Did Columbus & Europe know about Vinland Before 1492?

Bradley Gearhart
9 min readJul 6, 2020

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Many know of Leif Erikson’s discovery of Continental America in 1000 AD and everyone knows about Christopher Columbus and his discovery in 1492 but the question is — did Columbus, or if the larger picture is observed, did Europe know about Leif’s discovery of the new world before 1492?

(To watch a video version of this essay, click here.)

The L’Anse aux Meadows settlement in Newfoundland, Canada is the only archeological proof we have of the Norse in America. It is usually regarded as the land where Leif Erikson first stepped foot into the new world — the place he called Vinland. L’Anse aux Meadows is frequently thought of as the only Norse Settlement on the continent. Of course, there is no knowing for sure, but it would not be a ridiculous presumption that they explored and settled in other areas of coastal North America as well.

Another mystery is how long the Norse stayed in America. According to new Radiocarbon data we know it is possible the Norse stayed for, at most, an entire century at L’Anse aux Meadows. But of course, it is also possible it was only settled for a few years.

An Icelandic Document states that in 1347 a ship sailed away from Markland bringing timber with them. These sailers eventually made their way back to Iceland. Markland is one of the areas Leif Erikson named in the new world. Although now Markland is thought to have been on the coast of Labrador — it is unclear if what these sailors called Markland is the same land that Leif named.

After this, it’s very unlikely there were any inhabited European settlements in America. There are a few factors that may have kept the Norse out. One would be possible conflicts with natives, who had their own settlements on the coast.

Another popular theory has to do with climate. Around the year 1000 or 1100, the medieval warm period was ending and the onset of the Little Ice Age began. It was at this point more difficult for any settler to survive on land but it would be an even more strenuous struggle to sail through the North Atlantic. Along with the Little Ice Age, the ocean continued to grow colder and colder. Ice became more and more of an obstacle until it was completely obstructing the way of sailors.

A great example of the effects of the Little Ice Age can be seen through the Norse decolonization of Greenland. In the 1350s, the Norse abandoned the western settlement of Greenland and by the early 1400s, there is no written or archeological evidence of Norse Greenlanders. It is not hard to imagine this could have happened to the very few Norse Americans much sooner than the Norse Greenlanders.

Besides, an important question to ask is what was so important to the Norse in this land further west? Somewhere so cold and so far away from Europe? Surely it was not too long until a number of Scandinavians knew about Leif Erikson’s discovery. But at the time this was not something to get too excited over. The settlements of Greenland were isolated, bleak, tiny, scarce, and often unsuccessful. Why would locations even further west be any different? The Scandinavians could have seen ventures in Vinland as another waste of time and resources. There was more opportunity for settlement, trading, and raiding in parts of Europe.

A portrait of Adam of Bremen

The oldest surviving writing of this world the Norse discovered is not from Scandinavia but from Saxony by a Chronicler by the name of Adam of Bremen (?-1085). Adam wrote of this land for the first time in 1075 in his book titled Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg. In chapter 39, he reported on his findings when he was at the Danish court with King Sweyn Estridsen (r.1047–1076).

“He also told me that many in this part of the Ocean have discovered an island called Vinland because there are grapevines growing wild which produces the best of wines. From trustworthy Danes rather than from fantastic tales, I also have heard that there is an abundance of cereal which is self-sown. Beyond this island, he (King Sven of Denmark) says, are no more inhabitable islands in the Ocean. Everything farther out is covered by immense masses of ice and perennial fog.“

Here it is evident that this new finding was hardly relevant. Although Adam mentions some positive features of the land, It was still just a distant island in the far depths of the world. Nobody showed any interest in continued exploration.

Many historians point out how Adam of Bremen may have confused the readers of the time. He spells Vinland in Latin the same way he spells Wendland (a separate land on the coast of the Baltic Sea) in Latin. He also confuses what Leif Erikson called Helluland with the northern part of Norway called Halogaland. Adam causes a lot of trouble for future chroniclers and geographers.

