There are four principal historic pictorial representations of Halley’s Comet. In 1984 I had the opportunity to see two of them, namely the 1066 representation on the Bayeux Tapestry in France, and the 1301 apparition in Giotto’s “Adoration of the Magi” in Padua, Italy. My quest for these artistic masterpieces first began when I read an article in the May 1979 issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN entitled “Giotto’s Portrait of Halley’s Comet” by Roberta J. M. Olson. We subsequently exchanged correspondence and I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Olson in October, 1985 at the opening of the Art Exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., entitled “Fire and Ice – A History of Comets in Art”, after the excellent book which she had written. It was here that I had the opportunity to see the third actual historic pictorial representation of the comet, in the Library of Congress’ copy of the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicles, which depicts a woodcut of the apparition of Halley’s Comet in 684.
Woodcut of Halley's Comet 684 A.D.
in Nuremberg Chronicles published in 1493
Although I had been in England in September of 1984 to visit the tomb of Edmond Halley at Lee, I was unable at that time to include in my itinerary a trip to Canterbury to see the fourth of the historic comet renderings: the representation of the apparition of 1145 in the Eadwine Psalter at Canterbury. A return trip to London in 1985 for the Royal celebration of Edmond Halley’s birthday again did not afford the time for a visit to Canterbury. So, once again, the comet of 1145 eluded me.
On November 23, 1986, I was again in London for the final act of the current return of Halley’s Comet – the memorialization of Edmond Halley in Westminster Abbey. I was determined that this time I would get to see first-hand the Eadwine rendering of Halley’s Comet.
On the morning of Friday, November 14, 1986, I set out by train from Charing Cross Station in London for Canterbury. For readers of Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALES, the Charing Cross starting point is significant, for it was from that point that the pilgrims began their journey to the Canterbury shrine. My pilgrimage – and the term is appropriate – was not on horseback in the company of a host of story-sharing characters, but in a modern British Railways coach in the company of a handful of non-conversing individuals busily reading their newspapers and paperbacks or listening to a “Walkman”, oblivious of the beautiful scenery or those around them.
The trip took approximately two hours through the beautiful south-eastern countryside of Britain. I had taken the train which would disembark at the West Gate of Canterbury, and as we approached the fabled city, the towers of the Cathedral dominated the skyline, just as Erasmus wrote in the sixteenth century: “two immense towers which seem to greet the traveler far off…” as he made his way down the old road from London to the Shrine of St. Thomas the Martyr, following, no doubt, the same route that Chaucer and his pilgrims had taken more than a hundred years before.
I mentioned earlier that this was a multi-faceted trip for me. Just as the medieval pilgrims came to Canterbury to honor the memory of St. Thomas a Becket, I, too, felt drawn to the shrine of this man of history who had defied his King for the love of God and Church. It was Becket’s presence which drew pilgrims from throughout medieval England and which now was one of the forces that drew me. In addition to the Cathedral which once held the remains of Becket (ambitious patriots destroyed his tomb and its remains in their zeal to please King Henry VIII centuries later), the head of another man of principle, Thomas Moore, himself a victim of this later Henry, rests in the obscure St. Dunstan’s Church on the outskirts of Canterbury. It was my intention to visit both shrines.
But the other – and equally compelling – reason for my presence in Canterbury was the Eadwine Psalter, locked away, I anticipated, in the Archives of the Cathedral Library.
I inquired at the Visitor’s Center across the plaza from the Cathedral, just inside the Christ Church Gate, as to the possibility of seeing the Eadwine Psalter. The receptionist indicated that researchers could only get into the archives by previous appointment. I indicated that I was an American here on research, with only one day at my disposal in Canterbury, and could I be accommodated on such short notice by way of exception? I gave her my card, indicating that I was President of the Halley’s Comet Society – U.S.A., and I mentioned that I was an invited guest at the Halley Memorialization service the night before at Westminster Abbey.
