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International Thriller

The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation

by R.A. Skelton, by Thomas E. Marston, by George D. Painter, with a Foreward by Alexander O. Vietor
Yale, 291 pp., $15.00


by Farley Mowat
Little, Brown, 494 pp., $8.95

The Norsemen

by Count Eric Oxenstierna
New York Graphic Society, 320 pp., $8.95

The discovery and publication of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation is a gratifying event not only to scholars, on the whole an easily gratified tribe, and not only to those who for a variety of praiseworthy reasons must rejoice to see the eastern shore of North America appear on the map for the first time in history, but also to everyone with a sense of drama and an aesthetic appreciation of how things should be done. The Map itself is exciting, and the story of its recovery from centuries of oblivion, though somewhat drily recorded, is worthy of it. For what we have here is not only a first-class contribution to historical and cartographical knowledge, but a thriller not to be missed by anyone with fifteen dollars, an awareness of the past, and a belief that “books too have their fortunes.”

But let us begin with a framework of facts. For The Vinland Map, important and fascinating though it is, is not the heaven-sent proof many are calling it of the discovery of America, Vinland, Wineland the Good, by the Norsemen, almost five hundred years before Columbus. That, quite simply, is an event which has already been proved. The Map is an interesting and at the moment not easily assessable contribution to our knowledge of that event. It has to be fitted into a pattern consisting, first, of saga narratives from thirteenth-century Iceland, a number of significant references in early northern historical writings, including those of Adam of Bremen towards the end of the eleventh century, Ari Thorgilsson early in the twelfth, and the Icelandic Annals for the years 1121 and 1347, together with some possibly derivative but still reliable mentions in northern geographical treatises of the fourteenth century: second, a number of late northern maps, of which the most important are those prepared by Sigurdur Stefansson c. 1590 and Hans Poulsen Resen in 1605; and third, a limited amount of archaeological evidence, including an Indian arrow-head of Labrador quartzite found in the ancient Norse Western Settlement in Greenland, some chests of Labrador or Newfoundland larch discovered in the Eastern Settlement, a couple of cairns found far north in the Arctic Archipelago of Canada, and various objects uncovered as recently as 1961-3 in Northern Newfoundland. This, by the way, is a severely conservative choice of evidence in support of the Norse discovery.

The event itself took place a little before the year 1000 A.D. The east coast of North America (to be pedantic, Canada) was first sighted and reported on by a young Icelander named Bjarni Herjolfsson, c. 985-6, who for good and stated reasons didn’t go ashore. The first European to set foot on North American soil was Leif Eiriksson, son of the explorer and settler of Greenland, and recently honored with a name-day in the American calendar. Other founding fathers of note were Thorfinn Karlsefni (a fine nickname, meaning “true stuff of a man”) and Leif’s brother Thorvald Eiriksson. Between them these last opened up a big piece of country, but Thorvald was killed by an Indian arrow near the mouth of English River in Lake Melville, Labrador, while Karlsefni’s colonizing expedition ran into such heavy trouble with the men in possession (whether Indian or Eskimo or both) that he was glad to pull out and sail for home. the Norsemen stayed in touch with the general area of Baffin Island and Labrador for several centuries. They may have voyaged as far south as New England or even Maryland, and assuredly they had a tenuous experience of the waterways of the Arctic Canada; but so far as we can tell they neither mastered nor occupied any of these places, and most of the evidence advanced for their presence in different parts of the continent, including the Kensington and Yarmouth Stones, the Beardmore find, and the Newport Tower, has been forcefully rejected by those competent to judge it.

And now in the last seven years two challenging and possibly decisive discoveries have been made: the finding by the Norwegian Helge Ingstad of what looks like a Norse site of c. 1000 at L’Anse-aux-Meadows in the Epaves Bay district of Northern Newfoundland (potentially the first genuine Norse find in the ancient Vinland), and the discovery by a New Haven bookseller and the scholars of Yale University of the Vinland Map (unquestionably the first map to portray the American continent). The Newfoundland houses and artifacts have received a good deal of publicity, and in the books under review are examined enthusiastically by Count Oxenstierna and rather more critically by Mr. Mowat; so we can with propriety concentrate on the map.

