The Early Modern Moon

A More Modern Moon...

Due to the weather over the past few days, I have found myself snowed in with a little time on my hands.  I have been reading a few books, and writing the reviews I’ve had on my ‘to-do’ pile for ages.  It has been quite nice to re-enter the early modern world, which, since finishing my PhD, has grown somewhat distant to me.  Absorbing myself again has been a bit like visiting an old haunt, reassuringly familiar.  A place easy to forget when you’re busy in the day-to-day gruels of ‘normal’ (as opposed to academic, perhaps) life.  You don’t realise how much you miss a place until you return.  So, for that reason, I am going to try to write a few more early modern blogs!

My PhD considered early modern patterns of story-telling, and the weaving of cultural narratives, in sixteenth and seventeenth century England.  I looked at fairy-tales, and witchy tales, and I have been exploring these ideas a bit further.  A little facet of early modern life and story-telling I’ve recently stumbled across is the idea of the moon.

It’s difficult to imagine a world where, at night, everything would fade into almost complete darkness.  One in which the night was black, the skies full of stars, and the lights from peoples homes just dim specs in the distance.  Not surprisingly, the moon would have been luminous and significant.  It would have lit the sky and eased after dark travel.  The lunar cycle provided a rhythm to the lifecycle calendar; marking the passage of time, the dawning of festivities and the ebbing and flowing of the tides.

I recently came across an article by David Cressy which explores ideas about the ‘English Man in the Moon’.  What did people in early modern England believe about the moon?  The answers are numerous.  But, the ‘man in the moone’ was a familiar concept.

Man in the Moone

The man in the moon looked down on earth; he watched the skies at night.  Was he a Christian man, they asked?  Did he answer to God?  Or was he in limbo, irredeemable?  According to Plutarch, who wrote ‘the face appearing in the roundel of the moon’, published in English in 1603, the moon was populated by nimble creatures, demons and departed souls.  Whereas seventeenth-century writers, such as Francis Godwin, who wrote ‘The Man in the Moone’ told stories of the moon as a “faerie land”, and tales of men who had caught many birds in a net in their endeavours to fly in the moon-lit sky.

One of the most prominent early modern ideas about the moon, however, was influenced by Renaissance theories of travel and of undiscovered, untameable and non-Christian worlds.  Ideas about newfound lands filled imaginations and led to stories about the man, or people, who may have walked the moon.  In the words of poet Edmund Spenser:

“what if within the moon’s fair shining sphere,
what if in every other star unseen,
of other worlds he happily should hear?”

Such worlds clearly led to many stories and narratives, some sincere, others tongue-in-cheek.  Whatever they were, they are undoubtedly worth hearing again…(someone should do some research on them!)

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