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Imago Mundi

Imago Mundi Vol. 50 (1998), pp.199-202

"Vinland Re-read" by Paul Saenger (Newberry Library)

(Review Article on the Vinland Map)

The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation. By R. A. Skelton, Thomas E. Marston and George D. Painter, with a foreword by Alexander O. Vietor; New Edition with an Introduction by George D. Painter and Essays by Wilcomb E. Washburn, Thomas A. Cahill and Bruce H. Kusko, and Laurence C. Witten II. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995. ISBN 0 300 06520 5. Pp. lxvi, 291, ill. (cloth).

The announcement of the discovery of the Vinland Map in October 1965 sparked controversy that has continued unabated for more than thirty years. The volume under review is a re-publication of the original 1965 Yale University Press book, which described the map and made the case for its authenticity, with an additional 66 pages containing five new or relatively new essays (the essay of the late Laurence C. Witten is a reprint of a 1989 article). All the new material is sympathetic to the authenticity of the map and adds little to resolve the question in which Yale stands increasingly isolated from the majority of the academic community.

The doubts concerning the Yale map have focused principally on the following questions: Is the Vinland Map as a map consistent with the Yale thesis, to wit that it is the sole surviving witness to a lost thirteenth-century original recording the Norse discoveries of the tenth and eleventh centuries? Does palaeographical and codicological expertise sustain the Vinland Map to be a genuine artifact of the fifteenth century, the date of the parchment on which it is written and of the manuscripts with which it was bound? Does the map's provenance cast doubt on the likelihood of its being genuine?

As a palaeographer and student of the history of the book, I shall not dwell long on the first query. Suffice it to say that it is my view that the essays of Wilcomb B. Washburn and George D. Painter do not convincingly rebut the negative judgment on the historicity of the map as put forth most recently by Kirsten A. Seaver and the late Helen Wallis.(1) These scholars have found the Nordic details, ranging from the presence of Vinland to the astonishingly accurate representations of Greenland and Iceland, to be unsupported by any medieval Nordic cartographical tradition. In themselves, these details strongly suggest fraud. Also, as Seaver has pointed out, legends number 66 and 67 (pp. 139--40) on the map contain misinformation concerning a purported joint voyage of Leif Eiriksson and one Byarnus, a misreading of Scandinavian sources that first appeared in a German-language History of Greenland published in 1767. In addition, eccentric Latinization of both place and personal names suggests a fake. Particularly egregious is Erissonius for Eiriksson where the normal medieval Latin would be Erici filius or Henrici filius. Finally, the Vinland map's northern orientation, if indeed it truly reflects a thirteenth century lost original, would be without precedent in the latine world among non-climatic, pre-fifteenth-century world maps.

However, the greatest deficiency of the new Yale volume is its failure to address the palaeographical and codicological problems posed since the Vinland map's initial discovery in 1958. From the outset, it was curious, to say the least, that Yale University Press chose a Yale librarian and extraordinary book collector, Thomas Marston, to write the palaeographical description of the map and the two codices associated with it. (Today the map and Tartar Relation are bound in Beinecke Library MS 350A, but in the fifteenth century the leaves on which the map now appears and the Tartar Relation were bound in MS 350, a volume containing the third portion of Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum historiale.) Marston---who had a Harvard doctorate in nineteenth-century British history---was closely associated, as curator of classical literature, with the decision to purchase the map. He was also a good friend of the dealer, Laurence C. Witten II, a Yale alumnus, who sold the map to a Yale benefactor. Marston, however, had no formal training in palaeography and produced, other than this amateurish essay, no significant piece of medieval scholarship.

Yale University Press and the Yale Library from 1965 to this day have not actively elicited the judgment of senior palaeographers on the map's authenticity. Where palaeographers working outside the inner circle at Yale have run counter to the accepted theses, they are ignored in this volume. Stephan Kuttner is reported to have been sceptical, but he never published his views.(2) Barbara Shailor's excellent 1985 catalogue of the Beinecke's medieval manuscripts is barely mentioned in passing in a single footnote of the new edition.(3) She was invited to participate neither in the volume under review nor in the recent Vinland Map conference held in conjunction with its publication.

