Hilary Mantel and the Comet of Calixtus

“In the year 1456 there was a comet like this one. Scholars recorded it, Pope Calixtus excommunicated it, and it may be that there are one or two old men alive who saw it.”[1]

Curiously enough, this cryptic little passage conceals, or reveals, the secret at the heart of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Calixtus III, whose pontificate lasted from 1455 until 1458, was pope when Halley’s Comet made an appearance in the night skies in summer 1456. And any casual trawl of the internet, that mine of information, will tell you that Calixtus’s response was just what you might expect from a superstitious priestling: he excommunicated it.

Only, of course, he didn’t. After all, why would he? Excommunication is an ecclesiastical and spiritual penalty by which a Christian guilty of some grave sin is formally excluded from participation in the spiritual benefits of membership of the Church. Only human beings can be excommunicated. Indeed, only Christians can be excommunicated. The notion of excommunicating a natural phenomenon would have made no more sense to a medieval pope, nor indeed to any other medieval Christian, than that of excommunicating an artefact. And this gives the first clue as to how such a bizarre idea might have arisen. No one writing in a Christian society at a time when excommunication was an everyday reality could ever have dreamed up anything quite so bizarre (except perhaps as a joke). This story must have originated long after the Middle Ages, at a time when ecclesiastical censures were no longer a familiar part of Christian life.

The story flourished above all in nineteenth-century polemics aimed either at Christians in general by ‘rationalists’, or at Catholics in particular by Protestants.[2] It was common enough knowledge to be cited casually by Abraham Lincoln. The story was dismissed brusquely enough by the great historian of the papacy, Ludwig Pastor, as too ridiculous to be worthy of refutation.[3] But the fact that Pastor, like the popes, was a Catholic was enough for many liberals to remain convinced that his judgement was hardly to be trusted against that of so many rationalists and Protestants — to which we might add today’s roster of internauts. Occasionally some evidence is offered to support the idea. It is said that the story originated in the 1470s, in the history of the popes (Vitae pontificum) composed by Platina. What Platina actually did was to report on a genuine act of Pope Calixtus, a call for Christian prayers for divine assistance against the armies of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, which were advancing on Belgrade in the campaigning season of 1456. Halley’s comet came into view just a few weeks before Mehmet’s troops reached Belgrade, and disappeared a month before the defeat of the besiegers in a series of engagements between 21 and 23 July. Platina, who was not in Rome until a few years after Calixtus’s death, connected the events in his account, observing that scholars took the comet — as usual — as a presage of disaster, and claiming first that Calixtus called for prayers to avert the wrath of God, and then that he introduced the practice of prayers at noon in support of those fighting the Turks.

“Then a red, long-tailed comet appeared for several days, and when the astronomers predicted a major plague, shortage of grain, and some great slaughter, Calixtus called for several days of prayer to avert the wrath of God, so that if there was some threat to humankind, he might divert it wholly against the Turks, the enemies of the name of Christian. Moreover, so that God might be swayed by assiduous prayer, he ordered that at midday bells should be rung to signal to all the faithful that they should assist with their prayers those who were occupied in fighting the Turks. I could believe that it was thanks to the prayers of all those people that the Christians struggling against the Turks at Belgrade under the command of that outstanding man Voyvode John, and with the assistance of the Franciscan John Capistrano, bearing the cross as a banner against the enemy, overcame and inflicted huge losses on those who were besieging the city.”[4]

Platina certainly does connect the comet with Calixtus’s decision to call for public prayers to help save Belgrade from the Ottoman siege. But that decision had more to do with the siege and the general threat of Ottoman advance further up the Balkans than with the comet. There is no mention whatsoever of the comet in the documents that announce Calixtus’s orders for public prayers and his indulgences for those who perform them. We have only Platina’s word for it that the comet played any part at all in the pope’s thinking, and Platina himself did not come to Rome (where he wrote his history of the popes) until a few years later, so he can hardly be reckoned an eye-witness. It is quite likely that he simply inferred some connection between the comet and Calixtus’s decision and included it for the sake of narrative effect. That said, his claim is by no means implausible. Comets were widely interpreted as providential signs or warnings, and there is no strong reason why Calixtus should have thought differently from most other people.

What Platina does not for one moment say or imply, however, is that Calixtus excommunicated the comet, or cursed it, or whatever. If he did see it as some kind of sign of divine providence, he would just have accepted it as such. The nonsense about excommunication is first heard only in nineteenth-century writings. Platina’s history of the popes was widely reprinted through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was an important source for later historians. So the appearance of the comet, the siege of Belgrade and Calixtus’s call for prayers frequently appeared in later chronicles and histories, mostly without special comment until, in the eighteenth century, scholars who thought themselves ‘enlightened’ occasionally used the episode as a peg on which to hang self-congratulatory observations about the superstition and ignorance of the Middle Ages.

The man who first brought excommunication into it was François Arago, a French scientist and astronomer, in a book inspired by the comet of 1832, the Des comètes en général (Paris, 1832), which was translated almost immediately into English.[5] After that the idea spread like a virus from author to author, mutating as it went, embroidered and embellished as fulsomely as any medieval saint’s life, to serve its purpose, depending on context, as evidence for the depths of Catholic, or Christian, obscurantism.[6]

But it would be entirely wrong to infer from all this that Hilary Mantel has simply picked up her material heedlessly from the internet, or half-remembered it from some long-past perusal of outdated rationalist polemics. For she has plainly done her historical research (or at least her homework) and is au fait with the judgements and insights of up-to-date ‘revisionist’ scholars. So she must know that the story is nonsense.

