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Vinland The Good Emerges From The Mists

June 2024
6min read

AMERICAN HERITAGE takes part in announcing an astonishing discovery at Yale—the earliest map ever found that shows any part of America. Traced to a copyist in Basel about 1440 A.D., it shows, long before Columbus, the New World lands discovered by the Norsemen. Authenticated by painstaking scholarly detective work at Yale and the British Museum, it opens the door to tantalizing historical speculations

History, like an iceberg, lies mostly submerged, hidden from our sight; only rarely, through some strange upset, does a forgotten portion of it suddenly rise up and give us a glimpse backward through the mists of time. Now such an event has happened at the Yale University Library in New Haven, Connecticut.
The story begins, in essence, with the voyages a thousand years ago of nearly mythical men, Icelanders and Greenlanders led by Leif Ericson (or Eiriksson), Bjarni Herjolfsson, Thorfinn Karlsefni, and other Viking sailors who found new lands far to the west, which they named Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. It was Vinland that really attracted them, a country rich in grapes, trees, and green-growing things, inhabited by a warlike people they called Skraelings. The heroic tales the Norsemen told when they came home to Iceland and Greenland were passed from mouth to mouth, and long afterward written down in sagas. Of all this, so historians have long believed, the rest of the then civilized medieval world knew almost nothing; Vinland, and even Greenland, passed out of the mind of man, and when fresh expeditions set out, led by Bristol sailors, Christopher Columbus, and John Cabot, the ancient landfalls were all forgotten.

Now we must move to the year of grace 1247, and Poland, where a Franciscan friar named C. (his first name is lost) de Bridia wrote on July 30—so he noted—the last words of an intelligence report on the Tartars, or Mongols, which he had been compiling on the orders of his superior. Only a lew years before, the Mongols, led by the dreaded Batu Khan, had swept through eastern Europe up to the gates of Vienna. Western Europe and above all the Papacy feared their reappearance; in the year 1245 Pope Innocent IV had sent a mission to the Mongol court, far away in Central Asia. Miraculously preserved after great adventures, the leader of the expedition, Friar John de Piano Carpini, and two companions, Benedict the Pole and Ceslaus of Bohemia, were returning home when de Bridia met them and obtained their story. He set down at once what they had to tell and show him about the Mongols, their history, their fearful customs, beliefs, and ways of making war—particularly the last, which were then very urgent matters to Christian Europe. The menace of the Tartars passed in God’s good time, but the account of Friar de Bridia, like other narratives by and about Carpini’s mission, survived in copied manuscripts. (We are dealing, it must be recalled, with the centuries before Gutenberg, with an era in which knowledge, such as it was, continued to exist thanks to the labors of learned monks.)

The curtain drops on this drama, only to rise again some seven hundred years later in New Haven, Connecticut. There, in October, 1957, a local antiquarian bookseller, Laurence Witlen, dropped in at the Yale Library. He had come to show two of the scholars a manuscript he had obtained in Europe. The scholars, Alexander O. Vietor (the Curator of Maps in the Yale Library) and Thomas E. Marston (the Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Literature) were suitably impressed by Mr. Witten’s slim vellum volume. It contained, first of all, a manuscript copy of Friar de Briidia’s hitherto unknown account of the Mongols, or Tartar Relation. The copy was unsigned but seemed to date to the mid-fifteenth century. What made it more interesting, however, was a folded map, in brownish ink on parchment about 11 x 16 inches in size, which was bound in with the manuscript. The map seemed to be in the same ancient hand, and in its elliptical form and content roughly contemporary; it had the usual distortions, the usual mythical Atlantic islands. But the arresting thing was that it contained an amazingly accurate representation of Greenland and—the truly great surprise—a crude one of Vinland, as “discovered by Bjarni and Leif”! A genuine pre-Columbian map showing the discoveries of the Norsemen had never turned up, and such a find would be news indeed. It would be the first map, however primitive, of any part of America.

