As The Economist reports, a paper for the academic journal Terrae Incognitae by Paolo Chiesa, a professor of Medieval Latin Literature at Milan University, reveals that an Italian monk referred to America in a book he wrote as early as the starts of the 14th century. The monk referred to the continent as Markland (Latinised to Marckalada).
We already knew that Vikings crossed the Atlantic long before Christopher Columbus. Their sagas told of expeditions to the coast of today’s Canada: to Helluland, which scholars have identified as Baffin Island or Labrador; Markland (Labrador or Newfoundland) and Vinland (Newfoundland or a territory farther south). In 1960 the remains of Norse buildings were found in Newfoundland.
However, this is the first time we can put a date to the journeys. And it’s also the first time that we have proof that anyone outside northern Europe had heard of America until Columbus’s voyage in 1492.
The Cronica Universalis was originally written by a Dominican monk, Galvano Fiamma, between 1339 and 1345. The book once belonged to the library of the basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. In Napoleonic times, the monastery was suppressed and its contents scattered. In 2015, Mr. Chiesa traced the only known copy to a private collector in New York. The Cronica owner let Mr. Chiesa photograph the entire book. On his return to Milan, the professor gave the photographs to his graduate students to transcribe.
One of the students, Giulia Greco, found an astonishing passage in which Galvano, after describing Iceland and Greenland, writes:
Farther westwards there is another land, named Marckalada, where giants live; in this land, there are buildings with such huge slabs of stone that nobody could build them, except huge giants. There are also green trees, animals, and a great quantity of birds.
Giants were a standard embellishment of faraway places in Norse folklore and, indeed, Galvano cautioned that “no sailor was ever able to know anything for sure about this land or about its features.” The Dominican was scrupulous in citing his sources. Most were literary. But, unusually, he ascribed his description of Marckalada to the oral testimony of “sailors who frequent the seas of Denmark and Norway”.
This suggests that the sailors were probably seafarers in Genoa, the nearest port to Milan and the city in which the Dominican monk is most likely to have studied for his doctorate. This could help explain why Columbus, a Genoese, was prepared to set off across what most contemporaries considered a landless void. However, the stories must have seen rather unlikely to 14th-century scholars, as America doesn’t feature in any of the known Genovese maps of the time.
Who said that old books hold no surprises?