The Vinland Saga

The Frozen Echo - The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation
June 21, 1996

The Vinland map came to London in 1990 to feature in an exhibition at the British Library titled "Fake? The Art of Deception". Its inclusion implied the belief held at the time that it "may be a forgery", in the words of Yale University Library. This was humble pie, after the lavish production of the first edition of this book, the undisclosed sum paid by a then anonymous donor (now revealed as Paul Mellon), years of research by leading scholars supposedly authenticating the map, and several conferences on both sides of the Atlantic.

The excitement concentrated on the map, which purported to show the island of Vinland (Wineland, or mainland America) that had been visited by Norse travellers some 500 years before the voyage of Christopher Columbus and reported in their sagas. The Tartar Relation received much less acclaim, partly because it was an alternative account of a mission by John de Plano Carpini to the Tartars in ad1245-47, which was already well known from other sources, although this newly found manuscript added much new information. There was no doubt about its authenticity as it concerned Asia and not the United States. The re-issue of the book, too, is a result of interest in the map, to which the Tartar Relation has remained an appendage.

Both views about the Vinland map have fervent adherents. The "forgery" claim was accepted eventually on chemical analysis of the ink. It was found that the pigments used for the Vinland map were principally made up of titanium oxide in the form of pigment-grade anatase titanium dioxide that was not available as a commercial pigment until about 1920.

But new research at the University of California, Davis, has shown that titanium was not a main constituent of the ink and that anatase appears in nature, and so is not surprising in a manuscript purportedly drawn in about ad440. On the strength of these findings, and its belief in the strongly held view of George Painter, sole surviving author of the first edition, that the map was authentic,Yale University Press decided to reissue the whole book. It claims that it is now vindicated in its original decision to request the donor to purchase the map for presentation to their library.

The additional chapters include an introduction by Painter, presentation of the background to the "case of the Vinland map" by Wilcomb Washburn of the Smithsonian Institution, who convened an inconclusive conference on the map in 1966, the new technical findings from Davis, California, and Laurence Witten's intriguing account of the map's movements since he first saw it in 1957 until it was eventually acquired by Yale in 1965. Apart from the question of the map itself, this last chapter throws interesting light on the mechanics of antiquarian book dealing.

What earns only a very brief mention in this large new volume, however, is the very detailed article written by Kirsten Seaver in The Map Collector (Spring 1995). She is the author of the second book reviewed here, an independent scholar and historian of early exploration and colonisation in the north Atlantic. She approached the problem of the Vinland map from a literary viewpoint, with evidence that one of the legends on the map could only have been written after 1765.

She then considered who the forger might have been, and went on to try and discover why such an obviously scholarly and very competent person should want to play such a hoax. Her pinpointing of a German Jesuit, Father Josef Fischer (1858-1944), and her discussion of how he was able to make such a map is very convincing. So too is her reasoning for his objective: revulsion against the National Socialist policies then current in Germany, with their glorification of the Germanic element of medieval Norse history, and the closure of Jesuit institutions by the Gestapo. Since his aim was clearly not to make money from the forgery, her arguments hold added weight.

Seaver followed up this article with another, also in The Map Collector (Spring 1996), in which she reinforced her reasoning with further evidence of how the map and the two accompanying textual manuscripts came on the market, and how original old paper from the bound volume had been available to Fischer. She concluded that he drew the map between 1933 and 1939.

In her introduction to her own book, The Frozen Echo, Seaver writes that her aim is "not to create further controversy in an already difficult field, but to encourage a broader approach to solving several vexing problems". In a way her articles on the Vinland map are a sideline, though it is likely that she will be judged on those, rather than on her very scholarly and deeply researched account of the early history of Greenland. She dismisses the Norse influence on the map in a few lines: "The medieval Norse did not use cartographical representations to convey their sailing lore. This is one of several reasons why it makes no sense to claim that the so-called Vinland map I had med- ieval Scandinavian cartographical antecedents."

The Norse settlements in Greenland lasted from the end of the tenth century to the beginning of the 16th. They were sufficiently important to maintain a bishop appointed with Rome's approval, and they supplied many of the north Atlantic goods that found their way on to the European markets. Various theories have been put forward about their abrupt ending, but nowhere have they been given such detailed scrutiny, using the latest archaeological evidence, and the ecclesiastical records with sufficient new insight to disprove many earlier theories based on the same material.

One such theory covers the claims made by many traders to Greenland that they had arrived there by drifting off course, and that they should not therefore be punished for illegal trading. According to Seaver, this does not prove that they were poor navigators, but rather that they used that excuse for well-planned trading exploits, to evade the taxes imposed by the Scandinavian government and to avoid having to obtain prior permission for such activities. Again, evidence of large, new buildings late in the 15th century argues against previous theories that the Greenlanders were so emaciated by starvation, inbreeding, or internal strife, that they simply died out. It is shown here that archaeological evidence points to a planned and orderly withdrawal, possibly to provide labour in the new settlements across the Davis Strait on the American mainland.

Again the church records are considered in the light of their accuracy with regard to other places in Europe at the time. An often quoted source of 1519 refers to Pope Leo sending a bishop to the see of Gardar in Greenland to "retrieve the inhabitants from heathendom". As with many appointments, this was more likely a reflection on the need to fill the papal coffers, rather than any recent know- ledge of the Norse settlements.

Seaver covers not only the early history of European settlement in Greenland and Iceland, but also the voyages in the last quarter of the 15th century and throughout the 16th. Here Bristol played a leading role, and it is likely that many English sailors were well informed about the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland long before either Christopher Columbus or John Cabot cast anchor to look for a new route to eastern spices. She also discusses how this information began to appear on European maps, and the effect on trading when ships were able to sail directly across the Atlantic, without the need to winter in either Iceland or Greenland. Another valuable study is the interconnenction between members of the leading families and their relations in Norway and Denmark.

This is a fascinating book, not only for those engaged in Atlantic studies, or early American history. The clear and precise text, the skilful management of complex themes, and above all the sympathetic approach to human endeavours, coupled with a sceptical view of earlier theories and an open mind to new ideas make it as easy to read as a novel. Seaver has written one of these too, based on her research for this study, and I am eager now to read it.

Susan Gole is chairman, International Map Collectors's Society.

The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America CA AD 1000-1500

Author - Kirsten A. Seaver
ISBN - 0 8047 2514 4
Publisher - Stanford University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 407

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