- Historic Sites
Viking America: A New Theory
Was Columbus motivated by Norse discoveries, concealed over the centuries in misinterpreted maps?
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
The “Grand Misunderstanding” is an entirely new concept invented by Mr. Enterline to explain how Columbus and his contemporaries could have been influenced by Norse information without the fact being explicitly recorded by history. In effect, it amounts to a failure by the Norse explorers and all those who heard about the Norse explorations to realize that the American land was a new continent rather than the eastern edge of Asia. But the full concept of the Grand Misunderstanding involves a much wider geographic region than the eastern seaboard and calls for a revolution in the study of historical cartography. Enterline claims that pre-Columbian Old World maps show in several cases, for example, an island at the northeastern corner of the Eurasian continent (Siberia) whose outline is similar to the island at the northeastern corner of North America, Baffin Island; islands along the arctic coast of Eurasia that look very much like the arctic archipelago north of Canada; and peninsulas at the northwestern corner of Eurasia (Scandinavia) that look just like the peninsulas of the northwestern corner of North America, i.e., Alaska. In other words, the Norse explorers who made these regional maps, which eventually found their way into the hands of European cartographers, thought they were exploring Eurasia, from east to west. One of the more famous maps involving this misconception is Claudius Clavus’ 1427 map of “Scandinavia,” which is actually a much better representation of Alaska’s Seward Peninsula than of any part of Scandinavia. The extent of the explorations implied thereby is certainly greater than anything heretofore proposed, but it seems to be supported by the wide variety of archaeological and anthropological evidence existing along the route of the Northwest Passage.
A noncartographic occurrence of the Grand Misunderstanding seems to have arisen when Europeans heard stories of the Eskimos migrating eastward into Greenland. The Eskimos, who had started their migration in Alaska, described themselves in Greenland as having come from the western end of the continent, at the northern corner. Europeans hearing this decided that they meant they were from Lapland, in northern Scandinavia, and had travelled eastward in northern Asia. Meanwhile, the Europeans reasoned, the Norsemen had sailed westward to Greenland and met the presumed Laplanders there, supposedly just off the northeastern corner of Asia. Thus Claudius Clavus thought the Eskimos were Karelians from near the White Sea.
Another kind of misunderstanding confirms the idea that maps were indeed supplied by Norsemen to European cartographers. This misunderstanding, committed by cartographers rather than explorers, is called by Enterline the “Smaller Misunderstanding.” A cartographer committing the Smaller Misunderstanding decided that if a map of an unknown land (and Scandinavia was an unknown land, cartographically, in pre-Columbian times) came to him from Scandinavian hands, then it must be a map of Scandinavia. There are many Old World maps, otherwise relatively accurate, in which the representation of Scandinavia looks nothing like the actuality of that region, but does look like, for example, Baffin Island, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and even the entire Quebec-Labrador peninsula.
The author has admitted that he cannot show any evidence proving that Columbus himself knew directly about the Norse explorations. But he does arrive at this conclusion: “There was an unquestionable indirect influence of fundamental proportions on Columbus, through the vague but persistent ideas of land in the West which were already in the air. The great accomplishment by Columbus was to make the Grand Misunderstanding become accepted throughout the rest of the European scholarly world.”
The possibility that such misunderstood information about Norse explorations could have lain under the noses of historians for centuries without being noticed motivated Enterline to search out facsimiles or originals of nearly every known world map from the Middle Ages and early Renaissance and to examine them for possible evidence of such misunderstandings. He found that dozens of such maps contained strange lands that previous historical cartographers had dismissed without analysis as figments of medieval cartographers’ imaginations but that were actually examples of the Grand or Smaller misunderstandings. The author’s method, after recognizing the existence also of medieval textual documents incorporating such misunderstandings, was to arrange all the ninety-odd documents involved into a chronological sequence and then to study the historical developments reflected in that sequence. The results led to the theory of a dispersal of the Greenland settlements westward into Eskimo America and southwestward into Indian America in the century immediately preceding Columbus.