For French Scientist-Priests, Eclipses Were Teachable Moments

In 1616, one of the most famous conflicts between science and faith occurred in Rome. The Italian scientist Galileo, who had built on the work of Dutch astronomer Nicholas Copernicus, was being challenged by the Inquisition of the Catholic Church. An inquisitorial commission found unanimously that the theory of heliocentrism was not only “foolish and absurd” from a scientific standpoint, but “formally heretical” since it contradicted Biblical passages. Copernicus’s seminal work, De Revolutionibus, was banned by the Inquisition as a result, and in 1633, Galileo himself was sentenced to imprisonment for continuing to discuss the theory. This incident has popularized the idea that the Church was avidly anti-science and anti-intellectual.

Title page of Galileo’s “Dialogues,” the work discussing Heliocentrism that ultimately got him sanctioned by the Vatican. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, the church had a long-standing interest in astronomy, and Pope Gregory XIII had used Copernicus’s ideas in his reformation of the Christian calendar in 1582 to the form we still use today. One arm of the church – the Jesuit Order of priests, played a special role in scientific inquiry alongside its missionary work. Because the Jesuits were both missionaries and teachers, they made some of the earliest advances in Western astronomy, by bringing to Europe the discoveries of Chinese and Indian astronomers in the 16th century. By the time the Jesuits came to New France to evangelize the Native Americans, they had a keen interest in astronomy, and the nature of eclipses of the Sun and Moon.

Various Jesuits in Canada would send reports to the European head of the order, regarding activities in the New World, and through these writings, which are together known as the Jesuit Relations, historians have a rich set of insights into both the Jesuits’ activities, and those of native peoples in New France.

Eclipse of the sun observed by a Jesuit priest at the court of the King of Siam (Thailand), 1688. Image: Bibliothèque National de France

The Jesuits’ interest in eclipses served their duel roles as scholars and missionaries. As the relation of 1683 notes,

we employ every means calculated to undeceive [the Indians] and to win their minds…this prediction of eclipses has always been one of the things that have most astonished the natives; and it has given them a higher opinion of their missionaries.

European knowledge of astronomy had advanced enough that the configurations of the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon which produced solar or lunar eclipses could be predicted with a good degree of accuracy. This ability clearly impressed the Indians. According to the 1683 relation, one group of Iroquois asked their missionary “to tell them the position of an enemy army, saying “since you know all that passes in the sky, you cannot be ignorant of what passes on Earth.”

The other reason eclipses interested the priests were their potential for measuring longitude. If a heavenly phenomenon, like an eclipse, were visible in two places at different points on the Earth, it would be possible to compare the time the eclipse occurred at each place, and thereby calculate the size of the Earth, and by extension, measure longitude. Determining longitude was particularly valuable for sailors, as it would tell them (along with latitude) their precise location. While the Jesuits and their contemporaries could not measure time accurately enough to solve the longitude problem, the relations contain several detailed accounts of eclipses to compare with their brothers in France. For example, in 1663, the Relations note:

We may here record the Solar eclipse which occurred at Quebec on the first day of September, 1663, and which, being ascertained to be quite eleven digits across in the observation, taken with great exactness, rendered our forests pale, somber, and gloomy. It began at twenty-four minutes and forty-two seconds past one in the Afternoon, and ended at fifty-two minutes and forty-four seconds past three.

On a practical level, comparison of the timing of the eclipse in Canada and in Europe allowed the priests to calculate the time difference between the two areas. As early as 1633, Father Paul Lejeune noted that an eclipse of the moon “confirmed the observations I had made last year, that in France, it is daylight a little over six hours sooner than it is here.” Today, the standard time difference between Quebec City and Paris is indeed six hours.

“Father Marquette taking lessons in geography from the Indians,” Edward Jacker, c 1876. Image: Marquette University

For modern readers, the Jesuits’ accounts of eclipses in colonial New France offer insights into indigenous beliefs about astronomical events. For example, Lejeune recalls the belief of the Montagnais (Innu) people about the sun and the moon in 1637:

They say there is a certain being, either a man or some other creature, who has a great love for men. He is angry at a very wicked woman, and at times even conceives the desire to kill her. But he is withheld, for in doing so he would kill the day and would bring upon the earth an eternal night. This wicked creature is the wife of the Manitou, she who makes the Savages die. The Sun is her heart, and hence he who should slay her would kill the Sun forever. Sometimes this man, getting angry at her, threatens her with death ; her heart trembles and grows feeble; and it is at such a time, they say, that we see the Sun eclipsed.

Lejeune noted, with some exasperation, that there was such a wide variety of beliefs among different nations, that it was more difficult for the Jesuits to discredit them. This included the idea that:

The great turtle which upholds the earth, in changing its position or place, brought its shell before the Sun, and thus deprived the world of sight.

