EARLY OPINIONS OF THE VINLAND MAP
Over the year or so after the revelation of the Vinland Map in October 1965, reviews of the official book "The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation" by R.A. Skelton, T. Marston and G. Painter, appeared in academic journals. Here are summaries of quite a few of them (NB: I have made no attempt to arrange them in chronological order of writing):
(N.B. Most of these reviews make specific mention of the suspiciously accurate shape of Greenland; for my own research on this matter, see here)
G.R. Crone "Geographical Journal", vol 132, 1966, pp75-80 (UK: Royal Geographical Society)
"As Mr Skelton shows, this map is without the slightest doubt based on Andrea Bianco's world map of 1436 in the Marciana Library, Venice, or on a common model." "There are names misplaced in similar fashion, and the features are much the same. The Vinland Map, however, has some names curiously abbreviated, and some which are found in no other contemporary map." "The islands of the Atlantic in the Bianco world map are unnamed, and it is interesting to see what the draughtsman of the VM has done in this instance. It is a little surprising to find that, though he is clearly acquainted with the conventional nomenclature of the island groups, the names he applies are strange, not found in those precise forms on other maps, and show signs of having been made up" (he then analysed several names).
Crone was also puzzled by the strange elliptical form of the map, but was unwilling to make the imaginative leap required to declare it of modern origin, and hence spent several pages agonising about problems such as the relationship between the VM and the northern geography described by Claudius Clavus in the 1420s, and the way the straight southern edge of Africa on the Vinland Map appeared to coincide with the page fold of the Bianco map, which, he suggested, would hardly have been noticeable until a good half-century after 1436. Unable to accept that the shape of Greenland could be based on medieval surveying, he concocted a curious theory involving the Faeroe group, and some mythical islands depicted on early maps of the Atlantic. Ultimately, as in his acceptance that the handwriting of the map was late-medieval, he was prepared to rely on the expertise of others, except where it conflicted with his own.
Skelton replied at length (1966, pp336-339) to Crone's review, rightly criticising Crone's attempt to fit all the VM geography into an ellipse- but suggesting that the theory would have been more convincing if it had left out the three North Atlantic islands. He agreed with Crone that the southern edge of Africa suggested a direct link with the Bianco map, rather than a common prototype, though he suggested that the fold would have become visible very quickly after Bianco's atlas was made. Some confusion between Skelton and Crone developed over the interpretation of the surprisingly accurate shape of Greenland. Crone had, very properly, observed that "an argument from shape alone is usually dangerous", but Skelton took him to task for refusing to deal with the simple fact that the island shaped like Greenland was labelled as "Gronela'da". In his conclusion to that section, Skelton noted "I do not underrate- for I am far too conscious of it myself- the difficulty which a cartographic historian must feel in swallowing the Vinland Map and the date ascribed to it." On the other hand, he argues strongly against Crone's idea that the VM was a product of interest in Vinland generated by the Columbus voyage; for Skelton, "if the Vinland Map be indeed of the fifteenth century, the existence of such a record seems to me less surprising than its uniqueness". In his ultimate concluding paragraph he expressed what has become the standard view of the Vinland Map: "either the Vinland Map is of the fifteenth century, or it is a modern fabrication, of a perfection and accomplishment not conceivable before the twentieth century."
Crone's reply (p340), to a large extent left the reader to decide between the two viewpoints, but he did attempt to explain a few of his ideas. On the corruption of the Atlantic island names, for example, he detected a recurring theme of "running two names together and cutting out letters in the middle", which he had never seen on any other medieval map. He concluded by worrying that already "writers and publishers are making extravagant and misleading use" of the Vinland Map.
Skelton admitted (pp448-50) that Crone's reply confirmed something he had feared- that his explanation of the Greenland problem in the book "was not lucid enough to expose the essential issues". He also reiterated a point made in the earlier letter: it was grossly improbable that a just-post-Columbian cartographer "however unsophisticated, would at so late a date as this have thought it worth while to copy the Bianco map."
