I just finished The Fourth Part of the World, The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name by Toby Lester. Though this is Toby’s first book, he has been writing for a very long time on religion, history, and maps. He has done a magnificent job with this book.
The Fourth Part is a hefty tome. At 462 pages (hardback edition – yes, it’s worth it), including an index and notes, one might think a book so long about one map would be a slog to get through. But Toby Lester engages the reader by bringing the European Middle Ages to life.
The author starts the book with a preface that details why he started on the quest to research the Waldseemuller world map of 1507.
$10 million. (It’s always about money, isn’t it?)
In 2003, the Library of Congress had just purchased the Waldseemuller map for $10 million dollars, 2 million more than the original copy of the Declaration of Independence. This fact piqued Toby Lester’s interest and six years later we have The Fourth Part.
The Fourth Part is divided into three parts: Part One, Old World; Part Two, New World; and Part Three, The Whole World. It also includes a Prologue, Epilogue, and an Appendix along with Notes and an Index.
In Part One, Old World, Toby delves into the mindset of the early Medieval scholar. Their religious view of the world told them that the world consisted of three parts only – Asia, Africa, and Europe. They based much of their geographic knowledge of the world on what the Bible taught or alluded to.
In the mid 13th century, the Great Khan Guyuk (widely known as Genphis Khan) announced to the western world (Europe):
Through the power of God all empires from sunrise to sunset have been given to us, and we own them.
What a surprising and frightening proclamation. Ultimately, the Mongols empire building efforts along with the numerous Crusades to win back Jerusalem led to more geographic information. Monks were sent to parley and Christianize the Mongols. Though they did not succeed in that venture, they did bring back cultural and geographical details that helped flesh out European’s sense of the world. Still, their view of the world consisted of T-O maps and mappamundes – rather poor representations of the world that excluded at least half of it.
It’s easy for us to look back and scoff at the inadequate maps that were produced in Europe before the 14th century. It’s easy for us to forget that most people were illiterate. Merchants and travelers didn’t have the benefit of a travel guide, nor were they able to produce a travel guide with their own knowledge as they didn’t have the skills or means to do so. The Christian monks that produced maps and cosmology (geography) texts at the time worked with the best knowledge that they had bereft of the great secular knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Roman Latins who had it a bit more right, but whose knowledge was lost to Europe’s Catholics.
In Part Two, New World, the author chronicles the efforts of the great Genoese and Florentine mariners at rediscovering the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the 14th century, surprisingly detailed and accurate marine charts of Europe and North Africa emerged. Europeans also rediscovered Ptolemy and other Greek texts that helped piece the larger world together. With Portugal’s and Spain’s drive to reach India (as their overland routes were hampered by the Muslims finally taking control over the entire Middle East), maps of the known world were improved, and the thought of sailing west gripped explorers. So they did.
Part Two is the largest section in The Fourth Part, and contain the most fascinating tales. Any summary of mine will do it injustice. So, I’ll leave you with this quote from the book:
Just as one thing leads to another and starts a train of thought, while he was in Portugal [my father] began to speculate that just as the Portuguese had sailed so far south, it should be possible to sail as far west, and to find land in that direction. – Ferdinand Columbus (circa 1538)
The last part of the book, Part 3, The Whole World, Toby explains how Walter Lud, Matthias Ringmann, and Martin Waldseemuller came across one of Amerigo Vespucci’s letters that detailed his explorations of the New World. Though that letter was a fake, the three scholars and map makers didn’t know that at the time. They took it at face value, and together they created a “curious little book” titled Cosmographiae introductio (1507). This little book included a huge map (the largest known map produced at the time), and just so happened to haphazardly name the New World – America.
What struck me most while reading The Fourth Part is how religion has played such a huge role in our political, social, and geographic history. Of course, I already knew that. Anyone with any sort of education can see religion’s stamp on just about everything, but the author presents the motives (both religious and otherwise) behind the map makers and explorers in a manner that drives that fact home.
Conclusion? I can’t recommend this book enough. If you want a quick, blow by blow of the events that led up to the discovery of the New World, the fourth part of the world, then this is the perfect book for you. It will be a well-thumbed, reference book on my shelf for a very long time. If you have any interest in history and/or maps, go get this book.