While the Jesuits and other Europeans tended to be dismissive of the “fables” of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Indians were not beyond disputing the theories put forth by the missionaries. After all, the notion that they were hurtling through space on a ball of rock at an incredible speed was perhaps no less improbable than swimming on the back of a turtle. Lejeune includes an account of a debate he had with a Montagnais shaman, Makheabichtickiou (whom Lejeune calls a “sorcerer”):

On the 10th of January [1636] Makheabichtickiou asked me many questions about the phenomena of nature, such as, ” whence arose the Eclipse of the moon? ” When I told him that it was caused by the interposition of the earth between it and the Sun, he replied that he could hardly believe that, ” Because,” said he, ” if this darkening of the moon were caused by the passage of the earth between it and the Sun, since this passage often occurs, one would see the moon [often] Eclipsed, which does not happen.”

I represented to him that, the Sky being so large as it is, and the earth being so small, this interposition did not happen as frequently as he imagined; upon seeing it represented by moving a candle around a ball, he was very well satisfied. He asked me how it was that the Sky appeared to be sometimes red, sometimes another color. I replied that the light, passing into the vapors or clouds, caused this diversity of color according to the different qualities of the clouds in which it happened to be, and thereupon I showed him a prism. ” Thou dost not see,” I said to him, ” any color in this glass; place it before thine eyes, and thou wilt see it full of beautiful colors which will come from the light.” Having held it up to his eyes and seeing a great variety of colors, he exclaimed, ” You are Manitous, you Frenchmen; you know the Sky and the earth.”

Lejeune was not only able to draw on a fairly comprehensive view of astronomy and a heliocentric universe, but he also made use of a glass prism, a device familiar to many of us from middle school physics lessons, but one which was at the cutting edge of European science at the time. The precision needed to cut and polish the glass in a prism made it a fairly rare instrument. Not only that, but Lejeune correctly explains to Makheabichtickiou that the prism is splitting the colors within the beam of light itself (rather than recoloring the light, as some at the time believed), thirty years before Isaac Newton would prove that to be the case.

Makheabichtickiou’s reaction to Lejeune’s knowledge of astronomy, that the priest himself was a Manitou, or divine spirit, was exactly the reaction that the Jesuits used to convert Indians to Christianity. If the Jesuits’ god could help them predict – and explain – the movement of the sun and the moon, he must be powerful indeed. A contemporary of Lejeune, Father Jean de Brébeauf, experienced the same reaction among the Huron (Wendat) people, who thought that a lunar eclipse meant that:

The Moon is sick, or has experienced some displeasure; they even invited us, perhaps in jest, to shoot at the Sky, to deliver it from danger, assuring us that it was their custom to discharge several arrows for this purpose. Indeed, they all cry out as loudly as they can on such occasions, and make imprecations against their enemies, saying, ” May such and such a Nation perish.”

The practice of shooting at the moon, or scaring the moon away from the sun, was actually common to several cultures across the world. And Europeans were certainly no less immune to panic and superstition about natural events like this than Native Americans. The French writer Bernard de Fontenelle noted that, during a total eclipse visible across Europe in 1654,

An immense number of people shut themselves up in caves and cellars

On the other hand, Father Claude Allouez, witnessing an eclipse of the sun in 1672 among the Machkoutench people in present-day Wisconsin, wrote that the locals “did not trouble themselves about it,” and, in fact, kept him too busy with other duties to follow his own desire to make observations of the phenomenon. In an echo of modern-day warnings about the dangers of looking directly at a solar eclipse, Allouez noted that he observed the darkening of the sun “in water poured into a Kettle.”

Image from “Voyage fait par ordre du roi en 1750 et 1751 dans l’Amérique septentrional” by the Marquis de Chabert, who established the observatory at Louisbourg. Image: Bibliothèque National de France.

The Jesuits brought a great deal of astronomical knowledge with them to New France, which they used in their religious work. They not only shared this science with the Indians to whom they were ministering, but used their time in the New World to further their observations. And this tradition continued. One of the first observatories

Father Charropin with telescope. Image: Jesuit Order.

was constructed by the French at Louisbourg in, on Cape Breton in modern Nova Scotia, in 1751. The Jesuit connection with astronomy in the New World continued as well. As recently as the 19th century, Father Charles Marie Charroppin, who was born at Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean, but who served at the Jesuit mission in St Louis, Missouri, was an avid astronomer, and eclipse-watcher.

So when millions of Americans and Canadians look into the skies on August 21st to view the solar eclipse, the mixture of curiosity, awe, and even fear, that they experience, will be in a long tradition on this continent.


James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.