She called over to the office of the Cathedral Archivist in the Library. I was handed the phone and on the other end was the Secretary to the Archivist. After I had explained my intentions, she indicated that they were very busy and that a previous appointment was necessary – and what exactly did I want? I explained my intensions and she said she could probably make an exception. I explained that I wanted to see the manuscript of the Eadwine Psalter of 1145 because of my interest in Halley’s Comet. She put me on hold.
After a few minutes she returned to the phone with some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that the original manuscript was on loan to the College of St. Thomas. However, and this was the good news, she had a facsimile there which could be used for research. I merely had to produce some identification to gain entry to the Archives and handle the book. I indicated that I had my U.S. Passport and a copy of the London Times that listed me as a participant in last night’s ceremony in Westminster Abbey honoring Edmond Halley. She said that would be acceptable and to come right over.
While I was disappointed that I would not see and handle the actual manuscript which was hand-written by the monk, Eadwine, in 1145, I was satisfied that I would be admitted to the archives and be allowed to handle a valuable facsimile within the same precincts where the original was written 800 years earlier.
The library is located on the second floor of a building adjacent to the Cathedral above the ancient ruins of the cloister walk (it was through the cloister entrance to the Cathedral that the assassins entered to kill St. Thomas). Mrs. Gosby, the Secretary to the Archivist, Miss Anne M. Oakley, who was not at work on the day I was there, greeted me. I felt honored to be admitted to this hallowed room. I understood why she was concerned about admitting me without an appointment. At the dozen or so individual table/desks, each individually illuminated, were an equal number of scholars carefully paging through what appeared to be very old manuscripts, some in parchment. I had never been in such a scholarly atmosphere. Halley’s Comet had once again been for me the occasion for an awesome link with history and scholarship.
Mrs. Gosby had already pulled the manuscript for me while I was crossing the courtyard to the Archives from the Visitor’s Center. The facsimile was a 1935 reproduction of the original. It was an exact page-by-page photographic reproduction of the original. Where the ink bled through the paper on the original, it clearly showed on the facsimile. It was the closest I could get (at that time) to the original, and despite some disappointment, my pilgrimage had been successful.
There, on page 10 of the facsimile was Eadwine’s squiggly representation of Halley’s Comet. It appears under the text of Psalm 5. It should be noted that Psalm 5 makes no reference to a comet or celestial phenomenon, adding to the evidence that this was an historical gloss sketched by the transcriber, representing something he had seen.
One advantage of working from a facsimile is that you have access to the commentary of scholars. Those who published this 1935 volume provided a preface of notes on all of the illustrations in the Psalter. The commentator noted that consultation with noted astronomers indicated that Halley’s Comet was visible in 1145 when Eadwine was supposed to have transcribed this work. It was, therefore, his interpretation of what he had seen as Halley’s Comet traversed the sky.
I only spent about half an hour going through the Psalter. This particular Psalter is unique in that it is the only one in existence that contains a self-portrait of the transcriber. This full-page sketch of Eadwine appears at the end of the work along with a foldout sketch of Canterbury Cathedral in his day, giving the reader a unique feeling of being in touch with history. This combined with the fact that I was reflecting on this history in the very place that it was made centuries before added to the excitement of the moment.
My mission completed, I thanked Mrs. Gosby and took leave of the archives. I was now ready to tour the Cathedral and visit the hallowed spot where Thomas ‘a Becket was martyred. After and afternoon touring the Cathedral and the town of Canterbury, I paid a visit to St. Dunstan’s and the remains of St. Thomas Moore. I then caught the early-evening train to London.
Thus, in a period of a little over two years, I had seen, first-hand, all four of the principal historic pictorial records of Halley’s Comet. Someday there will have to be a return visit to Canterbury when the original of the Eadwine Psalter is returned from the College of St. Thomas. Nevertheless, seeing the facsimile in the natural habitat of the original was as close to the real thing as seeing a computer-image of Halley’s Comet in 1986 as transmitted from space via the Giotto-Halley Intercept Spacecraft! It was a close encounter of the second kind! If the scientists were satisfied with the former, I was satisfied with my encounter in Canterbury.
Halley’s Comet Watch Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 6 – November, 1986.