Section 3 - Research and the Vinland Map
Types of research for the novelist
For the purpose of this discussion let us assume that there are at least
three types of research the novelist is likely to have to undertake.
The first I will call reflective research. Here the novelist needs to
explore their own opinions and emotions, thoughts and feelings, and in
that exploration struggle with developing appropriate descriptions and
metaphors. It is important to note here that such exploration needs to
avoid the superficial, for this level of reflection is in danger of generating
For example, when looking at the idea of sadness it was important that
I not only read the literature available on this emotion, as well as how
other writers had utilised it, but I also needed to reflect on my own
understanding of it. I needed to ask myself what exactly sadness was,
what exactly did it feel like and what caused it. I also needed to know
what kind of behaviour it might generate. But to know sadness in this
way is not to know it objectively, on the contrary I needed to swim in
the experience of sadness, and to know that experience.
I do not find it easy coming to my desk in the morning knowing that I
have to allow myself, nay, encourage myself, to slip into the depths of
sadness, or for that matter joy or fulfilment or hunger or loss. This
particular type of research is the hardest for me and the most time consuming.
It requires a distressing level of self-honesty and it also produces high
levels of doubt. The doubt can be crippling and the self-honesty is difficult
to live with on a daily basis. After all, there are good reasons why we
protect ourselves with clichés, or numb the doubt with chemicals.
And working in this area also requires a certain arrogance. The novelist
needs to adopt a belief that what they say on an emotion or a concept
is of interest to their reader. There were days when I just couldn't take
myself that seriously, when I just couldn't believe that what I had to
say would be of interest to anyone else. Writing the section in Chapter
3 where Meridian talks about her feminism was an instance of this. I see-
sawed backwards and forwards between an arrogance that what I had to say
was intensely interesting, and total disbelief in the value of anything
I had to say on the matter. I worked and re-worked the chapter, expanding
and contracting the text depending upon the day and the balance of self-
deception and self-honesty.
The second type of research is that which is informed by ethnography.
As I pointed out in Section 1, I employ a method which requires that I
place myself into the situation as a reflective participant, and not simply
as an observer (Ball:1992; Fraser:1989; Spelman:1988).
As I mentioned above I interviewed a large number of women. I listened
to their stories and told them mine.
Many of these interviews were casual. For the novelist a casual conversation
with a stranger can sometimes offer more than any formally constructed
interview. But why is this the case? Why can I often discover more about
the human condition from a casual conversation than from a researched
and well-conducted interview? Perhaps it is an instance of the human trait
to want to confess to a trusted stranger, to want to tell that stranger
the story you carry with your shopping bag, or in your brief case. The
novelist becomes the trusted stranger. And yet the concept of a trusted
stranger is close to an oxymoron. What kind of trust can we place in a
stranger? Is it simply that the stranger is trusted to remain aloof? Talkback
radio virtually survives on this phenomenon, on this human desire to tell
the stranger, to confess to the stranger. There is possibly something
else here - is the desire to tell the story partly motivated by the hope
that it will be re-told, the re-telling somehow giving the person an importance,
a form of immortality? Does this make the novelists a particularly useful
trusted stranger because they are also trusted to re-tell the story? The
novelist then, in order to carry out successfully this form of research,
needs to become the stranger.
Visiting locations, gaining new experiences, such as the handling of
medieval manuscripts, and the tasting of foods all come into this type
of research. An example of this was the careful research I needed to conduct
Sherry was not a drink I knew much about and yet it was of great concern
to my character Francisco. I had never looked on it with any sophistication,
it was something I occasionally used in cooking. I didn't know enough
about sherry to write Francisco's passion for the drink. One afternoon
I brought two small and elegant bottles of very fine sherry to the office
of my colleague and local supervisor, Nigel Krauth. With, at least initially,
great seriousness, we sipped and smelt and talked, searching for the words
and metaphors to describe the drink. We searched for the drink's language,
for the words of sherry. After that, whenever I worked on a part of the
novel that mentioned, or played with, the drink, I'd pour myself a small
glass of this very fine sherry and let it sit next to my computer, filling
my senses and my words with its aroma.
The third type of research is that scholarly type traditionally carried
out in the library - the searching through books and journals for information
and argument. I have written elsewhere that the novelist needs to embroider
the reflective and ethnographically informed research with this form of
knowledge gathering (Brady & Bourke, 1998).
For this particular novel I needed to spend a great deal of time in the
library. Interested as I was in the tension between history and fiction,
I needed to acquire enough history to make that tension viable.
The novelist and the bowerbird
Writing a novel for a degree required that I kept a bibliography of my
reading. The bibliography included in this exegesis makes quite interesting
reading in itself because it illustrates the unusualness of the novelist's
library research. Unlike my colleagues in other disciplines I needed to
acquire a working rather than specialist knowledge, not in one area but
in a range of areas and disciplines. I needed to function a little like
a bowerbird that picks out the blue things and leaves all the other colours.
