Vinland: Gudrid and her husband discover America


Eriksfjord in Greenland photo by Michael Ridpath author of the Magnus Iceland Mysteries
In my last blog post, I described how Gudrid the Wanderer wandered from Iceland to Greenland. But she didn't stop there.

The two Vinland Sagas disagree on who first made landfall in North America, which became known as 'Vinland'. One saga says it was Bjarni Herjólfsson, who got lost on the way to Greenland, the other says it was Leif Eriksson, Erik the Red's son. These days Leif seems to get all the credit. Anyway, Leif, Thorfinn Karlsefni and Thorfinn's new wife Gudrid made a series of expeditions to Vinland, or Vínland in Old Norse, so called because of the discovery of grapes there. 

By the way, the photograph above is of Eiriksfjord in Greenland from where Leif Eriksson and his wife Gudrid set sail for Vinland. The iceberg seems to be giving me the finger, I'm not sure why.

The sagas describe the establishment in Vinland of temporary settlements at 'Leif's Booths' and 'Keel Point', as well as a tantalizing journey far to the south to a place called 'Hop', which is described in some detail.

There is much less archaeological evidence for a Viking presence in North America; indeed, until 1961 there was none. Despite the compelling descriptions in the sagas, many historians preferred to write them off as myth, ensuring that the credit for discovering America lay with the Genoese Christopher Columbus. 

However, in 1961 a Norwegian couple, Anne and Helge Ingstad, discovered evidence of a Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Since then various other Viking artefacts have been found in Canada, especially to the north on Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island.

Actually, of course, America was discovered by some Siberians who wandered over what is now the Bering Straits about 20,000 years ago.

There remains the question of how far Thorfinn Karlsefni and Gudrid travelled south, in other words where this mysterious place Hop is. The Vikings stayed there for a couple of summers, before being driven out by the locals, or 'Skraelings' as the Norse called them. 

There are clues about grapes, self-sown wheat, a river running north to south, and a lagoon right by the sea (hóp means 'tidal lagoon'). Candidate locations include the St Lawrence estuary, Buzzard's Bay near Cape Cod, Narragansett in Rhode Island and even Brooklyn. The truth is we don't know. That's the kind of gap in the historical record I love. It's crying out for a novel to fill it.

A quantity of spurious Viking remains have been found in the United States. Most are clearly fakes. 

One of the most famous is the Kensington rune stone - Kensington is a small town in Minnesota - which was discovered by a Swedish farmer in 1898. This bore an inscription in runes saying the equivalent of '30 Vikings woz here 1362'. This seems an obvious fake - Minnesota is a long way from the Atlantic. 

But much to my surprise, having read the evidence, I suspect that the stone may indeed be genuine, and that a Viking party travelled down from the Hudson Bay or along the Great Lakes water system to Minnesota. It is extraordinary how far Viking trading routes stretched: from Byzantium in the east, through Russia and the Baltic to Iceland and then on to Greenland and Vinland. We shouldn't underestimate the Norsemen's ability to cover large distances by sea, river and lake.

Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said: "The Icelanders are the most intelligent race on earth, because they discovered America and never told anyone."

Much of the scepticism of historians towards the idea that Icelanders discovered America comes from Italians or Italian Americans who are big fans of Columbus. They have a particular problem with a visit Columbus may or may not have made to Iceland in 1477, fifteen years before he set sail on the Santa María. The journey was reported by Columbus himself in his letter to Queen Isabella many years later, but he was frustratingly vague, talking about a land called 'Thile' and tides of extraordinary variation. But his account agrees with the stories of an Italian nobleman staying near Ólafsvík.

The claims by some historians that if Columbus did visit Iceland he would have been unlikely to hear of Vinland are laughable. I quote from an article in a learned historical journal I read in the British Library:

There is no need to suggest that he [Columbus] learned of the medieval Greenland colony: Icelanders had lost interest in it after Norway took control of contacts with it . . . He is still less likely to have heard of the Vinland sagas, even if they had been retained in folk memory, which is very doubtful, or had been written down in unintelligible language between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries.

This is one of the all-time classic underestimations of Iceland. The fifteenth century was the greatest period when the sagas were copied. Iceland was full of priests who understood Latin. Icelanders had traded with Greenland in living memory; some had attended a wedding there seventy years before. If Columbus did visit Iceland in 1477, as he claimed he did, he would most certainly have heard about Vinland.

Plenty to get my teeth into. In September 2018, almost ten years after I had first heard of Gudrid and visited Ingjaldshóll where Columbus is rumoured to have stayed, The Wanderer was published.

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