Tuesday 9 December 2014

Mythmaking & Mapmakers

King Arthur & the Northern Enchantment Part IV

The Mapmakers
The Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) is well known for his innovative mapping technique based on cylindrical projection first used on his wall chart of 1569, later known as the Mercator Projection accordingly and still in use today on navigational charts. Mercator's map provided a major breakthrough in the nautical cartography of the 16th century by maintaining an accurate ratio of latitude to longitude.

Today, in our modern world with maps produced from satellite imagery and modern printing technology, these early charts present a very strange world view to us. To the 16th-century Europeans the northern polar region was as distant and fantastical as another world; tales of lands inhabited by pygmies, congealed seas, perpetual daylight, whirlpools, a realm of ice that pulled at the lodestone.

Concepts of the known world, influenced by religious views, dominated European maps during the Medieval period with Jerusalem typically shown at the centre. These early maps were, of course, drawn and illuminated by hand, with little duplication and extremely limited distribution. Reports from returning explorers provided vital information for the early map makers. From the beginning of the 12th century Viking explorations of the North Atlantic fuelled the Norse Sagas and began to be incorporated into world maps but the view of the northern polar regions remained shrouded in Arctic mist.

Mercator's north pole
The legend on Mercator's 1569 map claimed the information he based his representation of the Septentrional (northern) regions was gleaned from the accounts of the travels of Jacoben Cnoyen who quoted 'historical facts' of Arthur the Briton from the Gestae Arthuri, and another work written by an English friar from Oxford who had travelled in the far north in 1360 and recorded what he saw in a work called the Inventio fortunata. Unfortunately all these accounts are now lost and all we have of  the contents is recorded in Mercator's letter of 1577 to the Elizabethan geographer John Dee.

The account of the Septentrional regions recorded in the Inventio depicted a great black rock, the Rupes Nigra, at the top of the world with four indraughts which had the force to swallow whole ships, dividing four islands within a mountain range at latitude 78' like a jagged wall around the Pole.  Evidently the Inventio coloured Mercator's view of the northern polar regions as shown on his 1569 wall map and persisted to the first edition of his atlas map of the Arctic, published in 1595, a year after his death, which shows four complete islands with a solid coastline, marking a significant leap in Arctic cartography. Yet, although the author of the Inventio may have claimed to have travelled northwards from latitude 54' he cannot have actually reached the North Pole; the Arctic world he describes is far from the reality we know today.

At this time no explorer had been anywhere near the North Pole, and today we view the ring of islands shown surrounding the North Pole as pure fantasy derived from a mythical concept like something from Tolkien's Middle Earth; yet this interpretive image of the Septentrional Islands and Indrawing Seas depicted in the 14th century Inventio Fortunata persisted for a remarkable length of time and influenced early polar geography from the accounts of  Martin Behaim's globe (1492), Johannes Ruysch's world map (1507), Mercator's wall chart (1569) persisting through to the 17th century in Peter Heylin's 'Cosmographie' (1657).

The detail of the northern polar regions depicted on Behaim's globe shows what he presumed to be the northern edge of the Eurasion continent, the 'edge of the world' as shown on many other maps of the time. The northwest part of Behaim's Arctic coast and that of Scandinavia appear to be based on interpretations of Claudius Clavus. But there is no known precedent for Behaim's central Arctic coast.

In the 2nd century AD the Greek geographer Ptolemy advanced a scheme of cartographic projection that allowed flat maps to account for the curvature of the Earth that he had perfected form his predecessor Marinus of Tyre and acknowledges his great obligations to him in his work 'Geographia'. It wasn't until the rekindling of interest in Ptolemy during the Renaissance that a French cardinal Gulielmus Filiastrus had a Latin translation made of the map captions in his work. The Latinized maps were appended to a 1407 translation. The Filiastrous Ptolemy included a textual description and map of Scandinavia, a region known to Pliny and Mela but with insufficient detail as to be enclosed in local maps.

