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
Publisher:Free Press, (11/3/2009)

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"Old maps lead you to strange and unexpected places, and none does so more ineluctably than the subject of this book: the giant, beguiling Waldseemüller world map of 1507." So begins this remarkable story of the map that gave America its name.

For millennia Europeans believed that the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. They drew the three continents in countless shapes and sizes on their maps, but occasionally they hinted at the existence of a "fourth part of the world," a mysterious, inaccessible place, separated from the rest by a vast expanse of ocean. It was a land of myth -- until 1507, that is, when Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann, two obscure scholars working in the mountains of eastern France, made it real. Columbus had died the year before convinced that he had sailed to Asia, but Waldseemüller and Ringmann, after reading about the Atlantic discoveries of Columbus's contemporary Amerigo Vespucci, came to a startling conclusion: Vespucci had reached the fourth part of the world. To celebrate his achievement, Waldseemüller and Ringmann printed a huge map, for the first time showing the New World surrounded by water and distinct from Asia, and in Vespucci's honor they gave this New World a name: America.

The Fourth Part of the World is the story behind that map, a thrilling saga of geographical and intellectual exploration, full of outsize thinkers and voyages. Taking a kaleidoscopic approach, Toby Lester traces the origins of our modern worldview. His narrative sweeps across continents and centuries, zeroing in on different portions of the map to reveal strands of ancient legend, Biblical prophecy, classical learning, medieval exploration, imperial ambitions, and more. In Lester's telling the map comes alive: Marco Polo and the early Christian missionaries trek across Central Asia and China; Europe's early humanists travel to monastic libraries to recover ancient texts; Portuguese merchants round up the first West African slaves; Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci make their epic voyages of discovery; and finally, vitally, Nicholas Copernicus makes an appearance, deducing from the new geography shown on the Waldseemüller map that the earth could not lie at the center of the cosmos. The map literally altered humanity's worldview.

One thousand copies of the map were printed, yet only one remains. Discovered accidentally in 1901 in the library of a German castle it was bought in 2003 for the unprecedented sum of $10 million by the Library of Congress, where it is now on permanent public display. Lavishly illustrated with rare maps and diagrams, The Fourth Part of the World is the story of that map: the dazzling story of the geographical and intellectual journeys that have helped us decipher our world.

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"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

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Amazon Exclusive: Simon Winchester Reviews The Fourth Part of the World

Simon Winchester studied geology at Oxford and later became an award-winning journalist, and author of more than a dozen books. He has written for The GuardianSmithsonian MagazineNational Geographic, and has reviewed books for The New York Times. His bestselling titles include: The Man Who Loved ChinaThe Professor and the Madman, and Krakatoa. The author divides his time between his home in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland. Read Simon Winchester’s exclusive Amazon guest review of The Fourth Part of the World:

Books about obscure and unobvious commercial subjects, written with passion by stylish enthusiasts, have come in recent years to provide us a canon of the most valuable and lasting literature. Toby Lester, who appears to be a master of the language and a man evidently as inquisitive as a ferret, has written a quite wonderful book about something that is, yes, obscure and unobvious commercial--but which is a tale quite vital to anyone interested in knowing the story of this country. It is about the naming of America, and the creation of a document that has been lately and justly called this country's birth-certificate.

The document is a map--and so Mr. Lester's book is in essence about cartography, and sixteenth century cartography at that, a specialist's dream. But the tale of the making and then the hiding and the losing and the finding of this extraordinary and very large document--it called the Waldseemüller Map, and it now belongs to the Library of Congress--is sufficiently exciting to be almost unbearably thrilling. And anyone who can make cartography thrill deserves a medal, at the very least.

The mapmakers in question were German: Martin Waldseemüller and his poetically-inclined colleague, Mathias Ringmann. Come the beginning of the sixteenth century, and working in southern France these two, like many in the European intellectual world, were beginning to hear rumors that a new continent had lately been found, halfway between Spain and Japan. (This was fifteen years after Columbus, who still had no clue what he had found in 1492--to his dying day he insisted that he had merely found a hitherto unknown piece of Asia.)

The rumors swiftly became accepted fact: in the early 1500s the pair came across two printed accounts of the alleged new continent--accounts that were prolix, flamboyant, unreliable and in parts very saucy (there was material relating to the cosmetic self-mutilation, anal cleanliness and sexual practices of the locals) written by a colourful Italian explorer and sorcerer named Amerigo Vespucci. Crucially Vespucci claimed in one of these papers that “on this last voyage of mine…I have discovered a continent in those southern regions that is 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…”

As it happened, the mapmakers had already been commissioned to create a new world map--and so on it, they both agreed after reading Vespucci's accounts, they would now draw this new body of land, and they would give it a name. After some head-scratching they agreed the name should be the feminine form of the Latinised version of Amerigo Vespucci's Christian name: the properly feminine place-nouns of Africa, Asia and Europe would now be joined, quite simply, by a brand-new entity that they would name America.

