Inventio Fortunata (lost travelogue; 14th century)

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Status: Lost

Inventio Fortunata (translated to Fortunate, or fortune-making, discovery) was a 14th-century travelogue written by a Franciscan Priest from Oxford. The travelogue is unique as it describes the North Pole as being magnetic and made up of four separate continents. The book was presented to Edward III of England in 1360 as a present. Fragments of Inventio Fortunata were re-written by Dutch writer Jacobus Cnoyen who extensively copied fragments. These were later sent in a letter and sent it to John Dee. The letter is now in the only piece of evidence that gives a context as to what was in the book.[1] The last time the book was mentioned was in a letter dated 1497-1498 from English merchant John Day who claimed that the book was found in Spain. To this day, none of the books, not even fragments, have resurfaced and the last time it was seen was in the 15th century, likely sealing its fate.


The Medieval Ages saw intercontinental trade survive on old Roman roads. These old roads saw Western Europe become more with Eastern Europe and the rest of the world as Eastern European Kings like John of Bohemia traveled to Western European cities. Crusaders traveled into Northern Europe in order to introduce Christianity. Viking established colonies in Iceland, Greenland, and Canada and Merchants such as Marco Polo traveled to China.[2]

Contents of Inventio Fortunata

Contents from second-hand sources who saw the Inventio Fortunata describe an English priest who is driven to investigate the North. In his travels, he finds a place called the Ilse of dwarves which are inhabited by men with long feet. Further is in the book a vast continent at the pole that is divided by rivers moving so fast, they don't freeze at the arctic chill. At the center of the pole sits a black magnetic rock that is 33 miles around and to which all compasses point to. After leaving the land, the priest returns to England and gives the report to the king.[3]

Jacobus Cnoyen's Summarization

One of the few people to have seen the Inventio Fortunata was able to summarize the book's contents and translate into Flemish. Later this summarization is sent in a letter dated April 20, 1577, from Flemish cartographer Gerhard Mercator to English Royal Adviser John Dee. The letter which is one of the few remaining mentions of the Inventio Fortunata copies Jacobus Cnoyen's summarization and states:

"In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool, into which there empty these four indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the Earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is four degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say, eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare Rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic Stone (…) This is a word for word everything that I copied out of this author (i.e. Cnoyen) years ago.”

This letter is now in the archives of the British Museum in London. [4]

John Day's Letter

English merchant John Day was one of the last people to make mention about the book. In a letter possibly sent to Christopher Columbus, it is stated:

"Your Lordship's servant brought me your letter. I have seen its contents and I would be most desirous and most happy to serve you. I do not find the book Inventio Fortunata, and I thought that I (or he) was bringing it with my things, and I am very sorry not [to] find it because I wanted very much to serve you. I am sending the other book of Marco Polo and a copy of the land which has been found [by John Cabot]."

This letter was only discovered in 1956. [5]


As explorers mapped out the North Pole, many came to question the contents of the Inventio Fortuna. A few different theories point out that places such as the Ilse of dwarves being in modern-day Canada and were Viking settlements. Others point to the Inventio Fortuna being a playwright. Due to the lack of evidence and limited sources to work off of, none of these theories can be proven.