A Bolt from the Blue

One of the wonderful things about research is that you stumble upon completely unexpected gems that would usually be quite impossible to find if you were looking for them deliberately. Today, for example, I was perusing the always-entertaining works of Gerald of Wales (for whose thoughts on beavers see this post) when, like a bolt from the blue, I came across his thoughts on the vexed question of why churches were so susceptible to lightening strikes. Today, the phenomenon would be of no great concern, knowing what we do about conductivity, but in the days before Benjamin Franklin and his kites, it presented somewhat of an intellectual problem.


Lightning striking the Basilica Mariatrost, in Austria. (Wikimedia Commons)

Gerald, who was educated in France in the growing scholastic environment of the 12th century, approaches the question with an interesting blend of natural observation and theological argument. Were it not for the anti-semetic tones, it would even be charming, and as a curiosity is certainly worth quoting in full:

“It is a matter of concern for many people that lightning so often strikes our churches and other places of worship, damaging crosses and crucifixes before the very eyes of HIm who sees all things and yet does nothing to stop it. I have been able to think of no better answer than that given by Ovid:

We envy what is best, storm-winds blow through the sky
And Jove his thunder-bolts will aim at what stands high.

In his own day, and with Phillip I, King of the French, listening to him, Peter Abelard is said to have made a memorable reply to a certain Jew, who was urging the same sort of objection to the Christian religion. ‘It cannot be denied,’ said he, ‘that, as it rushes down from on high, lighting often strikes the loftier things on earth and those sublime in nature like itself. It is contrived in all malice by the devils in hell. Its immediate cause is a collision between the clouds, and it rushes downwards through the air in a zigzag direction. Nothing can prevent it from reaching its target. It sometimes strikes human beings, and it can do great harm to the faithful and the objects of their cult. No one ever saw lightning hit a public lavatory, or even heard of such a thing…'” (Thorpe, p.153.)

Interestingly, the only lingering query I have about this is: what on earth is the mediaeval latin for ‘zigzag’?

Learn More:

Gerald of Wales, The Journey through Wales, trans. Lewis Thorpe, (London, 1978).


2 thoughts on “A Bolt from the Blue

    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks for stopping by! I’m not sure about how common public restrooms were in the Middle Ages. In Roman times, they were an essential part of civic architecture, and perhaps these were in continued use in locations with high levels of urban continuity. As for other areas, your guess is as good as mine! You certainly don’t come across them mentioned in the texts very often, and its the kind of incidental detail which makes Gerald such an interesting source.


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