1555 Lyon Bonhomme

La nef estrange par le tourment marin
Abourdera pres de port incongneu,
Nonobstant signes de rameau palmerin
Apres mort, pille: bon avis tard venu.

The reports of deadly storms in the Caribbean and on the American seabord must have salted many a marine conversation in the South of France during the Sixteenth Century such as a 1553 New Spain flotilla of 20 precious metal carriers alongside Texas which a hurricane dispersed across the Gulf of Mexico sinking or grounding them. The 2,000 crew total was reduced to a body of 300 who then encountered anti-Spanish natives as they tried to cross land to safety. Only 2 survived to tell the tales of ensuant battles. In 1565 the French fleet was struck down by a storm as they strove to gain control over Atlantic sea lanes, allowing Spain to continue to pull ahead. An unexpected hurricane off what is now the Mexican coast caused 60 to perish offshore in 1600 and again in 1615 when the San Miguel sank together with all trace of the sea travellers or their possessions.

Line 1, Of ‘nef’ is a large and rangey vessel made for sailing the deep seas. Otherwise, a nave in a church. OF ‘estrange’ is ‘wrong-looking’ or else ‘abroad’. OF ‘tourment’ is ‘torment’ or ‘torture’.

Line 2, OF ‘bourder’ is close to dishonest tale-telling or else a fatty ring but with the prefix ‘a’ added here it will look nautical to any English native speaker, similar to aboard, ashore, adrift, abandoned, aground. OF ‘bord’ = shore. OF ‘incongneu’ is a form of ‘inconnu’, obscure, lacking in identification.

Line 3, OF ‘signes’ are either signifyings or else the miraculous. OF ‘rameau palmerin’ are small palm branches whereas ‘paumer’, which can be found hiding inside those words, is to wave. OF ‘pille’ is pillaged, looted.

Line 4, OF ‘avis’ can mean advice but also had an older meaning of visual perceptivity, that which appears to be seen, or else it means advice.

Translation 1:
A big ship on a nightmare sea
Beaches-up on the shore of an obscure foreign haven,
Notwithstanding the signalling with palm branches,
A good sight but come too late: after death, robbed.

A galleon grounded after seas too terrible; those aboard see the natives waving palm branches (or see waving palm trees, ripped by the hurricane) but it is too late for them to avoid the rocks of death and destruction. Or else they were lured to safety by signals and then perished. The tombstones of the parish churches of the North Cornwall cliff havens, for instance, make sombre reading. (In the Mid-Twentieth Century highly suspect flash-flooding, attributed to experimentation probably by the armed forces who filmed it from above, destroyed the village of Boscastle and wrecked Bude Harbour. Nobody died, however. A surge storm devastated Bude and many other Atlantic harbours in 2014 due to strong winds and a huge ground swell)

Possibly OF ‘nef’ is a church nave and OF ‘tourment marin’ a towering tsunami or estuary flood tearing through the church doors. OF ‘abourdera’ could then mean surmounting an embankment or threshold. OF ‘signe de rameau palmerin’ is significant of Palm Sunday and would make a time-marker for fulfillment of the prediction. The dead are later looted (or the water strips them of their possessions).

Translation 2:
Surmounting the seawall of a port nearby
The high water renders the Church nave unrecognizable
Notwithstanding the significance of Palm Sunday
After death comes they are robbed: it was well-advised by a latecomer.

It seems that a warning arrived in this church too late.

Placing this quatrain in the Sixteenth Century (rather than assuming a Hurricane Katrina-type scenario) hasn’t revealed a flash-flood striking a church building but there were plenty of serious storm disasters along coastlines.

Twenty First Century storms – a series of them ravaged the Lesser Antilles and South East USA in 2017 – have mutilated whole islands, razed villages and farms and reduced or nullified whole neighbourhoods of large cities.

Nigel Raymond Offord © 2012 and on