Zichmni and Prince Henry

The theory that the Zeno Narrative gives an accurate report of Prince Henry St Clair's expedition to America depends on 'Zichmni' being the same as Prince Henry.

The points in favour are:

  • Although the names of the places are garbled and sometimes unidentifiable, it is clear that Zeno was referring to the Scottish islands, whose most powerful lord at that time was Prince Henry.
  • Zichmni is described - although only once in the Narrative - as a 'prince'. Although technically not a prince, the term was used of Earl Henry St Clair because of his power.
  • Zichmni had a fleet of warships, and the only person who had such a fleet in the Scottish islands at that time was Prince Henry.
  • Nicolò's description of Zichmni as educated, cultured and militarily powerful fits Prince Henry perfectly.
  • Nicolò's account of Zichmni's struggle to extend his control of the islands exactly match Prince Henry's actions at that time.
  • Although precise dates are not given (after the initial, incorrect, date of 1380), the narrative suggests that the voyage to 'Estotilanda' took place in the late 1390s. There are no records of Prince Henry St Clair in Orkney or Scotland during this time - indeed, he is conspicuous by his absence.

However, if the Zeno brothers spent some 14 years in the service of the prince, why do they insist on calling him 'Zichmni'?

As long ago as 1786, historian Johann Reinhold Forster argued that 'Zichmni' was a misspelling of 'Sinclair'.

Frederick Pohl put forward the following argument:

The Zenos would have called Henry 'Prince of Orkney', in Italian Principe d'Orkney (using the modern spelling of Orkney - in the Middle Ages there were many variants, such as 'Orknay' or 'Orkeney', any of which could have been used by the Zenos).

However, Italian does not use 'k' or 'y', and so the Zenos would have used the equivalents, 'ch' and 'i' - writing d'Orchni.

In medieval Latin script, 'd'O' and 'Z' were very similar, so it could later have been misread as Zrchni.

However, the copyist would have realised that a Z must be followed by a vowel, and perhaps assumed that the 'r' of Orkney was an 'i' - so Zichni.

The 'm' could come from a misreading of the strokes used in the 'en' of 'Orkeney' or 'na' of 'Orknay' - Zichmni.

How Seriously Should We Take the Zeno Narrative?

If the Narrative is a genuine account of the Zeno brothers' deeds in the Scottish islands in the 1390s, then Zichmni can only be Prince Henry St Clair. But why should we take the Narrative seriously at all?

Engronelant and Greenland

Engronelant and Greenland

Its supporters argue that:

  • Although historians generally have dismissed the Narrative, it is acknowledged that the accompanying Zeno Map was one of the most accurate available at that time. In Andrew Sinclair's words, 'The accuracy of the Map reinforces the plausibility of most of the Narrative.'
  • Nicolò Zeno certainly existed, being one of Venice's most prominent citizens, as well as the brother of its greatest naval hero of the time. The Narrative reports him as dying in Orkney in the 1390s. There is no record of his death in Venice; in fact, he disappears from Venetian records in 1388 - at around the time he left for northern waters. (The favoured date for Nicolò's meeting with Prince Henry is 1390, although it could have been a year or two either side of this.)

(There is, however, no record of his brother Antonio although he did have a son of that name. Frederick J. Pohl argues that the Antonio Zeno of the Narrative is actually Nicolò's son.)

  • Marco Barbaro's 1536 book shows that the idea that the Zenos and Zichmni had reached America was around in Venice 22 years before the Narrative.
  • It describes the otherwise obscure wars in the Scottish islands, matching those waged by Prince Henry St Clair.
  • If - as doubters have suggested - Nicolò Zeno produced a hoax intended to inflate his family's importance by making them the discoverers of America, why invent Prince Zichmni and let him take the credit? The Narrative does give due prominence to Nicolò Zeno's exploration of Greenland, but this is clearly not the discovery of a 'new world', for which all the credit is given to Zichmni.
  • The description of Estotilanda is surprisingly low-key if it is purely a work of imagination and glorification. The fisherman's tale that inspires the expedition is much more exotic, and surely if Antonio's experiences were pure invention they would vie with it for extravagance and hype. As it is, Antonio - to his annoyance - is sent back with the return fleet before Zichmni properly begins his exploration of Estotilanda.

