Vinland Map, Tartar Relation and Speculum Historiale

Steven Avery

In discussions of forgery and parchment condition, these three (historically connected) items come up. This thread will act as an information point on the topic[FONT=arial, helvetica, sans-serif], which can have many twists and turns.

The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation (1996 edition)

For coming up to speed, this customer review is helpful. Yes it is unusual to start a study with an Amazon review!

R. M. Peterson of Santa Fe

Fifty years ago Yale University announced the discovery, and acquisition, of a map from around 1440 that showed "Vinland" to the west of Greenland, where the New World (specifically, Labrador and Newfoundland) would be. If genuine, it provided documentary evidence that North America was discovered and settled by Europeans centuries before Columbus. It also was, if genuine, the earliest map to depict any part of the North American continent. There was a huge hullabaloo. Italian-Americans were especially vociferous in their response to this challenge to the priority of Christopher Columbus. Many scholars questioned the authenticity of the Vinland map on less emotional grounds. In response, Yale sent the map to a laboratory for sophisticated physical analysis. When the report came back that a chemical analysis of the ink found it to contain a form of titanium dioxide that was not made before 1920, Yale announced that the Vinland Map "may be a forgery". But that didn't settle the controversy. More scientific tests were conducted; more papers were published; and more conferences were held. By now, the Vinland Map is, by far, the most carefully scrutinized map in history. And the verdict as to its authenticity is still out. (As for that modern titanium dioxide, other scientists have concluded that it is consistent with medieval techniques of ink making; indeed, traces of titanium have been found in the printing ink of the Gutenberg Bible.)

Back in 1965, Yale accompanied its announcement of the discovery of the Vinland Map with publication of a book, THE VINLAND MAP AND TARTAR RELATION, written by the three experts (one from Yale and two from the British Museum) who, after seven years of investigation, had pronounced the map authentic. This is the second edition of THE VINLAND MAP AND TARTAR RELATION, from 1995. It includes the original edition, plus four essays that contain additional information and update the controversy as of 1995. It is a fascinating book of scholarship, meticulously produced.

The Vinland Map is actually a map of the world in the medieval "mappamundae" tradition. The original is drawn on a single sheet of vellum that measures about 11 x 16 inches. In many respects it is similar to a circular map of the world made by Andrea Bianco in 1436, with major differences being that the Vinland Map is oriented to the north and Iceland, Greenland, and then Vinland are depicted to the left-hand side (or west) in the Mare Oceanum. Above Vinland there is a lengthy Latin inscription, which reads, in part: "By God's will, after a long voyage from the island of Greenland to the south toward the most distant remaining parts of the western ocean sea, sailing southward amidst the ice, the companions Bjarni and Leif Eiriksson discovered a new land, extremely fertile and even having vines, the which island they named Vinland."

When I first acquired this book, my first question was, What is the "Tartar Relation?". It is the short-hand title of another medieval manuscript, with which the Vinland Map was bound. Like the Vinland Map, it was previously unknown to modernity. It is an account of a Franciscan mission to the Mongols made in 1245-1247. It reports on the history of the Mongols, their conquests, their character and way of life, and their methods of making war -- all matters of urgent interest to the rulers of Europe, who in the mid-thirteenth century feared yet another Mongol invasion. Interestingly, information presented in the Tartar Relation is incorporated into the Vinland Map's depiction of Asia. Also of note: no serious doubts have been expressed concerning the authenticity of the Tartar Relation manuscript.

By extraordinary coincidence, the original bound-together Vinland Map and Tartar Relation arrived at Yale at the same time as another, separate manuscript, which was an incomplete portion of a thirteenth-century chronicle of world history, entitled "Speculum Historiale" (Mirror of History). That manuscript was written in the same hand as the Vinland Map and Tartar Relation, and further examination showed that all three manuscripts had once been bound together. Indeed, it is almost certain that all three manuscripts were copied by the same scribe, in a scriptorium, perhaps in Basle, Switzerland. Thus, there once existed another, likely larger, version of the Vinland Map.

I have owned this second edition of THE VINLAND MAP AND TARTAR RELATION for almost twenty years. Every few years I pick it up and spend an enjoyable couple hours nosing around in it. (It contains in facsimile the manuscript originals, as well as facsimiles of a dozen other medieval maps.) The scholarly articles are detailed but surprisingly lucid. To me, they all are fascinating, especially the article by Laurence C. Witten II, the American manuscript dealer who bought the Vinland Map and Tartar Relation in Switzerland in 1957 for $3,500 and brought it to the United States. (Anyone with an interest in the rare-book-and-manuscript trade will find Witten's essay intensely interesting.)

Is the Vinland Map authentic? Based on this book and everything else I have read about the controversy over the years, I think it more likely than not that it is.
From other correspondence in process, we learn that there are:

"two copies of Speculum Historiale including the Tartar Relation now belonging to Beinicke Library at Yale University, USA and Zentral- und Hochschulbibliothek Luzern, Switzerland, respectively.
Here is a section from the Paul Craddock book, where p. 313-348 is Paper, Prints and Documents.

Scientific Investigation of Copies, Fakes and Forgeries (2009)
Paul Craddock

When we put together a forgery and forensics bibliography, two of the first books will be this one and Forensic Chemistry by Alfred Lucas.

Here is a British Museum copy of the Speculum Historiale