Friday, January 13, 2017

The Left Bank

Say you’re at the middle of a bridge—say it is the Seine River in Paris. You’re looking upriver, meaning that the water is approaching you. Which bank of the river is which? It seems to you then, from your orientation, that the bank on your right is rive droite and the bank on your left is the rive gauche—what with rive meaning “bank”. But suppose then you decide to go to the other side of the bridge, this time seeing the water flowing away from you, the two banks have changed names. So which is the left bank of the river? This left or the other?

Left and right in (call it) riverese (and possibly also in other contexts) is relative to your point of view. Now left and right in dictionary definition means that the bank on the left of the direction of flow is left, the bank on the right of the direction of flow is right. The Seine flow roughly east to west through Paris. Therefore the Rive Gauche is to the south, the Rive Droite is to the north. This method of naming is formalized in the geological science of orography, the study of topography of hills and mountains. Thus rivers as seen from their source (which is topographically highest). As seen from the source downward, the banks remain always to left or right of the water.

Why this question? Well, I’m studying the brief life of St. Joan of Arc—which will appear here by-and-bye. In Joan of Arc’s life the city of Orléans plays a major role. Up-to-date accounts (e.g. Wikipedia), refer to crucial events on the south bank of the Loire—which is the dominant river in the northern part of France. In older accounts (e.g., my dated Encyclopedia Britannica), the references are to the Left Bank of the Loire. But how could the left be the south when, staring at a map, left is West and right is East. I had to sort that out quickly—given that, just looking at a section of a river on a map, I’d no idea which way the river flowed. I know the way the Rhine flows, or the Danube, but the Loire is largely aqua incognita…

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