Several years ago I wrote a novella for Christmas about a series of rather fantastic happenings in Rome, which involved a long-dead astrologer, a papal election, the appearance of a comet, and five long-buried Philistine artefacts – the five golden haemorrhoids of the Second Book of Samuel, since you ask. (If you didn’t know that the Book of Samuel tells this unlikely story, you are not alone: I was of your number until it was told me with great relish by Margaret Atwood one day in Toronto, seven or eight years ago.) My book was absurd, and I think quite funny, a sort of cross between Dan Brown (avant la lettre as far as his wildly over-egged Angels and Demons goes) and Dornford Yates. If you are interested in locating a copy, it can still be had from this link: The Affair of the Emerods – though this isn’t the point of today’s post.
The reason it crosses my mind now is the delightful coincidence of finding a story, just as bizarre, about … rather fantastical happenings in Rome involving a long-dead astrologer, a pope, the appearance of a comet and a magical egg. Had I read this account at the time (it comes from the True Protestant Mercury, and is reprinted in James Malcolm’s Miscellaneous Anecdotes of 1811), the egg would surely have appeared in the Emerods. It goes to show how life follows fantasy at a healthy distance. The action reported by the Mercury’s correspondent took place in Rome in 1680:
We have many nights been surprized with the sight of that prodigious blazing phenomenon in the Heavens. But that which more amazes us, is, that since its appearance, a hen, in the house of Seignior Massimi di Campidoglio, in this city, laid an egg, in which there is very conspicuously seen the figure of this Comet, the inward part of the egg being very clear, and the shell transparent. In the greater end is the Star, whence a blaze or luminous beam shines very bright to the other end. It was first taken notice of by a servant of the said Massimi, who, with wonder, shewed it to his master; and it hath since been carried to be viewed by the Pope, who, as wise and infallible as he is, knows not what to make of it. The Queen of Sweden, and most of the Grandees of Rome, have likewise beheld it with admiration, and have ordered it to be carefully reposited, where it administers not a little matter of speculation to our Philosophers.
Another source, also quoted by Malcolm, illustrates the fabulous egg (above), and describes its production: There did appear here, about the middle of December last, a strange and wonderful Comet near the Caliptick in the sign of Libra, and in the body of the Virgin. At the same time a prodigious egg was laid by a young pullet (which had never laid before), with a perfect Comet in it, and as many Stars and in the same form, as the inclosed figure shews. … The Roman wits are now very busy guessing at what the Comet and Egg may portend!
In 1681 Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle wrote a topical play called La Comète, “in one scene [of which] a countess was consulting her astrologer about a dreadful bearded star overhead when letters arrived from Rome bearing the awful news that a comet had been discovered in an egg! The countess, aghast, swore that she would eat no more eggs; she was seconded by her astrologer’s valet, who dared not devour an Omelette de Cometes.”
All of which simply goes to show that we should be careful what we write, for fear of getting egg on our faces.