Similarly I needed to pick out the dark blue pieces of ecclesiastical
history, the azure lines of cartography, the sapphire decorations of medieval
manuscripts and the Nile blue theories of archaeology. I needed to be
able to write on a range of issues and yet I knew I was not an authority
in any of them.
This bowerbird researching requires its own skill. The skill to locate
quickly, sort through and accurately select all the blue pieces. It is
also the skill of knowing where to look, where to find the blue pieces
in the first place. It may sound easy, but to be able to accurately and
quickly isolate the turquoise from the aquamarine at one end of the spectrum,
and the indigo from the purple at the other, requires nerve, a great eye
and a lot of knowhow. With so much information to gather, the novelist
needs to be able to work quickly, to know the questions to ask and to
be able to isolate the essence.
For example, I did not need to become an archaeologist in order to make
use of the Ingstad (1970) research. I had to know where to find the article,
and then I had to take time to read it, navigating my way through the
discipline's jargon. But the real time was spent thinking about
archaeology. Once I had comprehended the article and its issues I needed
to isolate a particular aspect that in an isolated way could represent
the whole. Further, this single item needed to be one which could be retold,
or worked into a novel. I chose the hunt and discovery of the anvil stone
because it was a single incident which could be retold in a dramatic manner.
I also chose the importance of the design of the Norse houses, because
this reinforced a thematic concern pertaining to the cultural and historical
nature of perception. These were my blue bits. And in selecting them I
rejected several other excavation sites and a list of artefacts that were
discovered at the dig.
As I mentioned in Section 2, serendipity led me to the Vinland Map and
since the Vinland Map was central to the narrative it became a veritable
minefield of 'blue pieces'. I needed to investigate not only the literature
associated with the map's rediscovery and the various papers on its authenticity
or lack thereof, but also the Vinland sagas, the myth and history associated
with this time, and the relevant archaeology. The story of the map also
directed me to Spain and in particular to Saragossa. It further required
that I became familiar with aspects of medieval church history.
The reproduction of the map, below, has been reduced, as the original
was drawn on two leaves of vellum joined at the centre which reproduces
snugly to an A3 size page.
The Vinland Map
Reading the map can be difficult for our 20th century eyes which are so
used to a particular projection and version of the world. To read the
map, locate the Mediterranean Sea in its centre. Notice how Africa has
been shortened to exaggerate the curved symmetry of the map. The island
group at the top right is the earliest depiction of Japan. To the far
left the large island, thought to be part of the Canadian coastline, is
the Norse lands of Helluland, Markland and, the furthest south, Vinland.
The three different lands are dived by deep gulfs which almost sever the
island. Greenland, in its appropriate place on the map, north and between
American and Europe, is for the first time drawn as an island, and next
to it is a very enlarged Iceland. Ireland is also enlarged. The famous
wormholes can be seen as the shaded circles, two in the Atlantic and one
in Asia Minor.
The map is a simple drawing without decoration and it does not contain
a compass rose.
By carefully looking at the map it becomes obvious that it is more than
a map of the known world, a mappa mundi, it is also a picture
of medieval thought. It is the latter which most interested me. In this
way I used the map to talk about the way representations and evaluations
of knowledge have changed over time, and in particular, the changes associated
with the Enlightenment period.
The actualities of the map are less interesting to me, although they
have their place in the narrative. The map does exist, it has been written
about and it can be viewed in the Yale University Library Map Room. But
all of this is unimportant to me. I am comfortable with a reading of my
text where the map is seen as another fiction.
It might be of interest to also note that just as the map actually exists
in the world so too do other aspects of the narrative. Enrico Ferrajoli
did sell the map to an American called Laurence Witten. Ferrajoli had
previously shown the map to the London dealer Davis, and had sold to Davis
a section of the Speculum that Davis put in his international
catalogue. Ferrajoli was arrested by the Spanish police for the theft
of manuscripts from a cathedral at Saragossa. He served a prison sentence
and died in jail revealing to no one the true identity of the original
owner of the Vinland Map. Witten did show his purchase to his friend Thomas
Marston, curator of maps at Yale University Library. Thomas Marston did
purchase from Davis' international catalogue a segment of the Speculum.
Witten did recognise the wormholes and Marston assisted him in putting
the three manuscripts, the Vinland Map, the Tartar Relations
and the Speculum together. All of this can be found in the documented
story associated with the map's rediscovery.
That I used so much of a so-called 'real' story in a fiction, twisting
it upon itself and playing out the improbabilities until the division
between fact and fiction blurred, is a reflection of my concerns about
the way the historical and fictional narratives collide.
