Book Review: Hugh Kolb, “Seven Stars, Ancient Astronomy and the English Public House”

By Duncan Lunan

Hugh Kolb, “Seven Stars, Ancient Astronomy and the English Public House”, pb, 237 pp, £15, Unicorn, 2019

This is a large book, heavy and a little difficult to hold and read, but the writing is chatty and even light-hearted in places:  St. Thomas à Becket is described on page 89 as ‘having got his chips’, which is maybe a bit too casual for murder with two-handed swords.  It doesn’t have an Index or even a Contents page, which meant I had to hunt for that allusion page by page, somewhat frustrating in a book of this length and size.  Also trying is that although the book is comprehensively illustrated with maps and photographs, almost all of the other illustrations have been redrawn, even though almost all of them should by rights be in the public domain – the oldest examples date from the Mesopotamian civilisation (Fig. 2)  and from Bronze Age Europe.  I may know why that is:  when I was writing Incoming Asteroid! in 2012, I had to leave out an illustration of Halley’s Comet in the Bayeux Tapestry because I couldn’t find one online which didn’t have somebody’s copyright overprinted on it.  I had to reproduce a drawing of the Nebra Disc instead of a photograph for the same reason, and so does Hugh Kolb, I suspect for the same reason again.

Fig. 2. Late Assyrian cylinder seals, redrawn in Seven Stars

The book begins with a history of brewing;  I did feel that more might have been made of the distinction between Real Ale and cask-conditioned beer, particularly since the CAMRA revolution is often quoted as the most successful consumer protest of modern times.  From there it goes on to a history of the public house, which is comparatively recent, although inns, taverns and alehouses with home brewing go back to ancient times.  Dedicated licensed property as we know it goes back only to the mid-seventeenth century and catches on during the 18th and 19th,  partly because of the rise of commercial breweries.  Although Kolb doesn’t mention it, it strikes me as significant that by then the American colonies were well established, and among British traditions which they didn’t take with them, like the supernatural ballads, there’s no pub scene except for relatively new places in the cities.  In smaller towns I’ve been in, in California, Florida, New York state etc., the bars were impersonal and interchangeable.  Bare floors, strip lighting, pool tables, two or more TV different sports channels on large screens at full volume – places for loners, not for socialising or conversation.  As a visiting friend from Michigan said to me, when I told him we were going to a pub:  “Don’t you have any friends?”

Next comes a history of inn signs, going back to Roman times at least, and with a huge variety of names and emblems.  There are many English pubs named ‘The Seven Stars’, and Hugh Kolb has descriptions and photographs of a goodly number of them, taking him to the midpoint of the book.

One of the things already standing out is that very few of them have astronomical or even astrological symbols on their signs:  the most common emblem is a circlet of six stars with a seventh in the middle  (Fig. 3).  He then starts on ‘explanations’ which don’t stand up, beginning with the idea that they represent stars in the crown of the Virgin Mary.  But Mary’s part in the Bible is not that large, and the plain halo, as a symbol of holiness, goes back at least 600 years before the Christian era.  The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception wasn’t made official till the 10th century, and it wasn’t fully accepted  (including her halo of stars)  until the 16th.  There are actually more stars in depictions of the Apocalypse.  The woman there ‘clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars’ is definitely not Mary, and as Kolb says, what happens in the surrounding conflict does not suggest a nice night out in the pub;  but ‘we are definitely dealing with twelve stars, not seven’.  The connection with monastic brewing which some have suggested is even more tenuous, and seems to have more to do with alchemy, if anything.

Kolb makes equally short work of the multiple instances of sevens in the Bible and in the Book of Enoch.  When everything on earth and heaven is grouped in sevens, it’s not obvious why seven stars should come to be the sign of a pub.  While the number seven is significant to the Freemasons, and allegedly through them it goes back to the Templars, it’s clear from the early records of the Order that they met in many places with inn signs and showed no preference for the Seven Stars, far less did pubs take their names and signs from them, unlike pubs called The Mason’s Apron and The Compasses where the connection is obvious.

Classically the Sun and Moon were counted with the five naked-eye planets to make seven ‘wanderers’ in the sky, but planetary pub names and signs are rare.  There was a Planet Bar near Ruchill Park in Glasgow during the Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project, but it was decorated with free New English Library SF posters from Science Fiction Monthly, with no astronomical content.  The Sun is a more common name, and indeed the most successful of the folk song clubs that I ran in Ayrshire met in the Sun Inn, in the oldest pub lounge in Irvine.  There are a good few pubs with lunar names, but Kolb quotes John Taylor and Samuel Butler bemoaning in verse that the Full Moon is never so honoured.  Here I must put in a word for the Full Moon Bar in Taunton, where I was a regular in 1968-69, with occasional visits thereafter.  Its sign was contemporary, showing three space suited astronauts standing shoulder to shoulder on a Moon which was ‘Full’ in the sense of ‘standing room only’.  At the time the plan was to land the whole Apollo Command and Service Module vertically on the Moon  (Figs. 4 & 5). 