Crone (p450), in a brief reply agreed to differ in a stiff-upper-lip sort of way.
NB: The same volume also included (pp 515-8) an article by Torcuato Luca da Tena, director of ABC of Madrid, on "The Influence of Literature on Cartography and the Vinlnd Map". Beginning with the mendacious but influential "Book of Marvels" by Sir John de Mandeville, and continuing via the "Voyage of St. Brendan", he took a close look at Bishop Resen's attempt to make a map based on the Vinland sagas, and concluded, of course, with the newly-discovered Vinland Map, another medieval attempt to turn imaginative literature into cartography. For this writer, one suspects, Columbus (never actually referred to in the article) would always be the first European to lead an expedition to the Americas.
John K. Wright "The Geographical Review", vol LVI, 1966, pp452-454 (USA: American Geographical Society)
Although recognising that, from matters like the depiction of Greenland "it is understandable that the Vinland Map has been challenged as an actual or probable or possible fake", Thomas Marston's detective work "convinced me that both Relation and Map would certainly give every appearance of being authentic medieval documents." He did, however, stress that the Norse venture to America was so fully accepted that the Vinland Map did not, in that respect, make any difference. Like Crone, he worried about Skelton's explanation for the shape of Greenland, but Wright approached it from the "possible coincidence" angle. Astutely, he suggested that the Tartar Relation was "of considerably greater historical significance than the Map", and devoted much of his review to admiring that portion of the book.
Arthur Davies "Geography", vol LI, 1966, pp259-265 (UK: Geographical Association)
With the full report from the Ingstads' work at L'Anse Aux Meadows then unpublished, and some of their provisional radiocarbon dating suggesting a pre-Norse date for the site, Davies believed that "If the map is of Norse origin, it will prove to be the most important contribution to the history of discovery that has appeared for fifty years." He spent a couple of pages explaining this claim, concluding "The problem of Vinland has been solved by this one map and the Norse discovery of America established beyond dispute". His next two sentences, however, turned eveything upside down:
"But has the controversy ended? Is the map authentic, drawn about 1440, or might it be a modern construction, not made with a view to profit, but for the purpose of asserting the priority of Norse discovery and expansion into North America." The shape of Greenland was as worrying to him as to everybody else, as was the lack of provenance. Given the worldwide interest in Norse America since the late 19th century, he found it difficult to believe that the Vinland Map "could have passed unrecognized for what it was until after Mr. Witten acquired it. Heaven knows it was well signposted, overmuch one might think, with names of Vinland, Bjarni," [etc.].
While accepting that "Not for a moment would one question that the vellum on which the map is drawn formed part of the original volume in 1440" he observed that it "could have been a blank bifolio, put between the binding and the manuscript for protection against damp and wormholes" and the map "could have been drawn recently by someone with ability to counterfeit writing". He was particularly concerned by the stylistic "anonymity" of the map: "by such omissions of colour, style and decoration, it is much easier to produce a counterfeit". Concentrating on such evidence as was avaiable, he suggested that "The ink used for the map seems to be different" from that of the companion documents, and "the legends on the map are in very small lettering written with a fine quill, so that identity with the lettering in the manuscripts is difficult both to establish and to dispute."
He continued by pondering the problem that while a map can easily have no prototype (because it shows a newly-discovered area), "it is exceedingly rare to have no successors". Elaborating on this- could the original map from which the North Atlantic information on the Vinland Map was copied really have made its only known appearance, just long enough to be copied in 1440, then disappeared, while the copy also disappeared immediately, resurfacing only in 1957? "One cannot recall another instance in the history of cartography".
Davies next wrestled with the problem of "too good to be true" Greenland. On the one hand, there was no archaeological evidence of any human presence, ever, in north-east Greenland; on the other hand the Medieval Warm Period could, perhaps, have permitted a circumnavigation in "expectional years of even more favourable conditions". Contemplating Skelton's identification of north-Greenland features shown on the map with the real geography, Davies arrived at the key statement of his essay: "Once a map is accepted as authentic even its impossibilities have to be justified". He rather spoiled the effect by devoting a paragraph to showing that in the Middle Ages Greenland "was never regarded as an island"- forgetting the work of Adam of Bremen. But he was right in the sense that the "peninsular Greenland" concept seen on most early maps was "logical, because no one could penetrate the Arctic ice of North Greenland and so recognize that it was an island."