The Danish cartographer Claudius Clavus was considered a leading authority on the regions of the north at this time, and probably the first to put Greenland on the map with an outline, which was included in the Filiastrous Ptolemy of 1427. From documents written by Nicolas Germanus and Henricus Martellus it seems Clavus visited Greenland in 1420 around the time that Norse settlements in Greenland had come to an end after five hundred years. Clavus's sources were probably Norse but he admitted that some unknown areas, such as the landmass linking Greenland to Scandinavia, were based on conjecture.

In 1558 a book entitled De I Commentarii del Viaggio [The Discovery of Frisanda, Elslanda, Estotilanda and Icaria; Made by Two Brothers of the Zeno family: viz Messire Nicolò, the Chevalier, and Messire Antonio; with a Map of the said Islands] was published by a Venetian nobleman named Nicolò Zeno that claimed an accompanying map was made by his ancestors, the brothers Nicolò and Antonio Zeno, in 1380. The book claimed the map illustrated the lands of the North Atlantic, and some argue North America, discovered by the Zeno brothers a hundred years before Columbus set foot on the New World. A third brother from this distinguished family was the naval hero of the Mediterranean, Admiral Carlo Zeno (d. 1418). The younger Nicolo’, great-great-great-grandson (?) of Nicolò senior, claimed he had an ancient family manuscript which he, as a child, had torn to pieces. Realising that the document contained important information on the explorations of his family he attempted to reconstruct the presumed content of the manuscript by pulling together quotations from letters found in his family house that told the story of Nicoló the navigator who was shipwrecked near the Island of Frislanda while voyaging to England.

The Zeno map (Wikimedia commons)
He was hired by the locals to command the fleet of Frislanda. Later Nicoló wrote a letter to his brother Antonio in Venice inviting him to join him in Frislanda where they enjoyed adventures together until four years later when Nicoló died, c.1398. Antonio stayed in Frislanda for a further ten years before he returned to Venice.

Writing from somewhere in the North Sea just before the time of his death the elder Nicoló claimed that twenty six years previous (c.1372) four fishing boats put to sail and were driven across the sea for several days by a heavy storm. They came to an island called Estotiland, a rich country, abounding in gold (or copper?) and plentiful in all good things, with immense woods, whose people grew corn and drank beer, lying more than a thousand miles westward from where Nicoló wrote. They traded with Greenland, importing furs, brimstone and pitch.

Antonio describes a journey he took to Greenland in which he saw a monastery situated by a hot spring at an unknown location. The waters were used to heat both the monastery and the friar's chambers. Today there is still an active thermal spring at Uunartoq Island which would have been in the Norse Eastern Settlement of Greenland where a cloister is known to have existed. Today a spa bathtub constructed from boulders can be found there with the oldest traces dating back over a thousand years to the time of Norse settlement. Nearby the remains of a Benedictine convent dedicated to Olaf the Holy, King of Norway 995-1000 who baptised Leif Ericson, was located in 1932. It was later identified as the Norse religious house mentioned by Ivar Bardarson in his Description of Greenland, a report written for the bishop of Bergen between A.D. 1341-60. Bardarson was the bishop's envoy and probably sent to the Greenland settlement to collect taxes for the church. By odd coincidence this is around the same time that the friar from Oxford is said to have visited the north and penned the Inventio Fortunata.

The remains of a compass, known as the Uunartoq disc, were found in the convent in 1948. Initially thought to have been a decorative object but other scholars have argued the wooden disc was an important navigational tool used by the Vikings in their 1,600-mile-long sea journey almost directly west from Norway to Greenland. It is thought the Vikings could have used a pair of crystals known as sunstones, in conjunction with the wooden disc, to locate the sun after sunset and pinpoint the position of the sun below the horizon, enabling them to navigate the North Atlantic along a nearly straight line.

