Vinland

Vinland, the wooded land (or wine-land) in North America was visited and named by Leif Eriksson about the year ad 1000. Its exact location is not known, but it was probably somewhere along the Atlantic coastline of what is now eastern or northeastern Canada.

The most detailed information about the Vikings’ visits to Vinland is contained in two Norse sagas, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red. In 1004 (or 1010) Thorfinn Karlsefni, encouraged by Thorvald’s reports of grapes growing wild in Vinland, led a colonizing expedition of about 130 people (or 65, according to one saga) to Vinland. By the time they had stayed there three years, the colonists’ trade with the local Native Americans (First Nations) had turned to warfare, and so the colonists gave up and returned to Greenland. About 1013 Erik the Red’s daughter Freydis led an unsuccessful expedition to Vinland and soon afterward returned to Greenland. So ended the Norse visits to the Americas as far as the historical record is concerned.

First visit of Vinland

 

The oldest surviving written record of Vinland appears in Descriptio insularum Aquilonis, by Adam of Bremen, a German (Saxon) geographer and historian, written in about 1075. To write it he visited the Danish king Svend Estridsen, who had knowledge of the northern lands and told him of the “islands” discovered by Norse sailors far out in the Atlantic, of which Vinland was the most remote. Adam became confused between Helluland and Halagland, the northernmost part of medieval Norway, where the “midnight sun” is visible. He also spelled Vinland in Latin the same as Wendland, the Polish province closest to Denmark.

The Norsemen’s name for the land they discovered, Vinland, means “Wine Land.” Thorfinn reported that he found “wine berries” growing there, and these were later interpreted to mean grapes, though the Norsemen referred to any berry as a “wine berry,” and it is probable that they had actually come upon cranberries. This fruit evidently proved disappointing to Thorfinn’s colonists, for when they became disgruntled during the third year of the colonizing expedition, they made a grievance out of not having seen much of the wine banquets that had been promised them.

Another interpretation of the name Vinland, quite popular in the late 20th century, is that the first element is not vín (with a slightly lengthened vowel sound) but vin (with a short sound), an Old Norse word with the meaning “meadow, pasture”. (Proto-Norse winju.) Vin is a common name on old farms from Norse times in Norway, and present-day use of the word are Bjørgvin, the Norse (and Icelandic) name of Bergen, and Granvin, where -vin translates as “pasture” in both. A poetic Norse name of the Danish island of Sjælland (Zealand) was Viney ‘pasture island’. A cognate name also existed in Old English (Anglo-Saxon), in the name of the village Woolland in Dorset, England: this was written “Winlande” in the 1086 Domesday Book, and it is interpreted as “meadow land” or “pasture land”. Linguistics scholars demonstrated that, even as a suffix, this peculiar usage of vin had ceased long before the colonization of Iceland and Greenland.

Sixteenth century Icelanders realised that the “New World” which European geographers were calling “America” was the land described in their Vinland Sagas. The Skálholt Map, drawn in 1570 or 1590 but surviving only through later copies, shows Promontorium Winlandiae (“promontory/cape/foreland of Vinland”) as a narrow cape with its northern tip at the same latitude as southern Ireland. (The scales of degrees in the map margins are inaccurate.) This effective identification of northern Newfoundland with the northern tip of Vinland was taken up by later Scandinavian scholars such as bishop Hans Resen.