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Astronomer revisits Chaucer 'Tales'

Jan 1, 2003

Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales and also a dabbling astronomer, apparently sprinkled his collection of pilgrim's stories with obscure celestial observations and events. Some of these subtle references are still being discovered. A physics professor at Southwest Texas State University, Dr. Donald W. Olson, has recently proposed, for example, that one of the narratives, The Franklin's Tale, may be describing an exceedingly rare celestial event that likely caused unprecedented tides off the Brittany coast. The high water event was described in The Franklin's Tale as the work of a magician who "Ful subtilly he kalkuled all this," by making extensive astronomical figurings.

Such an event actually occurred, according to the physics professor, who published his findings in the April issue of Sky & Telescope, on the year Chaucer was born, 1340. The event was a combination of the moon being at its perigee, the closest it gets to the earth; earth was at its perihelion, the closest it gets to the sun; and the alignment of all three celestial bodies resulted in an eclipse. Such a combination, which reportedly happens at most twice a century and often not for a thousand years or more, apparently occurred on Dec. 19, 1340. Chaucer apparently learned of the event as an adult and weaved it into his Canterbury Tale.

The complete story can be found on Sky & Telescope's web site: www.skypub.com.


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