03.04.20, Enterline, Erikson, Eskimos and Columbus

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Prof. Peter C. Mancall

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.020


Enterline, James Robert. Erikson, Eskimos and Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Pp. xx, 342. ISBN: 0-8018-6660-x.

Reviewed by:
Prof. Peter C. Mancall
University of Southern California

This is not a normal book of history. It is, instead, a work of applied social science which reads like the extended lab report of a talented and imaginative scholar eager to solve a series of perplexing but related problems. The problems themselves are fascinating, and James Enterline seems in many respects an ideal person to seek their solutions. No less an authority than Thor Heyerdahl -- Thor Heyerdahl! -- has endorsed Enterline's efforts here.

The basic problem in the book is simple enough: what happened to the knowledge of the North Atlantic gained by the Norse during their expeditions to the west between the turn of the first Christian millennium and the time of Christopher Columbus's history-making journey in 1492? Enterline is hardly the first historian to seek an answer to that sort of question. Many scholars have wondered what was on Columbus's mind when he sailed west in that tumultuous year. Valerie Flint's Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus (Princeton, 1992) remains among the most engaging of those works, though apparently it escaped Enterline's notice since it was not mentioned in his bibliography. Enterline also seems to have missed the work of some other scholars who have looked at these kinds of questions, such as David Beers Quinn, Alfred Crosby, and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. Though Enterline did use a number of relevant works, and though he is quick to give credit to the theories of other scholars, one wonders if those he ignored might have helped to explain the larger context of his findings.

But to mention the fact that Enterline skipped certain works of modern scholars is not quite the point. Identified on the book not as a historian but as "a mathematician and computer consultant," Enterline is less interested in modern scholars' work than he is in putting together the pieces of a grand puzzle. (It should be noted that this is not Enterline's first attempt to explain the North Atlantic; he is also the author of Viking America [New York, 1972].) In order to understand how geographic knowledge about the North Atlantic spread in late medieval Europe, he has looked at scores of maps that purport to provide information about the seas and lands lying to the west and north of the continent. Some of those lands were settled by the Norse, notably Iceland and Greenland, as well as parts of the Americas, including the place the Norse called "Vinland" (modern-day Newfoundland). Perhaps the greatest strength of this book, and the source of its lasting appeal, will be Enterline's (and the press's) decision to reprint many of these maps, thereby providing much of the evidence about European knowledge of geography.

Many of the maps that Enterline uses should be familiar to medieval and early modern historians. They contain coastlines that resemble, but do not match, those to be found in modern atlases. The heads of cherubs exhale winds. Large creatures swim lazily about open water. And those who made them employed a symbolic language in which simple images -- such as European-style houses or churches -- represented human activity of one sort or another. But Enterline does not rely only on traditional maps here. In addition, he reads travel accounts closely because, as he argues, "[g]eometrical and geographical information was transmitted in elaborate verbal descriptions" that supplemented visual evidence (15). He uses such non-visual material found in old books and manuscripts as part of his "archival archaeological" evidence (15), which he brings together in untraditional ways. This technique, he writes, "makes it possible to weave together a large number of odd, unexplained and previously unrelated observations into a unified fabric, a hypothetico-deductive model. This is the essence of philosophy, even if the fabric remains to be tested. Passing the text converts it to science" (15-16).

What will this "science" teach us? If the hypothesis can pass certain tests, it will mean that we all need to abandon the idea of a single "discovery" of America and instead imagine many encounters. While that news is not particularly shocking, Enterline also claims that his methods will reveal that "there was a gradual Eskimo divulgence to Europe of continental land existing just west of Greenland" (16). To demonstrate that he will not use random scraps of evidence to prove his claims, Enterline provides five rules that guide his inquiry:

"1. Study only large, extended coastlines (not isolated minor wiggles).

2. Candidate coastal shapes must have multiple discernible features.

3. The features must be of appropriate proportions and relationships.

4. Only limited scale adjustments may be involved.

5. Unless very specifically justified, rotations will not be allowed." (25)

Enterline's confession of these guidelines and his occasional use of the insights of the structural psychologist Jean Piaget serve to remind the reader that this is no work of history designed to please those looking for a seamless narrative or a particularly evocative depiction of the pre-modern Atlantic world. There is nothing here to resemble the beautiful rendering of time and place to be found in the first part of Fernand Braudel's brilliant history of the Mediterranean world. Though Braudel once wrote about the "human sciences," Enterline's vision of how such sciences should function and what they should produce bears no relation to the elegant descriptions of the medieval west to be found in the writings of the Annalistes or those inspired by them. (For Braudel's views see his "History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Durée," in Braudel, On History, trans. Sarah Matthews [Chicago, 1980], 25-54.)

