Much like the Voynich Manuscript, the purportedly fifteenth-century Vinland Map continues to be a subject of study and debate in the rare book world. Earlier this year, the map underwent multispectral imaging at Yale University (its owner) and was the focus of an exhibition called Science, Myth, and Mystery: The Vinland Map Saga at the Mystic Seaport Museum. Now, Scottish researcher John Paul Floyd has published a book, A Sorry Saga, that offers tantalizing new details about the role theft and forgery played in the map’s history. We asked him about it.
Briefly describe the Vinland Map for our readers.
It’s a medieval-style map of the world, which depicts North America as an island named Vinland. When Yale University announced the map’s existence in a 1965 book, it created a sensation. Experts claimed that the map had been drawn around 1440: over fifty years before Columbus set sail. Latin inscriptions on the parchment linked the map to Norse explorations made around the year 1000 (voyages already known to scholars from ancient Icelandic records). The Yale book sparked a heated debate over who deserved the credit for “discovering” America, and the map’s authenticity was challenged. The verdict of scientific tests of the ink in 1974 seemed damning: Yale had to concede that the map might be a forgery. But in the 1980s other scientists, using different techniques, called the earlier results into question, and in 1996 a second edition of the Yale book hit the press. Other studies followed, reaffirming forgery, and the debate grew very confused.
Why did you find its story so appealing? And how long have you been researching it?
Back in 2011 I came across a 1971 book of conference proceedings which caught my attention and led me to investigate further. I read about how the map had emerged onto the antiquarian bookselling scene in 1957, in association with two genuine medieval manuscripts: the “Tartar Relation” of C. de Bridia (an unknown friar), and a fragment of the Speculum historiale of Vincent of Beauvais. Clearly these two manuscripts must have had some prior history, whether the Vinland Map was authentic or not: yet in 2011 their pre-1957 provenance was as much shrouded in mystery as the map itself. So I began a casual search for “C. de Bridia” online. Within a few hours I came across a Spanish exhibition catalogue from 1893, proving that both documents had formerly belonged to Zaragoza Cathedral Library (significantly, the catalogue description makes no mention of a map). That evening, so far as I could tell, I was the only person in the world who knew about this connection. It was an exciting moment!
Book and manuscript theft, particularly from the Zaragoza Cathedral Library in the 1950s, plays a larger role in all this than previously thought. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The reason the Zaragoza connection is so important is that the man who “found” the Vinland Map — an Italian book dealer by the name of Enzo Ferrajoli — was convicted of stealing books and manuscripts from Zaragoza Cathedral Library. The Vinland Map can’t be traced beyond Ferrajoli’s ownership (perhaps for good reason), but the manuscripts associated with the map came from that library. The Zaragoza affair is one of the great forgotten scandals of twentieth-century bookselling; hundreds of valuable stolen items were smuggled from Spain and found their way into institutional collections (not all of which, sad to say, acted with propriety at the time). The Vinland Map story cannot be properly understood without a proper understanding of this context.
Was untangling that part of the story the impetus for your book?
Yes, in part. There is no detailed narrative in English of the Zaragoza affair, so I’ve done my best to remedy the situation using archival documentation as well as published sources. I’m not in any sense a manuscript scholar, but I have been able to identify for the first time the Zaragozan provenance of a number of items in present-day collections. However, my main aim in writing was to vindicate one of the main persons suspected of forging the map (the cartographer Father Josef Fischer), and to present a new, compelling argument against its authenticity. I believe the creator of the Vinland Map made a fatal blunder, in copying details from an eighteenth-century engraving by Vincenzio Formaleoni (1752-1797). The mapmaker’s dependence upon Formaleoni is, to my mind, very obvious; interested readers can look at the images in my book, and decide for themselves. It is a simple, basic discovery; one which decisively settles the forgery issue without the need for scientific analysis — yet it somehow escaped the experts for half a century!
Regarding the multispectral imaging and analysis by Yale earlier this year: what did that contribute to the saga of the Vinland Map?
I’m impressed by the thoroughness of the Yale scientific team’s investigation, and look forward to the final publication of their research. There was an interesting preliminary presentation at a recent symposium on the map, which can be found on YouTube. I shall have to revise the scientific chapter of my book to take account of the new studies, but there’s one finding in particular that I am very pleased about. In my book, I discussed a puzzling inscription on the back of the map at some length, and concluded that it was half-fake and half-genuine. When a slide appeared on the screen at the symposium substantiating my prediction, I pretty much leapt in the air.
Tell us about yourself: an independent historian? collector?
I am 49, from Glasgow, Scotland. I have a science degree (metallurgy), although I’ve never really used it. I’ve been known to buy and sell the occasional rare book, and I enjoy investigating historical mysteries, but I am a total amateur in the fields of cartography and manuscript studies. To steal the title of Betty MacDonald’s comic memoir, I like to think of my first book as evidence that “Anybody can do Anything.”
Image courtesy of John Paul Floyd