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.

 

http://www.q-mag.org/stonesfallingfro/index.html


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:

http://historicfalls.com/pre-scientific-falls/hatford-meteorite/

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.

 

 

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