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New Evidence in Milan

The Icelandic Discovery of America

A Viking ship approaching Greenland in the year 1000. Painting by I. E. C. Rasmussen.

Which European discovered America first?...

Newspapers and magazines all over the world have reported the recent publication of a paper by Professor Paolo Chiesa of the University of Milan in the academic journal Terrae Incognitae. It is about a remark concerning what later was called America in an unpublished work from around 1340, Cronica Universalis, by a Milanese friar, Galvaneus Fiamma. This work exists in a late fourteenth century manuscript. There the author mentions a country west of both Iceland and Greenland called Marckalada. This obviously refers to the New World which most Europeans regard Christopher Columbus as having discovered in 1492, although of course this large continent was first discovered and settled by tribes migrating from Asia, over the Bering Straits, perhaps some 20,000 years ago. Indeed, German philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once exclaimed that it was an unlucky American who first discovered Columbus.  

America in the Icelandic Sagas  

This new evidence is interesting, but not surprising to the Icelanders. Two of the Icelandic sagas are about the discovery of America, The Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. They were written down in the twelfth century, probably separately under the auspices of two Icelandic bishops, Thorlak Runolfsson of Skalholt (1086–1133) and Bjorn Gilsson of Holar (1100–1162). Those two bishops both happened to be great-grandsons of a remarkable woman, Gudrid Thorbjornsdaughter. In 2019, I published in English a condensation of those two sagas merging them into one, The Saga of Gudrid. It greatly facilitated my task that an Icelandic meteorologist, Pall Bergthorsson, had meticulously and convincingly reconstructed the Icelandic explorations in the Western Hemisphere, using historical, archeological and other available evidence. In 2000, he had published his findings in a book, The Wineland Millennium: Saga and Evidence.

Born in Iceland in 980, Gudrid Thorbjornsdaughter emigrated with her father to the newly discovered Greenland sometime before 1000. She married Thorstein, son of the first Icelandic settler in Greenland, Erik the Red. Thus, she was the sister-in-law of Leif Eriksson who discovered America by chance in 1000 when he was sailing from Norway to Greenland. Leif built a camp in what is now known as Newfoundland, exploring from it the country, on his ship. He returned however to Greenland and did not settle in the new country which he called Wineland because he found grapes there. Gudrid and her husband Thorstein wanted to go to this new country, but Thorstein died before they could implement their plan. Gudrid then married an Icelandic merchant who was staying in Greenland, Thorfinn Thordson. She urged him to go west, and so they did in the summer of 1008, on four ships with around 140 people. They passed what they called Flatstoneland, Helluland in Icelandic, now Baffin Island, before reaching what they called Woodland, Markland in Icelandic, now Labrador: this would be the Marckalada of Galvaneus Fiamma.

In the autumn of 1008, Gudrid gave birth to the first child of European descent in America, Snorri Thorfinnson, probably at a place now called Fundy Bay. Thorfinn, Gudrid, little Snorri and some others went south after the first winter and probably reached what is now Hudson River in 2009. They stayed there, possibly in what is now Manhattan, naming it Tidal Pool (Hop in Icelandic). But they had to defend themselves against aggressive Indians in the vicinity and therefore decided in 1010 to return to Greenland, spending their last winter in America at Fundy Bay, arriving in 1011 in Greenland. Later Thorfinn and Gudrid settled down in Iceland. As a widow, Gudrid in her old age went on a pilgrimage to Rome, making her the most widely-travelled woman in Europe for centuries.

The main reason I find plausible the two Icelandic sagas about the discovery of America is that they seem to rely on strong oral traditions. Almost certainly the tales about the remarkable adventures of Gudrid and her husband were passed on from one generation to another, eventually reaching Gudrid’s great-grandsons, the two bishops who probably first had them written down separately, each in his own diocese (which explains some variations between them). The bishops had both the motive and the means to have these works produced. The Icelandic discovery of the new continent is actually also known from earlier sources than the two sagas. It was mentioned by a German chronicler, Adam of Bremen, in the 1070s and in a short history of Iceland, composed by Ari the Learned in the 1120s. The account in sagas and chronicles of the Icelandic settlement in the New World was confirmed when archeologists in the 1960s found remains of early 11th century Viking buildings near the northern tip of Newfoundland. Probably it was a base camp, used first by Leif Eriksson and then by Gudrid, Thorfinn and their people.

Did Columbus Visit Iceland?

In his paper Chiesa points out that the remarks about Marckladia in the old Italian manuscript seem to be the only evidence at the time in the Mediterranean region about the Western Hemisphere, although the Vatican certainly was aware of the existence of Greenland. He speculates that Fiamma might have received his information from Genoese sailors who had travelled in Northern Europe and adds that ‘it brings unprecedented evidence to the speculation that news about the American continent, derived from Nordic sources, circulated in Italy one and half centuries before Columbus’.

Chiesa does not mention, however, the suggestion, based on obscure and garbled passages in a biography of Columbus by his son, that the great seafarer spent some time in Iceland in 1477 and that he learned there about the lands in the far west which the Icelanders had discovered almost five hundred years earlier. This suggestion, made by the distinguished Italian scholar Paulo Emilio Taviani and others, is however highly implausible, for various reasons. What seems more likely is that Columbus had some contact with sailors from Bristol in England who in the fifteenth century made frequent trips to Iceland, bringing goods to the country in exchange for fish (the fifteenth century was actually called the ‘English Century’ in Icelandic history). The Bristolians might have told him or his sources about the ancient Viking discoveries, and the passages quoted by his son might refer to this. But Chiesa’s article suggests an even simpler origin of the story: that Columbus had heard tales about a country west of the world then known to European from other Genoese sailors, and that they, in turn, had heard them in Bristol. A note on this, scribbled down in haste, may have been misunderstood by his son, or by translators. The fact remains however that, from our Eurocentric point of view, the Icelanders discovered America although they were sensible enough, Oscar Wilde once quipped, to lose it again.      

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