The Mapping Of Vinland


By the middle of the fifteenth century the detailed knowledge accumulated by the Norsemen about the lands in the West had passed out of European consciousness; the exploratory enterprise of the three following centuries in this direction depended largely on false premises; and not until the second half of the nineteenth century did it again become possible to draw an outline of Greenland comparable in general accuracy with that included in the Vinland Map. By its delineation of Greenland, casting a solitary shaft of light through the darkness of five centuries, the map makes its strongest claim on our curiosity; and it is this feature, perhaps even more than the delineation of Vinland, which most clearly seems to lift the map out of its period and might suggest—were the converging evidence to the contrary less strong—the work of a counterfeiter.

The surviving copy was made less than forty years after the last authenticated voyage between Norway and Greenland. But the series of Norse voyages to Helluland, Markland, and Vinland had taken place over four centuries before the extant copy of the map was drawn; they were over by about A.D. 1030 (at the latest), and resulted in no permanent settlement such as that of Greenland; only three possible later American landfalls are recorded, but so equivocally (in regard to two of them) as to fall far short of proof.

Any basis of actual experience from which a map of Vinland could have been constructed in the early fifteenth century was therefore remote in time, and the four hundred years’ interval was bridged only by Icelandic records in which the events of the tenth and eleventh centuries were preserved. Although the surviving recensions of the two sagas which form the principal sources for the Norse discovery of America are no older than the fourteenth century, their narratives doubtless stem ultimately from an oral tradition unbroken from the Viking period. While it is true that, in the words of the noted scholar, G. M. Gathorne-Hardy, “the compilers of those versions which we now possess must have worked in the main … from earlier written sagas,” it must also be remembered that none of the Icelandic tales was committed to writing until the beginning of the twelfth century, when Ari Thorgilsson (born 1067) inaugurated the age of documentary history. Gathorne-Hardy, emphasizing the reliability of oral tradition, suggests—no doubt rightly—that “the exploits of those who fought, litigated or explored in the tenth and eleventh centuries were carried with truth, impartiality and accuracy over the brief interval which separated them from the age of written history, which dawned with Ari the Learned.” Yet we must attribute to this gap of about one hundred years, or three generations, a somewhat greater significance in the cartographic history of North American discovery.

The technique of Norse navigation occasioned neither the use nor the making of charts, to which none ol the medieval records makes any reference in this connection; and it appears the more unlikely that any map of the American discoveries was drawn before “the age of written history.” The narratives or logs of the expeditions, handed down with remarkable particularity in the stories of the saga tellers, conveyed the geographical circumstances of these voyages with sufficient precision to satisfy their audience and to make a map even more supererogatory, and indeed inconsistent with this mode of transmission, than a written transcript. We have also to remember that the Norse voyages to America, unlike those to Greenland and along its coasts, were isolated episodes, covering only a brief span of time, and that (so far as we know) they were not followed up by any regular navigation.

But a map, like other graphic records, cannot be substantially communicated by word of mouth. Even an observer, if he draws from visual memory, and without the aid of sketches made on the spot, a map of the coasts which he has traversed, must generalize and formalize his outlines; and this process necessarily plays a much greater part in the construction of a map by someone who does not carry in his mind’s eye an image of these coasts from direct visual experience. If (as we think probable) no map illustrating the American landfalls of the Norsemen was drawn before the twelfth century at the earliest—that is, long after the death of the adventurers who made them—its chain of transmission must have been verbal, not graphic. In these circumstances we could expect from such a map no more than a general indication of the coasts in question and of their most conspicuous features, with the data of direction from known lands, of location, of trend, orientation, and form stated with no greater precision than a verbal relation, whether spoken or written, could offer. This hypothesis will be tested by scrutiny of the outline in the Vinland Map.

The two principal sources for the story of the Vinland voyages, namely the Saga of Eirik the Red and the Tale of the Greenlanders, appear to represent (respectively) Icelandic and Greenlandic versions of the Norse discovery of America. Their divergences in recording the sequence of events are profound and various. With the detailed arguments respecting the degree of authority to be ascribed to the two accounts we need not concern ourselves here. As a working assumption, we shall (with William Hovgaard and Gathorne-Hardy) take it that both narratives contain authentic elements, and we may extract the geographical information which they furnish on the discoveries.