Saturday, October 07, 2006

BOOK: Kirsten Seaver, "Maps, Myths, and Men"

Kirsten A. Seaver: Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vínland Map. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004. 0804749639. xxvi + 406 pp.


I first heard of Seaver some years ago when I was looking for something about the decline and disappearance of the medieval Norse settlements in Greenland; searching for Greenland on, I found her book on this subject, The Frozen Echo. Last year, as I finally got around to buying (and later reading) it,'s ‘Better Together’ feature recommended Maps, Myths, and Men; it sounded interesting enough, so I bought this book as well.

Maps, Myths, and Men is about the Vinland map, a map of the world that supposedly dates from the mid-15th century. The map is notable for incorporating geographical information derived from Norse voyages to Greenland and North America; it shows an ‘isle of Vinland’ with a legend mentioning its discovery by Leif Eiriksson and a certain Bjarni; it also shows Greenland as an island rather than as a peninsula of a hypothetical westward extension of the Eurasian landmass (which is how Greenland is typically represented on many other maps from the late middle or early modern age).

The map appeared in the antiquarian book trade in the mid-1950s, and was brought to the U.S. by a dealer named Laurence Witten, who eventually sold it and two accompanying manuscripts to the wealthy philantropist Paul Mellon for $1 million (p. 100), then a huge sum for a map. Mellon donated it to Yale and Yale University Press eventually published a book about it, The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, in which the authors argue that the map is authentic. However, there are also many experts who believe that the map is probably a modern fake. In Maps, Myths, and Men, Seaver presents her arguments against the authenticity of the map, as well as her theory about who made it and why.

The history and decline of Norse Greenland

Maps, Myths, and Men opens with a very interesting chapter about the history of Norse Greenland, although those who have already read Seaver's earlier book, The Frozen Echo, won't really find any new material here. However, since the material is here condensed into just one chapter, it's in a way more accessible; in The Frozen Echo I often felt a bit lost among the masses of detail, while in this chapter here this problem does not really occur.

An interesting discussion on why the Norse didn't bother returning to Vinland after their first voyages there (when they came into conflicts with the Indians): their chief interest was in obtaining timber, which they could already get farther north, in Markland, so there was no point in risking the longer voyage to Vinland: “the forests of Markland would have been far more important than either grass or grapes to the Icelanders and Greenlanders” (p. 42). As far as their trade with Europe was concerned, grapes wouldn't be of very much use either — after all, they were plentiful in many parts of continental Europe.

There's another (and somewhat unusual) argument on p. 60: “It borders on cultural chauvinism if those of us living in a temperate climate assume that because northern regions are cold, the Norse Greenlanders would naturally have made their way quite far south once they had reached America. This is akin to saying that traditional Inuit hunters would obviously be much happier raising vegetables in Massachusetts than catching seals in Baffin Island.” (P. 60.) Call me a cultural chauvinist then. I really believe that people prefer to be in warm places rather than cold ones, and that they'd be happier in an area where sufficient food is relatively easily obtained rather than one in which they can just barely scrape together enough to live on.

Current estimates of Norse Greenland population are at most three to five thousand, “a far lower number than the population envisioned by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century enthusiasts, whose intellectual footprints have proved resistant to erosion.” (P. 54.) As late as 1965, a Norwegian author “Tornøe affirmed that they numbered about 37,333 souls about AD 1250” (ibid.) I'm really amazed; I'd understand somehow if he had said 40,000, but 37,333? How could he have imagined that he had figured them down to the last man (and woman and child)?

Jared Diamond in Collapse mentioned with some amazement that the Norse Greenlanders (unlike the Norse Icelanders and Scandinavians) seemed not to have eaten fish. But Seaver disagrees with such claims. See p. 60 and especially p. 62. She also has little patience for claims that the Norse should have adapted better to the Greenland climate by adopting “Eskimo hunting methods, clothing, and social customs. Any maladaptation theory begs the question of how the Norse managed to survive in Greenland for so many centuries.” (P. 63.)

“Contrary to widespread belief, the overall climate conditions in the eastern North American and West Greenlandic latitudes about hte year 1000 appear to have been rather similar to those of 2000. Several experts on the climate history of the north have concluded that terms such as ‘The Medieval Warm Period’ and ‘The Little Ice Age’ ought to be discarded in favor of a much more nuanced view of climate oscillations in the last thousand years.” (P. 64. See also p. 81.)

The end of Norse Greenland came no later than 1500, and most inhabitants seem to have departed in a deliberate and organized way (pp. 66–7). Some suggested that they might have ‘returned’ to Iceland, but “[o]ne may as well argue that in an economic downturn, ‘old families’ in today's Boston would consider going ‘back’ to England, which the Pilgrim Fathers had left in 1620.” (P. 68.) Besides, such a large migration into Iceland couldn't avoid leaving some trace in written records, and the officials in Iceland, Norway and Denmark would not persist (as they did into the 17th century) in their mistaken belief that the Greenland colonies still existed (pp. 68–9).

