New Found Land

by Gunnar Thompson

A 15th-century world map might be the key to a mystery that has confounded historians for almost five centuries: the identity of legendary isles near the North Pole. 

The map, by Venetian cartographer Albertin DeVirga (ca. 1414), surfaced at a Croatian antique store in 1911. This map has recently attracted the attention of historians due to claims that it shows parts of North and South America long before voyages by Columbus, Vespucci, Cabot and Verrazano. 

An Austrian collector named Albert Figdor found the map, and he brought it to the attention of Franz Von Wieser--a famous Austrian scholar--who verified authenticity of the document.  Several peculiar features on the circular map defy Medieval tradition: a continental land called "Norveca" extends out from the coast of Norway; a peninsula juts out toward the north; and across northern Europe is a huge territory representing Hyperborea of Roman legend.  The Northern Regions on this Venetian document might be the only surviving copy of a North Atlantic survey from a 14th-century manuscript, the Inventio Fortunatae

A Franciscan Map of the North Atlantic

The story of the lost manuscript and travelog, Inventio Fortunatae, goes back to the mid-13th century to a time when scientific mapping was just beginning to gain a foothold in Europe.  For most of the Middle Ages, European mariners used simple charts showing the wind patterns and coastal landmarks between local ports.  There were no regional maps of any great accuracy (as far as we know); and the only global maps were of a cosmological or biblical design that made them totally unsuitable for international commerce.  In an effort to solve this dilemma, the Franciscan friar and Oxford scholar, Roger Bacon, proposed the creation of a scientific map of the world.  His book, the Opus Majus of 1266, declared that such a map would be a boon to Christian commerce and evangelism. 

In spite of encouragement from Pope Clement IV, most Church authorities regarded Bacon's ideas as a threat to established doctrine.  His experiments with optics, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass confirmed his stature as an alchemist at a time when the compass was widely regarded as an instrument of the devil.  Although it was in common use on Arabian ships, European mariners were loath to sail with anyone who used such a device for fear of being accused of witchcraft.  And that was Bacon's fate: he was imprisoned as a heretic following the death of his patron, Clement IV, and he languished in intellectual solitude for fifteen years.  The story might have ended with the friar's imprisonment and repudiation of his innovative ideas were it not for the fact that by the end of the 13th century, the magnetic compass, gunpowder, and mapping technology were vital to the rising power of Christian nations. 

Shortly after Bacon's death, the deans of Oxford University recognized the importance of his intellectual work, and they decided to honor their famous alumnus by actively implementing his proposals.  At Merton College--a branch of Oxford University--scholars set about training friars with the necessary surveying skills they would need to construct scientific maps.  Two of the leading scholars at Merton College, William Rede and Simon Bredon, wrote astronomical almanacs which featured Oxford as the prime reference for the calculation of latitude and longitude.  Calculation of longitude was particularly difficult in this era before creation of the practical chronometer--although crude estimates were possible whenever a fortuitous lunar eclipse happened to occur.  By comparing lunar "heights" that friars had recorded in the field with measurements in the standard almanac, cartographers were able to estimate the distance from the meridian of Oxford.  Rede and Bredon contributed another vital ingredient to the fulfillment of Bacon's dream: they produced a manual for the mass production of astrolabes--a device that surveyors used for gauging the "heights" of the moon and stars above the horizon. 

The impact of Oxford's scientific mapping effort was readily apparent from improvements in 14th-century cartography.  For example, maps by Angelino Dulcert (1339) feature fairly-accurate outlines of the British Isles--a feat which required astronomical measurements by land-based surveyors.  Friars also traveled abroad.  The Medici Atlas of 1351 shows the Arctic isle of Greenland for the first time in its correct geographical position west of Norway and northwest of England.  We can't be certain that this map was based on the efforts of mendicant friars trained at Oxford, however the Flemish traveler Jacobus Cnoyen reported that one English friar traveled abroad to survey the "Northern Regions." 

According to Cnoyen's account, an anonymous English Minorite friar traveled to the Northern Regions with an astrolabe and there recorded the "heights" of various places he had visited.  The friar was identified as an Oxford Franciscan who was trained in astronomy and mathematics.  His travels took him to a forested land near the North Pole where he identified abandoned houses and timbers that had been crafted with iron tools.  He also visited a forest of brazilwood trees which were the source of a valuable red dye used in the woolen industry.  The friar wrote of his travels in a book, the Inventio Fortunatae, that was presented to King Edward III in 1360. 

