Greenland history from Leif Eriksson to Ivar Bardson

from Leif Eriksson to Ivar Bardson

© Johansson Inger E, Gothenburg August 2003 rev. 2014

INGRESS: The story of Greenland and Vinland have fascinated many people of the year. For many years the Icelandic Sagas was believed to the true source of the Vinland adventure. The existence of other sources, have either been forgotten or supressed. Some of the other sources are Primary sources such as Papal documents, books written in 1100’s-1400 or knowledge due to results of excavations in the North America.
When the site at L’Anse aux Meadows was found that site directly was believed to have been the mythic Vinland. In this article I don’t intend to start a deeper discussion around the Vinland location. All I intend to do is to present essential information from some of the earliest sources by referring to Greenland’s History up to 1360 and also present a minor but essential information gained from later years archaeologists and their excavations.

Chapter 1.
The Icelandic Sagas usually thought to be the earliest and by most scholars also thought to be the only sources we have access of re. Greenland and Greenlanders from weren’t the first to tell the world about Greenland and Vinland. The earliest source we today know for Greenlandic information is the letter from Pope Leo IX to Adalbert, Archbishop of Hamburg Bremen
Pope Leo IX wrote ”… omnibus gentibus Sueonum seu Danorum, Norunechorum, Islant, Scrideuinnum, Gronlant et universarum septentrionalum racionum”

In 1070’s Adam of Bremen in his book Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum wrote about Greenland and the Greenlanders. That’s more than 50 years before the first Icelandic writer wrote about Vinland. Adam av Bremen gave information he had had from King Svein Estridson[Denmark]. King Svein Estridson had been serving in his relative’s the Swedish King Anund’s hird. In other source still remaining but forgotten it’s said that King Svein had participated on a Norwegian ship sailing to Vinland. In chapter 38 of his book Adam of Bremen also write about Halogaland that the same summer- and midwinter solstice was to be seen in Halogaland as in the land of the Sweons and the Northland[Norway].

According to all information available today the Norse migration to Greenland was underway at latest close to 1000 AD.

More about Greenland and/or Vinland
in remaining source from 1100’s on

Sea between Markland and Vinland mentioned by Nicholas Bergthorsson in Leidarvisir och borgaskipan written in first half 1100’s. One copy was given to the Pope 1134)

Leidarvisir and borgaskipan: ”… North of Germany is Denmark. Ocean extending into the Baltic Sea, near Denmark. Sweden is east of Denmark and Norway in the north. North of Norway’s Finnmark. … Beyond Greenland, southward, there Helluland and beyond it Markland, from there it is not far to Vinland. which some people think stretching all the way to Africa. England and Scotland is an island but is separate kingdoms. Iceland is a large island to the north of Ireland …. ”
From Biarmaland northward all the way until you reach Greenland. South of Greenland lies Helluland, then Markland , then it is not far to Vinland the Good. Which some believe extends to Africa. and if that’s true, the sea must extend between Vinland and Markland..…

The last time we hear from the Greenlanders is within 20 years before Columbus set sail westward. By that time the Western Settlement had been abounded for over 150 years. The Middle Settlements farms had been abondoned before the monastery’s Annal was taken away in 1477.

On board one of the ships participating in Puthurst and Pinning’s sailing to Greenland from Iceland in 1477 were at least two persons close to Columbus. Columbus brother as well as Cortez-Real. It’s possible that Columbus himself was on board on one of the ships. There is a certain ‘Johan Scholvus’ in some contempary sources called Joan Colom, also in a handwritten source called Bonde who never been fully identified.

Well that’s not directly correct to say that the last time we hear about the Greenlanders is from Pothurst and Pinnings sailing to Greenland 1477, winddriven to mainland (!) south Greenland having to stay over winter, sailing home in 1478. We do have indirect information in sources for a contact in 1490’s as well as one in 1510’s. But there we only have indirect information from Papal documents. Not remaining source from sailings.