Regarding the Western Settlement, which was abandoned by 1400, part of the reason may have been that its economy had always relied strongly on hunting (as it was even less suitable for agriculture than the Eastern settlement). If this now had to be abandoned, because of deteriorating climate, conflicts with Eskimos, or the decline of the European markets for walrus ivory (pp. 72–3), the Western settlement might have ceased to be viable (pp. 74–5).

The last clearly recorded voyage from Greenland to Norway was in 1410, and it appears that conditions in the Eastern settlement were still quite normal at the time (p. 79). In the fifteenth century the settlement still had contacts with foreigners, probably English fishermen (ibid.), and “the inhabitants subsequently enjoyed a boost in prosperity that could have come only from foreign trade” (p. 80). They seem to have abandoned some parts of their agriculture, e.g. raising cattle (though they kept on raising sheep), probably because “human labor was needed elsewhere” (p. 82) as the Greenlanders decided to focus their time and effort on “supplying the English with stockfish and fish liver oil” (p. 83).

But in the late 15th century, the English learned how to sail directly from the British isles to the fishing banks near Newfoundland, without sailing via Greenland: “Greenlandic trade with the English would have begun to fall off at a time when, in addition to new economic pressures, the Norse Greenlanders may also have suffered another period of inclement weather that made terrestrial food resources scarcer for both them and their animals. [. . .] if they were faced with converging economic hardships that now included the threat of virtual isolation from foreign trade, at a time when they no longer had oceangoing ships of their own after decades of isolation from Markland [because of the abandonment of the Western settlement, which had been their “way station for voyages to obtain American raw materials”, and because of the presence of English who “had made the situation in the North Atlantic unsafe for ships belonging to other countries&rdquo, p. 75; the last written mention of a voyage to Markland is from 1347, p. 323], they may have accepted an offer to relocate as skilled fishermen-farmers in a sheltered area along the Newfoundland/Labrador coast [. . .] the likely lure would have come from an English or Anglo-Portuguese enterprise hoping to use the Norse Greenlanders' skills in fishing and preserving cod, at a permanent Canadian fishing station where the presence of women and children would have ensured a reasonably normal and stable community.” (Pp. 84–5.)

Like many such early colonization attempts, it would not be at all surprising if this one failed so completely that no traces were left, neither material nor documentary (p. 85). Seaver admits this is just a theory, but one that agrees with the currently known facts about Norse Greenland (p. 86).

Other interesting things from chapter 2

There's an interesting discussion on the progress of Scandinavian shipbuilding and sailing skills during the first millennium AD on p. 22.

The Norse, apparently, didn't use maps at all: “they did not even have a word for ‘map’ or ‘chart’. They relied mostly on experienced pilots, a wealth of sailing lore, and practical skills acquired at sea.” (P. 27.)

Greenland was not quite treeless (as I had imagined); however, none of the trees were large enough to be useful for shipbuilding (p. 36).

“Larch is native only to North America and part of Siberia and is common in the Labrador region called Markland where the Norse were still sailing in 1347.” (P. 38.) I find this somewhat surprising — larches are by no means uncommon in the mountains here, and why would anybody bother transplanting a tree from America into the mountains where it isn't of any economic use? In fact the Wikipedia page on larches mentions several species, including “European Larch”, growing in “[m]ountains of central Europe”. So I'm not quite sure what to make of the claim quoted above.

Again those curious arrangements of walrus mandibles, probably left by the Norse, on Willows Island in the Canadian far north: p. 50. The same paragraph mentions arrangements of ox skulls on a farm in Iceland. What the heck did they think they were doing?

One reason why the sagas don't mention any later voyages to the New World (after the early 11th century) may be that the sagas were writen by Icelanders who were mostly interested in the achievements of other Icelanders, but not of Greenlanders (p. 53.)

Apparently the Latin word for a walrus is morsus (p. 72); I guess this is where our mrož comes from.

The map's provenance

Chapter 3 discusses the complicated early history of the map, from its emergence in the antiquarian book trade to the time it reached Yale. It cannot be traced any farther back than to the Italian Enzo Ferrajoli, from whom Laurence Witten bought the map; Ferrajoli wouldn't say where he got it. It's interesting, however, that Witten told, on various occasions, several strongly inconsistent versions of the story of his early involvement with the map; sometimes he said he visited the library of the previous owner, sometimes that he bought the map from Ferrajoli and did not know who the previous owner was (pp. 90–1). Before Witten bought it, there had been several “convoluted, unsuccessful, and possibly half-hearted attempts to sell the map and its companion manuscript in Europe in 1957; the sellers' chief obstacle was the lack of proper provenance for the volume” (p. 98).

Given all this, the map's price grew in a way that's hard to understand. Witten paid $3500 for the map and the Tartar Relation in 1957, which was considered a reasonable price, perhaps even a bargain (p. 99); but when the second companion manuscript (a part of the Speculum Historiale, a work on world history by Vincent of Beauvais) emerged and supposedly supported the authenticity of the map, the two volumes were sold to Mellon in 1959 for $1 million (pp. 100, 105). Currently the map is insured by Yale for $25 million, which is “grotesque” (p. 159) when compared to the much lower sums attributed to maps of higher quality and undoubted provenance.