What, then, is going on? The words that Mantel puts here into Cromwell’s mind contain two startling anachronisms, two pieces of information — one true, and one false; one fact, as it were, and one factoid — neither of which could possibly have been known to anyone in Tudor England. The factoid we have just dealt with. The fact, subtly insinuated by the casual reference to ‘1456’, is that the comet which was seen in 1531 was indeed Halley’s Comet, the same comet that had appeared 75 years before. But, as the name perhaps suggests, it was the seventeenth-century astronomer Edmond Halley who first proposed that the comet seen in 1682 was the same one that had appeared in 1607, 1531, and 1456, a hypothesis which was confirmed when it returned, as he had predicted, in 1758. Not even a reader of Platina — whose book was indeed available in Tudor England — would have seen any reason to connect the comet of 1531 with that of 1456, any more than with any of the other comets that had been seen since then, most notably that of 1472, which was observed throughout Europe and was the most widely reported comet since 1337.[7]

But it is the duty of the critic to read Mantel, like any great author, sympathetically, imaginatively. Having taken our critical investigation this far, we should not crow as though we had caught her out in some childish error. We should, rather, ask why she might have done this, what purpose it might have been designed to serve. Cromwell’s absurdly anachronistic ‘knowledge’ of Calixtus and the comet (a factoid which appeared only in the nineteenth century), along with his equally anachronistic realisation that the comet sighted in 1531 was related in some way to the one sighted in 1456 (a fact which became apparent only in the seventeenth century, and was confirmed only in the eighteenth), are the clues that unlock the hidden secret of Mantel’s masterpiece. It is done, as one would expect, with great artistry: the fact matched with the factoid, science with religion. It is done also with great subtlety: only the alert reader will pick it up. But these are the twin clues that make perfect sense of Mantel’s utterly anachronistic characterisation of her hero, Thomas Cromwell, who is sceptical, even rationalist, in matters of religion, who does not believe in astrologers or alchemists (481–2), and can even offer psychological insights to explain visions (399–400); who renounced violence because of the influence of Renaissance art (41); who aspires to improve the lot of the working man (87) and hankers for universal literacy (539); who wants an academic education for his daughter (138) and does not allow his children to be beaten (251); who intercedes for the persecuted (134), disapproves of executions for heresy because of the impact upon him of a burning he witnessed (352–3), and regards the notion or even the threat of exacting the full butcheries of the treason law upon the body of Thomas More as beneath him (628); who, of all things, is even anxious about driving species to extinction (181). In the words of Britain’s greatest detective, ‘when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’. No one brought up in Tudor England could conceivably have held that combination of beliefs and attitudes. The Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall is evidently a Volvo-driving, Guardian-reading Corbynite from early twenty-first century Islington who has invented a time-machine, travelled back to the 1520s, killed the original Cromwell and stolen his life.

Basilides Melchischyros

Philarch of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Academia Moriae, Amaurote

[1] Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (London: Fourth Estate, 2009), p. 314. Subsequent references to pages of this work are given as numbers in brackets in the main text.

[2] John Gerard, ‘Of a bull and a comet’, The Month 109 (1907), pp. 151–57.

[3] Ludwig Pastor, The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages, tr. F. I. Antrobus et al. (40 vols. London, 1891–1953), vol. II, p. 401, footnote.

[4] Platina, In vitas summorum pontificum ad Sixtum IIII pontificem maximum praeclarum opus ([Venice]: Johannes de Colonia [Cologne] & Johannes Manthen de Gheretzem [Gerretzheim], 1479), sig. dd4r: ‘Apparente deinde per aliquot dies cometa crinito et rubeo: cum mathematici ingentem pestem: caritatem annonae: magnam aliquam cladem futuram dicerent. Ad auertendam iram dei Calixtus aliquot dierum supplicationes decreuit: ut si quid hominibus immineret: totum id in Thurcos Christiani nominis hostes conuerteret. Mandauit praeterea: ut assiduo rogatu deus flecteretur: in meridie campanis signum dari fidelibus omnibus: ut orationibus eos iuuarent: qui contra Thurcos continuo dimicabant. Crediderim tum ego precibus omnium Christianos ad Bellogradum contra Thurcos dimicantes duce Iohanne uaiouoda uiro clarissimo: astante etiam Iohanne Capistrano Ordinis Minorum: crucemque pro uexillo hostibus inferente: eos Bellogradum oppugnantes ingenti clade superasse’ (abbreviations expanded and capitalisation regularised).

[5] See François Arago, The Comet: scientific notices of comets in general , tr. Charles Gold (London: Baldwin & Cradock, 1833), p. 79.

[6] See, e.g., John W. Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (2nd edn. London: Henry S. King, 1875), pp. 269 and 320; and Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1896), vol. I, pp. 177–78.

[7] Donald K. Yeomans, Comets: a chronological history of observation, science, myth, and folklore (New York: Wiley, 1991), pp. 24–28, notes several references to the comet of 1472. Gary Kronk, Cometography: a catalog of comets (5 vols. Cambridge, 1999–2010), vol. 1, p. 285, notes that comet C/1471 Y1, visible over Christmas and New Year 1471–72, was ‘the most documented comet since C/1337 M1’.