The Supernova of 1006: Chinese vs. Monotheist responses

I just gave a lecture here at the Internationale Kolleg für Geisteswissenschaftliche Forschungen (IKGF) in Erlangen. The scholars here are a wonderful combination of Sinologist (primarily Chinese religion) and Western medievalists.

In preparing my talk on the year 1000, I went back to an astronomical incident seen round the world, which had an enormous impact on Arab Islam and Christendom, and, with the help of my Sinologist colleagues here, found the contrast with how it affected China quite instructive — the Supernova of May 1006.

Put briefly, the spectacular celestial phenomenon triggered feverish apocalyptic expectation – what, in my book, I call an “apocalyptic moment” – both among Muslims and Christians, while in China, a wisely advised emperor managed to calm his people.

Let’s begin with the incident, starting with a definition of a supernova.

A supernova (plural supernovae) is a stellar explosion that is more energetic than a nova. Supernovae are extremely luminous and cause a burst of radiation that often briefly outshines an entire galaxy, before fading from view over several weeks or months. During this short interval a supernova can radiate as much energy as the Sun is expected to emit over its entire life span. The explosion expels much or all of a star’s material at a velocity of up to 30,000 km/s (10% of the speed of light), driving a shock wave into the surrounding interstellar medium. This shock wave sweeps up an expanding shell of gas and dust called a supernova remnant.

In May of 1006, the most spectacular Supernova ever to be visible from earth occurred 2,700 light years away from earth. It was the brightest apparent magnitude stellar event in recorded history, reaching an estimated -7.5 visual magnitude. A thousand years later, the Hubble Telescope photographed the still-expanding shock-wave created by this explosion.

This picture represents the shock-wave of gases emanating from the explosion in all directions, 1000 years after the explosion.

This photo represents the edge of the shockwave, expanding outwards to the upper left.

The impact at the time of the original explosion was so great that the “new star” could be seen in daylight, and at night it shed shadows. Modern astronomers claim that one could have read by its light at midnight of a new moon! (H/T: Charles Johnson).

Chinese, Muslim and Christian astronomers all commented on this unusual event. Let’s compare the reactions in China, Egypt, and France.

The Egyptian Arabic astrologer and astronomer Ali ibn Ridwan, writing in a commentary on Ptolemy‘s Tetrabiblos, stated that the “…spectacle was a large circular body, 2-1/2 to 3 times as large as Venus. The sky was shining because of its light. The intensity of its light was a little more than a quarter that of Moon light.”

The monk Hepidannus from the Benedictine abbey at St. Gallen noted in his Short Annals from 709-1044:

A new star appeared, unusual in size, of a brilliant appearance, and striking (to) the eye not without terror. In a wonderful manner this was sometimes contracted, sometimes diffused, and moreover sometimes extinguished. It was seen likewise for three months in the inmost limits of the south, beyond all the constellations which are seen in the sky”.

Radulfus Glaber, monk of Saint-Benigne of Dijon (at the time of this writing of his eventually Five Books of History) placed it incorrectly in September, during the reign of Robert II (996-1031):

At the time of this king, in the month of September, at nightfall, there appeared in the Western sky a star called comet which lasted for almost three months. Shining with an almost blinding brilliance, it lit up the better part of the sky, disappearing at cockcrow. Was it a new star sent by God, or did God just increase its brilliance in order to make a terrifying sign? Only the One who orders all things in his impenetrable wisdom could know. One can only be certain that each time something like this happens to men it announces the imminence of something wondrous and awesome (mirum atque terribile). Quinque libri historiarum, 3.8.

In China, the star was described in detail by the astronomer, mathematician and government official Zhou Ke-Ming. The History of the Song (chapter 46) reports:

During the third year of the Jing-De reign period (1006) a large star appeared at the west of the Di lunar mansion. Nobody could identify its (omen category); some said that it was an `ominous star’ of the Ke Huang type, which forewarned a disastrous war.

At that time Zhou Ke-ming was away on duty in the southern part of China. On his return he spoke to the emperor saying that according to the Tian Wen Lu and the Qing-Zhou Chang the star should be identified as Zhou-Bo, which is (supposed to be) yellow in its color and brilliant in its brightness.

