I am taking the day off today to get some work done. Please enjoy this reprint of a blog entry that first ran in May of 2012.
Digging through some boxes I found my old copy of Gunnar Thompson’s The Friar’s Map of Ancient America (1996), which I bought in 1997 at the gift shop at America’s Stonehenge (Mystery Hill) in New Hampshire—that collection of colonial cold cellars and foundations that generations have passed off as megalithic architecture. The pages are still reasonably white, but the cover has faded from its original electric orange to a dull rust.
The book purports to demonstrate that the world map created by Albertin de Virga (c. 1414) actually depicts North America (as the blob to the northwest of Europe) and South America (as the island southeast of Asia) in the image below. (Note that southern Africa is marked as the site of the Garden of Eden!) The original map vanished into the private hands of an unnamed collector in the 1930s, and all that remains are photographs taken of it shortly before it disappeared.
Thompson goes to immense effort to show that this map was based on the expeditions of English friar Nicholas of Lynn between 1330 and 1360 CE. This would be extraordinary for a number of reasons, not least of which is that fact that Nicholas of Lynn was, according to extant evidence, not born until 1360. It was John Dee, the Elizabethan occultist and mystic, who first identified this Nicholas, a Carmeline monk, as the author of Inventio Fortunae due to a misinterpretation of Chaucer’s praise for Nicholas in Treatise on the Astrolabe. This book, in turn, is conveniently non-existent, rendering Thompson’s claims about its contents speculative at best.
The misidentification arose because of the summary of the Inventio Fortunae preserved in Jacobus Cnoyen’s Itinerarium. The summary stated (apparently) that a Franciscan friar gave an astrolabe to a Norwegian settler on an Atlantic island. Hence the confusion with the astrolabe-using Carmeline monk, Nicholas of Lynn. Of course Cnoyen’s text is now lost, too, and with it the summary.
All that remains of the Inventio Fortunae is contained in a single letter sent from Gerardus Mercator to John Dee in 1577 and a legend on Mercator’s 1569 polar map.
Here is Mercator’s map text:
we have taken [the Arctic geography] from the Itinerium of Jacobus Cnoyen of the Hague, who makes some citations from the Gesta of Arthur of Britain; however, the greater and most important part he learned from a certain priest at the court of the king of Norway in 1364. He was descended in the fifth generation from those whom Arthur had sent to inhabit these lands, and he related that in the year 1360 a certain Minorite, an Englishman from Oxford, a mathematician, went to those islands; and leaving them, advanced still farther by magic arts and mapped out all and measured them by an astrolabe in practically the subjoined figure, as we have learned from Jacobus. The four canals there pictured he said flow with such current to the inner whirlpool, that if vessels once enter they cannot be driven back by wind. (trans. Fite & Freedman, A Book of Old Maps)
I don’t usually think of the myth of King Arthur as a good source for travels to North America, but I’m not an alternative historian. (To be fair, some stories do present Arthur as dealing with Iceland and Greenland, but these are very late and obvious derivatives of the narrative told in Richard Haklyut in Navigations 1.1 [1589-1600], quoting Geoffrey of Monmouth, 9.19, who in turn was merely applying to Arthur all the northern lands known in his day.)
Here is Mercator’s letter to John Dee, from, I believe, the 1956 translation by E. G. R. Taylor:
In the midst of the four countries is a Whirlpool into which there empty these four Indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is 4 degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogther. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic stone. And is as high as the clouds, so the Priest said, who had received the astrolabe from this Minorite in exchange for a Testament. And the Minorite himself had heard that one can see all round it from the Sea, and that it is black and glistening. And nothing grows thereon, for there is not so much as a handful of soil on it.
Now, if you believe that a “voyage” that claimed to have found a gigantic magnetic mountain, four inrushing seas, and a polar island is an accurate and reliable source, more power to you. Certainly, early mapmakers thought as much and included this weird detail in the polar regions of their maps on the authority of the Inventio Fortunae, as well as the Classical notion of the lodestone mountain on which it was based. Authors such as Galen and St. Ambrose had written of this long ago. In the Middle Ages it was used to explain why the compass points north.
But this detail is missing from De Virga’s map, and Thompson seems too eager to make into North America a piece of land of the size and shape of a territory well-known in 1414: Greenland. Further, in fifteenth century maps following Ptolemy, Greenland is depicted as connected to Europe, just as it is on De Virga’s map. But an even simpler answer is also at hand: the territory is named Norveca (Norway) and depicts that country. Thompson, conveniently, leaves out the geographic names to disguise this fact. I believe the space between Norway and Sweden, which Thompson sees as the Gulf of Mexico is intended to be the Gulf of Bothnia
The southern island he identifies as Peru is believed to be the result of De Virga conflating Marco Polo’s description of Japan and Java. (He uses Marco Polo’s geographic terminology extensively throughout the map.)
The long and short of it is that what is known about the Inventio Fortunae tells us that the book describes the known geography of Greenland before including imaginary details about the Arctic drawn from Classical sources. In this, it is not significantly different from its contemporary, the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, another fictional work incorporating real fragments amidst outright fabrication and fantasy. There is no evidence that the Inventio Fortunae contained any information about North or South America. This is entirely modern speculation derived from a speculative interpretation of the (implied) lands separating the four seas that surround the magnetic mountain.
So, given the lack of any other details matching what is known about Inventio Fortunae, which in turn was not written by Nicholas of Lynn, there is no reason to suspect that Albertin de Virga used imaginary details about America from the Inventio Fortunae to depict those continents on his world map.
Thus, Gunnar Thompson's claim that Nicholas of Lynn voyaged to America in 1360, wrote the Inventio Fortunae, and inspired Albertin de Virga's world map of 1414 is false on every claim.
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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