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The Inventio Fortunata: A Lost Medieval Journey to the Arctic North November 20, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

The Inventio Fortunata sometimes written the Inventio Fortunae (likely a mistaken amendment by an over anxious sixteenth-century author) is one of the most extraordinary documents NOT to come down to us from posterity. It was written in the fourteenth century, either at sea or in England, by a friar for the King of England, Edward III, and it describes an unlikely adventure in the north of the Atlantic. The friar in question– sometimes falsely connected with Nicholas of Lynn – travelled beyond Iceland into the Arctic Circle and Greenland: excitingly ‘Anonymous’ may have made it to Markland (coastal Canada) as well (another post another day).

How do we know that the Inventio Fortunata actually existed? Well, several writers refer to it. John Day, an English correspondent of a Spanish admiral (probably Christopher Columbus) mentions that he had failed to find it: he may have lost, in fact, the last English copy. Others though actually quote from it including Martin Behaim (obit 1507) and Johann Ruysch (obit 1533). The former describes a huge stone in the northern Atlantic full of magnetic lode that marked the Northern Pole [sic]: all this on the authority of the IF.

Martin Behaim gives us a mere sentence from the now forgotten explorer, presumably an English man. However, by great good fortune a Dutch writer Jacobus Cnoyen copied out extensive fragments that he translated into Flemish. Cnoyen’s work does not survive. But luckily before it followed the Inventio into the maws of time the map maker Gerald Mercator (obit 1594) copied much of Cnoyen’s summary into a letter that was sent to the English magician, courtier and trouble-maker John Dee (obit 1609). Dee lost Mercator’s letter but before he did so he copied out parts of said letter. Then, Dee’s notebook almost went the way of Inventio, Cnoyen and Mercator later in its history: it suffered at some point fire damage…

We should be grateful for small mercies. It is something of a miracle we have anything of this problematic text. There is a problem though that cannot be easily resolved. Dee made hopelessly clumsy notes conflating Latin, English and Dutch. At this distance we do not always know what was his, what was Mercator’s and what was Cnoyen additions. The Inventio remains one of the most intriguing of all lost books: glimpsed but never truly read.

Any other hidden or lost books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Anything on polar exploration would be appreciated too.