Allegedly the astronauts hated the idea, one of them telling the authors Cole and Cox that it would be like ‘trying to land the Empire State Building, when you can’t see where to put its feet  (Islands in Space, the Challenge of the Planetoids, Chilton, 1964).  An alternative suggestion was that the CSM combination might land horizontally, using the landing gear as a take-off ramp (Fig. 6) – rather like the ending of the TV version of Quatermass II.  But in the race to get to the Moon first, John Houbolt’s Lunar Orbit Rendezvous proposal won the day, putting two astronauts down in a separate Lunar Module while the CSM remained in orbit.  NASA’s current plans are to put four astronauts on the Moon in 2025, so the Full Moon’s 3-astronaut sign would remain ‘prophecy which became history before it became current fact.  But in the only image of it I’ve found online  (Fig. 7), it was up to five astronauts on the Moon before the end – prophetic once again.

Kolb’s next target is the Plough, which has seven stars at first glance, but two of then  (Alcor and Mizar)  are actually an optical double, making eight.  In the London Planetarium live lectures which  I mentioned last week, speakers would ask the audience if they could see them both, then tell them that they had just passed the eyesight test in the medical for conscription to the ancient Spartan army.  But in ancient Greece and Rome the asterism was just part of the larger figure of the Great Bear, and in 10th century England it was known as ‘Churl’s Wain’, the countryman’s wagon, which later became Anglicised to ‘Charles’.  The many pubs called the Plough are older, but all seem to have been agricultural ploughs until comparatively recently, when some of the Seven Stars pubs have changed their name or even their signs to show the starry one.  Many Plough Inns are old enough for streets to be named for them, including  (apparently)  the Plough Inn at Woolpit in Suffolk, which was still open when I first went there in 1993.  It stood on Plough Lane, as Brick Lane led to the old brickworks and Green Lane led to the village Green.  Tellingly, Plough Inns are found all over England, while the Seven Stars pubs are all in the west and south.

Fig. 8. The Lost Pleiad, by William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1884

There is however a definite association of the Seven Stars with the Fox, usually the one in Aesop’s fable, and this either led to, or follows, the association of the Pleiades with grapes.  Mythology in several parts of the world insists that there were once seven stars in the Pleiades  (Fig. 8), even though most people can see only six.  Some with keen sight can see eight, and the late Mel Adam, whose eyesight was exceptional, could count 18 even next to a street light.  (There are in fact hundreds, because the Pleiades are a relatively newly formed Open Cluster, still orbiting in the Milky Way as a unit.)   Most wine was imported to England from Europe, but there was viniculture in Britain, even in Scotland, during the period known as the Roman Warming and again during the Mediaeval Warming, which began with the increase in solar activity during the 12th century.  There are ‘Bunch of Grapes’ pubs all over the place, even when they mostly sell beer.

This is where it finally appears that Kolb is on to something, with the map on page 204 of his 237-page book.  The distribution of Seven Stars pubs known to exist between 1066 and the 17th century lies entirely within what were once Anglo-Saxon Wessex and Mercia, none of them within the Viking-held territory called the Danelaw.  He suggests that the circlet of six stars with a central seventh was the official symbol for an approved drinking house in Anglo-Saxon England, and because he can’t find an origin for it there, he suggests that they took it over from their Roman predecessors, where it illustrated a connection between the Pleiades and the cults of Bacchus and Dionysus.  When the Normans took over, they adopted it in turn because it was a long-established system, which worked.  In Domesday, A Search for the Roots of England  (BBC Publications, 1986), Michael Woods makes the same suggestion about the takeover of Anglo-Saxon law in general, and in his History of the Life of King Henry the Second, and of the age in which he lived  (J. Dodsley, London, 1769), George Lord Lyttelton argued that where Norman law took precedence over English, it was a poor substitute.

Other associations have attached themselves to the Seven Stars over the centuries.  On Carey Street in Holborn, the Seven Stars sign  (Fig. 3 – formerly the Leg and Seven Stars, dating from 1602), is thought to derive from the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands, as the League and Seven Stars, or still earlier from the Hanseatic League of the 12th century.  It lies between the Royal Courts of Justice and Lincoln’s Inn, and my London friend Del Cotter tells me it’s a great place to find young lawyers, still bewigged, taking the air after their court appearances.  The astronomical connection which High Kolb suggests is only a suggestion, and disappointingly tenuous after a book of such length, though the evidence of his maps is hard to dispute.  But only days ago, I was sent a related paper  (Gloria Vallese, Accademia di Belle Arti Venezia, ‘Possible representations of Vulpecula in some Italian medieval monuments’,  Academia Letters, December 2021)  which argues that the minor constellation Vulpecula, the Little Fox, was not devised by Hevelius in the 17th century as he claimed, but was a key marker for the Summer Solstice, whose proximity to Cygnus, as a swan or goose  (Fig. 9), may have inspired Aesop’s fable and possibly even older versions.  The association with the Pleiades is a bit strained, since they’re well apart on the celestial sphere, but they are in the sky at the same time of later Autumn evenings, and will be on the same ‘The Sky Above You’ map in October.  So perhaps we are literally not yet seeing the whole picture.

Fig. 9. Vulpecula and Cygnus, aka ‘Vulpecula et Anser’, the Fox and Goose

2 replies »

  1. My own Seven Stars & Pubs tuppenceworth…

    A blatant plug for an old pal’s book…

    A few years ago a friend recommended that I read ‘The Longest Crawl’ by Ian Marchant. We were both at Uni with Ian – Mart told me that The Crawl is a GOOD READ. So I bought it – and I read it – and it is, indeed, a good read. An entertaining and well-written account of a pub crawl through Britain which ends up in Shetland. Can’t have been good for his liver!

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