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  • Zen Letters and Names March 10, 2013

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

    irresistible north

    The Zen letters are the now lost and the perhaps never existing fourteenth-century missives that described a Venetian visit to the northern Atlantic and perhaps to New England or Canada. A supposed outline of them survive in a sixteenth-century publication by Nicolò Zen, a scion of the family. NZ describes the northern Atlantic and offers a narrative. He describes, for example, how his ancestors get washed up on an island and how they were saved there by a lord, who happens to know Latin, and how they then travel to a series of other islands. The problem with NZ’s narrative are the names that he uses.  For example, the first island that the Zen crew arrives in, somewhere to the north of Britain, is named Frislandia, which sounds a little like Frisia, aka part of Holland and western Germany but nothing like any of the northern archipelagos. Likewise the name of the lord that saves the Zen crew is Zichmni which sounds like nothing from the northern or indeed any other naming tradition.

    Of course, historians and desperadoes have rashly interpreted some of these names. For example, Frislandia was, it is suggested, Faroeisland or, as we would call them the Faeroes. This is perhaps just about credible. The Zen brothers may have miswritten the text and NZ may, in his turn, have dropped some of the letters. But what about the nonsense written about Lord Zichmni? Zichmni is often reckoned to have been Henry Sinclair (sometimes written Zincler in the period), a Scottish lord who dominated Orkney. This has been tied into a lot of nonsensical theorizing about the Knights Templar in North America. But Sinclair is not the only man in the house.

    Jakob Hornemann Bredsdorff, a Danish geographer, thought Zichmni was a distortion of Sigmund nephew of the better-known namesake Sigmund Bresterson, hero of the Faeryinga Saga. Another Danish writer, Father Krarup, claimed Henry de Siggens, marshal of the duke of Holstein’s army, was the real Zichmni. And the English critic Frederick Lucas asserted Zichmni ‘far more closely resembles Wichmannus’, a pirate described by Pontanus in his Rerum danicarum historia, whose ‘armed ships infested the shores and ports of Germany, France, Spain, Britain, Norway and Denmark’.

    The truth is that Zichmni sounds nothing like Sinclair or Zincler, Sigmund, de Siggens and not a lot like Wichmannus. It is a nice reminder of how historians are prepared (this historian among them unfortunately) to cut off pieces of the jigsaw in trying to get a given piece to fit. In any case, after Frisia come a series of other islands that sound equally fictitious: Estotiland, Drogio and Icaria, with Islandia and Engroneland that could be Iceland and Greenland. Historians have kept trying, but to little avail, even with the minor names within island chains. Take for example, this valiant attempt from Andrea di Robilant’s excellent book on the Zen brothers (pictured at the head of this post) to explain some placenames on Frislandia and connect them with Faeroes. NZ’s names are first and then the real placenames second.

    Monaco = Munk

    Sudero = Sutheroy

    Nordero = Northedalur

    Andeford = Arnafiorður

    Sudero/Sutherory sound credible, the rest don’t. Of course, allowance has to be made for misunderstandings in the north, for NZ misreading his ancestors and for the other perversions of history. But these three would most likely produce Norse words in a romance guise. What we have, instead, here are the kind of names that a Romance speaker thinks the north has, in modern terms the names a modern science-fiction/fantasy writer would come up with to populate his or her universe. E.g.

    Meanwhile, on the eastern continent of Essos, the exiled children of House Targaryen, which Robert destroyed to claim the throne, are plotting to return to Westeros and unseat the ‘usurper’. To this end, Viserys Targaryen arranges the marriage of his sister Daenerys to Khal Drogo, the leader of 40,000 Dothraki warriors, in return for the use of his warriors in invading Westeros. etc etc etc

    Any other thoughts: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    31 March 2013: Borky writes, Beach I was once on a Danish train and being a bit pissed with a natural proclivity to comunicate without a lager in my hand anyway I found myself striking up various conversations with the passengers who kept asking me ifs I on my way to what variously sounded like “Co-eh” “Coober” “Goober” “Cower” “Gower” “Co-en” “Co-bern” “Co-ber” “Co-veh” “Co-eh-naah” and “Cobern-arn”.  Finally one of them clarified for me they were all refering to what the British call Copenhagen. Similarly a few months back if my ears’re to be trusted I had to come to the rescue of a bunch of what I suspect were lost SOUTH Korean merchant navy sailors who seemed to be trying to work out where they were in relation to Liverpool FC’s city centre footy kit merchandiser but with only enough English to ask what sounded like “Err hah ee?” and “Wi-werpoo’ Sho’?”  So I can only imagine how confused their descendants might be if they should ever read their ancestors’ acounts of how some of the locals in “The Pool” they found themselves splashing about in kept telling them “No no that’s wrong tha’ la’.  No’ Hand Feel. Goody Son. GOR DEE SORN” the culprits of course being Error-tonians. My point being if as I’ve long ‘suspected’ Pytheas for ‘mystical’ type reasons dropped off on the way to Iona at what’d eventually be called Liverpool to mark it as the exact midpoint to four or more decimal places between the North Pole and Timbuktu he’d’ve probably never’ve heard any of the local proto Scousers [circa the period I’ve seen pairs of Roman soldiers tromping between the hills] referring to the place as the Liver Coloured/Life Pool but rather’d’ve gotten that name off outsiders. Ditto Zen’s ancestors names for those places may well’ve been local names bearing little or no resemblance to their names now or outsider names similarly redundant. And what complicates this naming business still more’s the fact most ships’d be crewed with a wide range of sealubber jargon speaking internationals who right up to the Nineteenth Century or even later’d have no idea of themselves as French or German Italian or Swiss etc not to mention the secret proprietorial info I suspect was often encoded into many names even if only to disguise where they actually refered to.’ Thanks Borky!!