugely impressed:
“In the face of the Rock, South from the Town, is the famous Stone, known by the Name of the Mistress-Stone; it resembles a Door exactly, and is in the very front of this Rock, which is Twenty or Thirty Fathom perpendicular in Height, the Figure of it being discernable about the distance of a Mile: Upon the Lintel of this Door, every Batchelor-Wooer is by an Antient Custom obliged in honour to give a Specimen of his Affection for the Love of his Mistress”. The young man who had managed the climb then had to strike a time-honoured (and ridiculously risky) posture high on the exposed pinnacle. I found the following images (Martin may have confused the Mistress stone and Lover’s stone into one story).

Though cool-headed modern visitors seem able to emulate this feat, the St Kildans were clearly, and necessarily, expert climbers. Boys would, Martin says, begin by climbing the walls of their houses, this from the age of three. One stunt by which especially proficient climbers could show off was making climbs with their back to the rock face.

The community gets by with so little. There’s the one boat, with seating and stowage on board assigned and restricted with utterly exact specification of each man’s allocated space. The whole community owns just three ropes for the egg and bird collecting. “The Ropes belong to the Commonwealth, and are not to be used without the general Consent of all”. There is “one Steel and Tinder-Box in all this Commonwealth”, and the guardian of this precious equipment makes a small toll in goods for providing his services.

Every St Kildan is an expert reader of the sky, and as the stark requirement of your life probably depending on reading it correctly (if a boat was to be launched), it was imperative to update your reading experience all the time. But nobody is (literally speaking) literate. They can tell the time to an exactitude by the tide, and continuous awareness of the phase of the moon.

When Martin was there, some of the older people could still remember wearing nothing else but sheepskin garments. Plaids have arrived on boats from other outer islands less wildly distant from the mainland, and the odd pair of trousers abandoned by sailors caught by the natives filling knotted trouser-legs with their precious birds’ eggs. Their plaids and mantles are pinned together with bones from fulmars. The island women wear little espadrilles fashioned out of the necks of gannets: “the only and ordinary Shoes they wear, are made of the Necks of Solan Geese, which they cut above the Eyes, the Crown of the Head serves for the Heel, the whole Skin being cut close at the Breast, which end being sowed, the Foot enters into it, as into a piece of narrow Stocking; this Shoe doth not Wear above Five Days.” There is no money in circulation. Their rents to the laird, of the clan MacLeod, are paid in barley grain, measured out in an immemorial grain measure which they will not change, though its battered state makes it a regular point of dispute. In other acts of trade they are implacable bargainers: “They are reputed very Cunning, and there is scarce any Circumventing of them in Traffick and Bartering; the Voice of one is the Voice of all the rest, they being all of a piece, their common Interest uniting them firmly together.”

Occasionally alcohol is brewed out of nettle roots, but mainly they drink water or whey – Martin praises the superb water quality of some of the springs ( … but still).

These people lived mainly on the sea birds that nested in abundance around them. The map in this little book shows the many pyramids of loose stone that the St Kildans built to store both eggs and dead birds: “They preserve the Solan Geese in their Pyramids for the space of a Year, slitting them in the Back, for they have no Salt to keep them with. They have Built above Five hundred Stone Pyramids for their Fowls, Eggs, &c. scattering the burnt Ashes of Turf under and about them, to defend them from the Air, driness being their only Preservative
Gannets, or ‘Solan geese’, were caught in profusion when they were nesting on the island and adjacent sea-stacks. The birds were taken with horse-hair nooses on long rods, or simply clubbed while trying to defend their young. From the sea-stacks, bird corpses were thrown down from cliff-tops into the sea for collection in the boat, until the islander in the boat declared the boat full to capacity. Gannets were also killed by exploiting their methods of diving onto prey:
“a Board set on purpose to float above Water, upon it a Herring is fixed, which the Goose perceiving, flies up to a competent height, until he finds himself making a strait line above the Fish, and then bending his course perpendicularly piercing the Air, as an Arrow from a Bow, hits the Board, into which he runs his Bill with all his force irrecoverably, where he is unfortunately taken.

