The Inventio Fortunata: mapping the north

These selections are taken from E.G.R. Taylor's A Letter Dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee, which appeared in the journal Imago Mundi: The International Journal for the History of Cartography, 13.1, pp.56-68.

More particularly, these statements are translations from the maps of the 16th century cartographers Gerardus Mercator & Johann Ruysch, who treat the northern region and whose material is derived from two key sources: the Gestae Arthuri ("the Deeds of Arthur") & the Inventio Fortunata or Inventio Fortunatae.

For Mercator's letter to John Dee on his sources, please refer to this page.


Gerardus Mercator

Mercator's map, translated by Richard Hakluyt.

Touching the description of the North parts, I have taken the same out of the voyage of James Cnoyen of Hartzevan Buske, which allegeth certain conquests of Arthur king of Britaine, and the most part, and chiefest things among the rest he learned of a certain priest in the king of Norway's court, in the year 1364. This priest was descended (in the fifth generation) from them which King Arthur had sent to inhabite these Islands, & he reported in the yeere 1360, a certain English Frier, a Franciscan, and a Mathematician of Oxford, came into those Islands, who leaving them, & passing further by his magical Arte, described all those places that he sawe, & tooke the height of them with his astrolabe, according to the forme that I have set down in my map, and as I have taken it out of the aforesaid Jacob Cnoyen. He said that those foure Indraughts were drawne into an inwarde gulfe or whirlepoole, with so great a force, that the ships which once entered therin could by no means be driven backe again, and that there is never in these partes so much wind blowing as might be sufficient to drive a cornmill. Geraldus Cambrensis hath certaine words altogether alike with these.

Hakluyt's Testimonie

Anno 1360 (that is to wit, in the 34 yeere of the reigne of the triumphant king Edward the Third) a friar of Oxford, being a good Astronomer, went in companie with others to the most Northern Islands of the world, and there leaving his company together, he travelled alone and purposely described all the Northerne Islands, with the indrawing sees: and the record thereof at his return he delivered to the king of England. The name of which book is Inventio Fortunatae (aliter fortunae) qui liber incipit a gradu 54 usque ad polum. Which frier for sundry purposes after that did five times pass from England thither and home again.

Mercator's inscriptions

  1. This channel has five mouths (entries) and because of its narrow swift current it never freezes.
  2. Here live pygmies, at most 4 feet tall, who are like those in Greenland called Scraelings.
  3. This channel is entered by 3 mouths and remains frozen for three months every year. It is 37 leagues long.
  4. This island is the best and healthiest of the whole north.
  5. The Ocean rushes in between these islands by 19 mouths and makes 4 channels by which it is incessantly carried northwards & there disappears into the bowels of the earth.

Johann Ruysch

Ruysch's World Map

the north in Ruysch's map
  1. We read in the book De Inventione Fortunatae that beneath the Arctic Pole there is a high rock of magnetic stone 33 German miles in cicrumference.
  2. The indrawing sea surrounds this (rock), flowing as if in a vessel that lets water down a hole (i.e. a funnel).
  3. There are four surrounding islands of which two are inhabited. But they are bordered by huge mountains twenty-four days journey across, which forbid human habitation.
  4. Here the indrawing sea begins. Here the ship's compass does not hold, nor can ships containing iron turn back.

The islands placed by Ruysch in the extreme north are as follows: -

  • Aronphei
  • Insula Deserta
  • Hyperborei Europe
  • Insula Deserta

With regards to Aronphei, Taylor notes the presence of a "Fei Arumfeie alias Cibes," a pair of semicircular islands around a central straight channel which, from the remainder of the Latin legend, appear to correspond to the Island of Demons off the Canadian coast, itself a likely revivification of Satanazes, Antillia's northern companion. Aronphei itself, according to Taylor, corresponds to Mercator's island of the pygmies who bear a resemblance to the Scraelings of Greenland.

The island of Fei Arumfeie & its surroundings from Ruysch's world map.

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