Two 15th-century biographers, Bartholomew Las Casas and Ferdinand Colon, mentioned that the friar's book referred to isles west of Europe and Africa--in other words tropical isles.  This passage, according to the biographers, was instrumental in the Columbus proposal of a westward voyage to the Spice Islands.  In 1497, Columbus again had need of the Inventio which he requested from the English merchant John Day.  The letter which Day sent in response mentions that sailors from Bristol had already reached a mainland known as "Brasil."  The following year, Columbus sailed along the northern coast of a mainland he called "Paria" (Venezuela) where he stopped long enough to pick up a supply of brazilwood.  These accounts, when combined with the friar's mention of a forest of brazilwood trees suggest that the Franciscan survey of the North Atlantic extended all the way to Brazil

If the survey began in 1330 (as indicated in the Norfolk Biography), then Franciscan surveyors spent thirty years charting the Northern Regions and coastlines farther west. 

Northern Regions

During the Middle Ages, cosmological maps or mappamonds showed legendary places such as Hyperborea, Wineland, and Albania across the northern parts of Europe and Asia.  Although some historians have regarded these names as imaginary places, others have identified lost or forgotten isles found by ancient mariners in the north or western Atlantic.  Roger Bacon characterized Hyperborea as a temperate land near the North Pole; his protégé at Oxford, a Minorite priest who traveled to the "Northern Regions" in 1330, noted the presence of a beautiful land with a temperate climate near the Magnetic North Pole--located in what was then known as "Christian's Bay" and later renamed "Hudson's Bay." 

DeVirga's map, produced in the 15th century, was made at a time when mariners relied on the magnetic compass for navigation and mapping of coastlines.  Most maps of the era show places like Greenland directly north or northeast of Norway--when the true geographical position was west.  The Medici map of 1351, featuring Greenland in its approximate geographical location west of Norway, was an exception to Medieval convention--as was the slender peninsula representing Greenland on the DeVirga map and a similar portrayal on a map by Claudius Clavus Swart (1424). 

The continent, "Norveca," that extends out from the western side of Norway on DeVirga's map includes continental lands west and southwest of Greenland.  Midway along this coast is a long peninsula with three isles beside a huge gulf.  This peninsula is the earliest-known portrayal Florida; the isles are the Antilles; and the gulf is an early version of the Gulf of Mexico.  This identification of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico is confirmed by subsequent maps.  Seven other 15th-century maps have a similar configuration of continental land with a peninsula and gulf across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe.  These are: 1) Yale's Vinland map--c. 1440; 2) a Florentine planisphere--1447; 3) the Genoese map--1457; 4) Frau Mauro's map--1459; 5 & 6) maps by Henricus Martellus--1489 & 1490; and 7) Martin Behaim's globe of 1492.  G.E. Ravenstein called the peninsula on Behaim's globe "the Horn of Asia."  Behaim identified the peninsula as part of India Terza (the Third India)--and it was here that Columbus thought he had landed in 1492.  When a geographical composite chart is made of all these peninsulas, it is evident that over time, the shoreline steadily moves toward the southeast.  By the time of Behaim's map in 1492, the peninsula had arrived just north of the Tropic of Cancer about 3,000 miles west of Europe--or about the same place where Columbus expected to find land in 1492. 

The Portuguese Connection

Most historians agree that Columbus had a map in 1492 that was similar to those produced by Behaim and Martellus.  The accuracy of this map with regards to the distance across the ocean and the configuration of the western shore resulted from the incremental process of exploration and surveying--although most historians have assumed that the many western Atlantic voyages undertaken by Portuguese sailors in the 15th century did not reveal significant geographical details beyond the Azores.  It now appears that these voyages helped refine the North Atlantic map inherited from English Franciscans. 

The Portuguese-English connection goes back to the anonymous author of the Inventio Fortunatae.  In 1582, English historian Richard Hakluyt deduced that the author of the lost book was an Oxford scholar--Nicholas of Lynn.  Hakluyt based his deduction on the friar's long-time residence at the King's Lynn friary--which was noted as a gathering place of travelers who volunteered in the king's service.  The friar's associate, Geoffrey Chaucer, praised his skill with the astrolabe and might have poked fun at him as a wayward mendicant friar in "The Miller's Tale."  Both Nicholas and Chaucer wrote books on use of the astrolabe; the Kalendar Astronomy by Nicholas has been characterized as an important work on navigation.  As Chaucer's friend, friar Nicholas must have frequented the household of John of Gaunt--one of England's leading princes. 