Greenlanders had large farms
and several churches

There have been a lot of misunderstanding and false assumptions re. the wealth of the Greenlanders over the years. The first two hundred years, the Greenlanders were wealthy men who farmed good land and had money enough to build several churches in the Western as well as in the Eastern Settlement. As Tomas McGovern wrote: ”The archaeological data indicate that the Norse Greenlanders did invest a great deal of their source resources in churchconstruction, and that the most powerful economic unit of the later Norse Greenland was the manor at Garðar.” [McGovern, page 222].

The Western Settlement was abounded twice. First there were a larger group of men and women on many ships who left the Western Settlement where the first Cathedral on Greenland just had been built.
This happened in 1121 short after the first known Christian dispute over the tithes. The Western Settlers had paid a lot to build churches, support the monastery almost up in Disco Bay area and they had also built a Cathedral for Greenland’s Bishop.
In 1121 Bishop Eirik looked after the See. A struggle between the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen and the new Norwegian Church center Nidaros had just started. Both wanted to have their share, the tithes, from the Greenlanders. There were also disputes over the Papal See and the Pope’s authority. Exactly why more than 1500 people left the Western Settlement together with Bishop Eirik we don’t know. We do know that at least one ship returned from North America. How? On board one of the ships to Vinland a young monk Nicholas, in Vatican documents called Nicholas of Thingeyre.

For a year or two Nicholas traveled along Vinland’s borders and being a cartographer as he was, he draw the first maps of the Vinland area. On his way to the Holy Land he presented the Norwegian King with one exemplar and the Pope had his other together with a lot of information about Greenland and Vinland. According to his writings from 1120’s Thorfinn Karlsefni short after Leif Eriksson’s return from the first expedition to America left for the new land. Nicholas said that Karlsefni found the land where it was supposed to be and that there are two other land south of Greenland ‘Helluland’ and ‘Markland’.[Nicholas av Thingeyres writing about Vinland to the Pope]. Nicholas returned to Iceland where he was born. In the documentation for the Order he belonged to it is said that he lived in the new monestry at Thingeyre up to his death 1159. We don’t know if Nicholas of Thingeyre is the same person we know as Nicholas Bergthorsson. While some of the secondary sources gives almost identical information regarding Markland and Vinland, other contempary sources gives Nicholas of Thingeyre’s origin to be the Brittish Isles.

Gardar See

By that time Greenland’s new Bishop had settled in the new built Bishop See at Gardar where the new Cathedral had been built in a style that wasn’t second to many in Europe. New farmers moved into the Western Settlement. Over the years their life became problematic because after December 1154 when Nidaros See became the Archbishop’s See for the bishoprics of Oslo, Hamar, Bergen, Stavanger, the Orkneys, the Sudreys, the Icelandic Islands, and Greenland, the abandoned land of Western Settlement was owned by the Papal Church via the See in Gardar. Others moved in. There still was productive land, good climate and good hunting. The price for ivory was high and Europe claimed all the codfish the Greenlanders could find in the sea, dry and transport to Bergen for further transport by boats from there. That we know from ship documents and harbor papers of Orkney Island as well as in England.

Garðar wasn’t only the See for Greenland. Gardar was also a big farm, the biggest in Greenland. The main house had a big hall, 131 m², and a 389 m² byre + a 353 m² barn and a storage of 361 m² close by.
Compare that with Brattalið where the hall was 66 m², the byre 127 m², the barn 105 m² and the storage 118 m². Some archaeologists assume that Gardar stored growth for the rest of the Greenlandic settlements. Gardar was also a major center for Greenland’s cattle production. ”If we combine these two ratio measures in common scalter plot….a separation of Garðar and the Brattalið sites from all others in the sample becomes apparent. These seem to be major centers of cattle production and goods storage out of all proportions to their proxy measure of consumption” [McGovern, page 215 ].

