Secret Library

The Vinland Sagas: The Men Who Discovered America Before Columbus

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle heads off to medieval America and the world of the sagas

Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, when he landed on mainland North America, thus sparking the colonisation of the continent by the Europeans.

This is the mainstream conception, and it’s entirely wrong. Columbus never landed on the mainland of the continent we now call North America. Even if he had, he wouldn’t have been the first European to do so. European settlement in North America had first occurred almost half a millennium before Columbus was even born. In around the year 1000, a group of Icelandic explorers made a series of journeys along the northern rim of the Atlantic, and attempted to found a colony somewhere along the Atlantic seaboard of the continent of North America, probably somewhere around what is now Newfoundland and the Gulf of St Lawrence.

In around AD 985, the merchant Bjarni Herjolfsson was blown off course while sailing for Greenland, and alighted on a land to the south-west of that island. The land they found themselves on contained huge quantities of grapes, so they promptly named this new world ‘Vinland’, or ‘vine-land’. (This etymology has been disputed, but is still probably the most likely explanation for the name, and certainly the sagas themselves explicitly mention the grapes which gave the land its vinial appellation. However, it’s possible that these early explorers mistook some other fruit, such as a gooseberry, for grapes – so ‘Vinland’ may still be an inaccurate name, albeit an inadvertent one.) This story – of how a group of Icelandic explorers effectively discovered America – is told in two Icelandic sagas from the Middle Ages, the Grænlendinga saga or Greenland saga and Eirik’s Saga. The Greenland saga was written down in the fourteenth-century Flateyjarbók manuscript, which originally belonged to a wealthy Icelandic farmer named Jon Haconarson. The events described in the Grænlendinga saga took place around 970 to 1030. Although the saga is clearly fiction, the basic facts of the story are thought to be based on fact.

Magnus Magnusson’s detailed introduction to The Vinland Sagas (Penguin Classics) provides some fascinating background to these early voyages. It turns out that Greenland was so named as a kind of marketing ploy, and one that would probably get its creator, Eirik the Red, investigated by Trading Standards, as it’s not a very accurate name for the rough, icy landscape of that vast island.

The Grænlendinga saga or Greenland saga recounts Erik the Red’s discovery of the vast island of Greenland, lying between his homeland of Iceland and the mainland continent of North America. Later, his son Leif Erikson explores the lands further west of Greenland, naming the islands he makes landfall on Helluland (‘Stone-slab land’), Markland (‘Wood land’), and, finally, Vinland (‘vine land’). They then return to Greenland with a ship laden with wood and grapes (or gooseberries?). Hearing Leif’s tales of Vinland, Thorvald, Leif’s brother, sails off to explore this new land in more detail, though all he manages to do is get into a scrape with the natives (referred to by the Norsemen as Skraelings), killing eight of them before Thorvald himself is felled by the locals and dies. Another brother, Thorstein, sets sail for Vinland to retrieve his brother’s body, but his boat never makes it. That winter, Thorstein dies, predicting that his widow, Gudrid, will marry an Icelander.

An explorer named Thorfinn Karlsefni falls in love with Gudrid, who marries him, thus fulfilling her first husband’s prophecy. They both travel to Vinland, have a son, and get into a scrap with the Skraelings. The saga ends with an account of a final journey to Vinland made by Erik’s daughter, Freydis. This summary shows the rough content of just one of the two ‘Vinland sagas’, and highlights the sagas’ status as fiction committed to shoring up a national history – caught between historical account and artistic licence. After all, the line between history and fiction, as a book like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain shows, was not as sharply drawn in the Middle Ages as it is now.

Indeed, the tradition of saga-writing – the genre that would become Iceland’s national literary identity – was actually encouraged by the Church, because sagas were considered more wholesome than other forms of entertainment, such as dancing, which was considered immoral. And Icelandic sagas provided an opportunity to inform and educate the audience as well as entertain them, instilling in listeners a sense of their national history and the seafarers and warriors who had helped to make Iceland the country it had become.

Discover more forgotten literary curiosities with our Secret Library archive.

Oliver Tearle’s new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is available now from John Murray.

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