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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 37.3 (2007) 455-457

Reviewed by
Zur Shalev
University of Haifa
Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vinland Map. By Kirsten A. Seaver (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2004) 480 pp. $65.00 cloth $24.95 paper

Few artifacts are as controversial as the Vinland Map (vm), a late medieval world map, which, if genuine, would contain the earliest known graphic representation of America. Today, the majority of experts views the map as a modern fake. The vm is named after its most unique feature, "Vinlanda insula," in the northwestern Atlantic, supposedly depicting the tenth- and eleventh-century discoveries of the Norse west of Greenland, as told in Icelandic Sagas and other sources. In 1959, Yale purchased the vm bound with a genuine medieval manuscript—"The Tartar Relation," a short treatise discussing the Mongols. The vm was kept secret until 1965, when Yale announced its existence and published a lavish volume of reproductions and learned essays, The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation (vmtr).1 The vm, so the experts argued, was created c. 1440, probably during the Council of Basel, and was a merging of long-preserved Icelandic geographical knowledge and contemporary European world maps.

The vm's authenticity immediately came under attack from scholars and scientists, and the lively, often acerbic, debate that developed continues. In Maps, Myths and Men, Seaver soberly presents the case against the vm, based on her extensive research and on four decades of scholarship. Seaver, the vm's most thorough and outspoken critic in recent years, painstakingly examines the literary, cartographic, codicological, palaeographic, and chemical evidence, challenging one by one the assumptions and conclusions that brought Yale and the authors of vmtr to view the map as authentic.

Following a rather clipped introductory chapter, Seaver presents an overview of Norse history, with emphasis on medieval life in the Greenland settlements and its mysterious decline. This overview is a condensed version of Seaver's The Frozen Echo (Stanford, 1996), albeit not condensed enough; the discussion is bogged by archaeological disputes of which the relevance to the vm is not always clear. Regarding Norse voyages and mapping Seaver convincingly argues that the Norse did not [End Page 455] communicate their experiential knowledge and were not known to have drawn maps themselves.

The following chapters (3 through 5), arguably the best of the nine, describe the shady provenance (that is, none) of the vm and the even shadier process that led to its authentication and purchase by Yale. Seaver presents a prosopographical study of dealers, curators, and experts, on both sides of the Atlantic, based on her findings in internal British Library files, and, remarkably, on interviews with some of the people involved. Seaver then discusses the vm's physical attributes, unavoidably considering the vm's ink in microscopic detail.

Chapters 7 through 8 provide a cartographic and literary analysis of the vm, driven primarily by a negation of vmtr arguments rather than by a positive reconstruction of sources and traditions. Seaver's major line of attack is to demonstrate the various inconsistencies of the vm with her understanding of the Norse worldview, thereby eliminating the merging of genuine geographical traditions in Basel as a possibility. Seaver shows that one slip on the vm—the joint, rather than separate, sailing of Leif and Bjarni to Vinland—is traceable to a 1765 treatise, which in her view proves "beyond any doubt" the map's modern origin. Yet doubt remains, because even if claims in vmtr about the flow of Norse knowledge to Europe are overstretched, the idea that the vm was a fifteenth-century misunderstanding of this knowledge—an option that Seaver does not consider—cannot be ruled out. Although Seaver shows no mercy to historians who pronounce on the basis of scant evidence, she forgets this useful maxim in the final chapter, in which she proposes Joseph Fischer, S.J. (1858–1944), as the vm's creator. Fischer, Seaver argues, created the vm to display the global reach of the Church...


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