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Pivoting compass needle in a 14th century handcopy of Peter's Epistola de magnete (1269)

Pierre Pelerin de Maricourt (French), Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt (Latin) or Peter Peregrinus of Maricourt;[1] (fl. 1269) was a 13th century French scholar who conducted experiments on magnetism and wrote the first extant treatise describing the properties of magnets. His work is particularly noted for containing the earliest detailed discussion of freely pivoting compass needles, a fundamental component of the dry compass soon to appear in medieval navigation.[2] [3] [4] He also wrote a treatise on the construction and use of a universal astrolabe.

Pierre’s text on the magnet is titled in many of the manuscripts as Epistola Petri Peregrini de Maricourt ad Sygerum de Foucaucourt, militem, de magnete ("Letter on the Magnet of Peter Peregrinus of Maricourt to Sygerus of Foucaucourt, Soldier"),[5] but it is more commonly known by its short title, Epistola de magnete. Pierre's letter is thus addressed to an otherwise unknown Picard countryman named Sygerus (Sigerus, Ysaerus) of Foucaucourt, possibly a friend and neighbor of the author; Foucaucourt borders on Pierre's home area de Maricourt, in the department of the Somme, near Péronne.

The letter also bears the closing legend (but in only one of the 39 manuscript copies) Actum in castris in obsidione Luceriæ anno domini 1269º 8º die augusti ("Done in camp during the siege of Lucera, August 8, 1269"), which might indicate that Pierre de Maricourt was in the army of Charles, duke of Anjou and king of Sicily, who, in 1269, laid siege to the city of Lucera. But given that only one manuscript attests this, the argument is weak.[6] There is no indication of why he received the sobriquet Peregrinus ("pilgrim") but it suggests that he may have been either a pilgrim at one point or a crusader; and the 1269 attack on Lucera had been sanctioned as a crusade by the Pope. So Pierre de Maricourt may have served in that army.

"You must realize, dearest friend," Pierre writes, "that while the investigator in this subject must understand nature and not be ignorant of the celestial motions, he must also be very diligent in the use of his own hands, so that through the operation of this stone he may show wonderful effects." [7]


The content of the Epistola de magnete

Pierre's letters explain how to identify the poles of the compasses. He also describes the laws of magnetic attraction and repulsion. The letters also contain a description of an experiment with a repaired magnet, as well as a number of compasses, one of which "you will be able to direct your steps to cities and islands and to any place whatever in the world." Indeed, the increasing perfection of magnetic compasses during the thirteenth century allowed navigators such as Vandino and Ugolino Vivaldi to strike out on voyages to unknown lands.

Maricourt's magnetic "perpetual motion machine"

The Epistola de magnete is divided into two parts. Part One (10 chapters): This is a section that serves as a model of inductive reasoning based on definite experiences, and setting forth the fundamental laws of magnetism. He did not discover these laws, but presented them in logical order. Part One discusses the physical (but not the occult) properties of the lodestone and provides the first extant written account of the polarity of magnets. He was thus the first to use the word “pole” in this context. He also provides methods for determining the north and south poles of a magnet. He also describes the effects magnets have upon one another, showing that like poles repel each other and unlike poles attract each other. He also treats the attraction of iron by loadstones the magnetization if iron by loadestones; and the ability to reverse the polarity in such an induced magnet. Pierre attributed the Earth's magnetism to the action of celestial poles, rather than to the terrestrial poles of the planet itself.[8]

Part Two (three chapters): This section describes three devices that utilize the properties of magnets. He treats the practical applications of magnets, describing the “wet” floating compass as an instrument in common use, and proposing a new “dry” pivoted compass in some detail. He also attempts to prove that with the help of magnets it is possible to realize perpetual motion (see History of perpetual motion machines). His device is a toothed wheel which passes near a lodestone so that the teeth are alternately attracted by one pole and repelled by the other.

The universal astrolabe text

Part of the engraving on the back-side de Maricourt's universal astrolabe

The Nova Compositio Astrolabii Particularis (found in only 4 manuscripts) describes the construction and use a universal astrolabe which could be used at a variety of latitudes without changing the plates. Unlike al-Zarqālī’s more famous universal astrolabe in which vertical halves the heavens were projected onto a plane through the poles, this one had both the northern and southern hemispheres projected onto a plane through the equator (which was also the limit of projection). There are no known surviving astrolabes based on this treatise. The use of such an astrolabe is very complicated, and since it is probable that most sophisticated users were not frequent travelers, they were more likely happier with the traditional (and simpler) stereographic planispheric astrolabe.

