Saturday, October 14, 2006

BOOK: Kirsten Seaver, "Maps, Myths, and Men" (cont.)

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

[Continued from last week.]

The publication

Chapter 5 is quite interesting and describes the activities connected with the publication of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation in 1965 and the various exhibitions of the Vinland Map in the following years. The map and the book were kept secret until the publication, supposedly because Mellon, who was financing the book, “wanted no newspaper publicity ahead of time” (p. 145). Unfortunately this prevented the authors from consulting with other experts (but insofar as other experts did have the opportunity to comment on the map, the authors generally ignored any concerns expressed by these other experts regarding the authenticity of the map: p. 146); nor could the book have been peer-reviewed prior to publication. In fact the book had “as its sole object to reassure the public about the authenticity” of the map (p. 145).

The launch of the book itself was preceded by some curious pre-launch activity, e.g. a “gala event [. . .] at the Norwegian Academy of Sciences” (p. 149); probably the Yale University Press' chief concern was that Norwegians like Helge and Anne Ingstad (who had recently discovered the Norse site at L'Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland) might express doubts about the Vinland Map; therefore Yale decided to “take [them] by surprise and to overwhelm them with supposed corroborative information before any questions could be asked” (pp. 150–1).

The publication of the book drew some rather silly criticism from the Italian-American community, who felt that Columbus' achievements are being slighted (p. 153). More serious criticism came from experts in Iceland and Britain (pp. 153–4).

In 1995, a new edition of the book was published, actually identical to the first except for the addition of a few short chapters. “Like the first edition, the second one had been prepared in secrecy; its aim was to affirm the authenticity of the map, and it was launched with as much fanfare and carefully planned media attention as its predecessor.” (P. 155.) This was also followed by a symposium about the map, where only pro-authenticity arguments were presented (p. 158, unlike during the 1966 conference orgazined by Wilcomb Washburn from the Smithsonian).

The map was exhibited during 1967 in England, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and the Netherlands. In Norway, Yale insisted that it be insured for $4 million: “The Norwegians' acceptance of Yale's terms set the chief precedent for future inflated claims about the map's market value” (p. 162). (According to the inflation calculator, $4 million in 1967 dollars is equivalent to about $22.77 million in 2005 dollars.)

It's interesting to note that institutions such as Yale, the British Museum, and the Smithsonian never officially endorsed the authenticity of the map: “every high-profile claim that the map is authentic has been the work of a few individuals who have made sure that their respectable institutional ties were noted” (p. 152).

More about the map...

Chapter 6 is mostly a physical description of the map itself and I again found it fairly boring. It has sections on ink, wormholes, the exact translation of certain legends, etc.

Some of the smaller legends on the map have “ruled lines spaced exactly two millimeters apart” (p. 173) — clearly suspicious for a supposedly medieval map.

Chapters 7 and 8 are about the map's content as well as about the development of medieval cartography, particularly of the mapmakers' notions of the areas far to the northwest of Europe. This is again more interesting than the previous chapter.

“The fact that medieval maps were handily contained within a flat circle certainly did not mean that their authors thought of the earth as a flat disk, but rather that the known [. . .] part of the world [. . .] took up only half of the planet's circumference” (p. 205). “The idea that medieval people were taught to believe in a flat earth is a modern myth [. . .] the majority of [the church fathers] in fact believed in a spherical earth.” (P. 207.)

As mentioned above, the authors of the Yale book believed that the medieval church was a great facilitator of communications between Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, and that this may have helped diffuse the Norse geographic knowledge about the North Atlantic. This largely mistaken belief may be partly due to the writings of various medieval clerical authors, such as the mid-11th-century chronicler Adam of Bremen who wrote a lot about Northern Europe. Adam wanted to praise and celebrate the church and its achievements, and may therefore have given the impression that the church was more active in the far North than had really been the case (p. 214). The extent of his geographical knowledge is illustrated by his reports of Amazons on the eastern shores of the Baltic (p. 215), and by his saying that “[t]he people there [i.e. in Greenland] are green from the salt water, whence, too, that region gets its name” (p. 217). He does mention the discovery of Vinland, however (p. 212).

This may be the source of the tales of Amazons on the Baltic: Ohthere, a ninth-century Norwegian traveller, had reported a ‘Land of the Kvens’, “an ethnic group living just northeast of the innermost Bothnian Bay”. But “[i]n Richard Hakluyt's sixteenth-century English translation of this passage, the name became ‘Queeneland,’ because the translator had obviously confused cwena [. . .] with the Old English cwene (woman). There would have been a similar potential for confusion among the Norse” (p. 239).

