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Document Number: AJ-058
Author: Adam of Bremen
Title: From Adam of Bremen's Descriptio Insularum Aquilonis
Source: Olson, Julius E. and Edward G. Bourne (editors). The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503: The Voyages of the Northmen; The Voyages of Columbus and of John Cabot. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906). Pages 67-68.
Pages/Illustrations: 3 / 0
Citable URL: www.americanjourneys.org/aj-058/

Author Note

Adam of Bremen, a church cleric, appended the Descriptio insularum aquilonis or Description of the Northern Islands, to his history of the church in the see of Hamburg and its work in bringing Christianity to Northern Europe, which written between 1072 and 1081 in Bremen, Germany. Adam based the excerpt shown here on accounts by the Danish King, Svein II Estridsson.

Norse Expeditions, circa 1000

By the tenth century, Norwegian settlers had migrated from island to island across the North Atlantic, settling first in Iceland, then in Greenland, and lastly in Canada. Archaeological evidence shows that about 1000 A.D. mariners from Greenland built a village at L'Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland. The first documentary evidence of Norse contact with lands west of Greenland is a brief mention written around 1130 A.D. in the Islendiga-bok (AJ-059). Two lengthy texts were written down between 1200 and 1300 A.D. but are thought to reflect earlier oral traditions. The Groenlandinga saga (AJ-057), and Eiríks saga rauda (The Saga of Erik the Red, see AJ-056) give somewhat conflicting accounts of the events of 980-1030 A.D. The last datable mention of Norse colony on the American mainland is to events that occurred in 1161 A.D., although indirect references are made in slightly later documents such as AJ-060. Scholars suspect that climatic change may have doomed the Vikings’ Western settlements; steadily falling temperatures throughout the region after 1200 A.D. would have shortened both the navigation and growing seasons in Arctic Canada. By the 1500s, Greenland also was empty of Norse settlers and mariners.

Scholars generally believe that the Helluland of these documents is Baffin Island and that Markland was somewhere on the coast of Labrador. The possible locations of Vinland, Leifsbudir, Straumsfjord, and other places named in the texts are still debated, with candidates ranging as far south as Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Document Note

The Descriptio insularum aquilonis contains the earliest mention of North America in a geographical treatise and it provides a further description of Vinland as an island. As a whole, Adam’s geographical account provides the chief source of knowledge about Scandinavia until the thirteenth century. The translations given here is from The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906).

Other Internet and Reference Sources

The Catholic Encyclopedia had a biography of Adam of Bremen at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01132c.htm

The National Library of Canada maintains a site at http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/history/24/h24-1210-e.html with information on the Vikings excursions to North America.

The Parks Canada website for the National Historic site of L’Anse aux Meadow at http://parkscanada.pch.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/nl/meadows/index_E.asp contains useful background information on the history of Norse exploration where you can learn more.

The Viking Network, at http://viking.no/e/ewww.htm maintains a Web site that provides maps, background information, and data about the literary and archaeological evidence of Norse settlement in North America.

The Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History offers an online exhibit at http://www.mnh.si.edu/vikings/http://www.mnh.si.edu/vikings/ called ‘Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga” which contains photographs of the L’Anse aux Meadows site and artifacts unearthed there.

Librarian Steve Smith maintains “VNLND: The Online Bibliography, Materials On & About the Norse Discovery of North America” at http://www.vnlnd.net/ which not only lists additional sources but also describes their history and contents in some detail.

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