Sky Ships of the Middle Ages

Sky-Ships of the Middle Ages
David Sivier

In 1732 Daniel Defoe noted that people regarded the appearance of ships in the air, as well as men on horseback, mountains, forests and other images, as omens of future events. In fact, people had been seeing ships in the air, and meeting and talking to their aerial or aetherial occupants, since the early middle ages. The first, and best known of these accounts of these vessels is the comment by the Visigothic bishop, Agobard in the 8th century. In 1211, Gervase of Tilbury in his Otia Imperialia reported that one had appeared in the skies over a village in Gloucershire in England, where its anchor had been caught on the church steeple. A similar event occurred in the 14th or 15th century at a monastery in Clonmacnoise in Ireland, where it dropped anchor right in the middle of a meeting of the local monks. The interpretation of these ships and their occupants varied. For Agobard, their inhabitants assisted the tempestrarii, magicians who raised storms. Gervase and the unknown Irish chronicler of the events at Clonmacnoise seemed to have regarded them as natural, but profoundly strange, suggesting that the world was constructed far differently to the conventional view of the Earth. Definitely supernatural, however, were the demons mentioned in a fifteenth century German necromancer’s manual, who would appear in an illusory ship to transport the conjuror wherever he wished.

This paper will discuss the appearance of these sky ships and their connections to related visionary voyages and strange events, examining their possible origins in the Bible, Platonic philosophy, popular religion and necromancy, examining the theory that they were based on accounts of whirlwinds, and suggesting that rather than being simply reports of bizarre events, they were based on medieval cosmological views of the nature of the elements and their location in the heavens.

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