Shailor's conclusions (which appeared in 1987 in the second volume of her catalogue), stand in direct contradiction at several points to the `facts' as they are reported in both the original and supplementary articles in The Vinland Map, and her judgement on Marston's acumen regarding medieval manuscripts is discerning. Speaking of Marston in the 1992 preface to volume three of her Catalogue (which describes the 230 manuscripts Marston sold to Yale), she observes, `He [Marston, in the notes he made for his manuscripts,] did not usually indicate the source of his information, much of which we have not been able to verify. In those cases where the information was erroneous, we have not included reference to his notes. In other instances, we have cited his opinion, although its accuracy may be open to question'.(4)

In regard to the Vinland Map specifically (Beinecke MS 350A), Shailor differs with Marston and Painter at two critical junctures.(5) First, she states that the scribe who copied the map was not the same as the one who copied the Tartar Relation and Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum historiale. Second, she correctly transcribes the inscription on the verso of the map, which both Marston and Painter mistranscribed and mispunctuated in the original Yale volume. Two years after Shailor's corrected version had appeared, Witten, who became seriously ill at this time, repeated the erroneous version in his essay reprinted in the present volume.

The mistranslated phrase `Drawing (delineatio) of the first part, second part, third part of the Speculum' was used in 1965 and again by Witten in 1989 to sustain a purported relationship between the map and the text of the Speculum with which it supposedly had been originally bound. In fact the phrase, as Shailor correctly transcribes and punctuates it, is ungrammatical and therefore incoherent Latin. In my judgment, the internal inconsistency in the mode of abbreviating the root par in pars and either partes or partis (whichever the writer intended) suggests a modern confabulation, likely constructed from tracings of discrete entries for the words pars and partis in Adriano Cappelli's Dizionario di Abbreviature Latine ed Italiane.(6) A reasonable explanation of the inscription on the verso of the Vinland Map might be that it was added in modern times, perhaps by a book dealer, to relate the map more closely to the genuine medieval text of the volume that is now MS 350; the hand of this inscription need not necessarily be that of whoever confected the map itself, whose latinity was consistently grammatically correct.

A close reading of Shailor's full description of Beinecke MS 350A clearly suggests that she, as the Beinecke's cataloguer of medieval codices, had palaeographical doubts as to whether the map was in fact genuine. I can add that to my knowledge there exist no known late medieval books in which scribes have added maps on separate leaves at the opposite extremity of the codex from the portion of the text to which the maps relate, and then provided a sign post in the way of an inscription on the verso to direct the reader to the apposite location. Additionally while delineatio is a known neo-Latin term for maps in the sixteenth century, I have not been able to find it used in this sense in the fifteenth century, the normal medieval expressions being tabula or mappa.

The purported codicological structure of the Vinland Map volume, perhaps plausible for a sixteenth-century printed book, seems highly dubious for a formal fifteenth-century manuscript. In addition, the writing out of the ae diphthong for the first declension plural in legend number 63 (p. 138) in the map is both inconsistent with the scribe of the Tartar Relation (who uses only the usual medieval form e), and totally anachronistic in a German gothic `hybrida' in the mid-fifteenth century. At this date, only an Italian humanistic script would have the ae diphthong written out, and neither the Vinland Map nor the related texts in their script evince any other sign of either humanistic or Italian influence. The punctuation of the legends in the map, notably the total or almost total absence of the `virgula', a slanting stroke, to mark inter-sentence pauses (the facsimile is not sufficiently clear to say), is inconsistent with the script of the text and also anormal for late gothic script. Also, the `trait d'union', or hyphen, on the map differs in form from that in the text.

The new edition confirms that R. A. Skelton's 1966 plea for greater palaeographical investigation has gone totally unheeded, for in the past third of a century the pre-eminent medieval palaeographers (such as Bernhard Bischoff, T. Julian Brown, Jean Vezin, Malcolm Parkes, Paul Oskar Kristeller, Giuseppe Billanovich, Albert Derolez, Richard Rouse and Pieter Obbema) have never formally been invited to voice their opinions on the map as a medieval manuscript, either collectively or individually, although many of these erudites must certainly have passed through or near New Haven. It should also be remembered that the map was shown to and rejected by the curators of the Department of Manuscripts of the British Library (T. Julian Brown was then Assistant Keeper), before it was offered to Yale.

