On this day in 1492, just before lunchtime, the people of the Alsation town of Ensisheim heard an enormous explosion, louder than anything they had ever heard. It was followed by a sound like thunder. According to some reports, it could be heard over ninety miles away. There was only one eyewitness who saw what actually happened. A young boy saw a burning, smoking object hurtle out of the sky and slam into a wheat field just outside the town.
He was able to lead the townspeople to a three foot deep hole in the ground. At the bottom was a large shiny black rock. It was a meteorite, though they didn’t know that. No one was quite sure what it meant or what to do about it. Eventually they decided to dig it out of the ground to have a proper look at it. It required quite a bit of effort. It was triangular in shape with three sharp corners and they guessed it weighed around 300 lbs. Then they used whatever tools they had handy to knock lumps off it to carry away as talismans. So someone had obviously decided that having a huge rock hurled at them from the heavens meant good luck.
When the town’s magistrate saw them, he made them stop and had the stone hauled into town and placed outside the door of the church, where it was very much admired. A few weeks later Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian happened by, on his way to fight the French. (If you read yesterday’s post, you might like to know that he was the father of Philip the Handsome.) He heard about the stone and ordered that it be sent to his castle. He puzzled over it for a few days and also decided that it was a good omen. He chipped off a couple more pieces, for himself and his friend Archduke Sigismund of Austria, and sent it back to the church. But he thought it would be best to fasten it with chains in the choir loft, because that would neutralise any malevolent forces it might carry.
Everyone was pretty excited about their sky rock. They wrote poems about it that were printed up and distributed far and wide. When Maximilian’s father died the following year, and he inherited the title of Archduke of Austria, everyone decided that the meteorite had predicted that too. Maximilian later tried to use the falling of the meteorite as proof that God wanted him to go on a crusade, but that didn’t really work out. He was pretty selective when it came to signs and portents though. In 1495 there was a considerable fall of meteorites near the town of Münckberge in Bavaria that were all said to be shaped like human heads wearing crowns, yet Maximilian chose to ignore them completely.
People didn’t really know what meteorites were in the fifteenth century. They thought that the air could sometimes solidify and produce a huge rock. Or they thought the stones came from volcanoes somehow. It would be another 300 years before anybody suggested that they came from space. The Ensisheim meteor is the oldest documented meteorite in Europe that still survives. It’s not chained up in a choir loft any more though. You can see it in the town’s museum.