And so to Vinland. Given its far greater economic potential, why was it mapped so much less accurately than Greenland? Of the long captions relating to Vinland he said, simply "if the map is counterfeit it is no more difficult to fake a legend than a map", adding that it was tapping "the desire for new facts to fill in the very bare skeleton of the Norse discoveries, and any new statement, even if varying from previous records, is assured of a warm welcome. All of us share this instinct."
Finally, having concluded that the Vinland Map is probably a fake, Davies suggested that the map was the same age as the binding of the volume in which it was found; and that if this really was as old as the end of the 19th century, the over-accurate shape of Greenland may have been a factor which its creator regretted, causing him to put the map away instead of exposing it to sceptical study. Had the original investigating team been sharp enough to spot the very modern-looking thread glimpsed in the binding by British Museum scientists a year later, Davies would not even have had to come up with this awkward explanation.
Einar Haugen, "Speculum", vol XLI, 1966, pp770-774 (USA: Mediaeval Academy of America)
Opening with a criticism of the publishers for launching the book a day before Columbus Day, rather than more discreetly on Leif Ericson day a couple of days earlier, Haugen then expressed surprise at "the massive display of ignorance in the American public concerning the Norse pre-Columbian expeditions." He was at least impressed with the overall effectivenes of the launch "which has hardly been equaled for a University press book since Kinsey". He was most impressed by the book itself, and "can only be grateful to the authors for the rich store of learning that is here displayed." However, he was less happy about the grounds for believing the map to be authentic, wishing that chemical tests had been made, and that the authors had not kept the project such a "tight little secret" from other scholars (including Yale's own Konstantin Reichardt). A slight caveat to his general happiness with the production of the book was that the sole page illustrated from the "Speculum Historiale" was not one of those with wormholes.
Returning to the "lack of consultation" theme, he observed that the authors not only failed to consult any Scandinavian scholars, they compounded the felony by failing to read any relevant scholarship written in Scandinavian languages, naming several potentially useful examples. He was impressed by Skelton's "careful consideration" of the possible sources of the map, less convinced by Painter's argument that it shares a common source with the Stefansson and Resen Vinland maps of 1590 & 1605. He had a huge problem with Greenland: "it is simply too accurate", and remarked on the large amount of space devoted in the book to the same knotty problem- but accepted Skelton's argument that the evidence for authenticity was too strong. For Haugen, therefore, the source map for Greenland could only have been created by somebody who had been there. He was particularly interested in the novel information found in the caption about Bishop Eirik, quoting the book's translation in full, and arguing that its source too must have been a Greenlander, better-informed than the compilers of the Icelandic Annals. Perhaps, he argued, Bishop Eirik returned to Rome and presented an official report, with a map, which was brought out of the Papal archives centuries later to be copied onto a world map for the Papal council, c1440. He concluded that the Greenland Norse were "very familiar" with the north-eastern seaboard of America, "But the unfriendliness of the natives inhibited further sailings and landfalls, leaving the American continent for Columbus and Cabot to 'discover' once more."
D.B. Quinn & P.G. Foote "Saga-Book", vol. XVII part 1, 1966 (UK: Viking Society for Northern Research) (NB: the volume date was purely notional, and it did not appear until 1967)
After a sardonic opening, noting the ill-informed pro-Columbus furore over the Map, and that "The undoubted significance of the Tartar Relation for studies of European contact with the Far East has been passed over much more lightly", Quinn considered some of the "unusual features" of the Map, such as the "late sixteenth-century" outline of Iceland, and of course the "startlingly modern" appearance of Greenland. As to the latter, he noted with interest a 1964 paper by Roald Morcken, on the apparent development of Bergen in Norway as a centre of geographical knowledge from about the 12th century onward. The geography of Vinland, however, Quinn saw as "entirely notional", based simply on the sagas, although "for the sagas to have been known outside Iceland at this time is somewhat surprising". He urged closer examination of other fifteenth and sixteenth century maps to discover signs that they reflected the same sort of knowledge as the Vinland Map, as may already have been achieved with the 1502 Cantino map, shortly before he wrote his piece.