The absence of positive judgements by palaeographers is particularly telling, since Laurence Witten, in his generally well written, if somewhat exaggerated, sale catalogues, is known to have consulted at least two of the scholars listed above to bolster claims he made for books that he sought to sell.(7) Why in this case did he and his co-authors hesitate to consult experts on late medieval manuscript books? An oral tradition, perhaps apocryphal, tells us that the late Bernhard Bischoff on a visit to Yale once saw the map and laughed. Whether a true anecdote or not, it is clear that the rosters of scholars invited to participate in the two conferences officially sanctioned by Yale University have excluded precisely the class of scholar most likely to have an informed scholarly opinion on its genuineness. As a consequence, the amateurish nature of Marston's 1965 essay in this volume still stands uncorrected.

Shailor's catalogue, so valuable for its palaeographical insights regarding the Vinland Map, is also a treasure of information about the circumstances and milieu in which it was purchased, particularly the role of Laurence C. Witten II (a Yale alumnus who sold the map to another Yale alumnus, Paul Mellon, who in turn donated the map to Yale), and Thomas Marston, the Yale College alumnus and curator who played such an active role in vetting the map even before its purchase. Witten died in 1995, but in the 1989 Yale University Library Gazette article `Vinland's saga recalled', reprinted in the volume under review, he both overtly and obliquely added to the doubts concerning the map's pre-1957 provenance and therefore its bibliographical integrity. At the first Vinland Map conference in 1966, Witten had disingenuously claimed that he had personally visited the library from which the map had come, which he described as `a private library of fairly large dimensions . . . [containing] a rather large number of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century printed books and a rather large number of manuscripts'.(8) However, in his 1989 Gazette article, here reprinted, he frankly conceded that his claim had been entirely false and that he had never visited the library. Even more importantly, Witten in 1989 also changed his story (without in this instance acknowledging a revision) on the crucial point as to who truly had sold the map to Paul Mellon for approximately 300,000 dollars in 1958 (the equivalent of 3 million dollars today). In 1966 he had claimed that he had been the sole owner of the manuscript, having bought it outright for 3,500 dollars. Wilcomb B. Washburn accepted this version completely in 1966, and also in the essay added to the volume under review (even though he had read and cited Witten's 1989 article).(9)

Witten had also stated in 1966 that he subsequently gave the map to his wife (for reasons which remain obscure). Nevertheless, he unambiguously declared that, other than his wife, there had been no co-owners.
"I state categorically that the proceeds of the sale in their entirety were paid directly to Mrs. Witten and that her financial records will show no payment of any kind to Mr. [Enzo] Ferrajoli [from whom he had purchased the map via Nicolas Rauch] or to Mr. Davis or to any `straw man' intermediary. Likewise my own accounts, both private and business, will show that I never at any time made any such payment to either of these gentlemen or to any other individual who might be connected with this matter. I will, if it is desired, open all of our accounts for whatever period is desired to independent audit, and any team or committee of scholars may direct and assist the auditors in their work . . . [$3,500] is too little for a conspiracy and too much for a really accidental find".(10)
Witten in 1966 asserted too that he had offered Mellon in 1958 a written guarantee of its authenticity.

However, in 1974 (after Yale Library on the basis of initial laboratory examinations of the ink had judged the map to be not genuine) Witten reported to Rutherford D. Rogers, the Director of Yale's library, that the map had been effectively owned in partnership and that therefore he could not return the purchase price to Mellon, for `much of the total had already gone to the Internal Revenue Service, [Nicolas] Rauch and [Enzo] Ferrajoli' (p. lvii). (Why he did not offer to return his own portion is not explained.) The admission in 1989 that two European book dealers from whom he had purchased the map had retained a conditional interest in it, tied to its eventual resale price, completely contradicted his 1966 argument that the `miraculous reunion' (to use John Parker's felicitous 1966 phrase) could not have been a conspiracy among book dealers because Ferrajoli, in particular, had had no financial stake in the eventual disposition of the item.

