An Eclipse Whodunit

He who doubts from what he sees Will ne'er believe, do what you please. If the sun and moon should doubt They'd immediately go out.

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

In this book we have examined both the astronomy and the history of eclipses and seen along the way that these natural phenomena occasionally have represented pivotal junctures in the development of civilization. The interpretation of eclipses affected the outcome of strategic battles in ancient times, and even today these celestial events are regarded superstitiously by many. Witness the way in which they are noted in newspaper astrology columns, and how the lunar and solar eclipses in January and June 2001 prompted civil unrest in Africa.

A scientific (rather than superstitious) argument over a specific eclipse in medieval times so far has not been mentioned. This was the total solar eclipse that passed over parts of the British Isles shortly before the Synod ofWhitby in A.D. 664. The major outcome of that great synod, which turned largely on a debate related to that eclipse, was that seven previously warring fiefdoms became united to form what we would now recognize as the nation of

England. If it were not for that, then the history of the world would be quite different, and this book would have been written, if at all, in some alternative language.

It is clear, then, that the eclipse of 664 was important. The peculiar thing is that the circumstances of the eclipse were misrepresented, both at the synod and in later accounts of what took place. If this dishonest dealing had not occurred then the outcome would likely have been rather different. Just how this was done is not yet clear, providing us with an eclipse whodunit at least the equal of most detective novels. Just who was responsible for this subterfuge at the synod, frustrating the opposition and, in consequence, altering the course of history?

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