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  • "Periwigged Heralds":Epistemology and Intertextuality in Early American Cometography
  • Christopher Johnson

In the winter of 1680-81 an enormous comet appeared in the nighttime skies of Europe and the Americas.1 This "blazing star" occasioned numerous treatises, poems, pamphlets, broadsides, ballads, engravings, and woodcuts. Evaluating this cometary copia, the historian of science, Pingré, in 1783 observes:

The world was inundated with writings on these phenomena, on their nature, on their significations; for there were still astrologers and cometomantics [Cométomantiens] ... I believe that the languages were not even as confused at the Tower of Babel, as were the sentiments concerning this famous comet.2

Pingré's belated impatience with the discursive flood of "astrologers and cometomantics" echoes of course the more general Cartesian objection to the confusion of words and things, a confusion that L'Académie des sciences and Royal Society dedicated themselves to eliminating. But the arduous nature of this effort in seventeenth-century Europe is exemplified by the numerous, often-conflicting interpretations of the 1618, 1665, and 1680 comets—to say nothing of the unprecedented "new stars" or novas of 1572 and 1604, which were often treated as cometary phenomena. In this essay, though, I will trace the contours of this epistemological confusion in the Americas—specifically in [End Page 399] Mexico, Peru, and New England—where European astronomical, astrological, theological, and literary discourses concerning comets were repeated and imitated but also where they were mediated by cultural concerns unique to the New World. More particularly, by focusing on some of the intertextual aspects of the interpretation of the 1680 comet in the Americas, I suggest that the hermeneutic of signs which dominated in one way or another almost every Early American cometography is indicative of broader epistemological and rhetorical tensions that characterize the period.

Popular belief in late seventeenth-century Europe generally held that a comet's appearance heralded God's wrath. In Germany the terrible "Wunder-Komet" of 1680 precipitated the publication of nearly a hundred treatises, most of which echoed the motto on a medal struck by the State Library of Zurich: "The star threatens evil things. Have faith! God will set things right."3 The devout comet-watcher could thus look forward to imminent salvation, while sinners were urged to seize a final chance to repent. Still, even many of the learned who treated comets mathematically also embraced some form of theological hermeneutic. Both Kepler and, later in his life, Newton wished to retain comets as actors in God's eschatological drama.4 Though others, like Galileo and Gassendi, saw the comet as a natural event without semiotic significance, the more astrologically inclined continued to see it not just as a sign but as the effective cause itself of ill, or less often, good fortune.5 Stanislaw Lubieniecki's1667 Theatrum cometicum thus places one comet at Jerusalem's destruction and another at Christ's birth.6 In other words, the Theatrum, like most contemporary cometographies, is fueled by the logic of analogy, for a comet was generally read as a wondrous (but usually disastrous) sign linking the microcosm and macrocosm, or alternately, as a sign legible only by translating the Book of Nature with the lexicon provided by the Book of God, the Bible.7 When it came to comets, the epistemic shift that Foucault traces in The Order of Things, from a sixteenth-century symbolic or qualitative world-view to a seventeenth-century rationalist or quantitative one, was often slowly and/or incompletely achieved. Forced to speak of a comet's "beard" or "tail," even the less mantic cometographers found themselves interrogating the analogical nature of their discourse as much as the celestial objects that excited their curiosity. [End Page 400]

Especially in France and to a lesser extent England the epistemological and rhetorical assumptions associated with the idea that comets heralded misfortune were being subject to increasing scrutiny if not sometimes also outright scorn. Most famously, Pierre Bayle in his Pensées diverses; Ecrites à un Docteur de Sorbonne, à l'occasion de la comète qui parut au mois de Decembre 1680, uses the comet as a kind of floating signifier which allows him to interrogate with proto-Enlightenment rigor all manner...


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