A 14th-century Italian monk writes about the Americas
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TVIKINGS HAT crossed the Atlantic long before Christopher Columbus was well established. Their sagas told of expeditions to the coast of Canada today: to Helluland, which scholars have identified as Baffin Island or Labrador; Markland (Labrador or Newfoundland) and Vinland (Newfoundland or a territory further south). In 1960, the remains of Scandinavian buildings were found in Newfoundland.
But there was no evidence to prove that anyone outside of Northern Europe had heard of America until the voyage of Columbus in 1492. Until now. An article for the academic journal Unknown lands by Paolo Chiesa, professor of medieval Latin literature at the University of Milan, reveals that an Italian monk referred to the continent in a book he wrote at the beginning of the 14th century. Leaving aside the scholarly reserve which otherwise characterizes his monograph, Mr. Chiesa describes the mention of Markland (Latinized in Marckalada) as “astonishing”.
In 2015, Mr. Chiesa traced the only known copy of the Cronica universalis, originally written by a Dominican, Galvano Fiamma, between around 1339 and 1345. The book once belonged to the library of the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. During the Napoleonic era, the monastery was suppressed and its contents dispersed. The owner of the Cronica let Mr. Chiesa photograph the entire book and, upon his return to Milan, the professor gave the photographs to his graduate students for transcription. Towards the end of the project, one of the students, Giulia Greco, found a passage in which Galvano, after describing Iceland and Greenland, wrote: “Further west there is another land, called Marckalada, where giants live; in this country there are buildings with stone slabs so huge that no one could build them except huge giants. There are also green trees, animals and a large amount of birds.
Mr Chiesa says the giants were a standard beautification of distant places in Nordic folklore and, indeed, Galvano warned that “no sailor has ever been able to know anything for sure about this land or its features. “. The Dominican was scrupulous in citing his sources. Most were literary. But, unusually, he attributed his description of Marckalada to the oral testimony of “sailors who frequent the seas of Denmark and Norway”.
Mr Chiesa believes their accounts were likely passed to Galvano by sailors from Genoa, the nearest port to Milan and the city in which the Dominican monk is most likely to have studied for his doctorate.
His thesis raises a new question: why is the east coast of America not shown on any known Genoese map of the time? But it might help explain why Columbus, a Genoese, was ready to go through what most contemporaries saw as a landless void.■
This article appeared in the Americas section of the print edition under the title “Medieval Map”