Vinland The Good Emerges From The Mists


“Delighted to see that both were in very unusual contemporary bindings, I asked Mr. Witten to examine them. Mr. Witten came to my office late that afternoon, looked at the manuscripts, and asked if he could borrow the Vincent for a few days. I readily acceded. That evening I did not return home until after ten o’clock. I had hardly entered my house when the telephone rang. It was Mr. Witten, very excited. The Vincent manuscript was the key to the puzzle of the map and Tartar Relation. The hand was the same, the watermarks of the paper were the same; and the worm holes showed that the map had been at the front of the volume and the Tartar Relation at the back. . . .

“After the finding of the Vincent of Beauvais manuscript, some questions remained. The text ends with the words, ‘ Explicit tertia pars speculi hist(orialis) ’ i.e. ‘Here ends the third part of the Speculum Historiale .’ As the manuscript contains books XX to XXIII . . . and the inscription on the map refers to the first, second, and third parts, it seemed that there must have once been two or more other volumes. Mr. Witten returned to the private library whence came the map and the Vincent, but an intensive search was fruitless.”

At this point the finders began to glimpse the full extent of their discovery. In true scholarly fashion, however, they did not fly into print, and instead, set about a long and arduous research. It was arranged for both parts of the reunited manuscript to be acquired by the Yale Library through the generosity of an anonymous donor, and for all of it to be published this month by the Yale University Press. The research, organized by Mr. Victor under the direction of James T. Babb, Librarian (now Emeritus) of Yale University, involved a study by Dr. Marston of the parchment, paper, paleography, ink, binding, and text. A careful investigation of the Tartar Relation and its relationship to the Vinland Map was entrusted to George D. Painter, Assistant Keeper in charge of Incunabula at the British Museum. The primary study of the map was carried on by R. A. Skelton, Superintendent of the Map Room at the British Museum, who is one of the world’s great authorities in the field.

In their work, these investigators called on many experts in as many specialties, until the project became a truly large and international one. The paper used in the Tartar Relation and the Speculum fragments turned out conclusively to have come from the same run, manufactured on the same pair of moulds, in the same portion of the Rhine Valley in the mid-fifteenth century. All the handwriting, on both manuscripts and map, seems to be by the same man. Physically, the evidence points to the Swiss town of Basel, where, in the years 1431 to 1449, a long church council was held, the kind of event to which churchmen from all over the world, including Scandinavia, came and exchanged information. All the scholars concerned with the project are content to agree on “about 1440” as the date of these manuscripts. And they share the belief that, since all the manuscripts are copied from earlier originals, so the Vinland Map must be drawn from an earlier prototype or group of prototypes.

Whoever compiled the information this astounding map puts forward, the reasoning goes, must have used relatively few sources. He had, perhaps, one main one for the Old World, which he represents more or less according to the convention of his time. There are strong resemblances, for example, to the 1436 world map of Andrea Bianco, a well-travelled Venetian shipmaster. Yet did Bianco and the Vinland Map compiler both use one lost earlier map of the known globe? The information on Tartary (shown on a grossly distorted and diminished Asia) was of thirteenth-century vintage, two centuries earlier, taken often word for word from the Tartar Relation. For all its mystery, the knowledge in the New World corner of the map seems to come from the Icelandic sagas, as finally written down long after the events they describe. Whether the information came through the arduous trade routes between Bristol, Scandinavia, and Iceland, whether through church sources, whether in some unsuspected way, may never be known. The man of God who parted the curtain so tantalizingly did not pull it very far, but what he has shown will spur on archaeologists and scholars for years to come.





—Oliver Jensen