Enterline has divided his study into two parts. There is no real balance between these parts, though they do relate to one another. The first part, a series of three relatively short chapters, consists of "Outstanding Misunderstandings." Here Enterline pulls together the information known about Claudius Clavus, an early fifteenth-century traveler who stumbled into the court of Pope Martin V in 1425 and used the Curia as a place to tell about what he knew of the islands of the north Atlantic. According to Enterline, Clavus apparently "received (directly or indirectly) a native map of this area from the hands (or mouth, allowing a descriptive source) of someone coming through Scandinavia and took it to be a map of the Scandinavian region" (43). This is crucial for Enterline's argument, since much of what he claims is based on the belief that the indigenous Thule peoples of the frozen north possessed more information about those desperate lands than any Europeans, and that some of them proved willing to share their knowledge with visitors. But Clavus did more than gather this information in his no longer extant maps: by bringing this news to Rome, he became one of those crucial figures responsible for translating the Thule legacy to a wider European audience.

Enterline then turns to two pieces of information that have survived: the globe produced by Martin Behaim in Nuremburg shortly before Columbus left on his journey, and the so-called "Vinland Map" housed at Yale. By this point, the reader can basically predict Enterline's argument. Behaim's globe, though bearing little relation to much of the world's geography as we currently understand it, was quite possibly more accurate than scholars have been willing to acknowledge in the past, especially in its depiction of parts of the North Atlantic. More telling is Enterline's discussion of the Vinland Map. Here Enterline begins by acknowledging that this map has been a subject of controversy ever since it became known to modern scholars in 1957. But Enterline is not convinced, as others have been, that this is a modern forgery. Instead, though the map (reproduced on pages 174 and 175, unfortunately over 100 pages after the end of the chapter) does not appear to be accurate, it is possible that, by adjusting the scale, the islands it depicts might in fact be fairly accurate representations of what could be found in the north Atlantic. By following this logic, Enterline suggests that a series of "facts" leads to the "bold hypothesis" that the place labeled "Vinilanda" on the map is actually Baffin Island (65). Enterline is quick to point out that he is not the first to have made this suggestion. "The intuitive idea that the Yale map's Vinilanda might represent Baffin Island," he confesses, "has been suggested by people ranging from Harvard University's Samuel Eliot Morison to a fourteen-year-old high school acquaintance of mine" (66). Readers who go eagerly to the citation here will discover that Morison made this point in his European Discovery of America (New York, 1971) but, alas, the fourteen-year old remains unknown. Enterline also wrestles with those who have suggested that the map must be a forgery through analysis of its paper and ink. In an appendix he describes the experiments he undertook to prove that the map could be legitimate, at least in terms of its physical properties. Like a careful scientist, Enterline describes the procedures he used to come to this conclusion -- a procedure available to anyone with a 2000x immersion microscope, pure tannin, and a few months waiting for the results of applying ink to paper.

The real heart of the book is what Enterline labels "the chronological survey." Here Enterline presents his evidence, in almost numbing detail. What can be found here bears little relation to written history as an art form. Instead, this is a scientist's enumeration of his evidence. Why do we need to see it all? Because, as Enterline reports, "to gain real confidence in our hypothesis, it must be subjected to an exhaustive set of tests" (73). His goal is ambitious: "I hope to present something not far short of an exhaustive list of known information relating to the medieval concepts of Scandinavia and the North (including the West)" (73). This strategy is necessary for Enterline to prove his point: "My hypothesis is that divulgence-hiding paradigms can explain every instance of apparently fantastical, otherwise unexplained shapes in the Arctic and Far East on maps made after the Thule-Norse encounter" (73-74).