And so, in 1507, their map was duly published; and in large letters across the southern half of the southern continental discovery, just where Brazil is situated today, was the single word: America. It was written in majuscule script, was a tiny bit crooked, curiously out of scale and looking a little last-minute and just a little tentative--but nevertheless and incontrovertibly, it was there.

It caught on: a globe published in Paris in 1515 placed the word on both segments of the continent, north and south. The word was published in many books in central Europe--Strasbourg in 1509, Poland in 1512, Vienna in 1520; it was found in a Spanish book in 1520. In Strasbourg, five years later, another book lists 'America' as one of the world's regions and finally, in 1538, Mercator, the new arbiter of the planet's geography, placed the namesNorth America and South America squarely on the two halves of the fourth continent. And with that, the name was secure; and it would never be changed again.

Toby Lester has done American history the greatest service by writing this elegant and thoughtful account of the one morsel of cartographic history that would shake the world's foundations. We are told that this is his first book: may we hope that he writes many more, for his is a rare and masterly talent. --SW

(Photo © Setsuko Winchester)

Discover the Waldseemüller World Map from The Fourth Part of the World
Click on image to enlarge

Click to discover the Waldseemüller map legend

This legend highlights an idea that's almost completely forgotten today: that the New World was remarkable to Europeans in 1507 because it lay not just to the west but also to the south. Read more

The portrait shown here is an idealized depiction of the ancient Greek sage Claudius Ptolemy. Read more

The portrait shown here, an obvious companion to the portrait of Ptolemy to its left, is an idealized portrait of Amerigo Vespucci...Read more

Here, printed in block letters on what we know today as Brazil, is the first use of the name America on a map.Read more

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. With the excitement and exhilaration of an explorer, Atlantic contributor Lester sets off on his own journey of discovery across the seas of cartography and history. In 2003, the Library of Congress paid $10 million for the only existing copy of the 1507 map that was the first to show the New World and call it America. Lester ranges over the history of cartography, such as the zonal maps of the Middle Ages that divided the world into three parts—Africa, Europe and Asia. In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann, working with a small group of scholars in a small town in eastern France produced their map, based on Amerigo Vespucci's voyages to the West and discovery of South America. In just a few decades the Waldseemüller map was out of date, but its world-changing status lived on, and in 1901 a Jesuit priest, poking around a small German castle, stumbled on a copy. Lester traces the map's journey to America over the next century in a majestic tribute to a historic work. First serial to Smithsonian magazine. (Nov. 3) 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"What distinguishes civilized people from barbarians? It's the map of the world they have in their minds. A barbarian's map marks the spot of just a few things: herds of sheep to steal, convenience stores to rob, political opponents to condemn on talk radio or the internet. A civilized person tries to see the world as a whole. Toby Lester's brilliant work explains how Western Europeans ceased to be a horde of pillaging bloggers and blowhards (intellectually speaking) and became upstanding citizens (intellectually speaking) of Western Civilization." -- P. J. O'Rourke --This text refers to the Kindle Edition edition.


"The complex artistry of the beautiful German map that first identified 'America' five centuries ago provides, for a truly imaginative writer, the opportunity to tell a wonderful and exciting story. Toby Lester, seizing this opportunity, has risen to the occasion brilliantly, creating a masterpiece of cartographic literature that will be of lasting importance." -- Simon Winchester, author of, most recently, The Man Who Loved China

"A sprightly, engrossing, and wide-ranging introduction to cartography and the celebrated Waldseemüller map. In Toby Lester's capable hands, this depiction becomes a kind of Rosetta Stone for the entire Age of Discovery." -- Laurence Bergreen, author of Marco Polo and Over the Edge of the World

"The right technology at the right time can change the world. Toby Lester has written a page-turning story of the creation of what amounts to a sixteenth-century Google Earth, a revolutionary way to see the world. It inspired generations of explorers then and will inspire readers now." -- Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, editor in chief of WIRED

"Sherlock Holmes once claimed he could deduce the Atlantic Ocean from a drop of water. Toby Lester performs a similar feat. He sets out to tell the story of a single ancient map, but into this yarn he sneaks the whole saga of planetary exploration. Intellectual ingenuity meets swashbuckling audacity, until at last a picture emerges of the earth as we know it today. The Fourth Part of the World reminds us that our maps aren't just about where we are -- they're also a record of every place we've ever been." -- Cullen Murphy, editor at large, Vanity Fair