Then he switched firmly into sceptical mode: "The story of the discovery of the Vinland Map, as told in the volume under review, left many questions in the reader's mind." He was writing shortly after the Vinland Map Conference at the Smithsonian, where some awkward questions about the provenance of the Map and its companion documents had belatedly been answered by Laurence Witten. For example Witten, having heard of the Map and the Tartar Relation from book dealer Enzo Ferrajoli after the latter's unsuccessful attempt to interest the British Museum, "was taken to see them in the library to which they had been returned" and bought them for $3,500. Also Witten "did not see the Davis and Orioli catalogue of April 1958 until Mr Marston had ordered the manuscript of Vincent de Beauvauis from it" [i.e. the Speculum Historiale volume which was thus miraculously reunited with the other documents]. Quinn remained concerned that Witten had not revealed the location of the library from which the map had come, arguing that scholars "will not be satisfied until they can test for themselves what can be found out from the former owner". He was also unhappy about Thomas Marston's work in the book, which was crucial to the matter of authenticity: "Though in his report he gives a full picture of the physical characteristics of the documents, it may be thought that his conclusions on many of the important issues raised by them are presented without sufficient discussion. His rather casual, take-it-or-leave-it manner, though in itself no reflection on his scholarship, may have contributed to the scepticism with which the publication has been received by many scholars." Quinn therefore asked for further expert confirmation on matters such as the age of the ink, or the claim that the Map handwriting is the same as that in the other two documents (which had very quickly been disputed by some palaeographers), and noted that "No physical tests were done on the map which would in any way establish whether is is a medieval or a modern compilation."
Absent such tests, Quinn offered some suggestions for debate, starting with: "If the map is genuine, we may then ask what was its function." He began with the most obvious, and still-popular answer, that it was meant to update the picture of the spread of Christianity given in the Speculum Historiale. On a more sophisticated level, though, he considered the possible influence of scholar Nicholas of Cusa. Next, Quinn considered the central question: "Mr Marston is convinced that he has proved that the Vinland Map is not a forgery: he receives rather cautious support from Mr Skelton." Could the volume originally have had a straightforward map, copied from Andrea Bianco, without the North Atlantic additions, which was carefully copied by a forger with the new material added? "Such a feat could not have been accomplished without both scholarship and executive skill, but forgery has frequently been the result of an excess of scholarly vanity as well as of greed. There is, so far, no positive evidence whetever, so far as is known, that such a forgery was made: on the other hand there is as yet no satisfactory physical evidence that the map is genuine."
As a tailpiece to the article, Quinn was able to add a report of his own close examination of the documents when they visited the British Museum in January 1967. He described the Vinland Map parchment thus: "A grat deal of the natural surface has, seemingly, been removed; the material is unusually translucent, and is a light greyish-brown colour on which slightly faded and rubbed legends in brownish ink remain"... "There is a good deal of darkening in the inner fold, some of it by dust but some, perhaps, from mucilage applied to an external guard. It might appear that the map had, comparatively recently, been subjcted to heavy cleaning, which spread a little of the ink-colour over the surface. As the inner fold has remained rather dirty, it may be thought that the cleaning was done after the map was guarded and bound in with the Tartar Relation." He finished with an expression of regret that the palaeographical and scientific resources then being brought to bear on the Map at the British Museum "were not fully exploited at an earlier stage".
