How I found a 14th century supernova in a medieval Latin hymn.

This is of an 11th century supernova but gives you a feel.

I’m really excited! I think I’ve found the only historical reference to a supernova in c 1320. It’s in a Latin hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus, also known to Catholics as the Blessed Virgin and Our Lady.

The hymn is called Stella splendens in monte and it’s from the Llibre Vermell of Montserrat which was written in 1399 near Barcelona, and is one of the earliest collections of written music ever. The hymn is quite well-known and has a very pretty tune – two tunes, actually, since it’s polyphony.

It’s a bit of a mystery, is the 14th century supernova. Nobody saw it. They saw the supernova in CE 1081 and two famous later supernovas in 1572 (Kepler’s star) and 1604 (Tycho’s star). And yet there was definitely another supernova in our galaxy in c 1320. The remnants have been found and there’s a spike in nitrates in an ice core from Antarctica, which shows when the ionising radiation arrived – along with three more spikes for the other supernovae. It happened in the constellation Vela, the star was about 15 times bigger than the sun and it was a type II supernova – and it was only 600 light years away which means it should have been brighter than all the other stars. Yet nobody has found a record of it anywhere in Europe. There is no reference in China or Japan either but this is less surprising because the supernova would have been on their horizon.

KABOOM! (I know, no sound in space.) This is what’s left.

It was the words that caught my attention. There we were in the Törökbálint church choir, near Budapest, singing this lovely Latin hymn (I adore singing Latin hymns and tend to break out into Salve Regina quite frequently.) Suddenly I noticed the words. “Stella splendens in monte, ut solis radium…”

My Latin has never been very good and there’s not a lot of it left, but I could make this out. Roughly the words mean “A star in splendour on the mountain, radiant like the sun.” Or more accurately (thank you, Adam Key, a Latin teacher and my cousin): “Star shining like a ray of sun in the mountain notched-by-miracles, hear the people!”

Eh?

Then there were lots of verses describing how everybody ran to see it, old and young, rich and poor, repenting of their sins, beating their breasts and singing Ave Maria. There’s a Latin pun in the first lines – monte and serrato – that refers to Montserrat near Barcelona, probably where the wonder was seen (and where the Llibre Vermell was written). Since the mountain of Montserrat was already sacred to the Virgin Mary, the star was obviously her doing. Later there’s a reference to her “jewelled shrine.”

It’s the enthusiasm of the people that stands out. The star is captured in a few lines – most of the hymn is about how absolutely everybody ran to see it and how they sang to the Virgin on their knees. You get the feeling that the writer of the hymn was actually in the crowds, singing “Ave Maria” to the amazing light in the sky.

Now when I first noticed the words I immediately thought of a supernova – but as I didn’t know of any 14th century stellar explosion, I assumed it was a comet or Venus low in the sky. The next day I hit Google – and there it was, an article in New Scientist [14 November 1998, by Hazel Muir] called “Medieval Mystery.” This wondered why nobody in Europe noticed the very bright supernova that would have appeared suddenly and faded in a short time – days to months – in the early 14th century.

Given the ice core evidence [On Ice by Robert Matthews New Scientist 18 Sept 1999] which puts the supernova around 1320 +/- 20 years, there’s a possible easy answer. 1315 and 1317 were notorious as years without summer, when it was cloudy and pouring with rain from May to October. Those two years were so bad, there was a serious pan-European famine afterwards that lasted until 1322. So the weather was probably just too terrible for Europeans to see it.

But I think they saw it near Barcelona where the weather might have been clearer. And I’ll bet that with so many people running to see the amazing star, there will be other mentions in the record that haven’t been properly understood. Sort of “Monday, saw Virgin Mary’s house above Montserrat. It was really bright and shiny and we had lentil stew for dinner.”

So send astronomers, send medieval historians to Barcelona! There may be other details about the supernova to be found there. I’m curious about the “jewelled shrine” for instance which might refer to colours. You might be able to narrow the date down a bit more. I’m betting on the rain-soaked year of 1317.

I did a little dance when I found the New Scientist article and sang Stella splendens very loudly. For a writer of historical novels, finding a supernova in a Latin hymn is just as exciting as finding the stellar remnants must have been for the astronomers.

8 thoughts on “How I found a 14th century supernova in a medieval Latin hymn.

  1. Sometimes I think that I’m eccentric. Then I read your posts and know that not only am I not alone but I’ve actually a way to go yet. I love this post, mind if I share it?

  2. Well done! Historical detection and music! Monserrat is an atmospheric place. We drove through early morning fog to get there and when we arrived we were in the clear above the clouds

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