"A big-picture history done in the finest, most engaging style. Toby Lester's easy control of cultural, technological, and diplomatic history allows him to connect themes in new and revealing ways, all of it driven with vivid narrative. This is a wonderfully entertaining and instructive book." -- James Fallows, The Atlantic, author of Postcards from Tomorrow Square

"Toby Lester's stupendously well-researched adventure story treats maps as cultural documents with stories to tell of the way the Old World cartographers visualized the New World: America. His book is a wonderful addition to the history of the imagination." -- Vincent Virga, author (with the Library of Congress) of Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations

"Brilliantly conceived and painstakingly researched, an original take on the European discovery of America." -- Robert D. Kaplan, author ofBalkan Ghosts and Eastward to Tartary

"What distinguishes civilized people from barbarians? It's the map of the world they have in their minds. A barbarian's map marks the spot of just a few things: herds of sheep to steal, convenience stores to rob, political opponents to condemn on talk radio or the internet. A civilized person tries to see the world as a whole. Toby Lester's brilliant work explains how Western Europeans ceased to be a horde of pillaging bloggers and blowhards (intellectually speaking) and became upstanding citizens (intellectually speaking) of Western Civilization." -- P. J. O'Rourke
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

Matthew 's Maps

It is the vocation of a monk to seek not the earthly but the heavenly Jerusalem, and he will do this not by setting out on his feet but by progressing with his feelings.

-- Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (circa 1150)

In the early 1200s the Benedictine monastery of Saint Albans hummed with activity. Situated just a day's ride north of London, the monastery was one of the largest and most important in England, home to as many as two hundred monks. In the parlance of the times they were Latins: members of the greater community of Roman Catholics in Europe who submitted to the authority of the pope. But Saint Albans wasn't just a religious retreat. It was a busy center of economic, political, and intellectual life, and even had served as the site of an early drafting of the Magna Carta in 1213. It also ran a popular guesthouse -- the first stopping point on the Roman-built Great North Road out of London -- and operated stables that could accommodate some three hundred horses at a time. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, Saint Albans was feeding and lodging a steady stream of visitors on their way to and from London: Oxford professors, royal councilors, powerful bishops, papal emissaries and monks from elsewhere in Europe, a traveling delegation of Armenians, and even the king of England himself. It was a worldly place.

After a day of traveling, guests would unwind in the monastery's dormitories and refectory. Inevitably the talk would turn to where they had come from, and to what news and information they had picked up along the way. Again and again the same subjects came up: the weather, local crimes and misdemeanors, politics, the antics of the royals, the utterances of the pope, and the ill-conceived and apparently interminable series of wars being waged in the Middle East -- the Crusades. One monk in particular had a special interest in stories from beyond the monastery's walls. A down-to-earth, willfully opinionated, and generally likable crank, he was Brother Matthew Paris: the greatest and most colorful of all medieval church chroniclers.

Born in about 1200, Matthew joined the Benedictine order at Saint Albans in 1217, became its official chronicler in 1237, and died in 1259. The work for which Matthew is most famous is the Chronica majora, or Great Chronicle, a vast history of the world that, in typical medieval fashion, extends from the time of the creation right up to Matthew's own time. The first half or so of the Chronicle amounts to little more than Matthew's copying and fiddling with the chronicle of his predecessor, but from 1235 forward the entries are his own -- and in one commonly consulted English translation they fill three five-hundred-page volumes. Yet despite its size the Chronicle is a wonderfully good read.

Matthew wrote and wrote and wrote. Keeping him properly supplied with writing materials alone was a tall order. In the thirteenth century the production of a book -- that is, a manuscript scratched out with goose quill and ink, on page after page of parchment -- amounted to a significant investment of a monastery's capital. A single book might well consume the skins from a whole flock of sheep. But Matthew's output justified this investment; it brought Saint Albans great renown, even during Matthew's own lifetime.

Matthew was more than just a writer. He was also a gifted artist who illustrated his work with everything from tiny doodlings to lavishly executed portraits. Biblical figures, ancient emperors, popes, European kings, saints, monks, martyrs, battles, shipwrecks, eclipses, exotic animals -- they all come to life on Matthew's pages, and not just as frivolous additions to his text. They were an integral part of his chronicle. "I desire and wish," he wrote, "that what the ear hears the eyes may see."