The Beauvais manuscript does not really help much in supporting the authenticity of the Vinland map, as it arrived through the hands of the same people and the origins of that volume are no clearer than those of the volume containing the Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation (p. 102).

Witten and Tom Marston, who was a Yale curator of manuscripts and one of the co-authors of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, were “evidently good friends through many dealings at both the private and official level [. . .] Marson and Witten had repeatedly bounced items back and forth between them in order to drive up the price paid by a third party.” (P. 102.)

It seems worth pointing out that none of the three authors of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation was familiar with the Scandinavian languages and thus they had to rely on secondary sources in English, often badly out of date (p. 20). Additionally, Yale required them to keep their investigations into the map secret until they would be published in a book; thus they weren't able to consult other experts as much as it might be necessary (ibid.; see also e.g. pp. 181–2). And if they had misgivings about the authenticity of the map, it was clear that Yale wasn't really interested in publishing them (p. 123).

The Vinland Map is supposed to have incorporated old Norse geographic knowledge, but is in fact remarkably inaccurate in several areas that were very well known to the Norse, e.g. the northern coast of Norway and the White Sea (pp. 27–8). And it shows Vinland as an island, although it seems to have been clear to the Norse who sailed there that they were going along a continuous coast of a continent rather than visiting an island (p. 36). “Both the map and the book [The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation] express the mistaken notion that only for a brief and definable time in history did the Norse make their daring voyages to North America [. . .] Had any late-medieval cartographer been able to show the actual Norse experience with the North American east coast—from their first organized voyages about AD 1000 and for centuries more—the result would have looked nothing like the Vínland map.” (P. 86.)

Chapter 4 is mostly about the physical condition of the manuscripts. There are sections about bindings (p. 117), watermarks (which can help determine where and when the paper had been manufactured, p. 124), and even such important topics as “[w]hether the map was in fact drawn on a continuous sheet of parchment, and not on two leaves patched together” (p. 116). Small wonder that I nearly fell asleep reading this chapter. It seems that some of the repairs that had been done on the volumes before they were put on the market may have been due to attempts to remove signs of a previous owner, probably library stamps (p. 119); see also p. 135.

The authors of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation heavily promoted the idea that the creation of the Vinland map is connected with the Council of Basel (1431–9), which was attended by churchmen from various parts of Europe and thus offered opportunities for exchange of information, including geographic knowledge possessed by the Scandinavians (pp. 128–9). But Seaver argues that, given the way in which the authors revealed their Basle hypothesis to the public, it was “just another carefully staged move in the effort to equip the Vínland map with authentication by proxy” (p. 129). There are also other good arguments against the Basle hypothesis; the Scandinavian presence on the council was minuscule (p. 137), and the connections between Greenland and the church had by then been severed for decades (p. 138; no resident bishops since 1378, p. 321).

Another notable subject are the wormholes. The holes on the Vinland map and those on the Tartar relation don't match, but they do match those on the Speculum manuscript, suggesting that all three items had once been bound together for a long time and hence the map has the same medieval origin as the two textual manuscripts. However, Seaver says that the wormholes don't all match quite so perfectly, and besides the worms can work quite quickly: “[Prof. B. W. Langlands said that] in his experience a worm could eat its way through a good few hundred pages in a year. If a forger wished to establish an affinity between the Vínland Map, the Speculum, and the ‘Tartar Relation,’ he might just as well put a worm to work and not bother with making a hatpin hole” (p. 143).

[To be continued in a few days.]


Blogger BeeBee said...

I want! (OK, I can be civilised: could I please borrow this book some time?)

Saturday, October 07, 2006 9:20:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

I answered you by e-mail a few days ago, but maybe you overlooked my answer, so, just in case, I'll answer here as well. Sure, I'll be happy to lend you the book. Just send me an e-mail so that we can arrange the time and place.

Thursday, October 12, 2006 9:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Frozen Trail said...

A more complete analysis of the Norse leaving Greenland for America is given on the CD-ROM Frozen Trail to America. The folk tales and evidence seem to say that the Norse in Greenland became the Shawnee, Delaware, Mahigan, Nannicoke, and Conoy tribes.

The author who wrote Yazoo Minfo, considered Frozen Trail a "tour de force" and "a good read."

Have a good read

Monday, October 30, 2006 9:10:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Right. What a pity that this "tour de force"

- could not find a normal publisher;

- gets a whooping total of 103 hits on Google;

- has to resort to posting spam comments on obscure blogs like this one.

If I'm going to waste my time and money on pseudohistory and pseudoarchaeology, I might just as well read the acknowledged masters of those genres and not some rank amateur that almost nobody has ever heard of.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006 4:54:00 PM  
Blogger BeeBee said...

Ker po mejlu ne gre, se oglašam tukaj: knjiga se je že ukoreninila na moji nočni omarici in bi bil skrajni čas, da jo odrešim in vrnem lastniku. Sporočiš naslov po mejlu?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009 11:23:00 PM  

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