But there was one great hitch: the map did not seem to belong to the manuscript with which it had been bound. The binding was relatively modern, and the telltale worm holes in the map did not match the adjoining ones in the Tartar Relation. A note on the back of the map threw further doubt on the matter.




But then, seven months later and by pure chance, Dr. Marston, in the course of buying some rare books from a London firm, happened on another interesting document. He purchased, by mail, two manuscripts, one of them a copy of a portion of a medieval history called the Speculum Historiale, written in the thirteenth century by Vincent of Beauvais. As Dr. Marston tells it:

“Delighted to see that both were in very unusual contemporary bindings, I asked Mr. Witten to examine them. Mr. Witten came to my office late that afternoon, looked at the manuscripts, and asked if he could borrow the Vincent for a few days. I readily acceded. That evening I did not return home until after ten o’clock. I had hardly entered my house when the telephone rang. It was Mr. Witten, very excited. The Vincent manuscript was the key to the puzzle of the map and Tartar Relation. The hand was the same, the watermarks of the paper were the same; and the worm holes showed that the map had been at the front of the volume and the Tartar Relation at the back. . . .

“After the finding of the Vincent of Beauvais manuscript, some questions remained. The text ends with the words, ‘ Explicit tertia pars speculi hist(orialis) ’ i.e. ‘Here ends the third part of the Speculum Historiale .’ As the manuscript contains books XX to XXIII . . . and the inscription on the map refers to the first, second, and third parts, it seemed that there must have once been two or more other volumes. Mr. Witten returned to the private library whence came the map and the Vincent, but an intensive search was fruitless.”

At this point the finders began to glimpse the full extent of their discovery. In true scholarly fashion, however, they did not fly into print, and instead, set about a long and arduous research. It was arranged for both parts of the reunited manuscript to be acquired by the Yale Library through the generosity of an anonymous donor, and for all of it to be published this month by the Yale University Press. The research, organized by Mr. Victor under the direction of James T. Babb, Librarian (now Emeritus) of Yale University, involved a study by Dr. Marston of the parchment, paper, paleography, ink, binding, and text. A careful investigation of the Tartar Relation and its relationship to the Vinland Map was entrusted to George D. Painter, Assistant Keeper in charge of Incunabula at the British Museum. The primary study of the map was carried on by R. A. Skelton, Superintendent of the Map Room at the British Museum, who is one of the world’s great authorities in the field.

In their work, these investigators called on many experts in as many specialties, until the project became a truly large and international one. The paper used in the Tartar Relation and the Speculum fragments turned out conclusively to have come from the same run, manufactured on the same pair of moulds, in the same portion of the Rhine Valley in the mid-fifteenth century. All the handwriting, on both manuscripts and map, seems to be by the same man. Physically, the evidence points to the Swiss town of Basel, where, in the years 1431 to 1449, a long church council was held, the kind of event to which churchmen from all over the world, including Scandinavia, came and exchanged information. All the scholars concerned with the project are content to agree on “about 1440” as the date of these manuscripts. And they share the belief that, since all the manuscripts are copied from earlier originals, so the Vinland Map must be drawn from an earlier prototype or group of prototypes.

Whoever compiled the information this astounding map puts forward, the reasoning goes, must have used relatively few sources. He had, perhaps, one main one for the Old World, which he represents more or less according to the convention of his time. There are strong resemblances, for example, to the 1436 world map of Andrea Bianco, a well-travelled Venetian shipmaster. Yet did Bianco and the Vinland Map compiler both use one lost earlier map of the known globe? The information on Tartary (shown on a grossly distorted and diminished Asia) was of thirteenth-century vintage, two centuries earlier, taken often word for word from the Tartar Relation. For all its mystery, the knowledge in the New World corner of the map seems to come from the Icelandic sagas, as finally written down long after the events they describe. Whether the information came through the arduous trade routes between Bristol, Scandinavia, and Iceland, whether through church sources, whether in some unsuspected way, may never be known. The man of God who parted the curtain so tantalizingly did not pull it very far, but what he has shown will spur on archaeologists and scholars for years to come.





—Oliver Jensen

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