Foote (a detailed examination, at Quinn's request, of the Vinland legends on the Map):
At the outset, he stated that all the long legends on the Vinland Map appeared to be the work of a single compiler- but that "the legends are in general demonstrably remote in language from a postulated Norse source." Of the short legend annoncing that Vinland was "discovered by Bjarni and Leif in company", he could only conclude that it "adds nothing probable or certain to our knowledge and may well indicate some confusion of facts". The longer passage giving more detail of how "by God's will" Bjarni and Leif voyaged to Vinland "does not appear to add to our knowledge either." He countered Skelton's worry about its confirmation of the map depiction of Greenland as an island by referring to the popularity of Adam of Bremen's text outside Scandinavia, but as to the accuracy of the drawing of Greenland, Foote had to say "the information that the countries were islands could hardly have been derived from any west Norse literary source."
He then discussed the very un-Nordic Latin of the captions, from the use of -landa as the translation for the -land placename ending (-landia was the Scandinavian preference) to the use of y for j in the name Bjarni (acceptable in Denmark, but not further north). As for "erissonius" as a Latinisation of "Eiriksson", he saw that as a clear indication that the writer was not Scandinavian at all. That being so, he was very cautious about the final, most remarkable passage in the Vinland legends, concerning Bishop "Henricus". He made a vital point (also raised at the Smithsonian conference) that the official translation of the phrase "ad orientem hiemalem" as north-eastward is wrong, "it means south-eastward", but he failed, like many others including me, to correct the other official blunder about the same phrase: it is the beginning of a sentence about a journey from Greenland, not the end of a sentence about a journey from Vinland to Greenland.
Considering Bishop Eirik more closely, he then demonstrated that Skelton had confused an 18th century compilation called "Rymbegla", which contains a list of Greenland bishops, with a 12th century work called "Rimbegla", which doesn't, before attempting a detailed comparison of this passage with the only other known sources of information about the bishop's life, exposing George Painter's "apparent ignorance of the sources". Foote was greatly perturbed about the date given for Bishop Eirik's expedition, which is three years different from other sources, but even more worried about the Bishop's title in the caption. Skelton had appeared to argue that this was similar to a source used in scholarly works by Luka Jelic and P.B. Gams, but Foote reprinted the entries from both those works in full, showing that Gams did not attempt to give a title at all. As far as Foote could tell, the title Jelic used was based purely on his own inference, and in a footnote he revealed that another scholar, "Hennig, after years of fruitless search for any documentary source that Jelic might have had, comes to much the same conclusion". However, he was content to assume that the Vinland Map legend confirmed Jelic's guesstimate, and that the Map was genuine, but not very helpful to Norse scholarship. He accepted that the failings of the book in this area were probably "partly due to the absurd secrecy that was imposed on them while they made their investigations", but even allowing for that, he felt that they should have insisted on the inclusion of an Icelandic or Scandinavian specialist among the study team in the first place.
Erik Wahlgren, "Scandinavian Studies", vol 38/1, Feb 1966, pp62-67 (USA: Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study)
Wahlgren was amazed by the Vinland Map, and most impressed by the book. Of the three documents under consideration, he remarked "the items have been so carefully examined and compared by Dr. Marston (and those whom he has consulted) that the authenticity of the association, and indeed of the discrete items themselves, may be held to be as certaian as anything can be certain that pertains to aged documents. Quite apart from what may be termed the typological criteria ... there are certain physical circumstances which even taken alone bring to the vanishing point all possibility of erroneous identification, overly generous conclusion, or pure fraud." These include the identical size of the pages, the wormholes, and the handwriting "of one and the same scribe". He did have some harsh words about "the rather untactful way in which the Yale University Press has chosen to publicize this major work of humanistic scholarship. Yale's vigorous PR footwork misled some stout citizens into thinking the whole thing a plot aimed at desecrating Columbus." He had one great criticism of the book itself: "What is remarkable is that the authors of the present book do not particularly appear to have consulted living specialists in Scandinavian linguistics", though he congratulated them that this had only occasionally led them to produce writing "that may indicate incomplete orientation within the sphere of Northern studies."
