Over the summer, Paolo Chiesa published an article in Terrae Incognitae describing a passage in a medieval Italian chronicle briefly mentioning the land west of Greenland which the Norse had named Markland, and it made the rounds of online news sources a couple of weeks ago. Chiesa said that this passage, from around 1340 CE, is the oldest mention of North America known from the Mediterranean region. On its own, this is not earth-shattering news since the northern European peoples had been speaking of these lands since Adam of Bremen described Vinland around 1035 CE. But it does have interesting implications for the notorious Zeno Narrative and its role in fringe history’s elaborate narrative about Henry Sinclair learning of and visiting North America.
According to Chiesa’s article, the text in question comes from an unpublished chronicle by Galvaneus Flamma, a Milanese friar who lived before 1345. His unfinished Cronica universalis is believed to be his last work, written around 1340 and known from a copy made in the late 1300s. Part of Book 3 discusses what seems to be North America, apparently from a Norse source. After describing Iceland and Greenland, Galvaneus moves on to Markland, the Norse name for Labrador:
Inde versus occidens est terra quedam que dicitur Marckalada, ubi gigantes habitant et sunt hedifitia habentia lapides saxeos tam grandes quod nullus homo posset in hedifitio collocare nisi essent gygantes maximi. Ibi sunt arbores virides et animalia et aves multe nimis. Nec umquam fuit aliquis marinarius qui de ista terra nec de eius condictionibus aliquid scire potuerit pro certo.
Prior to the discovery of this source, the name Markland wasn’t known outside of the areas of Norse influence in the north, mostly centered on Iceland. As Chiesa points out, Galvaneus’s descriptions of various northern lands are mixed up, with elements of Norse accounts of Greenland, Iceland, and Markland traded between and among them. According to Galvaneus, his source was “sailors” who were familiar with “the seas of Denmark and Norway” and a “Brother Symon” who had spent five years in the north. Chiesa concludes from other references to Genoese material in the chronicle that Galvaneus gleaned his information secondhand from Genoa.
By itself, this is interesting but not precisely world-changing. However, it does have implications for the long-simmering controversy over whether the so-called Zeno Narrative is a genuine medieval text from c. 1400 or a Renaissance hoax from 1558. The Zeno Narrative tells the story of the brothers Antonio Zeno and Nicolò Zeno the Elder of Venice, who supposedly sailed across the northern islands in the 1390s, met a prince named Zichmni, and heard from fishermen of a land beyond Greenland called Drogio, part of a landmass whose residents ranged from cannibals in the north to city-dwellers in the south. Speculators from Richard Henry Major to Frederick J. Pohl to Scott Wolter have alleged that this story actually tells the story of Henry I Sinclair, 1st Earl of Orkney making an expedition to North America in 1398, an event unattested in any uncontested medieval source.
Since the publication of the Zeno Narrative in 1558, advocates have argued that the narrative and its accompanying map of the northern Atlantic were either a genuine medieval text or a hoax perpetrated by Nicolò Zeno the Younger, the editor of the text. The younger Zeno admitted that he had destroyed the original manuscript and said that the original map was full of holes and tears. The versions he published were, he said, recreations from his memory. Seeking out what legitimately lies beneath the published version is, in many ways, a fool’s errand.
In my mind, the arguments for hoaxing are very strong, not least because so many details in the text are obviously drawn from books that the younger Zeno had access to in 1558, as Fred W. Lucas demonstrated in the 1890s. Oh, and the Narrative claims that one of the Zeno brothers was traveling the Atlantic at a time when he was on trial back in Europe, and it asserts that he died in the North when in reality he lived on for many years after. The fictitious land of Drogio (identified by Mercator in 1587 with Cape Breton Island off Nova Scotia) and other made-up islands in the story don’t match the Norse descriptions from either Norse texts or the Italian one very well.
But the real Nicolò Zeno the Elder did indeed travel to England, and Galvaneus’s chronicle provides that first hint that Italians did have some knowledge of Norse discoveries in North America, meaning that there is at least some possibility that the younger Zeno fabricated his story from a description or chronicle of what the elder Zeno reported hearing in England or had learned from travelers either at home or on his travels. In other words, it is not impossible that both sides were a little right—that the extant text is a hoax but that it was built on a medieval account, hopelessly garbled across time. William H. Babcock even suggested in 1913 that the name “Drogio” might have been a corruption of the Italian word derogare, or dispensation, perhaps due to Italians and non-Italians mangling half-understood translations.
I don’t think there’s much chance the whole text is medieval in scope or in detail, but there is, of course, a logical problem for those that want to use the Zeno Narrative to argue that Zichmni was Henry Sinclair and that he visited the Americas in the 1390s. Galvaneus’s account is from 1340, fifty years before the Zeno Brothers and Zichmni supposedly learned of the lands beyond Greenland. If sailors in the north were familiar with such stories in the 1340s, then the “discovery” narrative in the Zeno account rings a little hollow.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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