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Document Number: AJ-060
Author:
Title: Papal Letters Concerning the Bishophric of Gardar in Greenland during the Fifteenth Century
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 70-74.
Pages/Illustrations: 7 / 0
Citable URL: www.americanjourneys.org/aj-060/

Author Note

The authors are Nicholas V, Pope of the Roman Catholic Church from 1447-1455, and Alexander VI, the Catholic Pope from 1493-1503. Each was concerned with the status of Christianity in Greenland. Nicholas V writes of an invasion of Greenland and consequent death of the European settlers. Alexander VI writes of Greenland’s growing isolation from the rest of the Christian world.

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). Adam of Bremen (see AJ-058) wrote the first datable description of any significant length in the 1070s. Two lengthy texts, known as the Vinland sagas, 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 Eric the Red, see AJ-056), give somewhat conflicting accounts of the events of 980-1030 A.D. 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 hotly debated, with candidates ranging as far south as Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Despite its rich archaeological record, L’Anse aux Meadows cannot be positively identified with any place mentioned in the documents.

Document Note

While no explicit mention is made of Norse expeditions to North America in either of these document, the texts provide clues on the fate of the Norse colonists in Greenland. They are taken from The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906).

Other Internet and Reference Sources

The Catholic Encyclopedia provides a biography of Pope Nicholas V at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11058a.htm and of Alexander VI at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01289a.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 Meadows 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 website intended for schools 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/ called “Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga” which contains photographs of the L’Anse aux Meadows site and artifacts unearthed there. The Museum of Natural History website also contains information on the history of Greenland’s early settlers at http://www.mnh.si.edu/vikings/voyage/subset/greenland/ history.html

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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