“The map's message is that by the mid-thirteenth century, Christian missionaries had spanned the entire inhabited world.” (P. 255.) However, the fact is that “[t]he known documents concerning Rome's relations with the Far North demonstrate a mixture of bewilderment, ignorance, concern, and indifference” (p. 257) and the church is not likely to have had much information about Greenland, let alone Vinland. The idea that “the medieval Roman Church was an important link to the Norse Greenland colony” was formed in the late 19th and early 20th century and still persists to some extent in the literature although more recent discoveries are making it untenable (p. 260).

Pp. 261–3 mention a few bizarre 19th-century theories about the Norse in America, e.g. those of the Frenchman Gabriel Gravier and (slightly saner) the Franciscan friar Luka Jelić. Unfortunately the sources cited here are mostly in French, and very obscure anyway, so I guess I won't be able to read more about them.

If the map were authentic, it would also be the earliest map mentioning the Samoyeds (the next earliest is from 1516; pp. 283, 309).

One of the legends on the map claims that Vinland was discovered jointly by Leif Eiriksson and a certain Bjarni. This differs from the account in the sagas and can be traced to a 1765 History of Greenland by a German missionary, David Crantz (p. 287).

...and its author

After all these discussions about the map and about what its author must have, or cannot have, known, believed, or intended to express, Seaver finally says that these criteria allow us to narrow the choice of possible candidates down to one: Josef Fischer, an Austrian Jesuit and an internationally renowned cartographic scholar from the early decades of the 20th century (pp. 295–6).

The last chapter of the book is an overview of Fisher's life, his scientific work, his correspondence with foreign colleagues, etc. This was quite an interesting glimpse into how the scientific world functioned in the early 20th century.

The island of Vinland on the map is probably “intended to conflate Portuguese rediscovery of a North American region with the original Norse discovery of the same region. [. . .] this section of the Vínland Map supposedly demonstrates how residual Norse information might have been perceived by a particularly well-informed person of the mid-fifteenth century before the Portuguese had laid claim to North America.” (P. 310.) Islands similar to the Vinland of the Vinland Map actually did appear on early 16th-century maps, based of course not on Norse but on Portuguese discoveries (e.g. those of the Corte Reals; pp. 309–10). “Given Fischer's own scholarly convictions, neither the shape nor the placement of the Vinilanda Insula would have constituted a misrepresentation of the record he believed had once existed.” (P. 310.)

In the 1930s, the library of castle Nikolsburg near Brno was being dispersed and auctioned off in the 1930s, and Fischer helped in this process by doing some research on one of its more valuable manuscripts (p. 339). “It would have been reasonable for either the auction house or the Dietrichstein heirs to offer him a chance to pick out [. . .] one or more items too dilapidated to bring to auction but still of potential value to a scholar and teacher.” (P. 352.) This is how he might have obtained the manuscripts of the Speculum and the Tartar Relation.

After 1933 he practically retired and stopped publishing for several years, partly because he was devastated by harsh reviews of his 1932 magnum opus on Ptolemy's maps (p. 357), and partly because, after the Nazis came to power in Germany and started perverting the sciences to their own ideological goals, it became increasingly difficult to publish honest research about those areas of geography and history that Fischer cared the most about, e.g. the Norse (pp. 356, 360).

Seaver suggests that Fischer probably drew the Vinland map during those years of retirement, as an act of “quiet and courageous” intellectual sabotage (p. 371) against the Nazi abuse of history and geography. He knew that the map would likely eventually come into the hands of the Nazis and their scholars, who “would then have to decide whether to reject the map's depiction of the early and worldwide influence of the Roman Church, or to swallow that aspect of the work in order to crow over its equally clear depiction of American discovery by their ‘ancestors’ the Norse.” (Pp. 364–5.)

Stella Matutina, the Jesuit-operated boarding school where Fischer had taught for most of his career, was shut down by the Nazis after they annexed Austria in 1938; Fischer had to relocate several times in the following years, and died in 1944 (pp. 367–70). The volume containing the Speculum fragment, the Tartar Relation, and Fischer's Vinland map was probably left behind at the Stella Matutina library and was pilfered at some point between then and the early post-war period; possibly as early as 1938 (pp. 371–2).


George Painter, one of the co-authors of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, also wrote, among other things, a biography of Proust (1959). However, it was criticized as taking “ ‘considerable liberty with the facts’ ” (p. 148).

A curious passage from p. 271: “the Upper Rhine region, which would include not only Bavaria, but also Bohemia and Moravia”. But as far as I can tell, at the point where the Rhine gets closest to Bohemia, they are still separated by precisely the whole of Austria. Why then is it reasonable to say that Bohemia is in the Upper Rhine region?