That brief reference to hearing, rather than reading, serves as a useful reminder: in thirteenth-century England reading was primarily an oral act, not a silent one. Monks in monastery libraries read aloud to themselves, and the din they created would have exasperated modern library patrons. Matthew read to himself, to his fellow monks, and to special guests visiting the monastery, and what he offered his readers and listeners was a captivating mix of words and pictures. "Turning the pages of Matthew's Chronica majora," one modern historian has written, "is like opening the door of a great abbey cupboard, from which spills forth a rich succession of disparate images and objects, each conjuring up its own compelling story from the past, so that each event again becomes visually 'present.' "

The great abbey cupboard. That's a critical image to keep in mind when trying to make sense of the jumble of disparate ideas and images that one encounters in the works of Matthew and other medieval writers -- especially in their maps.

Matthew had a passion for maps. He drew them throughout his adult life, following a number of traditional models, and those that survive provide a remarkably useful survey of the different ways in which educated medieval Europeans imagined and depicted the world.

One of the main sources from which Matthew received his geographical ideas was the hugely popular and influential Etymologies, by Saint Isidore of Seville: a vast compendium of ancient and medieval learning, written in the seventh century a.d. Throughout the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance, Europeans considered Isidore one of their most trusted authorities. He began the geographical section of hisEtymologies by situating his readers cosmically. "The earth," he wrote, "is placed in the central region of the cosmos, standing fast in the center, equidistant from all other parts of the sky." This age-old conception of the world -- as a sphere that sat motionless at the center of the universe, with the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars all revolving around it -- was one that medieval authors often diagrammed in their works, and Matthew was no exception (Figure 6).

Medieval Europeans, even the most learned of geographers among them, are to this day often described as having believed that the world was flat. But this simply isn't true. Thanks in large part to the labors of Arab astronomers and mathematicians, ancient Greek proofs of the earth as spherical had survived into the Middle Ages and were circulating in Europe -- and at some point early in the thirteenth century an English scholar known as John of Holywood, or Sacrobosco, laid them out in an astronomical treatise appropriately titled The Sphere. For centuries afterward the work would be taught and studied in schools and universities around Europe. "If the earth were flat from east to west," Sacrobosco wrote, "the stars would rise as soon for Westerners as for Orientals, which is false. Also, if the earth were flat from north to south, and vice versa, the stars that were always visible to anyone would continue to be so wherever he went, which is false. But it seems flat to human sight because it is so extensive." Sailors certainly knew the world was round: a lookout at the top of a ship's mast, Sacrobosco pointed out, always catches sight of land before a lookout standing at the foot of the mast -- "and there is no other explanation of this thing," Sacrobosco wrote, "than the bulge of the water." Copies of The Sphere almost invariably included a small drawing illustrating this concept (Figure 7).

Another source that would have helped determine Matthew's geographical outlook, and one that he had access to in the library at Saint Albans, was the Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, by the fifth-century Roman writer Macrobius. The work -- which for a full millennium after it was written would be used widely as a textbook in Europe -- parsed The Dream of Scipio, a phantasmagoric musing on the world and its place in the cosmos, written some five centuries earlier by the Roman political philosopher Cicero. From a vantage point high up in the heavens, a character in Cicero's work had described the earth just as Isidore would later do, fixed at the center of the universe, but had also drifted in for a closer look. "You will observe," he declared, imagining the world as it would look from space,

that the surface of the earth is girdled and encompassed by a number of different zones; and that the two which are most widely separated from each other and lie beneath opposite poles of the heavens are rigid with icy cold, while the central, broadest zone is burnt up with the heat of the sun. Two others, situated between the hot zones and the cold, are habitable. The zone which lies toward the south has no connection with yours at all.... As to its northern counterpart, where you yourselves live...the territory is nothing more than a small island, narrow from north to south, somewhat less narrow from east to west, and surrounded by the sea that is known on earth as the Atlantic, or the Great Sea, or the Ocean.

Macrobius elaborated at considerable length on this division of the world in his Commentary, which contained a simple diagram. Today known as a zonal map, it showed the world as a circle, divided up into the five zones described by Cicero: two frigid zones, in the north and south; two temperate (or habitable) zones, closer to the center; and a torrid zone that wrapped around the earth's equatorial regions. Zonal maps were drawn and studied often during the Middle Ages, and Matthew, of course, produced his own version (Figure 8).

As Matthew's zonal map clearly shows, the northern temperate zone -- which, following the practice of Arab geographers, Matthew placed at the bottom of his map -- contains the whole of the world as the ancients had described it and as medieval Europeans still knew it. Isidore of Seville succinctly described its makeup in his Etymologies. "It is divided into three parts," he wrote, "one of which is called As...

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Toby Lester is a contributing editor to and has written for The Atlantic on subjects that include the sociology of new religions, the attempt to reconstruct ancient Greek music, the struggle to change alphabets in Azerbaijan, and the chance harmonies of everyday sounds. His work has also been featured on the radio show This American Life. This is his first book.

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