If you’re like most
people, you’ll dimly recall from your school days that the name America
has something to do with Amerigo Vespucci, a merchant and explorer from
Florence. You may also recall feeling that this is more than a little
odd — that if any European earned the “right” to have his name attached
to the New World, surely it should have been Christopher Columbus, who
crossed the Atlantic years before Vespucci did.
But Vespucci, it turns out, had no direct
role in the naming of America. He probably died without ever having seen
or heard the name. A closer look at how the name was coined and first
put on a map, in 1507, suggests that, in fact, the person responsible
was a figure almost nobody’s heard of: a young Alsatian proofreader
named Matthias Ringmann.
did a minor scholar working in the landlocked mountains of eastern
France manage to beat all explorers to the punch and give the New World
its name? The answer is more than just an obscure bit of history,
because Ringmann deliberately invested the name America with ideas that
still make up important parts of our national psyche: powerful notions
of westward expansion, self-reinvention, and even manifest destiny.
And he did it, in part, as a high-minded
Matthias Ringmann was
born in an Alsatian village in 1482. After studying the classics at
university he settled in the Strasbourg area, where he began to eke out a
living by proofing texts for local printers and teaching school. It was
a forgettable life, of a sort that countless others like him were
leading. But sometime in early 1505, Ringmann came across a recently
published pamphlet titled “Mundus Novus,” and that changed everything.
The pamphlet contained a letter
purportedly sent by Amerigo Vespucci a few years earlier to his patron
in Florence. Vespucci wrote that he had just completed a voyage of
western discovery and had big news to report. On the other side of the
Atlantic, he announced, he had found “a new world.”
The phrase would stick, of course. But it
didn’t mean to Vespucci what it means to us today: a new continent.
Europeans of the time often used the phrase simply to describe regions
of the world they had not known about before. Another Italian merchant
had used the very same phrase, for example, to describe parts of
southern Africa recently explored by the Portuguese.
Vespucci believed the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa,
and Asia. He also knew that the world was round, a fact that had been
common knowledge since antiquity. This meant, he realized, that if one
could sail far enough to the west of Europe, one would reach the Far
This was exactly what
Vespucci and Columbus both believed they had done. Columbus, in
particular, clung doggedly until the end of his life to the idea that in
crossing the Atlantic he had reached the vicinity of Japan and China.
He had no idea he had expanded Europe’s geographical horizons, in other
words. He thought he’d shrunk them.
The expanding horizons began with
Vespucci. In his letter, he reported sailing west across the Atlantic,
like Columbus. After making landfall, however, he had turned south, in
an attempt to sail under China and into the Indian Ocean — and had ended
up following a coastline that took him thousands of miles almost due
south, well below the equator, into a region of the globe where most
European geographers assumed there could only be ocean.
When Ringmann read this news, he was
thrilled. As a good classicist, he knew that the poet Virgil had
prophesied the existence of a vast southern land across the ocean to the
west, destined to be ruled by Rome. And he drew what he felt was the
obvious conclusion: Vespucci had reached this legendary place. He had
discovered the fourth part of the world. At last, Europe’s Christians,
the heirs of ancient Rome, could begin their long-prophesied imperial
expansion to the west.
may well have been the first European to entertain this idea, and he
acted on it quickly. Soon he had teamed up with a local German mapmaker
named Martin Waldseemüller, and the two men printed 1,000 copies of a
giant world map designed to broadcast the news: the famous Waldseemüller
map of 1507. One copy of the map still survives, and it’s recognized as
one of the most important geographical documents of all time. That’s
because it’s the first to depict the New World as surrounded by water;
the first to suggest the existence of the Pacific Ocean; the first to
portray the world’s continents and oceans roughly as we know them today;
and, of course, the first to use a strange new name: America, which
Ringmann and Waldseemüller printed in block letters across what today we
would call Brazil.
America? Ringmann and Waldseemüller explained their choice in a small
companion volume to the map, called “Introduction to Cosmography.”
“These parts,” they wrote, referring to Europe, Asia, and Africa, “have
in fact now been more widely explored, and a fourth part has been
discovered by Amerigo Vespucci....Since both Asia and Africa received
their names from women, I do not see why anyone should rightly prevent
this from being called Amerigen — the land of Amerigo, as it were — or
America, after its discoverer, Americus.”
attribute this little book to Waldseemüller. But the work itself
actually identifies no author — and Ringmann’s fingerprints, I would
argue, appear all over it. The author, for example, demonstrates a
familiarity with ancient Greek, a language that Ringmann knew well and
that Waldseemüller did not. He also incorporates snatches of classical
verse, a literary tic of Ringmann’s. The one contemporary poet quoted in
the text, too, is known to have been a friend of Ringmann.
Waldseemüller the cartographer, Ringmann
the writer: This division of duties makes sense, given the two men’s
areas of expertise. And, indeed, they would team up in precisely this
way in 1511, when Waldseemüller printed a new map of Europe. In
dedicating that map, Waldseemüller noted that it came accompanied by “an
explanatory summary prepared by Ringmann.”
This question of authorship is important
because whoever wrote “Introduction to Cosmography” almost certainly
coined the name America. Here again, I would suggest, the balance tilts
in the favor of Ringmann, who regularly entertained himself by making up
words, punning in different languages, and investing his writing with
hidden meanings. In one 1511 essay, he even mused specifically about the
naming of continents after women.
The naming-of-America passage in
“Introduction to Cosmography” is rich in precisely the sort of word play
Ringmann loved. The key to the passage is the curious name Amerigen,
which combines the name Amerigo with the Greek word gen, or
“earth,” to create the meaning “land of Amerigo.” But the name yields
other meanings. Gen can also mean “born,” and the word ameros
can mean “new,” suggesting, as many Renaissance observers had
begun to hope, that the land of Amerigo was a place where European
civilization could go to be reborn — an idea, of course, that still
resonates today. The name may also contain a play on meros, a
Greek word sometimes translated as “place,” in which case Amerigen would
become A-meri-gen, or “No-place-land”: not a bad way to
describe a previously unnamed continent whose full extent was still
meanings, the name America filled a need. By the middle of the 16th
century it had caught on, and mapmakers were using it to define not only
South but North America. But Ringmann himself didn’t live to see the
day. By 1511 he was complaining of weakness and shortness of breath, and
before the year’s end he was dead, probably of tuberculosis. He hadn’t
yet reached 30.
Ringmann and Waldseemüller soon slipped into obscurity. The two would
remain forgotten for centuries, but Waldseemüller’s star rose again in
the 20th century, thanks to the accidental rediscovery, in 1901, of the
sole surviving copy of his great map. A century later, calling it
America’s birth certificate, the Library of Congress bought the map for
the astonishing sum of $10 million — and in 2007, to celebrate the 500th
anniversary of the naming of America, put it on public display.
Waldseemüller now seems guaranteed permanent celebrity as the author of
one of the most important documents ever created.
History hasn’t served poor Matthias
Ringmann nearly as well. That doesn’t seem quite fair. So tonight let’s
send up a few of our fireworks in honor of the man who had the audacity
to declare, before anybody else, that the world had a fourth part — and
to imagine that he might be the one who could give it a name.
Toby Lester is a contributing editor
to The Atlantic and the author of ”The Fourth Part of the World,” which
comes out in paperback on Tuesday. For more about the book and the
Waldseemüller map, see www.tobylester.com.