Mystery of the Medieval Map-Maker

Sixteenth-century German priest-cartographer Martin Waldseemueller is famous for being the man who coined the term “America” in a 1507 map.

He’s also the focus of a strange and intriguing mystery explored today by the WASHINGTON POST:

How was it that a German priest writing in Latin and living in a French city far from the coast became the first person to tell the world that a vast ocean lay to the west of the American continents?

That is one of the bigger mysteries in the history of the Renaissance.

But it is not the only one involving Martin Waldseemueller, a map-making cleric whose own story is sufficiently obscure that his birth and death dates aren’t known for certain.

Waldseemueller appears to have also known something about the contours of South America’s west coast years before Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and Ferdinand Magellan sailed around the bottom of the continent. History books record them as the first Europeans to bring back knowledge of the Pacific Ocean.

The evidence of this knowledge is in Waldseemueller’s world map of 1507, perhaps the most valuable of the 5 million maps owned by the Library of Congress. It was acquired for $10 million in 2003 and went on permanent display last year.

The map — in near-perfect condition and with no other known copies — is the oldest document that applies the label “America” to the land mass between Africa and Asia.

This was, of course, in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine navigator who had sailed to the New World for the Portuguese. (His first name was Latinized to “Americus” and then feminized to “America.”) The act of naming was apparently Waldseemueller’s alone; there is no evidence that the term was in use at the time.

New research by John W. Hessler of the Library of Congress has made the mystery of Waldseemueller’s knowledge deeper and richer. But it hasn’t answered the biggest question: How did he know?

“There is some probability that Waldseemueller knew something that is no longer extant — information that we don’t have,” Hessler said.

In the largest block of text on the map, Waldseemueller writes that many things remained unknown to the ancients “in no slight degree; for instance, in the west, America, named after its discoverer, which is now known to be a fourth part of the world.” In “Cosmographiae,” he uses similar language: “The earth is now known to be divided into four parts. The first three parts are continents, but the fourth part is an island, because it has been found to be surrounded on all sides by sea.”

Hessler said he thinks the phrases “now known” and “has been found to be” are crucial. They suggest geographical knowledge that is confirmed and believed, at least in some circles.

“The idea that this was a total guess is far-fetched,” he said.

The people who knew were most likely Portuguese explorers (or at least sailed under the Portuguese flag). It was valuable, and most likely secret, knowledge. How it got to a priest-cartographer working under the patronage of the duke of Lorraine is a good question.

Waldseemueller: Cartographic prophet or ocean-revealing blabbermouth?

Some have speculated that Waldseemueller studied Amerigo Vespucci’s writings on the exploration of the eastern coast of South America, and concluded that the details just didn’t square with known descriptions of Asia, meaning that this landmass had to be a separate continent.

From there, the theory goes, he conjectured the existence of the Pacific Ocean…

However, the Library of Congress research indicates that Waldseemueller’s coastline of the western side of South America – which history records as unexplored by Europeans to that point – is eerily accurate.

Equally intriguing is the shape of South America.

Inscribed along the western edge of that land mass in the 1507 map are the words “terra ultra incognita” — land most unknown. But the border is not drawn as one long, ignorantly straight line. Instead, it is a series of straight lines meeting at shallow angles, implying a mixture of knowledge and uncertainty.

Using a technique called “polynomial warping,” Hessler re-projected the image and compared Waldseemueller’s continent with the real one.

There are many differences, of course. But the correlation is about 75 percent, and at two important places — near the equator and near the place in northern Chile where the coast veers sharply to the northwest — the width of Waldseemueller’s South America and the actual one are almost the same.

Things were perhaps not as ultra incognita as he let on.

We see three possibilities:

(1) Through his homey Matthias Ringmann, Waldseemueller found out the inside poop on the secret Ocean beyond the New World. Despite knowing that loose lips sink ships, Waldseemueller decided to leak the deets to the cartographic community. Nobody really noticed, and eventually Vasco Núñez de Balboa ended up scooping the rest of Europe on the Pacific Ocean story. Sort of like the Monica Lewinsky thing: Waldseemueller is Mike Isikoff and Vasco is Matt Drudge.

(2) After an epic all-night mead binge, a hungover and out of it Waldseemueller found himself face-to-face with deadline to deliver his mapalicious goodness to the Duke of Lorraine. Completely stressed out and desperate to finish the project, Waldseemueller said “screw it,” and BSed an ocean in there. Miraculously, he got it right.

(3) Hopelessly stumped by the inherent contradictions between the conventional wisdom (New World = Asia) and the curious findings in Vespucci’s writings, Waldseemueller found himself at a total impasse. Just then an 80s-style phone booth appeared in the abbey, and Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Theodore Logan, on a quest to pass Geography class, emerged. “You’re missing the Pacific Ocean, dude,” they told him, and quickly sketched it in there, before stealing Waldseemueller away for wacky hijinks at the mall.

Our money is on #2. Never underestimate the subtle historical forces of hangovers and bullshit.

About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

One Response to Mystery of the Medieval Map-Maker

  1. Nils Coq au Vin, Esq. says:

    (4) Plagiarized that shizzle off my main man Zheng “the admiral” He. Yes, that Zheng He of the 1421 Treasure Fleet. He was the tits.

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