The characters' knowledge
The characters themselves, since in the novel they existed in the world
and had full and interesting lives, had to know certain things. But these
characters need to be significantly different from each other and so I
had to make sure that I did not rely solely upon my own bank of knowledge
to feed their concerns and lives. Consequentially, I had to research what
it was that they knew.
It is interesting to list the specific knowledges each character required.
- medieval women's life and lore
- herbal cures and the process of mixing potions
- the story of the rose
- medieval church architecture
- the mass
- the sun god/earth mother creation story
- the Crone in contemporary feminism relating to menopause
- familiarity with medieval manuscripts
- Spanish town of Saragossa and its history
- poetry of Lord Byron, St John of the Cross and Dylan Thomas
- anarchy during the Spanish Civil War
- philosophy of Suarez
- cathedral libraries
- ancient manuscripts
- the influence of the Arabs in Spanish culture
- ecclesiastical history
- details on Nicolas of Cusa
- the trade routes of medieval Europe
- medieval tapestry
- the Tartar Relations
- the Council of Basel
- the preservation and discovery of manuscripts
- the stories of manuscript recovery
- red wines
Gabbett at least had to have the language and concerns of the documentary
filmmaker. Some understanding of ABC/SBS studio practice was needed.
- Australian pre-historic animals, notably the paleochestes
- life on a dig in Newfoundland
- the details of the Ingstad dig
- the basic tenets of archaeology to be able to explain to Meridian why
- carbon dating was unimportant
- the typical Norse house construction and the placement in any such settlement
- of the smithy shop
- the uniped
- the modern recovery of the Vinland Map
- Greenland, the indigenous people and their ancestors
- the Norse sagas associated with Vinland
- aspects of American modern history in order to be able to construct
- a conspiracy theory
- the American Columbus Society
- the basic tenets of historical geography and ancient maps
- something of modern cartographic craft
- the Vinland Map and its entire literature and debate
- details associated with the original production and scribing of medieval
- the chemistry of ink pigments
- methods of historical map verification
- wormholes, binding, and an intimate knowledge of old manuscripts
- stories of forgery in cartographic history
- Prester John
- the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna
- the invention and mechanism of the stump jump plough
- Greenland, its geography and its contemporary art
- 17th century watches
- the persecution of witches in Europe
- The works of Christine de Pizan
- the transcendental number P
- the poetry of Hafiz
To expand, I will take the character of Fancisco. I knew that he and
Meridian spoke in his library but I did not know what he would say or,
importantly, how he would say it. So, in order to write this old man and
his classical concerns, I needed to read the poetry of St John of the
Cross, because it is the kind of thing he would use in his conversation.
As it happened in the final draft I took out those references, but it
is easy to imagine that such a poet might have been discussed on one of
those late afternoons.
Martha on the other hand would not bother herself with St John of the
Cross's poetry; she would be far more interested in various translations,
in various folios. To give her character dimension I needed another solution.
I gave her a knowledge of red wine - there is nothing light and fluffy,
nothing of champagne or trendy Chardonnay in Martha.
The academic and the creative become each other
What I worked with in the text was a deliberate blurring of reality and
fiction. Unlike my contemporaries who investigate faction - the conscious
and deliberate intrusion into fiction of historical events that are accurately
re-told - I wanted to upset the surety of an historical narrative, invading
it with fiction rather than supporting it through fiction.
In addition, I was combining in my process both the creative
and the academic. I was writing a novel and I was writing a PhD. The academic
became the creative; the creative became the academic. My desk was covered
with the trappings of the academy, with filing cards, photocopies, Manila
folders marked: 'bibliography', 'Vinland references', 'maps, other' and
so on. My desk was also covered with the trappings of the novelist - with
photographs and pictures, yellow stick-ons, a feather, the smooth black
pebble which was never far from the keyboard, a list of characters, a
bent and twisted paperclip, red, blue, black pens, marked-up manuscripts.
But I could not maintain the division as one slid into the other and the
academic and the creative processes blurred. Before long my card index
file also contained details on my characters, details of the fiction,
and notes on chapters. The Manila folders began to be labelled, 'chapter
4, extra'; the paperclip was bent back into shape and held together notes
on the Inanna myth.
And in my working I did not separate the two, I did not for example carrying
out academic work on one day and creative work on another. In one breath
the novelist moved from one kind of 'work' to the other and back. The
two parts became each other, mixing together in swirls of colour. I would
read an article on 17th century watches and think of Meridian holding
a small watch in her hand, feeling the warmth and weight of four hundred
years of women's touch. In Chapter 9 when the women are in the rose garden
I knew I wanted a line from an Arabic poem. I didn't know what poem or
what line. I left my desk and went to the library borrowing all the books
on Arabic verse the library held. Back at my desk I hunted for a line
that used roses. There were quite a few. I sat around with some of my
colleagues discussing the poems until Hafiz's 'The red rose is open and
the nightingale is drunk' stood out from the rest (Kritzeck, 1964). The
line became a corridor catch phrase and was written up on the staff noticeboard
rubbing shoulders with sober notices of conferences and research opportunities.
