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Letter from the Editor

Letter From The Editor

April 2024
3min read

As this issue goes to the printer, the world of cartography is still recovering from Yale University’s regretful announcement that its famous Vinland Map is an apparent fraud. We shared in the announcement of the map’s discovery in our October, 1965, issue.

To reprise the story, back in 1957 Laurence Witten, a respected rare-book dealer of New Haven, Connecticut, came to Alexander O. Victor, curator of maps in the Yale Library, and Thomas E. Marston, a friend and collector of medieval manuscripts, with a book he had recently obtained. It had electrified him. It contained a manuscript, partly paper, partly parchment, about a church mission to Tartary in the Middle Ages (now known as the “Tartar Relation”) and bound in with it a parchment map of the world. In the northwest corner it showed Iceland, a remarkably accurate representation of Greenland, and—here was the exciting discovery—a representation to its west of Vinland, or, since the map was naturally in Latin, Vinlanda Insula . Above it was an inscription which stated that Vinland had been discovered by Leif Ericson and Bjarni Herjolfsson. It also referred to the later visit there of Bishop Eirikr Gnupsson.

If authentic, that would be the first actual representation of any part of America before Columbus, for on the basis of analyses of the paper and watermarks in the accompanying Tartar Relation the manuscript could be dated and traced to a conference of religious scholars at Basel about the year 1440. The conclusion later drawn by the experts gathered together by Yale was that one scribe at that conference must have copied, as was then the custom, both the Tartar Relation and the map from earlier materials made available to him there.

At the outset the map was regarded only with suspicion, for it seemed to have little bearing on the accompanying manuscript. Even the wormholes at the bindings of the two items failed to match. While the Tartar Relation was undoubtedly genuine, it seemed entirely possible that the VinTand Map could have been done at almost any time and collated with it later, especially as the binding was of later vintage. But subsequently there came an amazing coincidence (perhaps too amazing, some now think). Quite independently Mr. Marston purchased by mail from a London bookdealer’s catalogue a fragment of another ancient document, a medieval history called the Speculum Historiale . He showed it to Mr. Witten, who was greatly excited by the similarity of the handwriting; he rushed home and found that by rearranging the three documents together the Wormholes matched. So did the exact size of the sheets of paper and parchment.

Keeping all this dark for eight years, Yale enlisted such experts as the late R. A. Skelton, superintendent of the map room at the British Museum; George D. Painter, assistant keeper in charge of incunabula at the British Museum; and others. Eventually they came up with a large and handsome book entitled The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation , which was published on October 11, 1965—right between Leif Ericson Day (which had only recently been proclaimed as October 9 by President Johnson) and Columbus Day. Supporters of the great navigator, incensed by the timing as well as the content of the book, dove eagerly into the controversy, which has raged ever since, as to whether the map could be genuine. For those who would like to pursue it in detail we should like to recommend a volume we find more interesting than any detective story ever published, Proceedings of the Vinland Map Conference , held at the Smithsonian in 1966 and edited by Wilcomb E. Washburn . (University of Chicago Press, 1971). Indeed, the map has produced an extensive literature, including an interesting study of an acrostic-telestic of the Latinized name of the Norse bishop (Henricus), described in a new book by CATUS H. Gordon called Riddles in History .

Since 1965 a new test for the age of inks—one that will examine microscopic particles without harming any part of the map being studied—has been developed. Yale’s experts gallantly submitted their documents to this new inspection, which proved to their satisfaction that while the inks in the two manuscripts are genuinely of fifteenth-century materials, the particles in the Vinland Map contain anatase, a mineral of titanium dioxide in a form invented in the 1920’s.

With this sad discovery there comes a host of questions: who did it, how, and why? It may have been no more than a bizarre pastime undertaken by some scholar, or it may have been a clever hoax. It is extraordinary indeed that anybody with the skill to forge the handwriting so convincingly would also have had the vast knowledge required to produce the fake. In fact, several experts, including Mr. Painter, remain convinced that the map, whenever drawn, is a copy of a pre-existing map, simply because it would have been almost impossible for anybody to invent all the material in the document, which displays an encyclopedic knowledge of medieval geography, arcane Norse sagas, and fifteenth-century Latin. But then where is the map that was copied?

One of the most difficult problems is the provenance of the map before Mr. Witten acquired it from an owner whom he will not identify except to say that he lived in Europe, had an extensive library, and believed that the volume containing the map had been in it tor at least two generations. The rare-book trade has its secrets, and it is not unusual for European collectors, many of whom like to avoid heavy taxation and embarrassing visits by assessors, to insist on anonymity. That such anonymity clothes such a cartographically important matter—true or false—will, of course, irritate historians. Whatever turns up, one can be dismally sure that most news commentators will get it wrong and assume that because the map is false the Norse discoveries recorded with their sailing directions in the sagas are false as well. They are indeed ancient accounts, passed on like Homer’s Iliad by word of mouth for a long time before they were written down. There is, however, written historical evidence that the Vinland story was known in northern Europe long before the fifteenth century, and there are archaeological evidences like those found at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland by Helge Ingstad. Will Leif’s settlement be discovered? We can only say that Troy was discovered by Schliemann to no small extent on the evidence of Homer.

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