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Italians knew about North America in the 14th century, historian finds

Around the mid-fourteenth century there were reports of a place called ‘Marckalada’ circulating in Italy. New research suggests this was a reference to northeastern section of North America.

Paolo Chiesa, a Professor at the University of Milan, has made the “astonishing” discovery of an “exceptional” passage referring to an area we know today as North America during the examination of a document created around the year 1345 by a Milanese friar named Galvaneus Flamma. “We are in the presence of the first reference to the American continent, albeit in an embryonic form, in the Mediterranean area,” states Professor Chiesa.

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A manuscript of Flamma, entitled Cronica universalis, was discovered in the hands of a private collector in 2013.  Chiesa believes this is one of Flamma’s later works – perhaps the last one – and was left unfinished and unperfected. It aims to detail the history of the whole world, from ‘Creation’ to when it was published.

Galvaneus Flamma was a Dominican friar who lived in Milan and was connected to a family which held at the lordship of the city. He wrote several literary works in Latin, mainly on historical subjects. His testimony is valuable for information on Milanese contemporary facts, about which he has first-hand knowledge.

Within a section talking about various lands of the earth, Flamma describes the parts of the world near the Arctic:

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Further northwards there is the Ocean, a sea with many islands where a great quantity of peregrine falcons and gyrfalcons live. These islands are located so far north that the Polar Star remains behind you, toward the south. Sailors who frequent the seas of Denmark and Norway say that northwards, beyond Norway, there is Iceland; further ahead there is an island named Grolandia, where the Polar Star remains behind you, toward the south. The governor of this island is a bishop. In this land, there is neither wheat nor wine nor fruit; people live on milk, meat, and fish. They dwell in subterranean houses and do not venture to speak loudly or to make any noise, for fear that wild animals hear and devour them. There live huge white bears, which swim in the sea and bring shipwrecked sailors to the shore. There live white falcons capable of great flights, which are sent to the emperor of Katai. Further 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 with them, except huge giants. There are also green trees, animals and a great quantity of birds. However, no sailor was ever able to know anything for sure about this land or about its features.

Chiesa believes the reference to the land of Marckalada is that of what is called in Norse sources as Markland. Icelandic sagas reported about how explorers came to land such as Markland, Helluland and Vinland the early eleventh century. These are believed to represent Labrador (Markland), Baffin Island (Helluland) and Newfoundland or another part of northeastern North America (Vinland).

Areas in North America explored by the Norse – image by Finn Bjørklid / Wikimedia Commons

How did Galvaneus Flamma know about this place? Chiesa explains that the nearby port of Genoa would have been a “gateway” for news, and how Galvaneus appears to hear, informally, of seafarers’ rumours about lands to the extreme north-west for eventual commercial benefit – as well as information about Greenland, which he details accurately (for knowledge of the time).

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“These rumours were too vague to find consistency in cartographic or scholarly representations,” the professor states, as he explains why Marckalada wasn’t classified as a new land at the time.

Regardless though, Chiesa states, Cronica universalis “brings unprecedented evidence to the speculation that news about the American continent, derived from Nordic sources, circulated in Italy one and half centuries before Columbus.”

He adds: “What makes the passage (about Marckalada) exceptional is its geographical provenance: not the Nordic area, as in the case of the other mentions, but northern Italy. The Marckalada described by Galvaneus is ‘rich in trees’, not unlike the wooded Markland of the Grœnlendinga Saga, and animals live there.

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“These details could be standard, as distinctive of any good land; but they are not trivial, because the common feature of northern regions is to be bleak and barren, as actually Greenland is in Galvaneus’s account, or as Iceland is described by Adam of Bremen.”

The Skálholt-map made by the icelandic teacher Sigurd Stefansson in the year 1570. There are references to Markland in Norse sources in the 14th century, but nothing like it as far south as Italy.

Overall, Professor Chiesa says, we should “trust” Cronica universalis as throughout the document Galvaneus declares where he has heard of oral stories, and backs his claims with elements drawn from accounts (legendary or real) belonging to previous traditions on different lands, blended together and reassigned to a specific place.

“I do not see any reason to disbelieve him,” states Professor Chiesa, who adds, “it has long been noticed that the fourteenth-century portolan (nautical) charts drawn in Genoa and in Catalonia offer a more advanced geographical representation of the north, which could be achieved through direct contacts with those regions.

“These notions about the north-west are likely to have come to Genoa through the shipping routes to the British Isles and to the continental coasts of the North Sea. We have no evidence that Italian or Catalan seafarers ever reached Iceland or Greenland at that time, but they were certainly able to acquire from northern European merchant goods of that origin to be transported to the Mediterranean area.

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“The marinarii mentioned by Galvaneus can fit into this dynamic: the Genoese might have brought back to their city scattered news about these lands, some real and some fanciful, that they heard in the northern harbors from Scottish, British, Danish, Norwegian sailors with whom they were trading.”

Cronica universalis, written in Latin, is still unpublished; however, an edition is planned, in the context of a scholarly and educational program promoted by the University of Milan.

The article, “Marckalada: The First Mention of America in the Mediterranean Area (c. 1340),” by Paolo Chiesa, is published in Terrae Incognitae: The Journal of the Society for the History of Discoveries. Click here to read it.

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