In all cases, the sources tell us that people read the event as a sign, or portent, of things to come on earth. But the way that sign was interpreted tells us some crucial differences between the cultures. In China, to continue the above passage, we hear how Zhou Ke-Ming handled the problem of public anxiety:

As an ‘auspicious star’, it would bring great prosperity to the state over which it appeared. He had noticed on his way back that people inside and outside the capital were quite confused over the matter. For this reason he asked the emperor to allow all civil and military officers to celebrate the occasion to calm the people. The emperor praised him and followed his suggestion. He then promoted him to the post of Librarian and Escort of the Crown Prince…

In at least one Muslim capital it had a much more electric effect. The ruler (Caliph) of Cairo at the time was a man named Abu ‘Ali Mansur Tāriqu l-Ḥākim (aka: Al-Hakim) 996-1021, a Fatimid Ismaili Shi’ite. It is not clear whether Al-Hakim himself made claims of his divinity (rare for Muslims), or his followers (eventually at the origin of the Druze religion), but the star inspired much of the cosmic thinking of the time, as well as the advent of the year 400 (which, according to the Mujaddid tradition, augured apocalyptic events) as argued by Johan van Ess in his Chiliastische Erwartungen und die Versuchung der Gottlichkeit: D. Kalif al-Hakim (386-411 H.) [Millennial Expectations and the Temptation of Divinity: The Kalif al-Hakim].

This sense of messianic mission and divine empowerment led Al-Hakim to undertake a number of unusual policies, including the effort to convert both the Christians and the Jews (normally “protected” from such coercive efforts by the rules of the Dhimma). As part of these efforts, allegedly inspired by the view of a large contingent of Egyptian Christians (Copts) leaving for Jerusalem, he decided to destroy the object of their pilgrimage, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the year 400 AH (1009 CE).

This deed in turn, according to the law of apocalyptic dynamics – One person’s messiah is another’s antichrist – triggered a apocalyptic panic in the West. Rodulfus Glaber recorded the event using explicitly apocalyptic language, including the title of the chapter:

3.7: Destruction of the Temple [sic] in Jerusalem and the massacre of the Jews. At the same time, that is to say the 9th year after the millennium, the church that was situated in the sepulcher of our Savior in Jerusalem was destroyed by order of the prince of Babylon [sic].

Thus, at least from Glaber’s perspective (and here he is writing at the bequest of one of the most prominent abbots of the day, William of Volpiano), the final days had come: as Daniel predicted, in the final days… (Daniel 9: 26-27)

The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. 27 He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple, he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.

This scenario had been further elaborated by Adso of Montier-en-Der in an almost instant classic on the Antichrist (ca. 950):

The Antichrist will have magicians, enchanters, diviners, and wizards who at the devil’s bidding will rear him and instruct him in every evil, error, and wicked art. Evil spirits will be his leaders, his constant associates, and inseparable companions. Then he will come to Jerusalem and with various tortures will slay all the Christians he cannot convert to his cause. He will erect his throne in the Holy Temple, for the Temple that Solomon built to God that had been destroyed he will raise up to its former state. He will circumcise himself and will pretend that he is the son of Almighty God.

Glaber continues his account:

This destruction was motivated by the following: Since from all countries large flocks of faithful went to Jerusalem to visit this outstanding monument to the memory of the Lord, the devil, filled with envy, spread his venom against the holders of the true faith through his habitual servants the Jews. And so there was in Orleans, the royal city of the Gauls, a large number of such people who showed themselves arrogant, odious and impudent than the rest of their people. Having conceived of an iniquitous plan, they bribed a certain Robert, runaway serf of the abbey of Notre Dame de la Melleraye, who wandered under the cloak of a pilgrim.They sent him secretly to the prince of Babylon, carrying a letter written in Hebrew letters hidden in his pilgrim’s baton… warning him that if he didn’t destroy the shrine immediately, the Christians would invade his kingdom and take away his power. At this news, the prince, filled with fury, sent his man to Jerusalem to destroy the Temple to the last stone…

After the destruction of the Temple, it became clear that so great a disaster was because of the Jews. Once everyone knew about this affair the world over, the Christians decided of a common accord to chase every last Jew from their lands and their cities. All, seized with hatred, were chased from their cities, killed by the sword, or rivers or burned or killed in another manner. So`me of them killed themselves in various ways. After this just vengeance, few remained in the Roman world (Latin Christendom)…

Glaber’s general account receives (as it often does), detailed confirmation from the pen of his contemporary historian, Ademar of Chabannes (both writing their accounts of these events ex post defectu in the 1020s), who described events at Limoges, where signs and wonders abounded and where the monk-historian, then in his early 20s, was residing at the time.