I began by hinting that the story of The Vinland Map is a thriller. It all started in October 1957 with Mr. Laurence Witten of New Haven showing to Mr. Alexander Orr Vietor and Dr. Thomas E. Marston, respectively the Curator of Maps and the Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Literature in the Yale University Library, a “slim volume, bound in recent calf, which contained a map of the world, including Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland, and a hitherto unknown account of the mission of John of Plano Carpini to the Mongols in 1245-47”—hereafter called the Tartar Relation. It had been acquired from an (unnamed) private collection in Europe. Both Vinland Map and Tartar Relation appeared to be genuine and from the same Upper-Rhineland hand of roughly the mid-fifteenth century. But there were two worrying circumstances: both Map and Relation were worm-holed and the holes didn’t match, and the Map carried a baffling statement on its first recto whose Latin may be rendered thus: “Delineation of the 1st part, the 2nd part, the 3rd part of the speculum.” Mr. Vietor and Dr. Marston, though convinced of the genuineness of the find, foresaw that there could be no convincing proof of this till both difficulties were resolved.

This happened in the late spring of 1958 when Dr. Marston, with quite another end in view, acquired from a different bookseller a portion of a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Speculum Historiale of Vincent Beauvais. This was found to be by the same hand, on paper with the same water mark, it was worm-holed, and the holes at the beginning corresponded to those on the Map, and the holes at the back to those of the Relation. Events took their course, and for what was pretty clearly a swingeing sum both sections of the now complete work were acquired by Yale University. Since then some very learned men indeed in America and Great Britain have given attention to these two complementary volumes, and now the results of their examinations have been made public by Dr. Marston, Mr. R. A. Skelton, Superintendent of the Map Room, British Museum, and Mr. George D. Painter, Assistant Keeper in charge of Printed Books in the British Museum. The entire work has been supervised by Mr. Vietor and is a model of what such undertakings should be.

The first question everyone is going to ask is the one all the experts were asked: Is the map genuine? My own reaction when I opened the book at the map itself, without having read one word of the text, was, Good heavens, no! Not because of the crudities of the delineation of Vinland—one could argue that these are reassuring. But we all have our quirks, and mine was (and atavistically still is) that no map of the 1440s, especially if based on an earlier model, could be so sophisticated about Greenland. But after almost 300 pages of print and roughly the same number of conversations at home and in Denmark, I am a convinced man: so far as the united and specialized scholarship of Great Britain and America, minutely and warily applied and soberly and responsibly presented, can determine, this map is genuinely of its time, and pre-Columbian. Its making half a millennium ago, and its publication now, are landmarks in American and North Atlantic history and cartography, and a sultry reception here or a cool one there isn’t going to affect this reality.

One could expatiate on this theme for a long time. Instead, let me proceed to the second question everyone is going to ask. Does it tell us where the Norsemen made their landfalls in North America? Unfortunately, no. What we have in the north-west corner of the map is the geographical progression Iceland-Greenland-Vinland (I need hardly say that the word America has no place there). Vinland is an island, Vinlanda Insula, larger than Greenland, almost cut in three by two arms of ocean, which to the eye of faith may well represent Hudson’s Bay and the St. Lawrence Estuary. It carries two legends in Latin, the first meaning, “Island of Vinland, discovered by Bjarni and Leif in company”—which is erroneous—and a second, longer, one repeating the error about the companions Bjarni and Leif, but offering what sounds like reliable information about the visit (known from the Icelandic Annals) paid by Eirik (Henricus), “legate of the Apostolic See and bishop of Greenland and the neighboring regions” to the “truly vast and very rich land” of Vinland early in the twelfth century. The legend Vinlanda Insula is placed at the northern extremity of the new land, whereas one would expect it to appear well to the south, corresponding to the Promontorium Winlandiae of the Stefansson map of 1590. I fear we shall see during the next twenty years an immense and cranky literature devoted to this and the telescoping of Bjarni’s and Leif’s journeys. Geographically speaking, the Map leaves the question of Norse landfalls open everywhere from Baffin Island to New England—and for the best of reasons. The Vinland Map, in the weighty opinion of its editors, is not based on independent and firsthand geographical knowledge, but is much influenced by saga tradition, and mirrors its topographical uncertainties.