Wahlgren was puzzled as to why the Vinland Map name for Iceland is so wrong, when the geography is so right, but accepted Skelton's suggestion that it is an elision of an Italian mapmaker's "Isola Islanda". On matters like the accuracy of Greenland, he could only say "VM is sui generis, and its origin will remain shrouded in mystery until its possible ancestor(s) or congeners can be located in some library or archive"- but he agreed with Skelton that the VM depiction was based on an earlier map, presumably made during the Medieval Warm Period, not an oral description. Equally, he accepted that the same cannot be said of Vinland, and stressed that the sources of the VM depiction of the North Atlantic "must have differed from the maps we now know by Stefansson (1590) and Bishop Resenius (1605)" (having previously also emphasised the VM's difference from the North Atlantic geography of Claudius Clavus). In a brief consideration of the notorious "Bjarni and Leif in company" problem, Wahlgren, who himself had written a detailed paper on Bjarni, was inclined to support Painter's alternative to Skelton's theories; on the related matter of the Vinland vines, he regretted that the VM contains no additional information to help solve this old problem. In the absence of firm dating from L'Anse Aux Meadows, Wahlgren was excited by the passage about Bishop Eirik, which not only seems to correct the version given in the Icelandic Annals, but also, as George Painter indicated, could imply long-term Norse settlement in Vinland. His key conclusion: "The fact that southern and northern traditions of mapmaking have blended in this one unique document gives us some reason to hope that we may learn yet more"...
Wilcomb E. Washburn, "American Historical Review", vol. LXXI, 1965-6, pp927-8 (USA: American Historical Association)
Washburn was most impressed by the "scholarly acumen" of all the contributors, and the painstaking detail of the analyses of the Map and the Tartar Relation. He did comment specifically on George Painter's "second opinion" essay about the map, deciding that "his arguments semm to me more soundly based and imaginatively reasoned than Skelton's". He was equally taken by the boldness of the launch, with its "public relations efficiency not usually achieved by university presses", and noted with amusement that "Even scholarly reviews have been affected by the publicity and secrecy, with reviewers sometimes attacking the public reaction to the book rather than the book itself, and sometimes betraying annoyance at their exclusion from the knowledge granted to the authors in the prepublication period." In conclusion, he firmly supported the statement in the book's introduction by Alexander Vietor that it was intended as "a springboard for further investigation" [and of course he himself swiftly took up the challenge with the Vinland Map Conference at the Smithsonian, later in 1966- just a pity it took five years to publish the Conference proceedings].
G.R. Crone again "History Today", vol. XVI, 1966, pp361-2 (UK)
Like everybody else, Crone was waiting with bated breath for the radiocarbon dating from L'Anse Aux Meadows. Reasserting the derivation of the Old World portion of the map from Andrea Bianco's 1436 world map, he stated (without going into detail on this occasion) that he doubted that the VM was made before 1486, and suspected that it was inspired by Columbus' discoveries.
NB: There is at least one more early Crone review, in "Encounter", but I decided to spare the library staff the trouble of digging it out.
Norman J.G. Pounds, "Journal of American History", vol. LIII, 1966-7, pp107-8 (USA: Organization of American Historians)
Pounds described the post-1957 history of the VM and Tartar Relation as "a story of detection calculated to appeal to the popular imagination. There is no reason to doubt that these two records were originally bound in with an incomplete copy of Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum Historiale, nor that they were intended to serve as some sort of illustration and supplement to the larger work. On this relationship of the three the worm-holes have, as it were, set their seal." He argued that the Tartar Relation is of little importance in itself, adding little to existing knowledge, so said that in the book "The greatest emphasis is rightly given to the Vinland Map", and congratulated Skelton on "one of the most masterly examples of map analysis known to this reviewer." Accepting that the map's depiction of Vinland is not, unlike the "remarkable" outline of Greenland, based on a cartographic source, he concluded that it was most important as an illustration of the possible world-view of Columbus' generation before 1492.
I hope, sooner or later, to add a page of reviews from newspapers, but apart from the "newspapers of record" such as the New York Times and the London Times, these are not so widely available in academic libraries as scholarly journals.