Was There A Lasting Colony?


The Vinland Map contains two statements that Bjarni (whose patronymic is not given) and Leif Eiriksson—who are named in this order twice overdiscovered Vinland in company. If this be fact, it is unrecorded in any surviving textual source for the voyage and must derive from an oral or written tradition otherwise lost.

The Vinland Map makes no verbal allusion to any of the other Norse voyages to America described in the two saga narratives. Its longer legend does, however, give some account of an event which is the subject of the latest reference to Vinland in the medieval Icelandic Annals, namely the voyage thitherward of Bishop Eirik Gnupsson early in the twelfth century. This episode has been interpreted by some modern historians as evidence of the survival of a Norse colony in America into this period.

An earlier voyage by Bishop Eirik, presumably from Norway or Iceland to Greenland, is recorded in the Lawman’s Annals under the year 1112, and in the annals for 1113 in the Flatey Book, a fourteenth-century compilation of the sagas. His name appears at the head of a list of the bishops at Gardar (the episcopal seat in Greenland), included in the twelfthcentury Icelandic work Rimbegla .

If Bishop Eirik did make a Vinland voyage (as the legend states) in the last year of Pope Paschal II, it must have been in 1117, since this Pope died in January, 1118, and the voyage was presumably made in the preceding summer. The point of departure, not named, was doubtless Greenland; and, according to the legend in the map, Bishop Eirik remained in Vinland for at least a year (“ longo tempore mansit estiuo et brumali ”) before returning to Greenland and thence—if we construe the text correctly—on to Europe under orders from his superiors, perhaps (since he was a papal legate) in consequence of the Pope’s death. There may have been two voyages, a first in 1117-18 and a second, on which the Bishop died, in 1121. We may, alternatively, suppose that there was only one voyage, that it was entered under the wrong year in the Annals. The version in the legend on the Vinland Map carries conviction because of its circumstantial character and the ecclesiastical expression of the date, in a form less liable to error in copying than a year number.

The purpose of the Bishop’s voyage recorded in the Annals under the year 1121 has been the subject of much historical debate. Was it made (as Fridtjof Nansen suggests) in search of a land whose very existence was doubtful, or (as supposed by Storm and Hermannsson) in search of one which was known to exist but the route to which, unfrequented for nearly a century, had been forgotten? Or did the Bishop sail by a familiar route to a land where Norse settlers still maintained themselves and needed the ministrations of the Church?

The discussion of this question has turned mainly on two issues: the precise sense of the Icelandic words leitadi and for at leita (here translated as “sought” and “went in search of”), and Bishop Eirik’s standing and duties. The best philological opinion, supported by the Icelandic scholarship of Gustav Storm, A. M. Reeves, and Hermannsson, holds that “the verb leita can, in this connection, only have the meaning ‘to search for something which is undetermined, or lost.’ ” If this be admitted, it follows that there could hardly have been a Norse colony surviving in Vinland and that the motive for the Bishop’s visit must have been evangelization of the heathen.

Previous writers have accepted the probability that Eirik did not return from his voyage of 1121; and Storm suggested that he never even found Vinland. If the evidence of the legend in the map be credited, the Bishop not only reached Vinland but also stayed there at least a year and returned safely with geographical information about the country, which he may have brought to Europe and from which the details given in the map legend were perhaps extracted. Here, then, we seem to have the latest information on Vinland which, so far as our knowledge goes, could have been derived from observation; if so, it was transmitted to Iceland within the age of written records, and perhaps to Europe. The bearing of these circumstances upon the compilation and preservation of the Vinland Map is evident, although (in the absence of collateral evidence) not precisely definable.

Whence the compiler of the map had his intelligence on Bishop Eirik Gnupsson we do not know. It is a fair guess (if no more) that its ultimate source, like that for the information on Bjarni, was Icelandic. However this may be, the map here, by supplementing and glossing a bald sentence in the Icelandic Annals, reinforces the conclusion that the voyages made to America in the early eleventh century had been without sequel. Barely a hundred years after these voyages, no Europeans were established in the westernmost lands of Norse discovery, and the sailing directions for navigation to these lands had been forgotten.

To Mr. Skelton’s opinion of the voyage of Bishop Eirik, Mr. Painter offers alternate speculations, “personal and sometimes hazardous,” which follow.