Indeed, Witten's explicit declaration in 1966 had been formulated viva voce during an animated debate to counter John Parker's suggestion that Irving Davis (the English dealer who in 1957 had tried, without success, to sell the Vinland Map to the British Library prior to Witten's involvement) might conceivably have planted the manuscript of Vincent of Beauvais in the hands of Witten's New Haven friend Thomas Marston so that Witten could `discover it' as the codex from which the Vinland Map had been removed.(11) Marston had bought the future MS 350 in April of 1958 from proofs of Davis and Orioli catalogue number 159. Marston, convinced by Witten's `chance discovery' of a link between the two items, then reportedly gave the codex to Mrs. Witten. The combined evidence of both volumes eventually convinced Paul Mellon to purchase them for Yale. Interestingly, Witten in his 1989 essay reports that he had met with Davis in Milan directly after he had purchased the map from Rauch and Ferrajoli, an important detail documenting his direct contact with the man who had tried to sell the map to the British Library and subsequently had provided the crucial Vincent of Beauvais manuscript. He had omitted mentioning this meeting in 1966; for his part Marston in 1966 insisted that his relations with Davis were not good.(12)

In addition to playing a key role in Yale's acquisition of the Vinland map, Thomas Marston was an employee of Yale Library (assistant keeper of Rare Books in 1935 and later Curator of Classics and then of Medieval and Renaissance Literature). The Marston Collection of 230 manuscripts in the Beinecke Library bears his name, and a casual reader of the Yale University Library Gazette's notices of his retirement in 1973 and his death in 1984 might easily have assumed that this collection had been among his numerous gifts to Yale. In fact, Marston was the generous donor of five manuscripts to the Yale School of Music library and some 53 manuscripts (mostly written on paper and principally of a textual character) to the Beinecke. These manuscript gifts do not form part of the far more valuable Marston Collection that Yale, as revealed by Shailor, purchased in 1962 through the Yale Library Associates. (At this date, unlike gifts, purchases were not announced in the Gazette.)

Although Marston bought a few medieval manuscripts in the 1930s, late 1940s and early 1950s, more than 85 per cent of the collection that he sold to Yale in 1962 was in fact purchased in the seven year period 1954--1960, and of the total items sold to Yale, 43 per cent were acquired from Mr. Witten. Laurence Witten was the source of more Marston Collection manuscripts than any other dealer. (In contrast, according to the data provided by Shailor, the books he gave to Yale do not appear to originate disproportionally from Witten.) Coincidentally in 1958, the year when Witten and Marston `miraculously' reunited the future MSS 350 and 350A, Marston's acquisitions and consequently his dealings with Witten reached their zenith.(13)

Marston's pattern of relying on Laurence Witten (rather than on Robert J. Barry, Sr., of the booksellers Stonehill, or on other book dealers) as his principal source for the volumes that he eventually sold to Yale began in 1954--1955, well before he purchased the Vincent of Beauvais manuscript. A few years later, in 1961--1962, when Marston became a major seller of medieval manuscripts, Witten in conjunction with Sotheby's again played a role. Witten bought some manuscripts directly and successfully bid on two lots when nineteen Marston codices were sold at auction at Sotheby's in London in December 1961. He organized the sale of five additional Marston books in London in December 1962. In the 1961 sale, four of the six lots that achieved the highest prices were items that Marston had purchased from Witten, all also in 1958. The illuminated vellum manuscripts sold in these two London sales included some of the most valuable of all of Marston's medieval holdings. It is in the light of these important and multifaceted business relationships that Marston's gift to Mrs. Witten of the Vincent of Beauvais codex that was subsequently sold to Paul Mellon should be viewed.

Other details recorded in the Shailor catalogue also cast doubts on the `miraculous reunion' story related by both Witten and Marston. Notably both Marston and Witten maintained that on the April evening in 1958 (in 1989, it had become a winter evening in 1957--1958 (pp. xlvi--vii)) when Witten made his astonishing discovery, Marston had in fact invited him to admire two purchases ordered via Barry of Stonehill from the advance proofs of Davis and Orioli Catalogue number 159: the Vincent of Beauvais codex (item number 96, priced at 75 pounds sterling), and a small thirteenth-century codex in a Visconti binding (erroneously identified as item number 18), which is none other than Marston MS 166, now at the Beinecke. According to Shailor's detailed catalogue, Marston actually bought this manuscript in 1958 not from Davis and Orioli via Stonehill (as Witten repeatedly stated), but rather from Witten himself (invoice no. 1540). In fact, the real item number 18 from the Davis and Orioli catalogue was purchased by Marston and sold four years later to Witten. Today it is Newberry Library MS 97.3, a fifteenth-century volume containing the works of Leonardo Bruni.(14) Perhaps significantly, the final version of Davis and Orioli Catalogue 159 arrived at the Newberry Library only in February 1959, five months after catalogue 160.

