Skulking in Holes and Corners

Jumping on the eclipse bandwagon


Since the whole US seems to be aflutter with today’s solar eclipse, I might as well jump on the bandwagon, and introduce an earlier solar eclipse and how it was interpreted. That would be, of course, the eclipse of the Sun King – le Roi Soleil himself, Louis XIV – during his annus horribilis of 1706.

In a way, Louis XIV asked for it. After all, he was the one who choose to dance as the sun god Apollo in ballets at Versailles, and he was the one who bestowed upon himself the moniker of the Sun King. (Even before twitter, it was still a good idea to think about how your brand could be twisted by your opponents.) Appropriately, the Sun King would see his most visible eclipse in the twilight of his reign, during the exhausting War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714).

France’s Sun King saw his military forces eclipsed most spectacularly in 1706. The failure of the Bourbon attempt to recapture Barcelona lead to the occupation of Madrid by mid-year. The 23 May battle of Ramillies allowed Allied forces under the Duke of Marlborough to sweep through the poorly-defended Spanish Netherlands and then conduct a series of successful sieges of Franco-Spanish fortresses along Louis’ northern border. As if these two reversals weren’t humbling enough, the Bourbon siege of Victor Amadeus of Savoy’s Turin capital turned into catastrophe when Prince Eugene of Savoy attacked French defenders in their trenches in early September. Within months, the French were forced to abandon Italy.

And what did early modern Europe make of such sudden and unprecedented reversals of fortune in multiple theaters? Helpfully, the deistic Supreme Being himself prophesized the upcoming eclipse of the Sun King. It just so happened that 12 May of that very year witnessed an actual eclipse of the Sun. The path of totality passed through Montpellier, France, encouraging a local professor of mathematics there to publish his own calculations of the event against empirical observation:

For non-scientists natural philosophers, the events offered more than just an opportunity to improve the astronomical sciences. Contemporaries hardly needed the excuse of astrology, or of Huguenot prophecies, to draw the parallel between a real solar eclipse and a metaphorical Sun King eclipse. With the irrefutable proof of post hoc ergo propter hoc, literal and figurative solar eclipses became intertwined – a Protestant God couldn’t have provided a better PR opportunity, nor could anti-Bourbon powers ask for a better one. The parallel was obvious to all. One letter from Spain, published in the Present State of Europe, noted the connection:

“But what is remarkable, too, according to the course of the Planets there is no wonder in [the victory], is, that this Morning about a quarter past 9 a Clock, when the Enemy’s Army was in full march and Confusion, the Sun was eclipsed for 6 Minutes, so that the Day look’d like Night. Thus the Crown of France, which has the Sun for its Device, loses its Force before Barcelona; and must at last restore to the King and lawful Sovereign of Spain all the Monarchy usurp’d from him.”

Those of a more cynical bent placed more faith in Man than Heavenly constellations, one skeptic noting that on the retreat from Barcelona the French march “was overcast this morning with the darkest eclipse of the sun as almost ever was seen, by which the superstitious here portend the eternal setting of the Bourbon son, but I believe the attendance of the enraged Miguelets [Catalan partisan bands] from the mountains will prove most fatal in their way to Girone, whither we hear they are marched in very great confusion.”

Whether through powers divine or human, the outlook remained dark for Philippe V’s Spanish forces for months afterwards.

Meanwhile, to the north, an English soldier fighting in Marlborough’s Flanders army was unaware of the great events to come, and therefore chronicled more prosaically that “over a great heath there happened a greate eclipse of the sunn wch. begann about 9 o clock in the morning and held till half an hour after 10, vizible unto us and was the strangest and greatest that ever I beheld or could heare of by any souldier or officer amongst us.” Within weeks, the victory of Ramillies would make the eclipse’s meaning for the northern theater clear.

