Sachiez que ceste ille est si toute au miedi que lestoile tramontane ni apt.'You should know that this island is so far to the south that the tramontane star never appears.' Here, 'tramontane' refers to the north, originally from the Latin meaning 'north wind' (lit: 'across the mountains', i.e., the Alps). Polo is cited as the earliest source of the modern French spelling of the term in French etymological dictionaries, although in modern French it refers to a wind, not a star.
|NASA images of Polaris, the current pole star. This is presumably the same one Polo and Odoric are referring to, although the pole star won't always be Polaris due to axial precession.|
Je me parti de cele contree et meu alai de uers le midi et ving .1. iournees par la giant mer en une contree qui est apelee lamori et la comencai ie a perdre le veue de lestoile t"smontanie, pour la terre qui la me couuri.For which the Yule translation gives: 'Departing from this region [southern India] towards the south across the Ocean Sea, I came in fifty days to a certain country called Lamori, in which I began to lose sight of the north star, as the earth intercepted it.' I'm quite sure the Old French manuscript in the British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, doesn't say fifty days, but rather only one - perhaps I'm missing something in the text, or the word ving doesn't mean 'came' as I had thought. Certainly Malabar isn't one day from Sumatra by wooden boat. If you fancy checking it and correcting my poor French, you can find the Indonesian section starting on folio 141 (recto).
Either way, this must have been a marvel indeed: a piece of direct visual evidence of the curvature of the planet, observable only when one went as far south as the rich kingdoms of Sumatra and Java. I'm not sure that these were the very first European accounts of this phenomenon as I don't know the classical sources well enough, and there's every reason to believe that Roman (or Greco-Egyptian) sailors travelled near the equator in (probably) visiting Indonesia. But it does show, at least, that people in thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe were quite familiar with the concept of a spherical earth.
It would be interesting to compare the Arabic sources for similarities. Lamori, Odoric's name for part of Sumatra, came from the Arabic al-Rāmnī, and I have already noted a correspondence between the spices listed by Polo, al-Mas'udi, and Odoric, so we shouldn't be surprised if this part of the narrative also had some Arab inspiration. The only Arabic source I know in real detail is al-Mas'udi on Sumatra, Java, and Cambodia from The Meadows of Gold, and I haven't come across any mention of the disappearance of the pole star in those sections.
|Detail from a south-up modern reproduction of al-Idrisi's famous world map, the Tabula Rogeriana (after Roger II of Sicily). This section shows islands in Indonesia in a slightly confused way; gezira al-rami on the right of the map is clearly Sumatra, and presumably the island called gezira malai is the Malay Peninsula (bearing in mind that the Arabic word jazīrah can refer to both islands and peninsulas).|
The brief excerpts from Arabic sources in Paul Wheatley's The Golden Khersonese seem to give much more detailed information about the stars, however, and don't seem to regard the disappearance of any particular star behind the earth as at all remarkable; perhaps this was something Europeans up in their far-northern peninsula regarded as more of a marvel than Arabs, whose travels regularly took them out into the southern Indian Ocean.
Perhaps Arab and Malay sailors pointed out the loss of the star to both Odoric and Polo as relative newbies on the Monsoon Marketplace. Perhaps it was all just a part of the tour - see the man-eating beast-people of Lamori, check out the tall piles of nutmegs and cloves, try to keep your eye on the north star as it disappears below the horizon, don't forget to try the sago-bread.