Like marbling on paper. Into a bed of water oil paints are applied, raw
colours, one after another. By running a comb through the water the oil
paints are swirled together to form a marble pattern. There are blues
and reds and purples where the colours have combined. There are dark shades
and lighter hues folding into each other. Paper is applied and takes up
the colour so that the whole, the marbling on the page is the thing we
remember, not the tubes of paint containing the separate raw colours.
So too with the novel. The academic and the creative slid into one another,
nestled side by side so that one fed on the other, one became the other.
I became playful with the combination and decided to take risks. I invented
the Literary Executor.
The Literary Executor
Faced with this interweaving of the academic and the creative I began
to play with the connection, seeing it as mirroring the game already being
played out in the text between history and fiction. I developed the last
of my characters, the Literary Executor, known by my formal initials M.N.B.
The Literary Executor played with the idea that the novel is a piecing
together of fragments from a range of knowledges.
Completing the novel I knew I was not the same person who began it, I
had been on my own journey of discovery. My job, my housing, my personal
domestic arrangements, even the city in which I lived had changed. I had
moved across the continent from the plains to the mountains, from the
Mediterranean climate to the sub tropical. My fingers that tapped at the
keyboard were older, much more wrinkled now. And there was something inside
of me which had changed as well. The woman who began this process was
not the woman who ended it. The Literary Executor then came from a playfulness
with the idea of the death of the author and a realisation that indeed
the author, as she appeared at the beginning of the process, was part
of my history rather than my present. The Literary Executor offered a
place at the table I did not mind taking.
I gave the Literary Executor a Foreword and from time to time let her
make a comment in the footnotes of the text. But like my other characters
she demanded more. I then realised that I could invent references for
the text just as easily as I could insert genuine sources. I began to
do this, taking care that one was not distinguishable from the other.
Going even further, I inserted fiction onto the factual, not as an elaboration
or writerly device, but simply to playfully corrupt the factual. An example
of this kind of intrusion can be seen in a footnote in Chapter 5 which
discussed a possible confusion in the text over the first name of the
historical cartographer Thomas Marston. The largest intrusion was however
in the invention of Saint Beneface the Bold, the monk, who according to
Meridian, might well have been the originator of the Vinland Map.
The Literary Executor works quietly in the background of the text. She
is named in the shadows, having only initials for her name. She lives
in the footnotes chipping away at the cracks, disturbing the historical
narrative. She is mischievous with the canon. She is finding spaces. She
is letting our shrill voices into the academy. She is letting our lore
into the libraries. She is opening up language.
In summary, through these and other devices, Fragments of a Map
engages with, and playfully disturbs, the ways in which we transpose knowledge.
It plays with historical account, citation, interpretation, invention
and translation. It skips between the academic and creative in such a
way that both inform the other, both become the other.
The novelist protects herself
In writing and editing this exegesis I have struggled with selection,
with what to include and what to leave unsaid. And, as I claimed at the
very beginning, it is not possible to unpack all the concerns and processes
of my novel into this space. To do that would be to make an ugly and awkward
clone of the novel.
Two factors directed my selection process. Firstly, I was concerned with
the difficult issue of autobiography. To what extent is the creative work
In producing a public creative work I need to call on a very large number
of my skills and resources; some of which will be private, and others
will live more comfortably in the public domain. And unlike my colleagues
in other disciplines I do not have the safety glass of objectivity to
hide behind. When the work is reviewed, criticised, lauded or torn apart
I need to try and remove myself as a human being from that activity. I
need to try and step back from the work so that I am no longer attached
to it, sever the umbilical cord and let it make its own way in the world.
This is a large ask and it may not be possible to separate myself from
the work in this way, but in order to survive as a human being in the
daily action of living I need to make some effort at it.
For these reasons I do not wish to reveal, perhaps even to myself, the
level of autobiography contained within the text.
Secondly, my selection of topics to discuss in this exegesis was also
governed by the emotional connection I still feel for ideas expressed
in the novel. Some are still too immediate for me to want to address in
any kind of analytical manner.
Besides, I enjoy the incompleteness, the thought that a completely different
companion document might have been written at another time or by another
writer. I enjoy the thought that the process or business of the novel
cannot be documented in this space. All that I can offer here is a hastily
drawn mappa mundi, one without decoration and without provenance;
but one with a well worked interest in the oceans of fiction, the islands
of history, and the old navigation myths. Perhaps in its own right a fascinating
piece of vellum.