Since war is fought with pens as much as with swords, the eclipse was also enlisted into service in the visual war for hearts and minds. Yet perhaps interpreting visual metaphors isn’t as simple as it might seem. Two examples of how propagandists used the eclipse metaphor will suffice. The first is an English copy and translation of “cuts from beyond the Sea,” illustrating the symbolic eclipse, with Louis presciently commenting to his wife: “The Sun, my Dear, Is now eclips’d, and bodes some Ill, I fear.”

The second, more interesting example, comes from the Dutch,* whose had a long pedigree of mocking the pretensions of that tyrant Louis (see: Romeyn de Hooghe). The top half of the page consists of an image illustrating England’s Queen Anne siting on her throne, surrounded by courtiers and action scenes from the year’s military victories.

(See a version of the entire page here.)

The accompanying text, in both Dutch and French, first situates the event within the growing age of Enlightenment. It starts by noting that:

“Although it seems that we are no longer in the time of miracles, and that in such an Enlightened century as this, we know that everything that occurs on earth results from natural causes, nevertheless people naturally stray into superstition, seeing in the eclipse of the Sun which took place May 12 much similarity to the Eclipse of the grandeur of Louis XIV who take the Sun as his emblem…”

It continues by extending the metaphor: the Sun is being eclipsed by his “sister” the Moon, just as the terrestrial Sun King is eclipsed by his “soeur” Queen Anne:

L’Eclypse qui parut au Ciel l’autre semaine,
Fut aux yeux des Mortels un parlant Phenomene
D’une terrestre Eclypse, un Divin Precurseur
C’est celle de Louis, le Soleil de la France
Qu’aujourd’huy nous voyons tomber en defaillance
Par l’entremise de sa Soeur

But deconstructing the imagery takes a bit more work, which the editor is happy to assist us with, at least to the best of his abilities. Obviously enough, the editor suggests, the lunar eclipse of the sun drives the successive events. “You also see two astrologers who, with the assistance of a telescope, attempt to teach us some kind of new discovery” [Unfortunately, the editor remains silent as to whether a mirror, held by two characters on the opposite side, can serve the same protective purpose as eclipse glasses.] Queen Anne sits on her throne underneath the royal coat of arms adorned with English lions, Irish harp and French fleur-de-lis. She appears to be clipping the wings of the French coq “so that it cannot fly so high and so far from its own home.” What exactly all those courtiers want is admittedly uncertain, presumably something more than just clipping wings. Even less certain is the point of the fleet scene, though it “seems to me to represent those of Admirals Leake and Wassenaar” generically preventing the Comte de Toulouse from ruling the Two Seas. And we know that the combat scene has to represent the battle of Ramillies “because I see the Judoigne village church tower.” After another sonnet on the neutralization of the universal hegemon’s plans, we come to the final frame. What do you see happening with those people in the upper left? “I see,” continues our guide, Madame de Maintenon lecturing her husband (and his court) about the courage, strength, and abilities of his enemies, and of the need to extricate France from its losing war. Which, I suppose, is as good an interpretation of that single-frame snapshot as any.

So what, pray tell, is the lesson for those of us dealing with our own solar eclipse in 2017? Can we hope to interpret our celestial event and predict our own future with any greater certainty than our struggling art critic interpreted his?

My takeaway from the eclipse of August 21, 2017?

Tyrants beware!

Further Reading:

Claydon, Tony, and Charles-Edouard Levillain, eds. Louis XIV Outside in: Images of the Sun King Beyond France, 1661-1715. Farnham, Surrey, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2015.

* It’s worth noting that the imprint at the bottom claims the print is based on a copy from London (and Jean Mosse), raising the possibility that this Anglo-centric illustration is, in fact, an English (Huguenot-exile-related?) creation being translated for dutcho- and franco-phone audiences, which might explain the [editor’s?] rather curious inclusion of the Dutch admiral Wassenaar alongside the English Leake. Undoubtedly, further research on the source would turn up additional details and context. Boy, History can be complicated.