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Book Review

 

Seaver, Kirsten A. Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vinland Map (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004). 373 pp, $19.72.

 
      In the early Middle Ages, a tiny population of farmer-traders inhabiting isolated Scandinavian farms began a centuries-long career of raids, settlement, and trade creating networks that stretched from Newfoundland to Central Asia. Much of their literature was preserved in Iceland, but other sources, including legal compilations, sagas and runic inscriptions, as well as references in early European and Arabic sources, testify to their impact on world history. Known in the West as Vikings, they made landfalls in Labrador, Newfoundland and, perhaps, further south beginning in the 11th century. As the Rus, they are credited with the foundation of early Russia. As the Varangians, they soldiered for Byzantium and its emperor. As merchant-adventurers, they dragged their ships across the Caucasus and maintained offices in Baghdad, Novgorod and Bulgar. As Northmen—later Normans—they laid siege to Paris and conquered Normandy, England and Sicily. On the balcony of the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, they carved their runes. 1
    Despite connections spanning continents (as well as classroom-enlivening violence and valor) the history of the so-called Vikings has remained on the periphery of World History. The event which does most consistently attract attention is the 11th-century Norse settlement of the Labrador and Newfoundland coasts. Our knowledge of this brief episode is fragmentary, and teasing out new evidence has required considerable effort. The Vinland Sagas, tell of the men and women who participated in westerly adventures and suggest their motives. However, these were recorded in the twelfth and thirteenth century Iceland, about two hundred years after the original voyages. Recent archaeological digs along the Canadian coast and in Greenland have provided further evidence. 2
    And so it came as extraordinary news when, in 1965, scholars from Yale University and the British Museum published The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, a lavish coffeetable volume devoted to a recently discovered 15th century chart of Newfoundland and Labrador: a Viking map of Vinland. Controversy swiftly followed. As Sweden's Ingemar Carlsson tells the story, journalists demanded to see the papers of Erik the Red, as if those papers existed and could be instantly produced from the archives. Scholars were more deliberate, but many had their doubts. Nearly thirty-five years after the map's publication, Mats G. Larsson concluded that the last word on the issue had yet to be said.1 3
     For many, Kirsten A. Seaver will have that last word. An independent historian with Norwegian roots and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London, she has spent ten years researching the Vinland Map in North America and Europe. Her account begins with a summary of what we know about Norse activities in the North Atlantic region. She then devotes herself to the controversy itself. The map's sellers never clearly explained its provenance a fact which did not deter Yale from buying it. The three authors of the Vinland Map —R. A. Skelton and G. D. Painter of the British Museum and T. E. Marston of Yale were respected experts and curators of maps, incunabula and pre-Columbian manuscripts. None, however, had an intimate knowledge of Nordic languages. Pledged to working on the project secretly, they did not consult the legion of specialists in Nordic languages, literature, history, archaeology and cartography. Questions about the map's authenticity therefore followed publication rather than preceding it. Those questions became pressing when Yale University arranged an international exhibition tour for the map, a tour whose hype (and insurance premiums) raised Nordic eyebrows. 4
     Seaver then turns her attention to the bound manuscript and two documents included with it. Seaver compares the Vinland Map to authenticated examples of 15th century European cartography. She investigates the map's purported history before Yale's purchase. She explains how chemical analysis can contribute to an assessment of a document's materials. Her conclusion: the map was a sophisticated forgery. Her alleged culprit: Father Joseph Fischer, S.J., a scholar who sought, she writes, to deceive the Nazi-era Germans.   5
     This controversy, about one document's authenticity, adds nothing to our knowledge of Norse voyages and settlement. Yet it certainly doesn't deserve to be thrown into the circular file. Seaver writes clearly and engagingly, but what is more important about this book is how well her work reveals the advanced skills required for both historical cartography documentary authentication. This is a book for anyone studying historiography, historical methods, or the theory of knowledge. 6
     As for Vinland itself, the best classroom source remains The Vinland Sagas, available in a slim paperback with an extensive introduction and maps from Penguin Classics.2 A lesson built around the Sagas could draw also on both print and web-based material on the archaeological work at L'anse Meadows and other sites. Teachers can also draw from other Norse Sagas, especially those collected in Heimskringla: The History of the Kings of Norway, for similar lessons on Norse expansion, not just to the West, but also to the South and East. The Harald Sagas, for example, provide the Viking version of the Norman invasion of England in 1066.   7
Carol Adamson
Stockholm International School

Endotes


1 R. A. Skelton, G. D. Painter and T. E. Marston, The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation (Yale University Press, 1965); Ingemar Carlsson, På lögnens väg [The Path of Lies] (Lund: Historiska Media, 1999), 321; Mats G. Larsson, Vinland det goda [Vinland the Good], (Stockholm: Atlantis, 1999), 28–30.

2 Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson (eds.), The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (Penguin, 1965). 

 
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