It was through the household of John of Gaunt that the Franciscan survey probably came to influence Portuguese maritime exploration.  John's mother was Portuguese; his daughter married the king of Portugal.  His grandson was Prince Henry The Navigator.  Fra Mauro, Henricus Martellus, and Martin Behaim--whose maps feature the so-called "Horn of Asia"--worked for the Portuguese.  Their maps (which show increasing accuracy with regard to the distance across the Atlantic and the latitude of the "Horn of Asia") are a chronicle of the success of Portuguese Atlantic explorations.  By the time Columbus had persuaded Spain's Catholic Sovereigns to back his "Enterprise of The Indies," the Portuguese had already determined that there was an impenetrable, continental wall to the west that prevented access to the Spice Islands.  It was for this reason--accurate geographical knowledge of the Atlantic--that Portuguese royalty dedicated their efforts to reaching the Indies by sailing the "long way" towards the east around the cape of South Africa. 

Some historians have reservations about the role of Nicholas of Lynn in making the first scientific map of the North Atlantic.  Critics of Hakluyt observe that the Cnoyen account of the Inventio characterized the author as a "Franciscan," while Nicholas of Lynn was known at Oxford as a "Carmelite."  This apparent contradiction is resolved by the Norfolk Biography which suggests that Nicholas initially served in the Franciscan Order and later changed affiliations when he joined the faculty at Oxford.  It is therefore not surprising that the authorship of the Inventio was anonymous--as Franciscans were prohibited to write books lest they detract from teachings in the Bible.  As a Carmelite at Oxford, Nicholas was under no such prohibition when he wrote books on navigation which do bear his name.  

Naming the New Lands

On DeVirga's map, the northwestern continent is called "Norveca."  This title, appearing under the symbol of a crown, identifies the huge land as a province under the sovereignty of Norway.  Other maps also show a huge land attached to northern Norway.  On the 14th-century Andreas Walsperger map, the region is called "Regnii Norwegie" (the realm of Norway); maps by Sebastian Munster (1532) and Joachim Von Watt (1534) call the region "Septentrio;" a circular map by Battista Agnese 1543 shows "Terra Nova" extending from Norway to the North Pole. 

Maps that portray a huge northern territory reflect the 1261 proclamation of King Haakon IV extending Norse sovereignty over all the lands from Norway to the North Pole.  The "North Pole" he had in mind was the magnetic--not the geographic pole.  A 14th-century writer, Philippe de Mezieres, reported that Norway's overseas realm was so extensive that it took three years for the king's tax collectors to complete their rounds and return to Bergen. 

One of the territories that Haakon annexed in a 1262 treaty along with Greenland and Iceland was an otherwise obscure place called landanu or "New Land."  The Kongfriget Norges historie (1778) identified an Icelander named Rolf as the discoverer of this New Land--also known as Nyaland--in 1258.  It was also identified as part of the North American mainland.  Bishop Gissur Einarsson noted that the direction of sailing to Nyaland from Iceland was southwest.  In that direction lies Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

The region had many names that changed over the years as successive waves of Europeans landed on its shores.  As late as 1347, Icelanders referred to Newfoundland as "Markland"--which was an ongoing source of lumber.  Sailors from Bristol called the coastal isles "the Icelands."  Circa 1350, a Spanish Franciscan reported an isle called "Ibernia" in the northwest Atlantic that was under Norse sovereignty.  After that date, Bubonic Plague swept through European cities devastating maritime centers.  Norway was particularly hard hit--forcing the abandonment of overseas colonies.  English, Portuguese, French, German, and Danish merchants fought over the western isles.  After 1380, Denmark took control of Greenland, Iceland, and mainland in eastern Canada.  The "new" Danish mainland appears on the Claudius Clavus map of 1424 as "Gronlandia Provincia."  Thus, the name "Norveca" was already archaic by the early 15th century when it found its way onto DeVirga's map.  Portuguese maps of the early 16th century feature the names of Joao Fernandes (The Labrador) and the Corte-Real family along the East Coast of North America. 