The gannets survived: St Kildans still had the tragic Great Auk: “The Sea-Fowls are, first, Gairfowl, being the stateliest, as well as the Largest of all the Fowls here, and above the Size of a Solan Goose, of a Black Colour, Red about the Eyes, a large White Spot under each Eye, a long broad Bill; stands stately, his whole Body erected, his Wings short, he Flyeth not at all, lays his Egg upon the bare Rock, which, if taken away, he lays no more for that Year.” In the crassly stupid human annihilation of this bird the St Kildans played a main role. Flightless, the bird was unable to escape them, and the last great auk sighted in the British Isles was collected by St Kildans, kept briefly in captivity, then beaten to death for being a witch that had raised a storm.

The fulmar chick, which protects itself by a projectile-vomit of its acidic stomach contents, was (amazingly) exploited for those same nauseous ejecta: “the Inhabitants and other Islanders put a great value upon it, and use it as a Catholicon for Diseases, especially for any Aking in the Bones, Stitches, &c. some in the adjacent Isles use it as a Purge, others as a Vomiter; it is hot in quality, and forces its passage through any Wooden Vessel.” Yes, one can imagine how emetic that was.

Martin allows himself some sentimental reflections on the people as noble savages: “The Inhabitants of St. Kilda, are much, happier than the generality of Mankind, as being almost the only People in the World who feel the sweetness of true Liberty: What the Condition of the People in the Golden Age is feign’d by the Poets to be, that theirs really is.” But who wouldn’t? He saw a resourceful and brave people, who possess next to nothing, but require nothing from anyone else.

They carried on their immemorial way of life on an island whose small area is diminished by its precipitous nature, and swept by storms. Somehow they also managed the struggle against a small gene-pool, with very careful consideration given to who might marry whom (They are “nice in examining the Degrees of Consanguinity before they Marry”, Martin says). In terms of not out-consuming their resources, they had the conception-limiting practice of continued breast-feeding (“They give Suck to their Children for the space of Two Years”), while Martin gives the impression, without saying very much about it, that they had an abstinence-based (yet successful) management of sexual desire.

These other - (or out-of-worldly) - people were as vulnerable as a rare species (and they would finally follow the great auks into extinction). Every time a boat arrives from the mainland, a cough goes round the entire community, Martin learns, though has to be persuaded that this is true. Two families are struggling with leprosy.

Their other susceptibility was that they were, alongside that conservatism which seems a survival mechanism, all mad for novelty, any kind of novelty. Martin is followed about and watched intently, for at any time he might do or say something that they have never conceived of before.

Martin had been able to get to the island because word had reached the mainland of the previous arrival on Hirta of an imposter, one Roderick, who had found in this place possibly the only community anywhere who could have believed his preposterous lies. Sent to the island (he told them) by John the Baptist, Roderick seems to have been bent on some improvised experiment in social control, yet managed it extremely badly, improvising his way into trouble. The Ten Commandments have been replaced (he told them), and he offered the updates. Roderick seems to have made the women of the island his target, and they may have been his motive for the whole imposture. Accustomed to a life in which a woman has to be frugal with her body as with everything else, these island women on the island were absolutely faithful to their husbands (Martin says). They could not be corrupted by money (if sailors managed to make a landing from a ship during some rare moment of dead calm), as money meant nothing to them. But Roderick was achieving seductions. Discovery of these actions ran neck-and-neck in discrediting him with his other crazy innovations, which all failed, as they were bound to do in a place that could only function and survive in the one traditional way it could function.

Because of the imposter Roderick, Martin got his dangerous voyage out to the island (with narrow escapes from drowning, being swept away into the main ocean, and being wrecked at landfall) in the same boat as a minister, who has been sent out to put the people back to rights. Even Roderick seems relieved, while the St Kildans are happy to be back to what they were.

Martin described this remarkable island with the Royal Society in mind. He does not waste words on its wild beauty. There’s a good map and some good photographs at the following URL’s: