Sunday, January 15, 2006

BOOK: R. A. Skelton et al., "The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation"

R. A. Skelton, Thomas E. Marston, George D. Painter: The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995. 0300065205. lxvi + 291 pp.

The Vinland Map is a late medieval map of the world. Most of it is not particularly notable and was not the work of a cutting-edge cartographer at the time when the map was supposedly produced. Unlike other medieval maps, however, the Vinland Map also shows Greenland and ‘Vinland’, i.e. the parts of North American coast that had been visited by the Vikings in the 10th and 11th centuries. It even has a legend mentioning Leif Eiriksson. If the map is genuine, it would be the earliest known map showing the American coast with any reference (though indirect) to actual observations (rather than just as an imaginary doodle at the edge of the map). It would also be a very rare example of a map based on Viking voyages: it is known that the Vikings weren't terribly keen on drawing maps, and they mostly passed on their geographical knowledge in the form of verbal navigation directions. However, there are many doubts that the map is genuine. The authors of this book, The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, support the authenticity of the map. I don't know enough about medieval cartography and similar topics to be able to form any kind of intelligent opinion about this. The arguments shown in this book seem plausible enough to me, but I'm quite sure that after I'll have read some book arguing that the map is a forgery (e.g. Seaver's book, see below), the arguments there will look just as plausible to me.

The ‘Tartar Relation’ is a description of a 13th-century mission to the Mongol court, led by a Franciscan monk named Carpini (and predating the similar expeditions of Rubruck and of the Polos; p. liii). Carpini left his own report of the expedition, while the Tartar Relation is based on the notes of one of his companions, a certain Friar Benedict (p. 42). There are no doubts about the authenticity of the Tartar Relation. It contains some information absent from Carpini's account (and vice versa).

The Vinland map and the Tartar Relation first emerged in the antiquarian book trade in the 1950s, bound together as a single manuscript; they were eventually donated to Yale after several experts had declared that both the map and the Relation were authentic. Yale University Press then published the first edition of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation (1965), containing a fascimile of the map and the manuscript, the text and translation of the Tartar Relation, and various studies, notes, and commentaries. I am amazed to hear that this fairly boring book became a bestseller and a popular choice in various ‘book of the month’ clubs (p. viii); perhaps the American public was fascinated by the fact that this is the earliest map that shows at least a part of the American continent. In 1995, an updated edition was published, containing the complete unaltered contents of the first edition, with a few extra chapters (and a list of errata to the first edition) inserted at the beginning of the book. It's a big, clumsy, ostentatious volume; 23 by 29 cm, and the paper, although it doesn't feel particularly luxurious to the touch, is quite thick so that the whole book is about 4 cm thick even though it has less than 400 pages. I'm not entirely sure whom they are expecting to sucker into buying this book for $85, which is currently its price at Amazon. I got a near-fine copy from a secondhand bookseller at ABE for only $22.50, and having read it I think it wasn't worth even that much.

One of the arguments against the authenticity of the map is that traces of some titanium compound were found in the ink of the map, and that this compound doesn't appear in genuine medieval inks. In one of the chapters of this book, Thomas Cahill and Bruce Kusko argue against this, reporting on their experiments which show that if you actually use a 20th-century ink the amount of titanium will be far higher than the one actually found on the Vinland map (pp. xxxvii–xxxviii). This sounds reasonable enough but, as I said above, it's one of those areas where I really don't know enough to be able to evaluate the soundness of arguments like these.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book (for me at least) was the chapter contributed by Laurence Witten, the American bookdealer who first brought the Vinland map and the Tartar relation to the U.S. (having bought them in Geneva in 1957 during one of his book-buying trips). It affords several glimpses into the genteel world of high-ticket book collecting in the early post-war period. Due to the economic hardship in the first years after the war, many libraries and collectors were trying to raise money by selling their books, and “books of quality fairly rained on the market” (p. xlii).

Another fascinating aspect of Witten's essay is the story of the wormholes. As mentioned above, the Vinland map and the Tartar Relation were bound together when he bought them, but the wormholes on the map didn't match those of the Relation (p. xliv). Some time later, he discovered by chance among the manuscripts in the collection of Tom Marston, a Yale librarian, another old manuscript from a similar period and in a similar style; to his amazement, the wormholes on one side of this manuscript matched perfectly with those of the Vinland map, and on the other side with those of the Tartar Relation! Thus all three must have been bound together originally, and must have been separated later, probably in the early 20th century (p. xlviii).

At the time of the first publication of this book in 1965, the idea that the Vikings reached America much before Columbus was still somewhat of a novelty, at least among the wider public. The Vinland voyages mentioned in the sagas were known, but it wasn't quite clear how much was fiction and how much was fact. It was only the discovery of the remnants of a Viking settlement on Newfoundland that put the matter beyond doubt. Skelton mentions these excavations in several passages as a very recent discovery that has not yet been formally published in some scientific venue (p. 240). Witten describes (p. lii) the great uproar caused by the 1965 publication among those who felt that Columbus's memory and achievement were being slighted.

The efforts to discover the provenance of the manuscript were also quite interesting, but sadly unsuccessful. The Geneva dealer from whom Witten bought the book had got it from a “runner” named Enzo Ferrajoli, an Italian living in Spain (p. xlii). However, despite Witten's repeated requests, Ferrajoli refused to tell where he got the manuscript from (pp. liv–lviii). Washburn's preface on pp. xxiii–xxv tells of subsequent efforts to trace the provenance of the manuscript; there are some signs that it may have formerly belonged to some collateral branch of the descendants of Columbus.

I'm afraid that I found most of the main part of this book extremely boring. The Tartar relation is included both in its Latin original and in English translation, with a lengthy introduction and extremely copious footnotes by George Painter. All of these things are positively bristling with obscure and unpronounceable names of people, nations, and all manner of geographical entities, in Mongol and various other central Asian languages. Painter must have been a real pedant's pedant and evidently had a ball editing this text. The footnotes groan under the weight of references to all sorts of publications, from editions of medieval texts to obscure journal papers.

The first half of the Tartar Relation is mostly about Mongol history — an infinite series of dynastic squabbles and wars of conquest. I soon gave up trying to keep in mind the names of the numerous Mongol chiefs involved in all this, let alone the names of the countries and cities mentioned. And behind almost each of these things there's a footnote pointing out some disputed issue, some mistake, or some comparison with some other source.

From ¶35 onwards, the Tartar Relation speaks mostly about Mongol customs and habits, which is a lot more interesting. More interesting to me, that is; the poor editor must have lost all interest, however, for at that point the ratio of footnotes to text drops precipitously. :-)

For instance, there are a few curious mentions of rampant alcoholism among Genghis Khan's successors. Several actually died of drink. See e.g. p. 33: “Ogedei, however, died on 11 December 1241 of drink, to which he had become increasingly addicted since the death of Tolui from the same cause in 1323: ‘whenever he was drunk,’ records a chronicler, ‘he used to remember Tolui and weep’.” Genghis Khan's code of laws, the Yasa, opposed drunkenness but this was largely ignored: “ ‘If a man must drink,’ said Chingis Khan, ‘he should try to get drunk only thrice in amonth; twice or once would be better still, and never at all would be best of all—but where shall such a man be found?’ ” (P. 91.)

And on p. 96: “They are more given to drunkenness than any other nation on earth, and however much excessive drink they unload from their bellies, they at once begin again to drink on the sport, and it is their habit to do so several times in the same day. The also are accustomed to drink every kind of milk. They eat immoderately all forms of unclean food, wolves, foxes, dogs, carrion, afterbirths of animals, mice, and, when necessary, human flesh. Similarly, they reject no species of bird, but eat clean and unclean alike. They do not use napkins or tablecloths at dinner and so eat in excessive filth.” The editor comments that Carpini and his companions only noted those kinds of meat that they considered exotic; in addition to these, the Mongols also ate beef, mutton, and horse meat, and the exotic things mentioned above were really just a minority of their diet.

Painter even makes a few rather dry efforts at humour in his footnotes. For instance, ¶18 of the Tartar Relation describes a land where there are no men, and women mate with dogs, which “are exceptionally shaggy”, prompting Painter to remark in a footnote: “Evidently one of the earliest occurrences of a shaggy dog story.” (P. 72.) And when ¶55 says of the Mongols “Among themselves, however, they are peaceable, fornication and adultery are very rare, and their women excel those of other nations in chastity, except that they often use shameless words when jesting”, Painter adds in a footnote (p. 98): “ ‘They have not changed since then’, remarks the experienced Rockhill (p. 97, n. 2).” The reference is to W. W. Rockhill's edition of The Journey of William of Rubruck, published in 1900.

And then there's the long essay by R. A. Skelton on the Vinland map. Again I was greatly impressed by the pedantry; the description of the map where not even the slightest jotting escaped the eagle eyes of the editor; the footnotes, full of references to 19th-century treatises in Scandinavian languages; a comparison of an interminable number of late-medieval maps; etc., etc. There are a few interesting tidbits among all this, but they are hidden like needles in a haystack. My feeling when reading this is best described by Coleridge's line: “And Wit congeal'd stands fix'd in wintry trance.”

There are a few interesting sentences about mentions of the Himalayas in classical authors: “Emodus or Emodorum montes of Ptolemy (VI.15, 16) [. . .] Imaus mons promontorium Emodorum in Pliny (VI.64); and Pauly-Wissowa (s.v. Emodon) notes that the form given by Pomponius Mela (1.81), Hammodes or Haemodes, comes nearest to preserving the Sanskrit aspirate.” (Pp. 132–3.)

According to Skelton's reconstruction (p. 142), the Vinland Map is a copy (not necessarily a very good one) of an earlier map, which is a compilation of elements form one or possibly two earlier maps and information gleaned from texts such as the Tartar Relation.

The traditional medieval way of drawing a map of the world was the ‘T-O’ scheme. As new geographical information was coming in during the late middle ages, it took some time before this approach was abandoned; meanwhile cartographers tried to somehow graft new information on to the old T-O scheme (p. 146). The Vinland map largely adheres to the T-O model as well, except for the addition of Greenland and Vinland on the left. It also avoids including the Earthly Paradise, a feature of many earlier maps (p. 148).

The Carpini mission travelled fairly quickly. Thanks to the Mongolian post system, they made 3000 miles in 106 days (p. 149).

There were two Norse settlements in Greenland, called the Western and the Eastern Settlement but actually both located in the southwest of Greenland. “A version of Ivar Bardsson's description of Greenland, which came into currency in Holland and England, provided the Dutch cartographers with the place names of the Norse settlements and hunting grounds; and the Dutch maps, beginning with those of 1626 and 1634 by Joris Carolus of Enkhuizen, set down many of these names on the east coast of Greenland. In this they were followed by the Icelandic mapmakers” (p. 207) and it took some time before the confusion was cleared up. This also shows that by that time the Icelanders themselves had very little knowledge left of Greenland. There are no signs that these 17th-century Icelandic mapmakers had any medieval maps of Greenland at their disposal (p. 207).

There's an interesting overview of the extant written sources regarding the voyages to Vinland in the 10th and 11th centuries on pp. 209–13; see in particular the table on p. 212. There are basically two written sources, the Saga of Eirik the Red and the Tale of the Greenlanders, with many differences between the two (p. 211).

There's a number of fairly detailed plates showing various medieval maps between pp. 146–7. I remember seeing some of these maps in Seaver's The Frozen Echo, but the plates here show them in more detail.

An Icelandic annal mentions that a bishop Eirik visited Vinland in 1121; if this is true, some suggest it may indicate that a Norse settlement was present there during the 12th century. However, as there is no other evidence, this hypothesis seems more romantic than probable (p. 257). But George Painter in his concluding remarks (p. 262) seems to think it fairly likely, especially as one of the legends on the Vinland map refers to Eirik's visit to Vinland (p. 140).

A few other interesting passages from the book: on the reasons for the large-scale killings by Mongols of the civilian population of conquered territories (“the Mongol custom of tribal massacre led, in a civilized country of farmers and town-dwellers, to the tragic slaughter of noncombatant millions”, pp. 29–30); nevertheless the Mongol conquests brought peace and stability to a large part of Asia (p. 34); on the difficulty of establishing the date and area where a manuscript originated based on the handwriting style (pp. 6–7); origins of the Prester John legend (p. 48); medieval allegations (false as it turns out) of cannibalism in Tibet (p. 72); on the Cherkesses: “The inhabitants of this land are pagans, and grow no hair on their faces, and when a man's father dies he cuts a strip of skin a long his chin from one ear to the other to show his grief and sorow for his father's death” (pp. 84); Friar Julian, a Dominican, traveled in 1237 to “Old Hungary east of the Volga at the request of King Bela of European Hungary [. . . He] found the Old Hungarians near the Volga. They still spoke intelligible Hungarian, and he converted several to Christianity” (p. 104).

A splendid quote from Mark Twain on p. 215: “The researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it.”

