Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Top lines from Chaucer No. 5

If that he faught, and hadde the hyer hond,
By water he sente hem hoom to every lond.
But of his craft to rekene wel his tydes
His stremes and his daungers him bisydes
His herberwe and his mone, his lode-menage
There nas noon swich from Hulle to Cartage.
Hardy he was, and wyse to undertake;
With many a tempest hadde his berd been shake.
He knew wel alle the havenes, as they were,
From Gootland to the cape of Finistere,
And every cryke in Britayne and in Spayne.
His barge y-cleped was The Maudelayne.

[Paraphrase: When he won a sea fight he threw his victims overboard. From Hull to Cartagena he had no equal for navigation - tides and currents, shoals and reefs, zodiacal position of the sun, phases of the moon and magnetic compass usage. He was tough but prudent, with a beard tossed by many a tempest. He knew all the havens from Gotland (in the Baltic) to Finisterre, and every creek in Brittany and Spain. His ship was called The Magdalen.]

This is the Shipman, although he's not recognisable as such from the vignette above. He's described in the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in about 1386. The line His herberwe and his mone, his lode-menage has raised many critical eyebrows. 'Herberwe' apparently means housing or harbour, not in the sense of anchorage but of the hosting implied by astrologers in speaking, for instance, of the Sun being in the house of Libra, or Gemini, etc.

'Lode' is lodestone, a magnetised rock, which will in turn magnetise iron nails or pins if they are placed in contact with it. A magnetised nail or pin, if floated on a small piece of wood or card, will automatically point towards magnetic north. It's a small step from this to fashion a compass rose. Lode-menage is apparently the first mention in English of navigation by magnetic compass, although there are earlier references to it in Italian. If Chaucer takes it for granted that his fellow-pilgrims on the road to Canterbury are familiar with the system, its use was presumably widespread. Maybe this indicates that passage across the Bay of Biscay, out of sight of the French and Spanish coasts that pre-compass mariners hugged, was possible and commonplace by 1386.

'Every cryke in Brittany and in Spayne' at either end of the cross-Biscay dash, is well chosen, because both areas are riddled with sheltered creeks and inlets, particularly in the north-western Spanish province of Galicia. I wonder if Chaucer's Shipman knew Baiona, a sheltered anchorage about half-way between Vigo and the Portuguese border? Not much more than a hundred years after Chaucer wrote this, Baiona was the landfall of the first of Columbus' ships, the Pinta, to return with news of his discovery of the New World.

In the harbour at Baiona there's a full-scale replica of the Pinta. It costs 2 euros to look over it. It's tiny, not much bigger than the pleasure craft around it, and you wonder how on earth Columbus' men managed to sail such a matchbox across the Atlantic and back. I also have a photo of myself at the wheel of the 'Pinta', but as it makes me look like Rev. Septimus Brope I prefer not to publish it.

You see what I get up to when I'm practically bedridden. Thanks so much for all your good wishes.


Z said...

Oh, but Septimus had such splendid hidden depths. And he was intelligent, studious and had a sense of racy humour which he was at pains to conceal. I'd not mind looking like him.

Dave said...

Rev. Septimus Brope is a character I'd not come across before. Sorry.

I always imagined myself as Rev. Septimus Harding, Warden of Hiram's Hospital. Without the cello, of course.

Hmm. I feel a blog-post coming on.

Z said...

Not a Saki fan, Dave.

Septimus Brope wrote learned discourses for an ecclesiastical magazine, but had a surprisingly stylish lifestyle considering his income. But in fact he wrote racy music hall songs on the side, which was a lucrative second financial string that he was at pains to hide, thinking it would destroy his upright reputation. Clovis discovered his secret and offered to write an anti-romantic song - something like
"How you bore me Florrie with your eyes of vacant(?) blue" which ended "I'll throw you down a quarry, Florrie, if I marry you." It proved popular in Blackpool and places where they sing.

Sarah said...

You lost me after the word 'if'

Christopher said...

Yes, the narratives might have been intriguingly different if Septimus Brope had played the cello and Septimus Harding had written catchy lyrics.

I thought you liked messing about in boats, Sah.

Vicus Scurra said...

So it was you who provided the inspiration for the padre's latest emission, was it? Illness is scarcely an adequate excuse. I hope you are feeling yourself again soon.

As you seem to be taking an interest in ancient verse, I have to ask whether you are the source of the Milton poem appearing in the media today.

Christopher said...

Thank you, Vicus. As for the Milton poem, there you have me. As we have no access to the UK media (except Sky news in dire emergencies), perhaps you could arrange for your people to enlighten me?

Dave said...


Christopher said...

OK, thank you. If this is Milton my name's Septimus East, although - a big although - maybe one shouldn't jump to conclusions too quickly: apparently T.S.Eliot had a taste for bawdy verse on the side and is responsible inter alia for 'Four and twenty virgins came down from Inverness'. Robert Burns too certainly had a strong taste for bawdy. H'm.

Spadoman said...

Stay in bed then, this is interesting stuff. Wish I had a guy like you to read when I was in school, I'd have paid attention to my lessons.
the indigenous people in this land mention that Columbus is the reason for the genocide that plagues the Native Americans to this day. They'd sink the Pinta if it sailed here.
We have a unique place in Northern Minnesota called Magnetic Rock, it sits on the shore of Magnetic Lake along the Canadian border. Check THIS out. And THIS.Compasses do very weird stuff near there. I have experienced it myself. I would be hard pressed to trust a compass back in the 14th century.
Get well soon.


mig said...

Oh I thought you were in England! I'm so sorry you've been ill, hope you're getting better. I'be been finding the computer access difficult recently so I didn't realise.
I've just read a novel, by a folk singer, about the first voyages to America in search of red dyes and cod. It seems there's a theory that British sailors went to Newfoundland before CC. Supposedly, this happened in 1485 so they might have been using one of those early compasses.