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Further Thoughts on the Inventio Fortunata with Thanks to Readers December 19, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

The Inventio Fortunata (the Happy Discovery) is a text that we’ve already looked at twice on this blog. A first post described its extraordinary survival in a burnt copy of a copy of a copy in the wrong language. A second post alleged that the IF detailed an English trip to Arctic Canada in 1360. There were many readers’ emails afterwards, particularly after the second post, bringing up objections and posing questions. With thanks to those readers we include a few tentative queries and answers here. This is a matter of very great interest to Beach and any other emails would be gratefully received: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com We’ve also included  – with due apology to the dreadful gods of copyright (Mercator) – the only edition of the text (the English translation of which includes a number of small errors).

I) You say that the IF describes Greenland, how can you be so sure? (with thanks to MZ)

The IF describes a trip into the North Atlantic that includes visits to various lands which are bunched relatively closely together. This much is certain – read the mercator pdf above if you want to get a better sense. The question is where exactly. Broadly speaking in the North Atlantic there are three possibilities. We could be dealing with a trip to the Greenland area. We could be dealing with a trip to Iceland and a northern island, perhaps Jans Mayen. We could be dealing with a trip to Svalbard and northern Norway.  Consider now this though. The text describes four things that help identify the macro region. (i) the author sees ‘pygmies’, which are presumably sub Arctic people. (ii) he visits a land where a Christian priest lives, this priest afterwards visits Norway where he is received by the Norwegian king as a curiosity. (iii) The priest says that in his land there is little rain (and only drizzle at that), cool air and almost no wind. (iv) the author describes a land without trees but then travels to land with many brasil trees. Iceland with no trees and no native population cannot be meant. A priest from Iceland in Norway would not be remarkable. Iceland’s weather is NOT described here. Is it possible that Svalbard and modern Norway are meant? It is unlikely. We have no proof that at this date anyone inhabited the Svalbard archipelago, indeed we are not even sure that the Vikings had discovered this place. The Sami are a sub-Artic people but they are not usually characterised as being smaller than their Norse neighbours. There is also the problem that the author specifically says that northern Norway was joined to an arctic continent beyond it. A visit to Svalbard would quickly have disabused him of this. Greenland matches all the points well. The Inuit – Skraelings or puny ones in Norse – were there and across the way in Baffin Island. A priest from Greenland would have been a novelty in Norway: Greenland was technically Norwegian at this date but there was only intermittent contact between the two. The description of the weather is perfect for the west and east settlement in Greenland. Finally, there were no coniferous trees in Greenland but there were trees to the south of the tree line in Labrador.

II) The description of trees to the north doesn’t match what we know of Greenland (Bill).

The text again is as follows. Before reading it, it is important to remember that we have a bowdlerised version here and that we lack (we must presume) the clarity of the original.

And on the other side of this sea was the best and healthiest land in all the North. Also [the monk] said that the sea which lay on the east side could never be frozen because so many channels united there. And it was narrow besides, so that the current was very strong. But that the one which ran on the west side used to freeze almost every year: and remained frozen sometimes for three months. And in that land he had seen no signs of habitation. But in a country which lay to the North opposite it, he had recognized planks of ships and tree trunks. All these four countries are high open lands (i.e. plateaus) except some mountains four fathom [sic] high. There are many trees of Brazil wood.

It is very difficult to follow relative geography here. Beach took this before as being a description of the seas on either side of Greenland but now he wonders if it is not the Davis Strait which does freeze on the west rather than the east. ‘Planks of ships and tree trunks..’ does not necessarily mean that there were trees. The traveller could have stumbled on a Norse ship-making yard in say Baffin Island. The reference though to many trees of Brazil Wood and an earlier (unquoted here) reference to a peninsula of trees is striking: it has to be Labrador, if the conclusion to (I) above is accepted.

III) What are the four lands referred to? (thanks Mavis)

The author believes that the North Pole is surrounded by four lands. One of these lands is northern Norway, which could be Greenland bizarrely enough: the Norse were convinced that there was a land bridge between northern Norway and Greenland. As to the other lands one is presumably Arctic America (Asia for our author) and another might have been Baffin Island or even Labrador. How could this possibly work? Given the extraordinary irregularities in compass readings Beach wonders whether the author did not believe that the North Pole was somewhere in the north centre of the Davis Strait. This would solve a lot of problems in the text but also creates a whole host of other ones. Thanks to Moonman for pointing out the difficulty of establishing ‘north’ around the Greenland landmass and in the north more generally. NB Some renaissance maps thought that the four lands stood to the north of the known world.

IV) Inventio Fortunata means Happy Discovery: what was the Happy Discovery? (thanks Down the Rabbit Hole)

Beach doesn’t get this. Perhaps the healthy lands in the north? Perhaps what the Discoverer believed to be the Pole though it is also clear that he had not see that himself? Was it a Lucky Discovery, something discovered by chance?

V) Couldn’t it be a fake? (thanks Southern Man)

It would make a lot of things a lot easier, but this is one of those very rare medieval texts that has an outside witness. The text that Dee preserves came ultimately from a Dutch traveller, Cnoyden, who describes a meeting between a priest (I think a Greenland priest) who in conversation with the Norwegian king describes an English Franciscan who came to his home and who wrote afterwards a book entitled Inventio Fortunata.  There are reasons for thinking that Cnoyden was present at that interview. Cnoyden was, in any case, also able to quote from the IF. A fake is pretty hard to justify in these circumstances: we have a double evidence lock.