From the point of view of typography, this book is quite nice. As I mentioned above, the pages are fairly large, which together with the thickness of the book makes it somewhat clumsy and uncomfortable to read. However, one cannot blame them for the large page size as it allows the maps and fascimiles of the manuscript to be reproduced in greater detail. The margins are splendid, old-fashionedly luxurious; the outer ones are nearly two inches wide. The letters are comfortably large and well leaded (around 11.5/14 pt, I'd say). I also appreciated the book's decent moderation in the variation of type sizes, its use of small caps, and the avoidance of bold type. I only wish that the lines were somewhat narrower; they are approx. 6 in wide, with about 75 characters per line; a bit less than that would make it easier to read. When puzzling my way through these long, boring lines of tedious pedantry, struggling to stay awake, I couldn't help being reminded many times of Robert Bringhurst's wise observation: “Early Egyptian scribes [. . ] tended to write a long line and a wide column. This long Egyptian line reappears in other contexts over the centuries [. . .] and in many poorly designed twentieth-century works of academic prose. It is a sign, generally speaking, that the emphasis is on the writing instead of the reading, and that writing is seen as an instrument of power, not an instrument of freedom.” (The Elements of Typographic Style, sec. 8.3.3, p. 161.)

To conclude: if you are a cartographic pedant, or a fan of medieval central Asian geography, or of pedigrees of Mongol rulers, or a hopeless insomniac, or if lots of footnotes turn you on, this is the book for you. Otherwise, avoid it like the plague.


  • The story of the 14th-century North Atlantic voyages of two Venetian brothers, Nicolò and Antonio Zeno, seems to be largely fictitious, but it looks potentially interesting nevertheless (p. 197; supposedly the narrative includes a “relation of the Latin books found in the King's library in Estotiland”, Estotiland being one of the fictitious islands formerly imagined to exist in the North Atlantic and drawn on many maps until subsequent voyages showed that they don't exist). A note on p. 197 mentions two editions of the Zeno narrative, one by R. H. Major (The Voyages of the Venetian Brothers Zeno to the Northern Seas in the Fourteenth Century, Hakluyt Society, First Series, Vol. 50, 1873, ciii + 64 pp.) and one by F. W. Lucas (The Annals of the Voyages of the brothers Nicolò and Antonio Zeno in the North Atlantic, London: H. Stevens Son & Stiles, 1898, xiv + 233 pp.). Unfortunately both seem to be fairly obscure. Of Major's edition I found only one expensive copy on ABE, and of Lucas' more copious edition I found none at all. According to this splendid article, Lucas' version is far more reliable, for Major stubbornly tried to bludgeon the text into proving that the fictitious Prince Zichmni mentioned in the Zeno narrative is actually the Earl of Orkney.
  • Other potentially interesting books about early travels and exploration:
    • S. E. Morison: Portuguese Voyages to America in the Fifteenth Century (1940). Mentioned on p. 235. I remember reading a bit about this subject in ch. 10 of Seaver's Frozen Echo, and it might be interesting to read more.
    • L. Olschki: Marco Polo's Precursors (1943) and Guillaume Boucher: A French Artist at the Court of the Khans (1946). Both mentioned on p. 149.
    • M. Letts: Mandeville's Travels (1953).
    • Helge Ingstad: Vinland Ruins Prove Vikings Found the New World. National Geographic Magazine, November 1964, pp. 708–734. Account of his discovery of the Viking settlement in New Foundland.
    • W. W. Rockhill: The Journey of William of Rubruck. Also contains two accounts of the Carpini expedition. Hakluyt Society, 2nd Series, Vol. 4, 1900; various reprints, e.g. Asian Educational Services, 1998. A more recent Hakluyt Society edition is the one by Peter Jackson, 2nd Series, Vol. 173, 1990.
  • Witten's mentions of the world of big-ticket book collecting remind me of a book that has been waiting unread on one of my shelves for some time: A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes.
  • I first heard about the Vinland map after reading Kirsten Seaver's Frozen Echo and noticing her more recent book about the Vinland map, Maps, Myths, and Men. Seaver argues that the map is a forgery, made in the 20th century by a Jesuit scholar named Josef Fischer. Apparently she first wrote about this hypothesis in a 1995 journal article, and later also mentioned it briefly on pp. 164–5 of The Frozen Echo. Wilcomb E. Washburn mentions her hypothesis in his preface (p. xxvi) to The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation. Apparently there were also earlier hypotheses about the map being a forgery, mostly blaming a Dalmatian Franciscan friar named Luka Jelič. Washburn supports the authenticity of the map, however, and his main complaint about these hypotheses is that they don't explain the motives of the forgers sufficiently well. I'm certainly looking forward to reading Seaver's Maps, Myths, and Men to see her side of the story.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just read this review and loved it, as well as the one about Seaver's book. Thanks a lot!
(A guy from Germany)

Monday, May 14, 2012 5:30:00 PM  

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