Roger Bacon

The literature often mentions that Pierre was praised by Roger Bacon, who called him a “perfect mathematician” and one who valued experience over argument. But the association of the praise with Pierre de Maricourt appears only in a marginal gloss to Bacon’s Opus tertium and only in one of the five manuscripts used in the critical edition, which leads us to conclude that it was a later comment added by someone else. That Bacon’s praise was for Pierre de Maricourt is open to serious debate.


The influence of de Maricourt’s astrolabe was virtually nil. His reputation derives mainly from his work on magnetism. The De magnete became a very popular work from the Middle Ages onwards, as witnessed by the large number of manuscript copies.

The first printed edition of it was issued at Augsburg, in 1558, by Achilles Gasser.[9] In 1572, Jean Taisner published from the press of Johann Birkmann of Cologne a work entitled Opusculum perpetua memoria dignissimum, de natura magnetis et ejus effectibus, Item de motu continuo. This is considered a piece of plagiarism, as Taisnier presents, as though his own, the Epistola de magnete of Pierre de Maricourt and a treatise on the fall of bodies by Gianbattista Benedetti.

William Gilbert acknowledged his debt to Pierre de Maricourt and incorporated this thirteenth century scientist's experiments on magnetism into his own treatise, called De magnete.[10]

The Epistola de magnete was later issued by Guillaume Libri (Histoire des sciences mathématiques en Italie, vol 2 [Paris, 1838], pp. 487–505), but, based on only one manuscript, this edition was full of defects; corrected editions were published by Timoteo Bertelli (in Bulletino di bibliografia e di storia delle scienze matematiche e fisiche pubblicata da B. Boncampagni, 1 (1868), 70-80)[11] and G. Hellmann (Rara magnetica 1269-1599 [Neudrucke von Schriften und Karten über Meteorologie und Erdmagnetismus, 10], [Berlin, 1898]) .[12]

The modern critical edition was prepared by Loris Sturlese and appears in Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt, Opera (Pisa, 1995), pp. 63–89.

A translation into English has been made by Silvanus P. Thompson ("Epistle of Peter Peregrinus of Maricourt, to Sygerus of Foucaucourt, Soldier, concerning the Magnet", [London: Chiswick Press, 1902]); by Brother Arnold [=Joseph Charles Mertens] ("The Letter of Petrus Peregrinus on the Magnet, A. D. 1269", with introductory note by Brother Potamian [= M. F. O’Reilly], [New York, 1904]); and H. D. Harradon, (“Some Early Contributions to the History of Geomagnetism - I,” in Terrestrial Magnetism and Atmospheric Electricity [now Journal of Geophysical Research] 48 [1943], 3-17 [text pp. 6–17]).

The modern critical edition of the astrolabe text was prepared by Loris Ron B. Thomson and appears in Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt, Opera (Pisa, 1995), pp. 119–196.

The European Geosciences Union (EGU) established the Petrus Peregrinus Medal in recognition for outstanding scientific contributions in the field of magnetism.[1]


  1. ^ Edward Grant, “Peter Peregrinus,” Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York: Scribners, 1975), 10: 532. Ron B. Thomson, “Peter Peregrinus,” Medieval Science, Technology and Medicine. An Encyclopedia, ed. Thomas Glick et al. (New York and London: Routledge, 2005), pp.388-389.
  2. ^ E. G. R. Taylor: “The South-Pointing Needle”, in: Imago Mundi, Vol. 8. (1951), pp. 1-7
  3. ^ Barbara M. Kreutz, “Mediterranean Contributions to the Medieval Mariner's Compass,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 14, No. 3. (Jul., 1973), p. 371
  4. ^ Frederic C. Lane, “The Economic Meaning of the Invention of the Compass,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 68, No. 3. (Apr., 1963), p. 615f.
  5. ^ See the comments by the modern editor (Loris Sturlese) in Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt, Opera (Pisa, 1995), p. 56.
  6. ^ See Sturlese in Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt, Opera (Pisa, 1995), pp. 16 and 89.
  7. ^ Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (New York, Penguin, 1976), 194-5.
  8. ^ Anne Locker, Peter the Pilgrim, IET Communications Engineer, August/September 2006, UK ISSN 1479-8352
  9. ^ See Sturlese in Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt, Opera (Pisa, 1995), p. 44.
  10. ^ Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (New York, Penguin, 1976), 194.
  11. ^ See Sturlese in Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt, Opera (Pisa, 1995), p. 47
  12. ^ See Sturlese in Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt, Opera (Pisa, 1995), p. 47.

External links

This article incorporates text from the entry Pierre de Maricourt in the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.



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