The Fourth Part of the World: The Epic Story of History's Greatest Map by Toby Lester

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The Fourth Part of the World: The Epic Story of History's Greatest Map by Toby Lester

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The history of the early 16th-century map described as 'America's birth certificate', as it was the first to show and confirm the continent's existence.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: October 2009
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1861978035

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In 2003 a map was bought for $10 million, the highest price ever paid publicly for a historical document, by the Library of Congress, where it is now on permanent public display. No ordinary map, this is sometimes described as America's birth certificate. It is the sole survivor of a thousand copies printed early in the 16th century, and was discovered by accident in some archives in a German castle in 1901. The sale and story behind it intrigued Toby Lester so much that he was inspired to discover more, and this book is the result.

For a long time Europeans understood the world to be divided up into three continents, namely Europe, Africa, and Asia. Early cartographers drew maps showing them in various shapes and sizes. Nevertheless there were rumours that a fourth continent also existed, inaccessible and separated from the rest by a vast expanse of ocean.

These were unsubstantiated until 1506, when Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann, two German scholars working in France, found two printed accounts of the alleged new continent, by the Italian explorer and sorcerer Amerigo Vespucci, claiming he had discovered it in the southern regions. In his words, it was inhabited by more numerous peoples than in our Europe, Asia or Africa, and in addition I found a more pleasant and temperate climate than in any other region known to us. Christopher Columbus, who was probably the first European explorer to reach there, had died in 1505, convinced he had sailed to Asia though he had actually reached America, the fourth part of the world, without knowing it. Vespucci was the first to get there and realise he had done so. To celebrate his achievement the scholars printed a huge map, showing the New World, halfway between Spain and Japan, surrounded by water, and in his honour they named it America. Its appearance in 1507 was followed by the first publication of the word America in book form in 1520.

Needless to say, it would never have been possible had it not been for several centuries of earlier scholarship and exploration. Lester takes us on what is in effect almost a history of early European and Asian civilisation, through the Old World and the New World. His book examines in detail ancient legend, Biblical prophecy, classical learning, medieval exploration, imperial ambitions, and much more. He introduces us to the mythical King, Prester John, who was said to rule over a Christian nation lost amidst the Muslims and pagans in the Orient; Marco Polo and the early Christian missionaries and traders in Central Asia and China; Europe's medieval monks and sages who preserved ancient teachings and texts about the nature of the world and the cosmos; Portuguese merchants rounding up the first West African slaves; church officials who dreamed of Christendom as a global power and pursued their study of geography in order to try and make it possible; and the geographers and mapmakers who documented these new discoveries.

These all culminated in the epic voyages of Columbus and Vespucci; and a little later in the 16th century, Nicholas Copernicus's deductions from the new geography shown on the Waldseemüller map that the earth could not lie at the centre of the cosmos.

This is certainly not a light read, and I would suspect it is one for the specialist rather than for the casual or general reader. But anyone fascinated by medieval history will find it enthralling, superbly researched and extremely well illustrated.

Our thanks to Profile Books for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

For another view of world history in a slightly later age, you may also find Vermeer's Hat by Timothy Brook rewarding, or for a book on the continent itself, The American Future by Simon Schama.

Buy The Fourth Part of the World: The Epic Story of History's Greatest Map by Toby Lester at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Fourth Part of the World: The Epic Story of History's Greatest Map by Toby Lester at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Fourth Part of the World: The Epic Story of History's Greatest Map by Toby Lester at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Fourth Part of the World: The Epic Story of History's Greatest Map by Toby Lester at Amazon.com.

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