When the term "Terra Nova" (New Land) came into use for the mainland is a matter of conjecture.  John Cabot's own name for Cape Breton Island, "Land First Seen" in 1497, survived only on the map his son made in 1544.  A document drawn up for Henry in 1502 referred to Cabot's discoveries as the "newe founde launde."  Sebastian Cabot later claimed that he had been the first to realize that the western isles were a "new" mainland, so he may have been the source of the popular title. 

Naming the isle of Newfoundland followed that of the mainland by eighty years.  "Baccalaos" (i.e., Stock Fish Land) was the most common name for the island until Humphrey Gilbert took possession for England in 1583.  Variations of Baccalaos or "stoc fis" occur on maps as early as Andre Bianco's map of 1436--suggesting that the isle with its coveted fishing grounds were known to Portuguese and Bristol merchants long before their "official" discovery. 

Calling places "new" seems to have become a fad during the Renaissance.  Some writers attribute the popularity of the word to the spread of international commerce, the importation of "new" products from foreign places, and the rise of merchant guilds.  Trade items were called "new" to indicate novelty or freshness; territories were called "new" if they were undeveloped; cities were called "new" if they were second generations of a former metropolis.  Thus, New Amsterdam (already an "old" city) was renamed New York in 1664 to honor of the Duke of York. 

Amerigo Vespucci outdid his British rival Sebastian Cabot by proclaiming discovery of a Mundus Novus or "New World."  Vespucci's letter to a friend in 1502 described the abundant resources of a southern, wilderness continent--and this letter inspired the imaginations of Renaissance philosophers and investors.  Thanks to Martin Waldseemuller, Gerhard Mercator, and numerous Renaissance philosophers, the names "America" and "New World" eventually became synonymous with all undeveloped lands across the seas from Europe.  This fascination with the concept of "new" confused subsequent historians who lost sight of the contributions of earlier voyagers and cartographers at the dawn of the Age of Discovery. 

Gunnar Thompson has studied pre-Columbian maps for over five years.  He is the Director of the Multicultural Discovery Project, College of Education, University of Hawaii. 

Further Reading

Hakluyt, Richard.  Divers Voyages--Touching The Discoverie of America.  Ann Arbor: University Microfilms Reprint, 1966. 

Seaver, Kirsten. The Frozen Echo--Greenland and the Exploration of North America. Stanford: University Press, 1996. 

Taylor, Eva G. "A Letter Dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee," in Imago Mundi, Vol. 13, 1956, 56-68. 

Thompson, Gunnar. American Discovery--Our Multicultural Heritage. Seattle: Misty Isles, 1994. 

Thompson, Gunnar. The Friar's Map of Ancient America--1360 AD. Seattle: LL Productions, 1996. 

Wilson, Ian. The Columbus Myth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. 



Astrolabes were the principle tool for measuring the "height" or angle of the sun, moon or constellations above the horizon. 


World map by Albertin DeVirga c. 1414 has three unusual features in the Northern Regions: 1) a continent northwest of Norway called "Norveca"; 2) a peninsula and islands beside a huge gulf; and 3) Hyperborea north of Europe. 


Medici Atlas of 1351 has the first known peninsula of Greenland (Alogia) west of Norway.  This map is evidence of scientific mapping using an astrolabe as compass-based surveys typically show Greenland north of Norway


Northern Regions from Albertin DeVirga map c. 1414 include coastlines mentioned in the Inventio Fortunatae from Greenland to Brazil.  1--Greenland; 2--Baffin Island; 3--Hudson Strait or Ginnungagap; 4--Labrador; 5--Newfoundland; 6--Gulf of St. Lawrence; 7--Nova Scotia; 8--Cape Cod; 9--New York; 10--Florida and Antilles; 11--Gulf of Mexico; 12--Venezuela; 13--Amazon river; 14--northeastern Brazil.


Eight 15th-century maps have peninsulas at the southeast corner of a continent across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe.  Those of Martellus and Behaim place the peninsula (like Florida) at the Tropic of Cancer. 


Composite chart of 15th-century maps by Franciscans or Portuguese agents show convergence of the Asian peninsula ("Horn of Asia") with the Tropic of Cancer.  Over time, this shoreline approaches the location of Florida--suggesting that Portuguese voyages served to create an accurate outline of the continents across the sea from Europe.  A--DeVirga; B--Yale Vinland Map; C--Florentine Planisphere; D--Genoese Map; E--Fra Mauro; F--Henricus Martellus; G--Martellus; H--Martin Behaim. 

Gunnar Thompson

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