Thursday, May 24, 2007


True North

Strange Maps is one of my favorite blogs, because so often the little cartographical gems it covers suggest whole novels. Today's post about the "True North" is a perfect example.

Somewhere in the 14th century, a Franciscan from Oxford, a ‘priest with an astrolabe’, writes a travelogue about his discoveries in the North Atlantic, calls it the Inventio Fortunata (‘The Discovery of Fortunata’) and in 1360 presents it to the King of England.

This book has been lost since the late 15th century.

However, a Jacobus Cnoyen from the city of ‘s Hertogenbosch (in present-day Netherlands) summarizes the contents of the Inventio, related to him in 1364 in Norway by another Franciscan who had met the author. Cnoyen’s own travel-book is called the Itinerarium.

This book has also been lost.

All this we know by the extensive quotes from the Itinerarium in a letter by the Flemish cartographer Gerhard Mercator to his friend, the English scientist, occultist and royal advisor John Dee. That letter, written in 1577 and now in the British Museum, mentions that:

“In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool, into which there empty these four indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the Earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is four degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare Rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic Stone (…) This is word for word everything that I copied out of this author (i.e. Cnoyen) years ago.”

(A truly enormous JPG of the map is here, which I'm not including inline so as not to choke RSS feeds with a 4 Mb image.)

Doesn't this just scream for an alternate history approach about a world where his view of geography was correct, and in which Elizabethan explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, advised by John Dee and accompanied by Christopher Marlowe, mounted an expedition to the northern land of the Pygmies, hoping to cross the Arctic whirlpool and reach the Black and Very High Cliff at the top of the world? Only to discover that they were in a race for the pole, with the forces of the Spanish crown already several steps ahead of them?

What a cool website -- thanks for posting this. I love maps!
I know, it's an awesome site, isn't it?
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