Witten emphatically denied in 1968, and again in 1989, that MSS 350 and 350A had been among the codices stolen from the Cathedral Library of Zaragoza. The denial was prompted by the fact that Ferrajoli, from whom Rauch had acquired both codices, had been imprisoned by the Franco regime for thefts from this source. Indeed to this day there is no evidence that either the Vinland Map, or its associated volumes, either directly or indirectly came from Zaragoza. Witten, in his 1989 article, went further and asserted that he knew of no Marston manuscripts that came from the Biblioteca Capitular de la Seo. However, the reader need only consult the third volume of Shailor's catalogue to learn that nine of the manuscripts Marston sold to Yale in 1962 originate from Zaragoza and that Witten sold five of them to Marston.

None of the troubling questions concerning provenance discussed above are alluded to in the new volume. Instead, Washburn's added essay, citing an unpublished article of Ardell Abrahamson, muses on the possible presence of the Vinland Map in Columbus's library without offering any solid evidence whatsoever. Collectively, Washburn's contribution and those of Painter and Cahill and Kusko focus largely on the question of ink analysis. Even in this regard, the troubling evidence revealed in 1974 by A. D. Baynes Cope's initial laboratory examination, and observation that the map's ink (unlike the ink of the Tartar Relation and the Speculum historiale) does not appear black under ultraviolet light, has been neither refuted nor explained.

Finally, given the lavishness of the volume, at the very least a new, sharper and colour facsimile of the map and a reverse reproduction (as well as a transcription) of the offsets of the original pastedowns of MS 350 discovered in restoration work done in 1969 would have been useful. Unfortunately, the only new illustrations in the second edition are of the still mistranscribed inscription on the verso of the map and four colour plates of microscopic ink particles. Even at best, as Cahill and Kusko's study concludes, modern chemical analysis of the ink can only prove that the ink `could' have been prepared in the fifteenth century; it can not establish that the map either is or is likely to be authentic. By continuing a now decades-old attempt to narrow discussion to the issue of ink, ignoring profound palaeographic, codicological, philological and historical contradictions, the new edition of this volume does a disservice to Yale University Press, to the Beinecke Library's excellent collections, and to scholarship.


(1) Kirsten A. Seaver, `The Vinland Map: who made it and why? New light on an old controversy', The Map Collector, 70 (1995), 32--40; idem, `The mystery of the Vinland Map manuscript volume', The Map Collector, 74 (1996), 24--29; idem, `The Vinland Map: a $3,500 duckling that became a swan,'; Mercator's World, 1997, 42--47. Helen Wallis, `The Vinland map: false, forgery or jeu d' esprit', The Map Collector, 53 (1990), 2--6; idem, `The Vinland map: genuine or false?' Bulletin du Bibliophile, 1991, 76--83.

(2) Helen Wallis, in `The strange case of the Vinland map: a symposium', The Geographical Journal, 140 (1974), 186.

(3) Barbara Shailor, Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (3 vols.; Binghamton, N.Y., 1984--1992).

(4) Ibid, 3: xix.

(5) Ibid, 2: 183--86.

(6) Sixth edition (Milan, 1973), 291, 294.

(7) See his catalogue no. 5, items nos. 20 and 21.

(8) Laurence Witten, `Vinland's saga recalled', in Wilcomb E. Washburn (ed.), Proceedings of the Vinland Map Conference (Chicago: The Newberry Library by the University of Chicago Press, 1971), 14.

(9) Review of The Vinland Map and Tartar Relation, in The American Historical Review 71 (1966), 827--28.

(10) John Parker, `Authenticity and provenance', in Washburn, Proceedings (see note 8), 26.

(11) Ibid, 20.

(12) Ibid, 22.

(13) In that year Marston acquired an amazing 55 medieval manuscripts now in the Marston collection, of which 28, that is 50 per cent, were purchased from Mr. Witten.

(14) In the early 1980s, I was mistakenly informed that this codex formed part of a bequest to Yale, cf. Paul Saenger, Catalogue of Pre-1500 Western Manuscript Books at the Newberry Library (Chicago, 1989), 187--88.

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