A church building and a graveyard – there are more church ruins and graveyards found both in Western and Eastern Greenland Settlements than we have been led to believe. At the peak of the Norse Greenland settlement some 3 000 to 5 000 persons lived there.
It’s time to look at some sites in Western Settlements. While the main hall in the Eastern Settlements is around 56 m² the same type of hall has a total mean value of 28 m², as for the total mean of Byres eastern Settlements 87 m² and 27 m² in the western Settlements, Barns in eastern S. had a total mean 85 m² and in Western Settlements the Barns had a total mean of 36 m² the storage mean values was lower in west as well. Lets look at two of the farms in the west Greenland Settlements: Sandnes(W51) Hall 72 m², Byre 84 m² and Barn 155 m²; and Anavik(W7) Hall ?, Byre 50 m², Barn 54 m² and Storage 38 m². [McGovern, Table 6 Floor-area of selected structures of farms of the Eastern and Western Settlements, page 213.] Which gives larger farms in Greenland than most farms in Scandinavia and Iceland in those days.

In fact the Norse settlers in Greenland settled almost everywhere they could find land for a farm, from Disco Bay in northern Western Settlements to the Eastern Settlements. ”The Norse settlements is grouped around the innerparts of the fjords and the inland between them”…..”The farms are situated at practically all of the suitable places, near rivers and lakes”……. ”The other densely settled area is situated on the large penisula that stretches between the Igalino Fjord and Lichtenan Fjord (Agdluitsup Lamgerdlua) out into Davis trait”……….”ca 40 farms have been found in this district”. [Jansen Henrik M, page 74 ]

”A part from a few isolated localities far south at Naujat in Fiskenæsfjorden and Eqaluitin Agdlumersat(where nodwellings have been found however), as well as a single farm at the head of Bulesefjord, the Norse Settlement in Western Settlements(Map II) is gathered quite closely around the innerbranches of Godthåbsfjord and Ameralik, as well as in the valleys that are connected with these fjords”. [Jansen Henrik, page 75.]
Those good days is shown in documents for the export from Greenland via Orkney Island respective Bergen (Norway) from 1100 and several hundred years on. As late as in 1390’s the Greenlanders exported hard cheese and butter (in saltwater ‘kegs’) to Queen Margaretha I queen of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.


Prime sources:
Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, book 4, Chapter 37-39
Bull of Pope Anastasius IV
Diplomatarium Danicum, serie 1, II, no 1
Diplomatarium Norvegicum band 10 nr 9
Diplomatarium Norvegicum band 4 nr 128
Diplomatarium Norvegicum band 7 nr 103
Diplomatarium Norvegicum band 9 nr 84
Diplomatarium Norwegicum bind 1 nr 66 and 67.
Diplomatarium Norvegicum bind 1 nr 71
Diplomatarium Norvegicum bind 6 nr 36.
Icelandic Annals 1342 written down in 1637 by Bishop Gisle Odds
Ivar Bardarson, Det gamle Grønlands beskrivelse af Ívar Bárðarson (Ivar Bårdssön), ed. Finnur Jónsson (København, 1930).
Nicholas Bergthorsson, Leidarvisir och borgaskipan
Nicholars of Thingeyres documents to the Papal See
Ordericus Vitalis, Historiske besetninger om Normanner og Angelsaxere fra Orderik Vitals kirkehistorie I-III. Edited in 1889

Arneborg J, Norbverne i Grönland 1988
Jansen Henrik M,A critical account of the written and archaeological sources’ evidence concerning the Norse settlements in Greenland, Meddelelser om Grönland 182:4, 1972
Mason Ronaldy, Great Lakes Archaeology, NY 1981
McGovern Thomas H., Bones, Building and Boundaries: Palaeoeconomic Approaches to Norse Greenland
Rousell A, Farms and churches in the Medieval Norse settlement of Greenland, Meddelelser of Grönland 86(1).
The Roman Church in Norse Greenland, editor G F Bigelow, ”The Norse of the North Atlantic, Acta Archaeologica 61(1991) page 142-150 Köpenhamn
© Johansson Inger E, Gothenburg August 2003 rev. 2014

3 Responses to Greenland history from Leif Eriksson to Ivar Bardson

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