Enterline might not express himself like a traditional historian, but there is little doubt that he has spent years gathering evidence in archives. He has studied medieval maps and the ways that some scholars have interpreted them. He recognizes that there are enormous gaps in the surviving evidence, and acknowledges too that some medieval cartographers were often more keen to demonstrate correlations between earthly geography and scripture than they might have been to portray distant lands with what a geographer might call accuracy. Still, one wonders if this evidence could have been presented more felicitously than it is here. Enterline uses chapters to gather evidence together, but within them he offers what he calls "paragraph-length articles," a strategy that he recognizes "makes for somewhat choppy reading" (83).

After some preparatory pages to get us ready, we're off on a long and bumpy ride that starts with the Ptolemy's Geographia from classical antiquity and runs to Icelandic maps of the early seventeenth century. Along the way Enterline reports much of what is known about Greenland's geography, as well as other things about life there, such as the establishment of Christian churches and that land's famed stock of falcons. Every now and then Enterline breaks away from the documents to offer other kinds of evidence. In his analysis of a summary of a now-lost letter written by a priest named Haldor to another priest named Arnold in 1266 or 1267, Enterline notes that the St. James Day (July 25) mentioned in the Julian-dated text corresponds to the Gregorian date of August 2. He then attempted to recreate the scene described in the letter. "I personally found this visual experience quite memorable," he reports (104), and then provides a series of photographs of Gardar, the presumed location of the original report, with commentary about the movement of the Sun along the horizon. The maps in the volume include the famous, such as a detail from the thirteenth-century mappa mundi in the Hereford Cathedral, to a fragment of a fourteenth-century Catalan map now in Istanbul. Enterline also draws geographic details and inferences from the reports of travelers. Nicolo Zeno's account of Greenland, for example, written c. 1395, suggests to Enterline that "monks had absorbed some of the Eskimo culture" (143). Some of the Norse did more than absorb native culture. Enterline also claims that a burial in Greenland shows that a Norse man had rather violently absorbed an "Indian arrowhead," a suggestion that the Norse had contact with indigenous peoples other than Inuit (153). (Unfortunately, Enterline does not provide a citation indicating where the information about this excavation can be found.)

After he has finished presenting his evidence, Enterline lays out his argument, which appears with more clarity in the conclusion than elsewhere in the book. There were, he argues, four vital developments that need to be understood. First, in addition to the familiar Norse expeditions inspired by Erikson, there was also "a late medieval and Early Renaissance Greenlandic reencounter and exploration of America." Second, the "Greenland Norsemen contacted the native peoples of America on a sometimes amicable basis," and "cultural interchange" went in both directions -- a reasonable deduction given what scholars already know about relations between Europeans and indigenous Americans in the early modern age. Third, medieval and renaissance geographies that touched on the east or the Arctic and that had "been considered fantasies are actually records of Norse contacts with America and/or its peoples." And, finally, the information that the Norse obtained about America, either though direct observation or from Thule informants, shaped "European theoretical cosmology and geography" (296-297).

For the most part the illustrations serve this catalog of information well. However, some of the maps were apparently believed too large to fit on a single page, so they are inexpertly broken onto facing pages with a large strip of white separating the two halves. Some maps have also been reconstructed from surviving descriptions, an unfortunate contrast to the pictures of many actual maps in the book. Readers, at least some of them, could also be put off by the nature of the narrative itself, which shifts from analysis of maps and texts to reminders that this is all part of a "hypothetical-deductive" experiment necessitated, so Enterline reminds us, "when exact deductive predictions cannot be made" (291).

In the end, Enterline knows that not every reader will accept his claims despite his elaborate presentation of evidence. "While the evidence here is imperfect," he writes, "it is not insignificant" (294). More than the stilted presentation of evidence in the Chronological Survey, this relentless effort to make historical evidence fit a scientific model suggests that Enterline never accepts the historical record as it exists. Historians are trained to recognize that we live in a world where the actions of individuals in the past often left only bare traces in the recoverable record. We come to learn that we should not expect that every historical problem can be solved. It was in fact this recognition of our collective fallibility that marked one of the most significant advances of twentieth-century historians who struggled to slough off the ill-fitting mantle of "science" that had come to dominate historical writing in the nineteenth century. As we make sense of historical practice in the formative years of a new century, many of us will be more prepared to accept the possibilities suggested by Enterline's evidence than eager to embrace the notion that historical interpretation is best done through careful lab work.

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Author Biography

Prof. Peter C. Mancall

University of Southern California