In those times sings in the heaven, deadly draughts, heavy rains and plagues and heavy famines, multiple eclipses of the sun and moon occurred, and the `Vienne river dried up for three nights over the distance of two miles.

And the above mentioned Ademar [how mere monks referred to themselves in their chronicles] who was then staying with his famous uncle Roger in Limoges at the Monastery of Saint-Martial, awakened during a stormy night, went out and saw in the stars, at the height of the heavens, a great cricifix as if planted in the heavens, with the figure of the Lord hanging from the cross, weeping rivers of tears… He saw this cross and the figure of the Crucified One, the color of fire and blood for a full half an night’s hour until the heavens closed…

That same year, Alduin, bishop of Limoges compelled the Jews to convert, publishing a law that they either become Christian or leave the city, and for one month he ordered the divine doctors to dispute with the Jews so… and three or four Jews became Christians, while the rest of multitude hastened with their wives and children to other cities. Some indeed slit their own throats, not willing to be baptized.

That same year the sepulcher of the Lord in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Jews and the Saracens… for the Western Jews and the Spanish Saracens sent letters to the East, accusing Christians of planning to raise armies against the Eastern Saracens… (Chronicon, 3.47)

I have discussed this incident at some length (Relics, Apocalypse and the Deceits of History (pp. 300 ff). I take the weeping crucifix as a symbol of apocalyptic disappointment. (Ademar and his Christian contemporaries were looking to the heavens to see Jesus returning in “power and glory,” not as a repeat of his disappointing first Parousia [i.e., no “kingdom of heaven at hand,” the first are not last, and vice-versa], of which the Crucifixion was the symbol.) In this sense, the attack on the Jews represents a classic example of the kind of coercive purity that often seizes believers (with power) for whom apocalyptic time does not end with the disappointment, but rather goes from passive to active cataclysmic apocalyptic.

Here the Christian leadership in France (Orléans was one of the two royal capitols of the kingdom), believing that Al-Hakim had set in motion the final events, and that the Jews had assisted him, came to a conclusion they would repeat a number of times in the troubled history of the next millennium: as Adso of Montier-en-Der had explained in his Life of the Antichrist, the Jews will do one of two things at the apocalyptic moment, either convert, or join Antichrist:

These two very great prophets and teachers [Enoch and Elijah] will convert the sons of Israel who will live in that time to the faith, and they will make their belief unconquerable among the elect in the face of the affliction of so great a storm…

As we said above, he will be born in the city of Babylon, will come to Jerusalem, and will circumcise himself and say to the Jews: “I am the Christ promised to you who has come to save you, so that I can gather together and defend you who are the Diaspora.” At that time all the Jews will flock to him, in the belief that they are receiving God, but rather they will receive the devil. Antichrist also “will be enthroned in God’s Temple,” that is, in Holy Church, and he will make all Christians martyrs. He will be lifted up and made great, because in him will be the devil, the fountainhead of all evil “who is the king above all the sons of pride”.

Christians, incapable of fighting directly with Al-Hakim (the then pope, Sergius IV, may have tried to rouse an army without success), apparently attacked the only “cosmic” enemies who lay at hand, the unrepentant Jews. The choice they gave them – conversion or death – corresponded to endtime events. (Note that Ademar’s claim that they were evicted from the city is belied by his [later] addition that some slit their throats rather than convert.)

Concluding Remarks:

The contrast between East and West, between China and the monotheists in Islam and Christianity, could not be sharper. China shows clear signs of maturity, certainly in comparison with both Egypt and France which show evidence of a tendency towards apocalyptic delirium that literally seized hold of the very leadership of these kingdoms.

