A monk in 14th century Italy wrote about America


THAT VIKING crossed the Atlantic long before Christopher Columbus was well established. Their legends told of expeditions to the coast of what is now Canada: to Helluland, which scholars have identified as Baffin Island or Labrador; Markland (Labrador or Newfoundland) and Vinland (Newfoundland or an area further south). In 1960, the remains of Nordic buildings were found on Newfoundland.

But there was no evidence that anyone outside northern Europe had heard of America until Columbus’ voyage in 1492. Until now. A contribution to the scientific journal Terrae Incognitae 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 in the early 14th century. Apart from the scientific reluctance that otherwise characterizes his monograph, Mr. Chiesa describes the mention of Markland (Latinized to Marckalada) as “astonishing”.

In 2015, Mr. Chiesa carried the only known copy of the C. returned to a private collection in New Yorkronica universalis, originally written by a Dominican, Galvano Fiamma, between 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 dissolved and its contents scattered. The owner of the Cronica had Mr Chiesa photograph the entire book, and on his return to Milan the professor gave the photos to his doctoral 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 is another country called Marckalada, where giants live; In this country there are buildings with slabs of stone so huge that no one could build them except huge giants. There are also green trees, animals and lots of birds. “

Mr. Chiesa says that giants were a standard ornament of distant places in Nordic folklore, and in fact Galvano warned that “no seaman could ever know anything about this land or its properties”. The Dominican was conscientious in citing his sources. Most of them were literary. But unusually he attributed his description of Marckalada to the oral testimony of “seafarers visiting the seas of Denmark and Norway”.

Chiesa believes that her accounts were likely passed on to Galvano by sailors in Genoa, the closest port to Milan and the city where the Dominican friar is most likely to get his PhD.

His thesis raises a new question: why does the east coast of America not appear on any known Genoese map of the time? But it might help explain why Columbus, a Genoese, was willing to break through what most contemporaries called landless void.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the heading “Medieval Mapping”

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