The Norse Discovery of America, by A.M Reeves, N.L. Beamish and R.B. Anderson, , at sacred-texts.com
THE earliest foreign mention of Wineland appears in the work of the prebendary, Adam of Bremen, called Descriptio insularum aquilonis. The material for this work was obtained by its author during a sojourn at the court of the Danish king, Svend Estridsson, after the year 1069, and probably very soon thereafter, for his history appears to have been completed before the year 1076, the date of king Svend's death. The most important manuscript of Adam's longer work, the Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiæ pontificum, is the Codex Vindobonensis deposited in the Imperial Library of Vienna under the number 413. This manuscript, written in the thirteenth century, contains also the complete "description of the Northern islands," which is partially lacking in the fine manuscript of the same century, contained in the Royal Library of Copenhagen. This "description" was first printed in Lindenbruch's edition of Adam's work, published in 1595, and is the first printed reference to Wineland, being as follows: "Moreover he spoke of an island in that ocean discovered by many, which is called Wineland, for the reason that vines grow wild there, which yield the best of wine. Moreover, that grain unsown grows there abundantly is not a fabulous fancy, but from the accounts of the Danes we know to be a fact. Beyond this island, it is said. there is no habitable land in
that ocean, but all those regions which are beyond are filled with insupportable ice and boundless gloom, to which Martian thus refers: "One day's sail beyond Thile the sea is frozen." This was essayed not long since by that very enterprising Northmen's prince, Harold, who explored the extent of the northern ocean with his ship, but was scarcely able by retreating to escape in safety from the gulf's enormous abyss, where before his eyes the vanishing bounds of earth were hidden in gloom."
The learned cleric, it will be observed, is very careful to give his authority for a narrative which evidently impressed him as bordering sharply upon the fabulous. The situation which he would ascribe to the strange country is inaccurate enough, but the land where vines grow wild and grain self-sown, stripped of the historian's adornments, would accord sufficiently well with the accounts of the discoverers of Wineland to enable us to identify the country, if Adam had not himself given us the name of this land, and thus arrested all uncertainty. It is not strange, however, that with the lapse of time the knowledge of such a land should have been erased from the recollection of the outer world. The author of the so called "Breve Chronicon Norvegiæ" is, therefore, constrained to omit all reference to this wonderful land, although his reference to Greenland indicates an acquaintance with that tradition, which in Icelandic geographical notices, already cited, would ascribe Wineland to a more southerly clime, bordering indeed upon Africa. The manuscript of this history, which has been preserved, belongs to the Earl of Dalhousie, and was probably written
between the years 1443 and 1460. The passage mentioned, while it is not strictly pertinent, in a measure indicates, perhaps, the information accessible at this period to an author who must have been more or less acquainted with the current lore of the land in which the Wineland history was still preserved. Greenland, this author writes, "which country was discovered and settled by the inhabitants of Thule [Telensibus], and strengthened by the Catholic faith, lies at the western boundary of Europe, almost bordering upon the African isles, where the overflowing sea spreads out." No quickening evidence came from Iceland until long afterward, and those who saw Adam's Wineland recital probably regarded it as the artless testimony of a too-credulous historian.
After the publication of Adam of Bremen's work, in 1595, the name of Wineland next recurs in print in a poem written by the Danish clergyman, Claus Christoffersson Lyschander, called the Chronicle of Greenland, which was published in Copenhagen in 1608. Founded, apparently, upon the scantiest of historical material, which material was treated with the broadest of poetic license, the Chronicle is devoid of historical value. Lyschander seems to have derived from Icelandic Annals the knowledge of Bishop Eric's Wineland voyage, and to have elaborated this entry, with the aid of his vivid imagination, into three lines of doggerel in somewhat the following manner:
And Eric of Greenland did the deed,
Planted in Wineland both folk and creed,
Which are there e'en now surviving.
A few years prior to this rhapsody of Lyschander's, the geographer Ortelius had ascribed to the Northmen the credit of the discovery of America. According to Alexander von Humboldt, Ortelius announced this opinion in 1570, and he cites Ortelius' work, "Theatrum orbis terrarum," in the edition of 1601. The edition of 1584 of Ortelius' work does not so credit the discovery, but the English edition of 1606 does explicitly, and clearly sets forth upon what foundation the author rests his statement. Ortelius does not seem to have had, and could not well have had at the time he wrote, any acquaintance with Icelandic records; his opinion, as he himself tells us, was based upon the marvellous relation of the voyages of the brothers Zeni, first published in 1558. It is not pertinent to dwell here upon the authenticity of the Zeni discoveries, and while it is true that Ortelius stated the fact, when he announced that the "New World was entered upon many ages past by certain 'islanders' of Greenland and Iceland," he travelled to it by a circuitous route, and hit upon it, after all, by a happy chance.
The debased taste in Iceland, which followed the age when the greater sagas were committed to writing, found its gratification in the creation of fictitious tales, in recounting the exploits of foreign heroes, and for a time the garnered wealth of their historical literature was disregarded or forgotten by the people of Iceland. With the revival of learning, which came in post-Reformation times, after a long period of comparative literary inactivity, came a reawakening of interest in the elder literature, and the Icelandic scholars of this era heralded abroad
the great wealth of the discarded treasures which their ancestors had amassed.