According to the Icelandic Sagas the first Norse settlements in Greenland were founded by Erik (The Red) Thorvaldsson, father of the famous Icelandic explorer Leif Ericson, acknowledged as the first European to land in North America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Erik the Red's father had been banished from Norway for manslaughter and sailed West to Iceland. Later Erik the Red was exiled for three years by the Icelanders as he too had committed "some killings" c.982. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, he spent his three years of exile exploring a mysterious and little-known land. He rounded the southern tip of the island and sailed up the western coast identifying habitable lands.

After his exile he returned to Iceland with enticing tales of this new land, naming it 'Greenland' to make it sound more attractive than 'Iceland'. Erik returned to Greenland in 985 with the first colonists in 24 boatloads but only 14 completed the journey, the others boats were either forced back to port or lost at sea. Erik established two colonies on the southwest coast of Greenland; The Eastern and Western Settlements.

Nicoló Zeno and the fishermen remained five years at Estotiland. No one could understand their language except an interpreter that spoke Latin who had also by chance been cast on that island. The king of Estotiland sent them with twelve boats to a land to the south they called Drogeo who's people are described as such that they are probably North American Indians.  Nicoló and the fishermen spent thirteen years on Drogeo among the natives before returning to Estotiland. It seems likely the inhabitants of Estotiland where Norsemen and the island was actually Newfoundland which is due west of the North Sea by 'more than a thousand miles' and the land called Drogeo may have been Nova Scotia. Finally Antonio sailed home to Venice with their story.

The North Atlantic from Sebastian Munster's Cosmography
It is from these letters that the younger Nicoló claimed to have extracted details of his ancestors’ voyages to Engroneland (Greenland) and distant islands of Frislanda, Icaria, Drogero, Estotiland and Estland, in the northern Atlantic as depicted on the Zeno map in remarkable detail. Many of these islands were printed on maps for centuries; in the 16th century the accounts of the brother's voyages clearly influenced Mercator who included the Zeno geography in his world map of 1569, followed closely by Abraham Ortelius in his map of the Northern Atlantic in 1573.

Following the Zeno geography Mercator included Frislanda in a separate inset on his 1595 map of the North Pole which led to considerable confusion in the mapping of Greenland and Baffin Island in the following centuries. In 1576 the explorer Martin Frobisher took a copy of the Zeno map with him on his voyage to the Arctic. When Frobisher reported sight of land which he believed to be Frislanda, he claimed the island for England in the name of Queen Elizabeth. He had actually sighted the coast of Greenland, consequently when he got to Baffin Island he thought he was at Greenland, and so the reports of all his explorations around Baffin Island were ascribed to Greenland. Thus it was that for many years "Frobishers Strait" was put at the southern tip of Greenland rather than on Baffin Island. He had initially thought the channel, later to bear his name, was in fact the fabled Northwest Passage with the mistaken notion that the land bounding the strait to the south was America, and that to the north was Asia. It wasn't until 1861 that it was realised it was actually a bay at the southeastern corner of Baffin Island.

After Mercator, one of the most influential geographical works of the 16th Century was Sebastian Munster's Cosmography. The 1579 German  issue of Munster's Cosmography included an early regional map of Scandinavia, Iceland, the Baltic and the North Sea regions, based upon Abraham Ortelius' map first issued in 1573. Again the fictitious islands of Frislanda and Icaria are shown near Iceland, and further west Estotiland is shown as a part of North America and other mythical features such as the islands of St. Brendan and Brazil. No wonder explorer's like Frobisher were confused.

However, the Zeno account was accepted as genuine enough and for a long time considered one of the most important charts made in the late 14th century, during the following centuries Frislanda was included by most cartographers and even appeared as late as Lotter's 18th century map. But as knowledge of the North Atlantic advanced many of the lands depicted in the Zeno map proved to be fictitious and simply did not exist.

