The Bologna Prophecy 1816
The mood in Britain was so depressing in 1816 that the end of the world was prophesied and believed by some. The original rumour apparently came from an Italian astronomer, from which it gets its name of the “Bologna prediction”. The anonymous Italian said that there world would end on July 18th 1816. The sun would be extinguished and all life would be destroyed. This made a fair amount of sense to some Europeans, for whom the weather was much worse than the normal variability of the climate . It was clear by June that summer would not arrive. Sunsets had a yellow sulphurous look. Spots were clearly visible on the face of the Sun. On June 24th the sunspots were almost frighteningly clear to the naked eye, protected by a modest piece of coloured glass.
It made sense that the rapid increase in sunspots was responsible for the fall in summer temperatures. To some it made equal sense that the slow visible increase in spots would blot out the sun completely, or that the sunspots were lakes of water that would extinguish the flames. Neither was true, and the newspapers tried to argue the point with science.
It wasn’t just a cold summer; it was raining more or less every day. The Stamford Chronicle commented on July 15th that St Swithun seems to be providing rain for 40 days before, rather than after, the appointed day. This was the coldest recorded year in Western European history, before or since. The Leicester Mercury on the 26 July commented that “such inclement weather is scarcely remembered by the oldest person living”. August had massive flooding and lightening (“electric fluid”)
This was actually a period of low sunspot activity, not high; known to the climatologists as the “Dalton Minimum” The sunspots were visible due to changes in the atmosphere rather than more solar activity. This was not known at the time, but the periodic changes in sunspot activity had been noted since sunspots were first identified in 1610. Eclipses and comets could now be predicted and these terrestrial events did not mean bad things would happen. The Chester Courant warned newspapers not to be sensationalist to protect the feelings of the “weak of all descriptions in body and mind”
The appointed of day of doom arrived cold, stormy and windy, as had been the constant pattern of July. The day after, the Morning Post sniffed that “the silly prophecy has excited a greater conversation amongst the lower orders that could reasonably be expected”. The Post, reporting the next day, pointed out that the weather was sunny in the afternoon and this was more of an event more worthy of note.
The contempt of the papers had a hint of anti-Catholicism about it. The original prophecy came from Italy. The British papers reported that the people of Ghent had mistaken the trumpets of the local cavalry regiment as the arrival of the day of judgement, and had fallen to their knees in fright.
Eleanor Saunders of Kennington was a victim of the hysteria. Described by the coroner as 62, never married, and a cook, she was deeply affected by the prophecy. She retired to her room and lamented what God was planning to do, and hanged herself the Sunday before with a silk scarf, attached to the rafter of the room that she had not left for a week. The cause of death was given as mental derangement and the general tone of the coroner’s reports was sympathetic. However, some did point out that if the almighty had chosen the following Thursday to judge all humanity, committing the sin of suicide beforehand was not necessarily her best move. The Leicester Chronicle was sympathetic towards Eleanor, but was still a little sniffy about the ignorance of the vulgar multitude
“Some men differ from children in corporeal bulk only- and they frequently derive their knowledge from them” (26 July 1816)
Byron had left the country and was settled in Switzerland, where the weather was worse, and his poem of the sun going out –Darkness- was started around this time. He certainly would have known about the prediction and some critics believe that the famous poem was written in direct reaction to it.
The story had its last hurrah at the end of the month, when some argued that God meant to destroy the world based on the old style Julian calendar, which Britain had abandoned in 1752. This calendar which was 11 days behind and therefore the sun would go out on the 29th July instead.
The Morning Post, as sympathetic as ever, simply suggested that these people should be committed to Bedlam, the Bethlehem hospital for the insane.Please consider my two books on the Georgian and Victorian Era The Dark Days of Georgian Britain– a political and social history of the Regency. More details here Passengers – a social history of Britain 1780-1840 told through travel, transport, roads and hospitality. More details here