Arguing against the Narrative is the fact that it gives fictitious names, not only for 'Zichmni' and places in the New World, but also for all the locations mentioned.

Friends of the Narrative have suggested what these places might be, some of which are highly plausible - for example 'Engroneland' for Greenland and 'Bres' for Bressay in the Shetlands - while others bear no relationship to the known names. Supporters of the theory point out that the Norse names would have been very unfamiliar and difficult for Italian speakers who - in a time before standardised spelling - would have rendered them as best they could. Nicolò Zeno, a century and a half later, would have been faced with the task of deciphering what his forebears had written.

However, surely if Antonio had spent so long with Prince Henry, he would have got to know their real names? Why are all of the names incorrect? There's not one that is immediately recognisable.

Nicolò Zeno first encounters Zichmni when he is shipwrecked on 'Frislanda'. This has been identified as Fair Isle (between the Orkneys and Shetlands) or the Faroe Islands. The Zeno Map calls the Faroes 'Frislanda'. However, although Prince Henry would have visited both places to assert his authority, he did not remain there long, whereas the Narrative has Frislanda as Zichmni's chief possession. Henry's base was in the Orkneys. Frislanda is also described as 'an island rather larger than Ireland', which is plainly incorrect.

Zichmni is said to be the lord of a group of islands called Portlanda, to the south of Frislanda. This has been identified as Pentland (which is called 'Podanda' on the Zeno Map). However, Pentland is the north-eastern tip of Scotland, not a group of islands.

The problem is that there is no way of knowing whether these errors of names and other facts originated in the Zeno brothers' letters or were introduced by the 16th-century Nicolò Zeno when he turned them into his Narrative. As he claims only to have had fragments of the letters to work with, he may have filled in some of the gaps with his own assumptions.

There is another explanation for the obscure placenames. According to the Narrative, the account is based on letters sent first from Nicolò to Antonio, and then from Antonio to his brother Carlo the Lion. If - as seems to be the case - there were reasons for secrecy about the Zenos' mission (i.e. intelligence gathering about the northern sea trade, or a conspiracy against the Hanseatic League), they may not have wanted to give away precise identifications in letters to Venice in case they were intercepted.

The Narrative describes Zichmni's struggles as being against the 'King of Norway'. This is incorrect - in fact, Prince Henry was acting on the Norwegian King's (or rather the regent, Queen Margaret's) behalf in subduing the islands. However, it is perhaps an understandable error after 150 years - if the error was made by the writer of the Narrative. Prince Henry's chief opponent was a Norwegian, Malise Sparr - whose base, according to contemporary records, was in Norway, which may account for the error. It has also been argued that some of the episodes in the Narrative refer to battles with Scandinavian pirates.

Some of the objections raised to the Narrative have been answered by subsequent archaeological discoveries. For example, the details of the monastery on Greenland, long regarded as the products of Zeno's imagination, have been shown to be correct.

Outside the 'fisherman's tale' - which is not part of the Zenos' personal experiences - there are few fanciful elements in the account. One episode that does seem far-fetched concerns a landfall on an island called Icaria, while en route to Estotilanda. The inhabitants of Icaria speak an unknown language, but a native of 'Islanda' - one of Zichmni's islands, generally identified as Shetland - lives there and interprets for them. The king of Icaria tells the voyagers that their first king was 'the son of Daedalus, King of Scotland'.

Richard Henry Major - the translator of the Zeno Narrative in 1873 - argued that this was a description of a visit to St Kilda, or perhaps Kerry in Ireland, taken from a separate letter that Nicolò Zeno inserted into his account in the wrong place. Many people at that time liked to link their origins with the ancient Greeks and Romans - for example, the British believed that their country derived its name from Brutus. Even some sceptics accept that this part of the narrative is out of sequence.

Andrew Sinclair agrees, pointing out that the Narrative puts the arrival of the expedition at Icaria in July, whereas the next date mentioned - the arrival in Estotilanda - is at the end of May.


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