NICHOLAS OF LYNNE, Franciscan friar, mathematician, and astronomer at Oxford; fl. 1360.
He is believed by many to have written the Inventio fortunata – a description of the arctic regions – no longer extant. The earliest mention of this work is on the map of Johannes Ruysch in the Rome Ptolemy of 1508, where it is said to describe a high magnetic rock under the Arctic Pole (a mountain in the vicinity of Thule in Greenland well known to the mediaeval Icelanders, who had by the 14th century noticed the deviation of the compass). Mercator on his 1569 world map (Ganong, “Crucial maps,” I, 104) says that in 1364 a certain priest at the court of Norway told James Cnoyen of Bois-le-Duc, whose dates are unknown and whose works are lost, that in the year 1360 a certain English friar, a Franciscan and a mathematician of Oxford, came into the northern island. He then left, and passing farther by his magical arts described all those places he saw and took the height of them with his astrolabe. Hakluyt says the friar wrote the Inventio fortunata after a voyage he made in 1360. Travelling in company with others to the most northern island of the world he there left his fellows and travelled alone. The record of his travels, the Inventio “qui liber incipit a gradu 54. usque ad polum,” he presented to King Edward III of England. This same friar “for sundry purposes after that did five times pass from England thither, and home again.” Similar accounts are found in the writings of John Dee (who, however, believed the friar to have been the minorite, Hugo of Ireland, a traveller who flourished and wrote c. 1360) and of Peter Heylyn. None of these writers identifies the friar as Nicholas of Lynne, but most subsequent historians have made this identification. It is only in recent years, however, that Nicholas of Lynne has acquired a considerable reputation as an early English explorer of the Arctic, in spite of the absurdity of the statements that he travelled alone to the Pole and later made five further arctic expeditions. Thomas Blundeville seems to have come nearer to the truth when he wrote in 1589 that he did not believe that the friar had made a voyage to the Arctic “unlesse he had some colde Devill out of the middle Region of the aire to be his guide.”
The Inventio fortunata was, however, as far as can be judged a trustworthy description of Greenland and the Canadian archipelago, as far as this had been traversed by the mediaeval Icelanders of Greenland. Moreover, this book had a large circulation in Europe and may have been used by Columbus. Its author, whether Nicholas of Lynne or not, almost unquestionably received his information, not first hand by travelling through the Arctic, but from the priest Ivar Bárdarson, who from c. 1340 to c. 1360 was administrator of the see of Gardar in Greenland and as such travelled widely and acquired directly or indirectly much information about the eastern Canadian Arctic. He wrote a description of Greenland which attained a wide circulation: it was translated for the use of Henry Hudson who carried a copy with him on at least some of his voyages. Ivar Bardarson was back in Norway, possibly by 1361 and certainly by 1364, and there the Oxford friar may have met him personally and compiled the Inventio fortunata. In any case the excerpts from the Inventio found in later works point conclusively to an Icelandic-Greenlandic source.
Thomas Blundeville, “A briefe description of universall mapes and cardes . . . ,” M. Blundeville his exercises . . . (London, 1622), 747–99. Hakluyt, Principal navigations (1903–5), I, 303; X, 301ff. Peter Heylyn, Cosmographie (London, 1657). Johannes Ruysch map, “Universalior cogniti orbis tabula ex recentibus confecta observationibus,” in Claudius Ptolemy, In hoc opere haec continentur Geographiae . . . (Rome, 1508). B. F. DeCosta, Inventio fortunata: arctic exploration with an account of Nicholas of Lynn . . . (New York, 1881); Sailing directions of Henry Hudson from the old Danish of Ivar Bardsen (Albany, 1869). H. R. Holand, “An English scientist in America 130 years before Columbus,” Wisconsin Academy of Science and Letters Trans., XLVIII (1959). N. A. E. Nordenskiöld, Facsimile atlas to the early history of cartography, with reproductions of the most important maps printed in the XV and XVI centuries . . . (Stockholm, 1889). Oleson, Early voyages, 105–8. E. G. R. Taylor, “A letter dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee,” Imago Mundi, XIII (1956), 56–58.