A border to the unknown: folk ritual and interpretations of astrological phenomena in Edmond Halley’s A Description of the Passage of the Shadow of the Moon over England (1723) and James Catnach’s almanac, The Prophetic Messenger (1833), Anya Hancock
Halley’s widely circulated broadside presents one of the earliest rational analyses of a solar eclipse. In it, the Enlightenment scientist attempts to pre-empt the superstitious interpretations that often accompanied astrological occurrences. A century later, an anonymously published broadside and image, The Prophetic Messenger depicts an anarchic, folkloric view of a comet visible over Britain. What do these wildly different interpretations tell us about folk ritual in the post-Enlightenment era? In both, the sky represents a border into the unknown; it is either a mappable terrain that can be conquered by rational thought, or a space where folk custom breaks down and fragments into disparate images. Do these representations intersect in any other ways? By examining these artefacts side by side, we can see a variation in cultural attitudes and popular belief amongst different communities, and how supernatural interpretations of natural phenomena were borne out of a reaction to social change.