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.

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