Interestingly enough, both Europe (in particular, Capetian France) and China under the Song, were on the verge of highly dynamic periods of economic and cultural growth. And yet, while the West, especially France, seems like the weakest and most unbalanced culture in 1010, it proved to be the starting point of European expansion from the turn of the millennium onwards. Indeed, I would argue, French apocalyptic culture set off the most powerful cultural mutation in recorded history, with an almost uninterrupted and certainly unparalleled, cumulative, cultural and technological development for the next millennium.

In that sense, the picture, taken as a result Western technological prowess offers a striking metaphor. Beginning around 1000, the West has constantly expanded its boundaries, exploring the whole world, the oceans, and space. A thousand years later, this expansive grasp photographed the supernova remnant first observed on earth in 1006, distant by about 68,200 trillion kilometers from Earth [!], that has also been expanding for a millennium and now has linear diameter approximately 62 trillion kilometers.

Mad, inspired, destructive, creative – the apocalyptic millennial character of the West has proved considerably more dynamic than that of the sane and stable East.

P.S.: Please pardon my Eurocentrism.

9 Responses to The Supernova of 1006: Chinese vs. Monotheist responses

  1. This is excellent material; I look forward to your book which may help us understand and protect ourselves in what is already being referred to as “end times.”

  2. E.G. says:

    I always thought that the EU was a reincarnation of the Carolingian dream. And that Aachen is far more suitable than Brussels or Strasbourg.

    Anyway, destruction is inherent to Human creativity.

  3. Leslie Lebl says:

    Very interesting indeed! Thanks much.

  4. Lorenz Gude says:

    Your narrative seems to be headed toward praising Chinese maturity and condemning both Muslim and Christian apocalyptic responses to the supernova. But instead you begin to make the case for this period being the take off point for the explosive development of Western culture. A thousand year wave! I can get back 300 to 500 years before I lose the thread. I definitely want to read your book. But I also get the impression that the Middle East of Al Hakim closely resembles the Middle East of today with much the same religious preoccupations and obsessions, strong men and conspiracy theories.

  5. Rich Rostrom says:

    In May of 1006, the most spectacular Supernova ever to be visible from earth occurred 2,700 light years away from earth.

    This is wrong. If the supernova occurred in 1006 CE, it would not be visible from Earth until 3706 CE. If the supernova was visible from Earth in 1006 CE, then it occured in 1694 BCE.

    It is, naturally, difficult for us to speak accurately about events at distances so great that occurrence and observation are temporally separated. Such a condition is entirely out of our experience. But we should try to do so.

    • luis guillermo espinosa says:

      no 2,700 light-years…Modern astronomers now consider its distance from us at about 7,200 light-years. WIKIPEDIA

  6. Jerry says:

    Prof. Landes,

    There are an infinite number of paths from point A to point B, a larger infinity if A and B are separated by a large distance and gobs of time. (The same path taken at different times is indeed a different path.) Please do not fall into the Narrative Fallacy as described by Taleb in “The Black Swan.” Speculation on the actual path constitutes Midrash.

  7. Joanne says:

    I wonder about the connection between the apocalyptic millenialism and Europe’s scientific, cultural, and economic prowess centuries later. When it comes to the architectural, artistic, and musical accomplishments of the Middle Ages…the Romanesque and Gothic periods…the connection is of course clear. But I think of Western scientific and economic development as something very apart from Church belief; in fact, they were more at odds with it.

    The artistic bloom of the Renaissance was in part due to the revived influence of classical Greece and Rome, and represented a shift from the [traditionally Christian) God-centered perspective to a human-centered one. The Church strongly resisted the notion of the Earth rotating around the sun, as everyone knows. Even if you were to argue that, while religion was none too friendly with science and progress, it nevertheless laid the groundwork for them, I don’t find that too convincing. And the Church was no eager friend of capitalism.

    I understand that there isn’t total agreement about the causes of the rise of the West. But whatever typically suggested causes you might think of: the rise of the free towns, the progress of industry, the rise of powerful monarchies that brought centralized states in their wake (and thus the resources for exploration and conquest), the rise of capitalism and the middle class it created, the declining importance of the nobility…and so on, I don’t see any of these as being founded–however indirectly or unintentionally–on millennial religiosity.

  8. SE says:

    excellent, innovative piece.

    on the recent nyt magazine cover story on peace in the middle east see:

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