Reference to Compass in 13th Century Poem

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Among the oldest references to the mariner’s compass is a passage in a poem by a little known French writer, Guyot de Provins, who wrote early in the thirteenth century. I first came upon this reference many years ago, during a period of omnivorous reading while I was convalescing from a nearly fatal attack of cholera morbus.

Among the many books I received there was a large volume of citations, gems of literature of all nations in a dozen languages, which aroused my special interest. Most of the excerpts from famous works, in verse or prose, collected by the author, impressed me so strongly by their beauty of thought and expression that even now I can recite many of them without a miss.

It was in this volume that I found the reference to the compass mentioned in the introduction. It was credited to Guyot de Provins, a French poet of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and, if my memory serves me well, worded as follows:

“Quand la mer est obscure et brune
Qu’on ne voit ni etoile ni lune
Donc font l’aiguille allumer,
Puis n’ont garde de s’egarer
Contre l’etoile va la pointe.”

I translate freely:

“When gloomy darkness hides the sea
And one no star and moon can see
They turn on the needle the light,
Then from the straying they have no fright
For the needle points to the star.”

As a rule, medieval records do not commend themselves for clarity; in fact, not a few are of very small value to the searcher. It is therefore remarkable that this ancient reference to the compass should be so strikingly clear and explicit.

After reading Guyot’s verses one is impelled by the wish to know something more about him. With this intention I tried to obtain information from the New York Public Library but his name was not mentioned in any of the catalogues. I then made a thorough examination of the General Index, which was equally unsuccessful, but found a brief notice in the Grande Encyclopedie Francaise.

This item being of unusual interest I have an English translation:

Guyot de Provins, French poet, towards 1200. Undoubtedly, after being a minstrel and going, perhaps to Jerusalem, he became a Benedictine in Clairvaux and later in Cluny. He composed between 1203 and 1208, in a style lively and original, but harsh and hard, a satirical work consisting of 2691 octosyllabic verses, which he entitled “Bible,” probably to indicate that he intended to say only what is true, and in which he passed in review almost the whole contemporary society. Especially noteworthy is his criticism of the Pope, expressed with great independence, and that of the high clergy and physicians, and a number of passages in which he argues that the compass was known in his time.

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