Fiery Drakes and Blood-Drenched Moons: A Practical Guide to Astronomy in the Medieval World

[The Dragon and the Aurora. Image by Christina Bradley. Used with permission]

“The conspicuousness of astronomical lore in the poetry of Chaucer is due to its importance in the life of his century. In the mediaeval period, astronomy was one of the vital interests of men.” - Florence M. Grimm, Astronomical Lore in Chaucer, 1970, p. 3.

The heavens have motivated and molded the human imagination since the earliest times. The medieval period is no exception. From descriptions of meteors as dragons to the appearance of Halley’s Comet at the time of the Battle of Hastings (and its subsequent inclusion in the Bayeux tapestry), the medieval mind incorporated myriad astronomical phenomena into its religious, literary, and political views of the world. Even in the twentieth century, medieval commentators and scholars C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien embraced the poetry and power of the medieval view of the heavens, and wove it into their own fictional universes. Conversely, today astronomers and climatologists scour medieval annals and agricultural records in search of evidence that a temporary (and perhaps periodic) change in the sun’s energy output resulted in important climate changes in the medieval period. Therefore medievalists and astronomers have much to learn from each other and their respective disciplines, and as with many other aspects of human endeavor, an interdisciplinary approach is perhaps best suited to accomplishing these goals. Current works on medieval astronomy generally focus on a particular author (such as Chaucer), or often become mired in astronomical detail far beyond the needs of a non-scientist. This project seeks to avoid both pitfalls while at the same time bridging the gap between the disciplines, and instead create a work which can act as a both a reference guide for scholars and a textbook or supplement for a university course in medieval history or the history of astronomy.

Brief synopsis of proposed project: Fiery Drakes and Blood-Drenched Moons: A Practical Guide to Astronomy in the Medieval World will be an overview of the astronomical knowledge of the medieval world (before the Copernican Revolution and the invention of the telescope). Written in language which is both scientifically precise yet accessible to the non-scientist, this work will provide medieval scholars and students with the astronomical background necessary to understand the copious astronomical allusions in major medieval works, such as The Canterbury Tales and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. It will also be relevant to historians of science, and may also be used as a text in courses on the History of Astronomy. Each section will contain both an explanation of the astronomical phenomenon and examples of references to the phenomenon in medieval literature and history.

About the Author: Kristine Larsen, Ph.D., is Professor of Astronomy in the Geological Sciences Department at Central Connecticut State University, where she has been on the faculty since 1989. The author of two nontechnical books on astronomy, Stephen Hawking: A Biography (which has been translated into French, Portuguese, and Chinese), and Cosmology 101, and co-editor of The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who and The Mythological Dimensions of Neil Gaiman, her research and teaching has focused on interdisciplinary aspects of science, including its historical, literary, and societal connections.  A full CV can be found at

Working Table of Contents:


Chapter 1: The Night Sky Before the Telescope
The constellations – their origin and cultural relevance
The apparent motions of the sky (rotation, revolution, seasons)
The sky as seen from different latitudes and an introduction to celestial navigation
The Pleiades and their cousins – naked eye galaxies, clusters and nebulae
The medieval sky versus the modern sky (precession, light pollution)

Chapter 2: The Sun-Earth-Moon system
Ecliptic and zodiac
Phases of the moon
The basics of calendars
The Solar Cycle and climate change

Chapter 3: Transient Phenomena and Omens of Doom
Meteors and Meteorites
Novae and supernovae

Chapter 4: Astrology
Common origin with astronomy
Basic astrological tenets
How astrology fails the test of the scientific method

Chapter 5: Observing, Measuring, Modeling
Sundials and Nocturnals
Celestial navigation redux: astrolabes and sextants
Apparent motion of the planets and the equatorium
Morning Star and Evening Star
Geocentric versus heliocentric models


Contact information:
Phone: 860-832-2938
Fax 860-832-2946