Two years after Mercator's death in 1596 the Dutch Arctic explorer and cartographer Willem Barentsz in searching for a Northeast passage along the coast of Siberia discovered and mapped Spitsbergen (shown as "Het Nieuwe Land" Dutch for "the New Land") for the first time and rounded the northern tip of Nova Zembla. This break-through achievement redefined the cartographic perspective of the region, for these newly discovered islands were well into the latitudes where Mercator had mapped his four Arctic lands. In subsequent decades all trace of Mercator's four circumpolar islands, the Rupes Nigra, and the Arctic maelstrom had vanished from maps of the northern regions.

Willem Barentsz's map of the Northern Polar region
 Mercator's four islands around the pole have gone but Frisland is still there
In 1898 Frederic W. Lucas published a scathing criticism of the Zeno account entitled 'The Annals of the Voyages of the Brothers Nicolò and Antonio Zeno, In the North Atlantic About the End of the Fourtheenth Century and the Claim Founded Thereon to a Venetian Discovery of America; A Criticism and an Indictment'. Lucas argued that the Zeno narrative and its accompanying map was nothing short of a complete fabrication extracted from several Renaissance maps and works, including representations of Iceland taken directly from Olaus Magnus which the author of the Zeno narrative utilised to represent an enigmatic new land which some have interpreted as America. As a direct consequence of Lucas' criticism, today the Zeno map and narrative is regarded to be at best of doubtful authenticity if not an outright hoax.

No copy of the Zeno map is known to exist prior to its publication in Nicolò Zeno’s 1558 book and conveniently, some might say, the author claims he destroyed the original text as a child so we only have the 16th century edition. The authenticity of the Zeno map seems to be betrayed by its very accurate depiction of Greenland which is significantly superior to other 14th century maps, and appearing nearly identical in shape and orientation to the Clavus-derived 1467 map of Nicolaus Germanus.  Indeed, modern scholars have concluded that the Zeno map is derived from a compilation of several earlier maps, including Olaus Magnus’ Carta marina, printed in Venice in 1539 and derivatives of Claudius Clavus’ early map of the North c.1427.

The fact that the likes of respected 16th century geographers such as Mercator and Ortelius could be taken in by these representations of the northern polar regions, such as the Zeno brothers and the Inventio Fortunata, underlines what little knowledge educated Europeans actually had of the Arctic regions and hardly surprising that explorers were confused when on the ocean.

Quite simply unchartered lands (Terra incognito) beyond the edge of the map were based on mythological perceptions and Polar maps at the extremes given fabulous descriptions.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
HR Holand, An English Scientist in America 130 Years before Columbus, Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, pp. 205-219, Volume XLVIII, 1959. Holand argues that the Oxford friar who wrote the Inventio Fortunata must have been in Hudson Bay.
James Robert Enterline, Erikson, Eskimos, and Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America,  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Robert McGhee, The Arctic Voyages of Martin Frobisher: An Elizabethan Adventure, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2006.
Fred W. Lucas, The Zeno Voyage: Anatomy of a Hoax, edited by Jason Colavito, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.

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  1. There is independent proof of the Zeni voyage. An account of the Zeni brothers voyages is given in Marco Barbaro's Discendenza Patrizie manuscript of 1536, 22 years before the younger Nicolò Zeni's book was published.

    1. Thanks for this Jonathan,

      I believe the 'proof' you refer to is the case presented in books such as 'Templars in America' by Tim Wallace-Murphy, in which it is claimed Henry Sinclair of Orkney travelled to Nova Scotia in 1398. In this modern legend Sinclair is said to be synonymous with Zichmi, the prince of Frisland, of the Zeno narrative.

      This is beyond my subject knowledge but Jason Colavito (among others) refutes these claims, arguing that the Barbaro manuscript is in fact undated; There is no documented evidence for the Zeno voyage before 1558; Further, no claim for Zichmni reaching North America exists before 1566; There was no connection between Zichmni and Sinclair before 1784 when John Reinhold Forster proposed that Zichmni is Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney.

      See: Did Marco Barbaro Record an Earlier Version of the Zeno Narrative?

    2. Jonathan Plowman2 January 2015 at 23:50

      Yes, I am aware of the counter argument, but I am not convinced. We will have to agree to differ.


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