And Early in the 14th century, a geographic encyclopedia or Geographica Universalis was written in Malmesbury, England. And this source used the writings of Adam of Bremen. It placed what it is now calling, Wintland or Windland, east of Norway.

Polychronicon by Ranulf Higden

Another mention of the Norse settlement came from an English monk and chronicler by the name of Ranulf Higden (1280–1364) from around 1342. Higden’s book was titled Polychronicon and he decided to place this Windland west of Denmark beside Iceland.

The information on this discovered land continues to become even more confusing.

In both of these previously mentioned 14th century sources, they mention that Windland’s natives can control and sell knotted-up wind to sailors so that when they were in a hurry they could untie the wind and this would somehow release it and allow their ship to go faster. Especially thanks to the misrepresentation and confusion of these last two sources, Europe probably did not think much of this land at all.

The only surviving map of pre-Columbian America is the famous Vinland Map which appears to be a map from the 1440s. But something that most people do not know is that the map is full of controversies. Too many to cover in this article. To this day, the map is not known to be real or a fraud.

The Vinland Map

If Vinland was common or even obscure knowledge in Europe in at least the mid-1300s, is it possible that Columbus knew about it?

A portrait of Ferdinand Columbus

Christopher Columbus’s son, Ferdinand (1488–1539), wrote a biography on his father. By the late 1500s, it became very popular. In it, Ferdinand included a short paragraph written by his father himself which tells of a rather obscure fact about Columbus. Columbus mentions a voyage to Iceland.

To understand Colombus’s quote, it is necessary to understand some context.

In May 1476 Columbus would have been a young man and this is when he took part in a convoy which carried cargo from Genoa to the British Isles. Supposedly he landed in Bristol, England first and later he went to Galway, Ireland. We know he left Galway in the Autumn of 1477. Somewhere in between his arrival in England and his departure from Ireland Columbus writes about sailing past Thule, which was a name for Iceland at the time.

This is the small reference we have of this incident:

“In the month of February, 1477, I sailed one hundred leagues beyond the island of Thule, whose southern part is in latitude 73 degrees north, and not 63 degrees as some affirm: nor does it lie upon the meridian where Ptolemy says the West begins, but much further west. And to this island, which is as big as England, the English come with their wares, especially from Bristol. When I was there, the sea was not frozen, but the tides were so great that in some places they rose twenty-six fathoms and fell as much in depth.”

Sadly, there is no real consensus on whether this is what really happened or not. There is actually a lot of evidence pointing to the contrary.

Many historians claim that Columbus never went to Iceland and this is an attempt to lie and brag about his seafaring experience. And if Columbus did not lie about this, surely his son did — this is the viewpoint of most modern Italian scholars. The Scandinavian scholars, on the other hand, tend to believe in Columbus’s voyage to Iceland and that this voyage was specifically to learn about the sagas and the journey of Leif Erikson. This is not an impossible event but it would be strange especially considering that there is no written evidence of Columbus actually being on the island — only his own written source of him sailing past it.

There’s an interesting theory that Scandinavian scholars like to throw around. If it is true that Columbus spent time in Iceland to learn of Vinland to the west, it is possible that because of the proximity between Iceland and North America is so little — he took advice from the Icelanders and thought that if he was going west, he would hit land at approximately the same place Erikson did. Columbus traveled to America much further south than Erikson, so the proximity between the two continents was much further than Columbus predicted. Could his prediction of a short voyage to Asia be because of information about the proximity between Iceland and Vinland?

Many also point out that this is the only reference of Columbus ever going to Iceland. And later, strangely enough, he even seems to indicate that he’s never been there. On his first voyage to the New World in 1492, he writes that he has traveled the entire Mediterranean and has traveled as far south as Guinea and as far north as England. If he traveled further north than England, why wouldn’t he include this in a letter where he is so obviously bragging about his naval skills?

At this point in time, it is unknown how much Columbus knew about this land. It is true that Europe did in fact know of something vaguely resembling Vinland before Columbus discovered America but clearly they did not think too much of it.

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Bradley Gearhart

BA in history, philosophy, & European studies. Interested in intellectual history, historical anthropology, identity, culture, and existentialism.