There is a third question to which time may supply the answer which escapes us now. Who made the Vinland Map?—which is, of course, not just a map of the Atlantic Islands, but a true mappamundi designed to illustrate a mission to the Mongols and not a voyage to America. At present one has to parry with a series of other questions, of which the two most important seem to me to be, Is the Map an utterly unexpected surviving medieval example based on Norse and more particularly Icelandic cartography? and, When was it first given shape? Again, was Vinland included more for the sake of Bishop Eirik’s visit there than because of an interest felt in the Norse voyages of discovery a hundred and more years before his time? The Editors speak of their work as a preliminary study only, a springboard for further investigation—a statement as true as it is modest. The most remarkable implications of the Vinland Map may yet prove to be about North Greenland and the “Arctic Gulf.” That Greenland should be portrayed as an island, i.e., not as a projection from the northern land mass, is astounding, and the accurate definition of the north and east coasts equally so. Whether this is related to the “Climatic Optimum” which scholars in many sciences are coming increasingly to agree obtained in the northern hemisphere during the tenth, eleventh, and much of the twelfth centuries, with a resultant diminution of ice in northern waters and far milder northern winters, is a problem inviting long thought rather than a quick answer. There was a formidable movement of ice southwards well before 1250, and this had become bad enough to change the sea routes to Greenland before 1360, so if we are to deduce anything from the Map’s depiction of Greenland save accident or preconception, we shall be forced to believe that Norse knowledge of the coasts of north and north-eastern Greenland dates from voyages antecedent to the year 1200—which even for confirmed believers in the “Climatic Optimum,” myself included, is a mouthful which will take a lot of chewing before it can be swallowed. Conversely, that Vinland should be portrayed as an island is not unexpected: Adam of Bremen had already called it insula c. 1075, and insula was not too precise a word at that time.

The Vinland Map has left me small room in which to talk about Mr. Mowat’s Westviking and Count Oxenstierna’s The Norsemen, which is a pity, for both books in their different ways deserve serious attention. Mr. Mowat is a life-long sailor in Greenland-Vinland waters, and has brought his knowledge and experience to bear on the Norse voyages to and about those countries. In respect of his documents he appears to me to be sometimes arbitrary and sometimes wrong; he is overfond of following an assumption with a therefore, and of showing his independence of armchair scholars; but in respect of sailing directions, landfalls, and peoples, he is admirable. Seeking Vinland he settles for Newfoundland, but would extend Vinland some way south of the Epaves Bay area, to White Bay and St. Paul’s Bay. The topographical arguments are excellent, but only the spade can confirm them. His case in respect of Vinland is affected neither one way nor the other by The Vinland Map; his account of the Norsemen in Greenland and Baffin Island may be.

The discovery of America was a viking, and more specifically a Norwegian-Icelandic-Greenlandic, achievement. If anyone after reading the meticulously argued case for The Vinland Map and Mr. Mowat’s more adventurous, and more chancy, Westviking finds himself wondering, “What kind of people were they, these vikings?” Count Oxenstierna’s book, which makes a welcome appearance in English, will give him a spirited, well-informed, upto-the-minute, and well-illustrated answer. In our present context it is particularly valuable in that it is written by a Swede and pays proper attention to the viking movement east. In general, books available in English are more concerned with the Danes and Norwegians and the viking movement south-west and west, that is to say, with their raids, wars, and conquests in Western Europe and the British Isles, and their voyages of discovery and settlement to the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland or North America. But we must bear in mind that to the viking world the discovery of Vinland was small beer compared with the penetration of the Eastern Baltic, the navigation of the Russian rivers southwards, the establishment of fortified towns like Novgorod and Kiev, the forging of trade links with the Arabs and Byzantium, that complex of enterprises which brought so many hoards of kufic silver into Scandinavia and delivered so many freights of furs and slaves as luxury goods to the Moslem world. The vikings discovered America but they founded Russia. The first European take-over bid in the New World was brief-lasting and a failure, but the movement east was big business and lasted a long time.

Clearly the appearance of these three big books has made October 1965 a notable month for students of the vikings and their voyages into the west. As surely, The Vinland Map has made it notable for everyone interested in the American past and for collectors and connoisseurs of early Americana. It was a sound instinct which made its publication a joint venture in European and American scholarship, for the first appearance of Vinland on the world map is a contribution to the history of both continents.

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