Another curious passage, p. 290: “De Bridia [author of the Tartar Relation] was domiciled somewhere in the Bohemian-Silesian region [. . .] To him, ‘Greater India’ would indeed have been to the northeast.” There is, from the context, no doubt that “northeast’ is not just a slip of the pen here: De Bridia wrote that India is to the northeast, Painter commented that this must be a mistake, and Seaver says that it is not a mistake, because it is to the northeast of Bohemia. Except, of course, that it isn't — the whole of India is well to the south of the whole of Europe. I don't doubt that Seaver knows this just as well as anyone, so I don't understand what to make of that passage.

In the school where Fischer worked as a teacher, “not only the school's pupils, but also Fischer and the other teachers used ordinary black or blue ink for writing. Black India ink, being more expensive, was reserved for drawing and decorative lettering, such as making library labels. One of the priests also used a distinctive purple ink for some archival labels” (p. 361). I find this kind of factoids so fascinating — one doesn't think of interwar Austria as exactly a dirt-poor country after all, and yet this school had to carefully limit their spending on ink. Nowadays, surely it would not occur to anyone that ink is anything but a negligibly small expense. How damnably slow a process the ascent from poverty is, if after a century of the industrial revolution people still had to scrimp on their ink!

One thing that somewhat annoyed me when reading this book is that Seaver evidently has, from the beginning onwards, a firm conviction not only that the Vinland map is a modern fake but also that she has identified its author. However, she doesn't say this quite explicitly until p. 296, nor does she say until then who the author was! I found this really annoying. In my opinion the decent thing to do would be to state on the very first page: “I think that the map is a modern fake, made by So-and-So at such-and-such a time, and I will now proceed to present arguments supporting this”. She often accuses the map's delineations and legends of being teasing, but she is in fact just as much of a tease herself, saying things such as that the Danish cartographer Bjørnbo (1874–1911) corresponded with the author of the Vinland map (p. 229), and that “the author of the Vínland Map was [. . .] thoroughly grounded in early cosmography as well as the writings of the church fathers” (p. 206).


All in all, this is an admirable and impressive book. Just like in the case of The Frozen Echo, I'm impressed by the amount of material that Seaver had to collect, wade through, and integrate. At the same time I must admit that much of it went right over my head; there are pages upon pages of technicalities about obscure subjects such as paper watermarks, ink composition, wormholes, etc.; a lot of the time this was really quite boring and not at all enjoyable to read. I occasionally even felt that the writing is not only pedantic, but pedantic in a somewhat smug way that was really beginning to get on my nerves. The way she has everything under control all the time, the careful expressions, the masses of people, the gazillions of endnotes, the convoluted arguments, the elegant typography — it was all starting to feel somewhat prim, and therefore started to annoy me. But this should under no circumstances be considered as a serious complaint against the book.

The parts dealing with the history of cartography were more interesting, but even there I was usually lost amidst all the material. Over and over again I noticed that I am wading through some details about some map or mapmaker without having any idea why this information is even there: what links it to the preceding and next map or mapmaker, and how it fits into the big picture, the argument that Seaver is presumably trying to build. Perhaps this ‘big picture’, the structure behind the arguments of each chapter, should be made more explicit; or perhaps the book simply requires a more dedicated and better informed reader than I am. My favourite parts of the book were Chapter 2 about the history of Norse Greenland, and the final chapter, the one about Fischer's life.

As for whether Seaver's proposed explanation of the origins of the Vinland map is true, I'm definitely not competent to form my own opinion about the subject. The story as she presented it certainly fits together nicely enough, but at the same time it's clear that in many places it is supported by well-argued speculation rather than really firm evidence. However, one thing that she certainly convinced me about is that the analysis of the map as published in The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation is not terribly reliable, and that many of the people involved in the story of the Vinland map — Ferrajoli, Witten, the authors of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, and Yale University Press — have acted in ways that are not entirely honourable.


I'll be quite content not to read anything else on the subject of the Vinland map for some time. :-)

  • One interesting book that I did find mentioned here is In Northern Mists: Arctic Exploration in Early Times, by Fridtjof Nansen (London: William Heinemann, 1911, two volumes). The original edition is of course quite expensive, but some of the later reprints might be more affordable.

  • Adolf Rieth: Archaeological Fakes (1970). Sounds interesting.

  • Derek Wilson, Peter Ayers: White Gold: The Story of African Ivory (1970).


Post a Comment

<< Home