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A Fisherman’s Tale or a Venetian Invention? February 28, 2013

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

sinking ship

Lots of emails received in the last week about the Zen brothers and the possibility of a pre-Columbian crossing of the Atlantic by a northern route in the fourteenth century. We have decided to put up the most interesting passage in this respect that relates to some wind-blown fishermen from Europe who end up ‘over there’. Frislandia here is perhaps the Faeroes, Estotiland is God only knows what: most would say a figment of Nicolò Zen’s imagination. The translation comes from Andrea di Robilant’s excellent Irresistible North, we hope the gods of copyright don’t notice.

Four fishing boats went out to sea twenty-si x years ago. They were caught in a storm and lost their way. When the storm finally abated after many days, one of the boats came in sight of an island called Estotiland, about a thousand miles to the west of Frislandia, and made a landing. The six men aboard qwere taken by the islanders to a beautiful and populous town. The king summoned his interpreters. None could understand the language of the foreign fishermen, save for one, who had been shipwrecked on the island some time before and spoke a Latin tongue. This man asked the six fishermen who they were and where they came from; he then repeated everything to the king, who asked that the men remain in the country. The fishermen did as the king wished, for they had no choice but to obey. They stayed five years and became familiar with the local language. One of them in particular (the fisherman who returned to tell the story) travelled to different parts o the island and says it is very rich in all manner of goods and is not much smaller than Islanda [Iceland??], but much more fertile as it is irrigated by four rivers that come down from a high mountain.

There follow some interesting details.

The people who live there are very ingineous, they have much the same skills we have and have developed the same crafts: indeed, it is believed that at some earlir time they traded with the Norsemen. The fisherman says the king had several books in Latin, which none of the natives could understand. Their language and alphabet are quite peculiar. They mine different kinds of metal, including gold, which they have in great supply. They trade with Greenlanders, importing furs, hides, sulfur and pitch.

Beach would love to see the original here.

It is said that to the south there is a great country, very populous and very rich in gold. They grow wheat and make beer, a common beverage among northern peoples as wine is with us. They have extensive woodlands and they are skilled in the art of stonemasonry and there are many communities and defensive fortifications. They are shipbuilders and sail the oceans but they do not have the use of the magnet and cannot locate the north with a compass.

Let’s say that this text is genuine (ahem!). Are we talking about a European or an Amerindian population here?

The six fishermen were much appreciated by the king; he sent them with twelve of his own boats down the coast to a country called Drogio. They were assailed by a storm and thought to be lost at sea. They had, in fact, survived, although having escaped a cruel death, they ended up suffering an even crueler one: they were captured and eaten by a ferocious indigenous people who not only fed on human flesh but considered it a very savoury dish. Only one fisherman was spared so he could teach them the art of fishing with nets.’

Here the story gets even stranger. Different tribes fight over the fish-net maker.

In the course of the thirteen years he spent in the region, the fisherman claims he was sent to no less than twenty-five chieftains, for they made war on each other  just for the privilege of having him on their side… The fisherman says the country is big, a new world as it were [!], but it is inhabited by very primitive people who lack most of our finished goods and go about naked despite the bitter cold – indeed the have not learned to cover themselves properly with the furs of the animals they hunt. They do not use metals of any sort, they live off game and carry arrows made of wood with sharpened points and bows the strings of which are made of hide.  These are ferocious people who fight one another to death and even eat one another. They have priests who enforce the laws, which change from tribe to tribe. But the more one travels south the more one sees signs of civilization. The climate is more temperate and there are cities and temples to the idols where men are sacrificed and eaten. Gold and silver are highly valued in these southern regions, where goldsmiths and silversmiths are very skilful.

Anyone reading the above should remember that the Zen narrative was published in the middle of the sixteenth century. For Beach it is details like this (which are just too good to be true) that twist the thumb down.

Many years passed. His companions had given up hope of ever seeing their country again but the  fisherman yearned to return home. He bade them farewell, fled into the woods and headed back towards Drogio.

From there he eventually managed to build a ship and make it back to Frislanda.

Any thoughts on this extraordinary passage? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com