The first writer in modern times to glean from Icelandic records, and to publish, as thus established, the discovery made by his countrymen, was Arngrim Jonsson [Arngrimr Jonsson], who was born in Iceland in 1568. His various historical works, published during his life-time, were written in Latin, and all, with the exception of the first edition of a single work, issued from presses on the Continent. His writings were, for the most part, devoted to the history of his fatherland and to its defence, but incidentally two of these, at least, refer to the Wineland discovery. The first of these works, "Crymoga, sive Rerum Islandicarum," was published in Hamburg in 1610, 1614, 1630. The notice in this book refers to the discovery of "New Land" in 1285, and Land-Rolf's expedition to Iceland [undertaken with a view to the exploration of this land], diverges into a consideration of the Frislanda of the Zeni narrative, which the author regards as Iceland, and concludes: "In truth we believe the country which Land-Rolf sought to be Wineland, formerly so-called by the Icelanders, concerning which island of America, in the region of Greenland, perhaps the modern Estotelandia, elsewhere;" a statement chiefly interesting from the fact that it is the first printed theory as to the location of Wineland.
In a second book, written ca. 1635, but not published until 1643, Arngrim refers at some length to Karlsefni and his Wineland voyage, which information he states he draws from Hauk's history, and also makes mention
of Bishop Eric's Wineland voyage, noting incidentally Adam of Bremen's reference to that country.
Arngrim died in 1648, leaving behind him an unprinted Latin manuscript, which was subsequently translated into Icelandic and published in Iceland under the title "Gronlandia." In this treatise he deals more minutely with the Wineland discovery, but it is probable that this book failed to obtain as wide a circulation among the scholars of Europe as his earlier works, and even though it had become well known, it was destined to be followed, a few years later, by a much more exhaustive work, which must have supplanted it.
Although the Icelandic discovery had now been published, the chief documents from which the knowledge of the discovery was drawn, remained for many years in Iceland, where they were practically inaccessible to the foreign student. Arngrim Jonsson was himself, probably, the first to set the example, which, actively followed after his death, soon placed the Icelandic manuscripts within comparatively easy reach of the students of the Continent. We have already seen, incidentally, how certain of these codices were exported; it remained for the tireless bibliophile, Arni Magnusson, to complete the deportation of manuscripts from his fatherland, so that early in the eighteenth century all of the more important early vellums containing the Wineland narrations were lodged in the libraries of Copenhagen. The hugest of all these manuscripts, the Flatey Book, had been brought by the talented Icelander, Thormod Torfæus, from Iceland to Denmark, as a gift to King Frederick the Third.
In the year 1715 Torfæus published the first book devoted exclusively to the discovery of Wineland. In this little work the place of priority is assigned to the account of the discovery as unfolded in the Flatey Book; this is followed by a compendium of the Saga of Eric the Red [Thorfinns Saga], with which the author seems to have become acquainted through a transcript of the Hauk's Book Saga, made by Biorn of Skardsa. The interest which Torfæus' little book elicited was of such a character that the general dissemination of the knowledge of the discovery may almost be said to date from its appearance; the publication of texts of the sagas upon which Torfæus' book was based was not accomplished, however until the present century.
In 1837 the sumptuous work entitled "Antiquitates Americanæ" was published by the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries of Copenhagen. The book was edited by Carl Christian Rafn, with whom were associated Finn Magnusen and Sveinbiorn Egilsson; the associate editors, however, especially the last-named, seem to have shared to a very limited extent in the preparation of the work; all were scholarly men, well versed in the literature of Iceland. This book was by far the most elaborate which had been published up to that time upon the subject of the Icelandic discovery of America, and in it the texts of the sagas relating to the discovery were first printed, and with these the lesser references bearing upon the discovery, which were scattered through other Icelandic writings. Side by side with the Icelandic texts, Latin and Danish versions of these texts were presented,
and along with these the interpretations and theories of the gifted editor, Rafn. The book obtained a wide circulation, and upon it have been based almost all of the numerous treatises upon the same subject which have since appeared. Rafn's theories touching the Old Stone Tower at Newport, R. I., and the Dighton Picture Rock near Taunton, Mass., have latterly fallen into disfavour, but others of his errors, less palpable than these, if we may judge by recent publications, still exercise potent sway. While the editor of the "Antiquitates Americanæ" deserves great praise for having been the first to publish to the world the original records, he has seriously qualified the credit to which he is entitled by the extravagant theories and hazardous statements to which he gave currency, and which have prejudiced many readers against the credibility of the records themselves.
Since the publication of the "Antiquitates Americanæ" the most important and original treatise upon the Wineland discovery which has appeared, is that recently published by Dr. Gustav Storm, Professor of History in the University of Christiania, entitled, "Studies relating to the Wineland voyages, Wineland's Geography and Ethnography." These "Studies" appear to have been the natural sequence of an article upon the vexed question, affecting the site of Wineland, to which reference has already been made. Professor Storm's method of treatment is altogether different from that of Rafn; it is philosophical, logical, and apparently entirely uninfluenced by preconceived theories, being based strictly upon the records. These records of the Icelandic discovery have now
been presented here. They clearly establish the fact that some portion of the eastern coast of North America was visited by people of Iceland and the Icelandic colony in Greenland early in the eleventh century. In matters of detail, however, the history of the discovery leaves wide the door to conjecture as to the actual site of Wineland. It was apparently not north of the latitude of northern Newfoundland; present climatic conditions indicate that it was situated somewhat south of this latitude, but how far south the records do not show.