Pre-Columbian Latin Text Proves Early Knowledge of the Americas
The accepted mainstream story has long been that no one in southern or western Europe knew anything about the Americas before the discoveries associated with the voyages of Columbus. But a new translation of a rare medieval Latin text, which was composed by an Italian monk, shows that this perception was inaccurate.
In this ancient 14th-century book, mention is made to a far-off land known as “Marckalada,” which was previously discovered by Scandinavian explorers. Given the overall context of the passage, it is clear the writer is referring to either Labrador or Newfoundland on Canada’s northeastern coast. This means there were people in Italy that knew about the North American continent, more than 150 years before Columbus ever set sail.
This amazing discovery was made by Milan University professor Paolo Chiesa, who specializes in the study of medieval Latin literature, and several graduate students who helped him examine and translate an ancient Italian manuscript known as “ Cronica Universalis.” The book was written sometime between 1339 and 1345 by a Dominican monk named Galvano Fiamma, and it contained a passage in Latin that revealed knowledge of lands that could be reached by sailing west across the Atlantic. This included a huge and expansive landmass known as Marckalada, which was said to have been discovered but never deeply explored.
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A photograph of a page from the Latin text manuscript by the 14th-century Italian monk Galvano Fiamma. (ArteMagazine)
Fiamma’s Amazing Latin Text Is Backed Up By Icelandic Sources
In an article in the historical journal Terrae Incognitae, Professor Chiesa refers to Fiamma’s newly translated disclosure as “astonishing.” As added proof that the monk was really talking about North America, Professor Chiesa makes note of statements and stories obtained from ancient Icelandic sources, which mention a land called Markland that had been previously identified by scholars as referring to the northeastern coast of modern-day Canada.
The rare copy of Fiamma’s book is currently owned by a private collector from New York, who gave Professor Chiesa permission to take photographs of the book and its contents. While completing a cover-to-cover Latin translation, one of Chiesa’s graduate students found the paragraph that contains the critical reference.
Fiamma’s passage sets up its revelation by first noting the success of the European sailors who’d reached Greenland and Iceland centuries before. He then wrote the following:
“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.”
The monk explained that he got the knowledge of Marckalada from “sailors who frequent the seas of Denmark and Norway.” This makes it easy to credit the discovery of the western lands to Norse or Vikings stories of adventure and conquest which could have been passed down to 14th-century Scandinavian sailors. They in turn could have relayed the tales to Italian seamen they encountered in the port of Genoa.
According to Professor Chiesa, the mention of giants plays on a common motif in Norse mythology and folklore. Since the interior lands of North America (and their possible inhabitants) remained unknown, it would have been easy for individuals landing in the 10th century to imagine that monsters, exotic creatures, or extraordinary humans might have lived there.
In the Cronica Universalis, Galvano Fiamma confirmed that the ancient sailors didn’t know much at all about the true features of the western lands. Therefore, they could only speculate about what they might have found if they’d traveled further inland.
This Canadian stamp is dedicated to the Vikings who sailed west long before Columbus. (irisphoto1 / Adobe Stock)
The Vikings in North America
It is now established beyond any doubt that Norse sailors reached the eastern Atlantic Ocean, and the lands that could be found there, in the late 10th century. They formed settlements in Greenland that were occupied for 500 years, which endured even after the age of the Vikings had passed.
Their entrance to the North American continent may have taken place at a site on the northern coast of Newfoundland known as L'Anse aux Meadows. The remains of this small Viking settlement were recovered in 1960, and to date L'Anse aux Meadows represents the lone Norse site found anywhere on the North American continent.
Evidence reveals the Vikings didn’t stay in this spot too long, abandoning it long before they’d had any opportunity to expand inward. Norse ships may have continued to land on Newfoundland or elsewhere for some time, but if so they likely stayed there just long enough to collect timber or other valuable supplies.
Because their connection to the North American continent was so tenuous, historians have never been certain if Viking landings there were known outside of Scandinavia. Knowledge about this episode in Norse history might have been confined to a relatively small number of people in a limited geographical region, it was believed.
But now, it is obvious that people outside of Norway and Denmark knew about the Viking landings in Newfoundland. Stories about those times didn’t necessarily include accurate and extensive details. But the basic memory of Viking accomplishments and discoveries was passed down at least as far as the 14th century, and to parts of Europe that were far away from Scandinavia.
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A map, made in 1570 by an Icelandic teacher, showing Greenland and Markland on the Canadian coast. (Sigurd Stefánsson / Public domain)
Did Columbus And Others Know about Marckalada?
The discovery of the revealing passage in the Cronica Universalis raises a fascinating question: just how widespread was knowledge of the North American continent and other western lands in medieval Europe? Galvano Fiamma likely acquired his knowledge while studying in Genoa, but he was certainly not the only one to be exposed to such stories.
Perhaps most who heard about gigantic landmasses in the frigid Arctic simply assumed they were myths or folktales and not worth taking seriously. It’s possible that only a few Norwegian and Danish sailors chose to share these legends, meaning they wouldn’t have become common knowledge.
It's also possible that knowledge about North America’s existence was relatively widespread at the time, and in the future scholars will uncover more evidence in old texts that prove this to be true. Of course, if tales of Marckalada were being shared in the 14th century and beyond, it’s possible they circulated long enough for Columbus (supposedly a Genoa native) to have heard them. Such tales may have been an unacknowledged inspiration for the 15th century explorer, who for a long time was incorrectly credited as the first to make landfall in the Americas.
The fact that no maps have been recovered from this time that include the North American continent suggests its existence was only known about in limited circles or was considered only a rumor or a folktale.
Regardless, the paragraph recorded by Galvano Fiamma in the Cronica Universalis lets us know that the first European discoverers of America did pass on stories about what they’d seen, and knowledge of their accomplishments did in fact reach some distant ports.
Top image: Image portraying North America discovered by a Viking ship. A 14th-century Latin text now proves the Vikings knew about North America. Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde