Greenland and the Greenlanders, the forgotten people

© Johansson Inger E, Gothenburg, manuscript 1995-2008 translated 2009



The history of Greenland begins very early. More than one version of how Greenland was discovered and inhabited by Norse exists. The most famous Saga is that of Erik the Red, who is said to have ‘discovered’ Greenland around 985-86 AD. Erik and his men is said to have sailed around the island for over a year and also to have spent the winter there, mapped according to some data of Greenland’s and according to Ari Thorgilsson (d. 1148) they found leather canoes and stone buildings. Ari guess these were built by the same people who lived in Vinland and Greenlandic, which in Aris time was called ‘Skræling’. Sources for this version is Landnámabók written in the first half of 1100’s and Eric Red’s story which was written first in 1400. There are other versions which I chosen not relate here in sources from the 1200s on forward. As for Erik the Red’s Saga, the archaeological findings during excavations up to now in what’s thought to have been his farm, is well in line with Eric Red’s Saga and the information Landnámabók provides. Later on in book I tell of the facts confirming this.

But, and that’s essential, there is more information to be found in contemporary sources rather than in the Icelandic sagas. Among these sources there is the Pope’s letter January 6th 1053 indicating that Pope Leo IX when he wrote to Adalbert, Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, was aware that there were areas beyond Greenland.

”In omnibus gentibus Sueonum seu Danorum, Norunechorum, Islant, Scrideuinnum, Gronlant et universarum septentrionalum racionum”

While it’s true that ”universarum septentrionalum racionum” don’t not necessarily mean that areas of the outer parts of the universe were known. Nor that Vinland was known. That is, IFf it had not been for that particular Pope letter was written after Isleif, Iceland’s first archbishop, have been given the mission to preach Christianity also to Greenlandic people.

For it is Isleif who Adam of Bremen tell us about, who might be the key to the fact that Pope Leo IX in 1053 and Adam around 1070 knew of Greenland and the Greenland conditions. A contact was established between the Greenland population, and the Holy See. Contact will be almost 500 years. In other words more than 100 years after most of Greenland Greenlandic left and moved on, to more than 50 years after Columbus sailed west, officially for the first time. To Columbus supposed ‘first’ sailing westward I will return in later chapters.

Adam of Bremen tells us in his fourth book that Archbishop Adalbert of Bremen was visited by ”large numbers of people from all parts of the world. The longest road leaves them had traveled by Icelanders and Greenlanders and envoys from the Goths as well as Orkney Island, which all begged him to send missionaries to them. This he is said to have done immediately. He chose many bishops, namely Denmark, Sweden and Norway and the islands in the sea …. ” In the fourth book’s initial F (SKL 94 and 95) Adam lists a number of these bishops, among them Isleif: ”Isleif he sent to the island of Iceland.”

Isleif is best known here in Sweden as the first bishop in Iceland. But there is more to tell about him. Isleif was born on the farm Skalholt 1006 son of Gissur Hvite. Skalholt was close to one of several rivers named white. Which means the White River. Skalholt was a farm on the southwest Iceland not far from Thingvallavatn. His father sent Isleif studying for the priesthood at the monastery of Herford in Germany. It is likely that Isleif due to his father’s friends and others who visited the farm was aware of Greenland. Perhaps he even met with Eirik’s son Leif being born six years before Isleif born ‘discovered’ America. Thus this knowledge might have been transmitted through Isleif to the monks in Herford when Isleif was there in 1020s.

Now information dealing with Leif Eriksson one need to take with a grain of salt. There is not much beyond Kristnisagan and Snorre’s Kings Sagas which gives Leif the honor of discovering America. They were all written more than 150 years later, around 1200th. In Landnámabók written by Ari Thorgilsson, died 1148, it says that Vinland the Good wa found by the Icelandic merchant Thorfinn Karlsefni who was married to Gudrid, the widow of one of Eric Rodes sons. Ari is said to have been given the information from an elderly relative of his. These data can’t be verified from any other source than the Landnámabók. However that was locally written in Iceland by an Icelander and almost contempory, First half of 1100’s
Isleif returned home to Iceland as a priest in the late 1020s. The farm of his ancestors Skalholt became a vicarage He was active and successful thus when an inquiry was sent by the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen for a suitable candidate for the proposed bishopric Isleif was chosen and he traveled once more to Germany. In his company, he might have had the mentioned Greenlandic representants. Both Greenlanders and Icelanders used to cross the Atlantic over to Bergen in those days. We know that Isleif on his mission visited a meeting with other priests in Oslo. While no priest representative from Greenland been mentioned on this occasion, but it is possible that Greenlandic representants participated anyhow. When Isleif came back to Skalholt after his journey he founded Iceland’s first episcopal seat.
Adam says in the fourth book’s 36 chapters At their request, a very devout man named Isleif a bishop was chosen. He was sent to the country by the Archbishop, who had kept him with him for quite some time [Isleif arrived in Hamburg 1052] and showed him high honors. He was tought how to teach people who only recently converted to Christ. Vith him the Archbishop sent a personal letter addressed to Iceland’s and Greenland’s population It is sometimes assumed that Isleif also was chosen as the first bishop of Greenland. I haven’t found any proofs for this in contemporary or relatively contemporary source.

Adam came to Bremen round 1066/67. The basis for this assumption seems to be that he arrived in Bremen short after the church meeting in Tribur which had led to a personal disaster for Archbishop Adalbert due to his quarrels with Anno of Cologne. In the Swedish translation of 1984, Adam is assumed to have been one of the candidates to succeed Adalbert when he died 1072nd. It may be so. But when from the introduction of Adam’s work, it’s told that Liemar was Archbishop of Hamburg and that it was to him, Adam dedicates his work.

Adams chief informant is said to have been Sven Estridsson (Svein II) king of Denmark. Given that Adam was active in Bremen and that Isleif visited the Bishop See 20’s years before Adam is said to have written his work is not impossible that Bremen in addition to all the written sources that Adam refers to in different contexts might have had written information told or written by Isleif.

Sven Estridson his youth spent a long period in Sweden at the court of Olof Skötkonung’s son Anund. There is evidence in early 1100-century source that the fighting preceding Sven becomming king of Denmark includes a fled west to Vinland short after a fight where he had had to flee inland Visigothia and then over to Jutland. Most researchers seem to believe that he ended up in the area of Poland, the Baltic countries. But if you sail west from Sweden, or from Denmark’s west coast, you will not end up there.

Anund was Sven’s cousin due to Sven’s mother Estrid and Canute the Great where sibblings with Olof Skötkonung. According to Polish sources they shared the same mother, whose Polish name could easily be misunderstood to Sigrid the Haughty by the Icelanders. The mother who changed name to Gunhild from her Polish one when marrying Olof Skötkonung’s father. Due to fact that Canute and Olof Skötkonung themselves rode after her to Poland when Catute’s and Estrid’s father Sven Forkbeard had died and she had fled to Poland, this seem to be confirmed. Thus Sven Estridson in addition to information he supplied to Adam about the Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland also might have had some knowledge about Poland apart from those Adam himself had.

As mentioned earlier, Isleif came to Bremen in 1052 and it’s early January the following year the said Pope Leo IX sent his letter to Archbishop Adalbert where Greenland and the universe’s outer areas were mentioned. Unless the Pope had been told by the monks in Herford earlier of Greenland, it is tempting to assume that Isleifs arrival in Bremen may have given Archbishop information on Greenland, which was passed on to the pope during 1052nd. The case for this is that the earlier letter in which the Archbishop of Hamburg, Bremen secured a contract to ensure that Christians and appoint bishops to the Nordic countries but did not mention Greenland.

Adam of Bremen, Hamburg History of the diocese and its bishops
Diplomatarium Danicum, series 1, II, no 1
Diplomatarium Norvegicum bind 17 No 849
Kristni saga
King Olaf’s saga in Flateyboken
Nicholas of Thingeyre works

Scientific works:
Jansen M Henry, A critical account of the written and archaeological sources’ evidence concerning the Norse settlements in Greenland, Meddelelser om Grønland 182:4, 1972
Lappenbergs Hamburgisches Urkundenbuch I

© Johansson Inger E, Gothenburg, manuscript 2000-2008 translated 2009

Added 03.48 January 20 2013: Norwegian from beginning, Norah4you bloggarticle

6 Responses to Greenland and the Greenlanders, the forgotten people

  1. […] read: Proof of early contacts Greenland – North America, Norah4history 14 sept 2013 and extract from Johansson Inger E Greenland and the Greenlanders, the forgotten people, Chapter 1 There you will find that there are sources predating the Icelandic […]


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