The Finding of Wineland the Good (1890)
by Arthur Middleton Reeves
Chapter 3: The Wineland History of the Flatey Book
by Anonymous, translated by Arthur Middleton Reeves



The Wineland History of the Flatey Book.

The Flatey Book [Flateyjarbók] is the most extensive and most perfect of Icelandic manuscripts. It is in itself a comprehensive historical library of the era with which it deals, and so considerable are its contents, that they fill upwards of 1700 large octavo pages of printed text[1]. On the title-page of the manuscript[2] we are informed, that it belonged originally to John Haconsson [Jon Hákonarson], for whom it was written by the priests John Thordsson [Jon Þóri^arson] and Magnus Thorhallsson [Magnus Þórhallsson]. We have no information concerning the date when the book was commenced by John Thordsson; but the most important portion of the work appears to have been completed in the year 1387[3], although additions were made to the body of the work by one of the original scribes[4], and the annals, appended to the book, brought down to the year 1394. Toward the close of the fifteenth century, the then owner of the book, whose name is unknown, inserted three quaternions of additional historical matter in the manuscript[5], to fill a hiatus in the historical sequence of the work, not, however, in that part of the manuscript which treats of Wineland.

It has been conjectured that the manuscript was written in the north of Iceland[6], but, according to the editors of the printed text, the facts are that the manuscript was owned in the west of Iceland as far back as we possess any knowledge of it, and there is no positive evidence where it was written[7] We have, indeed, no further particulars concerning the manuscript before the seventeenth century, when we find that it was in the possession of John Finsson [J on Finsson], who dwelt in Flatey in Breidafirth [Brei^afjörSr], as had his father, and his father’s father before him. That the book had been a family heirloom is evident from an entry made in the manuscript by this same John Finsson:

‘This book I, John Finsson, own; the gift of my deceased father’s father, John Biarnsson[8],’ &c.

From John Finsson the book descended to his nephew, John Torfason[9] from whom that worthy bibliophile. Bishop Bryniolf of Skálholt, sought, in vain, to purchase it, as is related in an anecdote in the bishop’s biography:

‘Farmer John of Flate}’, son of the Rev. Torfi Finsson, owned a large and massive parchment-book in ancient monachal writing, containing sagas of the Kings of Norway, and many others; and it is, therefore, commonly called Flatey Book[10]. This, Bishop Bryniolf endeavoured to purchase, first for money, and then for five hundreds of land. But he, nevertheless, failed to obtain it; however, when John bore him company, as he was leaving the island, he presented him the book; and it is said, that the Bishop rewarded him liberally for it[11]’

The Flatey Book was among a collection of vellum manuscripts intrusted to the care of Thormod Torfæus, in 1662, as a present from Bishop Br3’niolf to King Frederick the Third of Denmark, and thus luckily escaped the fate of others of the bishop’s literary treasures. In the Roj-al Library of Copenhagen it has ever since remained, where it is known as No. 1005, fol. of the Old Roj-al Collection.

Interpolated in the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason in the Flatey Book are two minor historical narratives. The first of these, in the order in which they appear in the manuscript, is called, a Short Story of Eric the Red [Þáttr Eireks Rau>a], the second, a Short Story of the Greenlanders [Grœnlendinga íÞáttr]. Although these short histories are not connected in any way in the manuscript, being indeed separated by over fifty columns of extraneous historical matter, they form, if brought together, what may be called, the Flatey Book version of the history of the Wineland discovery, — a version which varies materially from the accounts of the discovery, as they have been preserved elsewhere. Before considering these points of difference, it may be stated that, as we have no certain knowledge where the Flatey Book was written, neither have we any definite information concerning the original material from which the transcripts of these two narratives were made. The original manuscripts of these narratives would appear to have shared a common fate with the other originals from which the scribes of the Flatey Book compiled their work;—all of this vast congeries of early manuscripts has entirely disappeared. This is the conclusion reached by that eminent authority, the late Dr. Vigfusson[12], whose profound knowledge of the written literature of the North was supplemented in the present instance by that close acquaintance which he had gained with the Flatey Book, by reason of his having transcribed the entire manuscript for publication[13].

This total disappearance of all trace of the archetypes of the Flatey Book, although it is by no means the only case of the kind in the history of Icelandic paleography[14], is especially to be deplored in connection with the Wineland narrative, since it leaves us without a clue, which might aid us in arriving at a solution of certain enigmas which this narrative presents.

In the Flatey Book version of the discovery it is stated that Biarni Heriulfsson, during a voyage from Iceland to Greenland, having been driven to the southward out of his course, came upon unknown lands; that, following upon this, and as the direct result of Biarni’s reports of his discoveries, Leif Ericsson was moved to go in search of the strange lands which Biarni had seen but not explored; that he found these in due course, ‘ first that land which Biarni had seen last,’ and finally the southernmost land, to which, ‘ after its products,’ he gave the name of Wineland. This account differs entirely from the history contained in the other manuscripts which deal with this subject, all of which agree in ascribing the discoveiy to Leif Ericsson, and unite in the statement that he found Wineland accidentally, during a voj^age from Norway to Greenland, which he had undertaken at the instance of King Olaf Trj’ggx-ason, for the purpose of introducing Christianity to his fellow-countrymen in Greenland. Not only is Biarni’s discovery unknown to any other Icelandic writing now existing, but the man himself, as well as his daring voyage, have failed to find a chronicler elsewhere, although his father was ‘ a most distinguished man,’ the grandson of a ‘ settler,’ and a kinsman of the first Icelandic colonist.

The first portion of the Flatey Book version, the ‘ Short Story of Eric the Red,’ concludes with the words, ‘ Biarni now went to his father, gave up his voyaging, and remained with his father during Heriulf’s lifetime, and continued to dwell there after his father.’ The second portion of this version of the Wineland history, the ‘ Short Story of the Greenlanders,’ begins with the words, ‘ It is now next to this, that Biarni Heriulfsson came out from Greenland on a visit to Earl Eric,’ &c. As has already been stated, the two portions of the history of the Wineland discovery, as they appear in the Flatey Book, are not in any way connected with each other. The first narrative occupies its appropriate place in the account of the life of King Olaf Tryggvason, as do the other narratives, similar in character, which are introduced into this as into the other sagas in the manuscript, and there appears to be no reason why the second narrative, ‘ A Short Story of the Greenlanders,’ should be regarded as having received treatment different, in this respect, from other interpolated narratives of the same class. If, therefore, we interpret the opening words of this story of the Greenlanders, ‘ It is now next to this,’ to mean that the incident which follows is related next in chronological order after that part of the saga which has immediately preceded it, it becomes apparent that Biarni’s visit must have taken place after the battle of Svoldr, in which King Olaf Trygg’ason fell, and Earl Eric was victorious[15]. This battle took place on the gth of September, in the j-ear looo. As it is not probable that Biarni would have undertaken his voyage to Norway before the summer following, the earliest date which could reasonably be assigned for Biarni’s sojourn at the Earl’s court would appear to be the winter of the years 1001-1002[16]. We are told in the same place that Biarni returned to Greenland the following summer, and that subsequent to his return Leif purchased his ship, and went in search of the land which Biarni had seen, but had failed to explore, in the year 985, according to the chronology of the ‘ Short Story.’

Leif ‘s voyage of exploration, as described in the Flatey Book, could, therefore, scarcely have taken place before the year 1002[17] But, according to the other historical data already cited, Leif discovered Wineland during a voyage to Greenland, undertaken at the request, and during the lifetime, of King Olaf Tryggvason, hence obviously not later than the year 1000. The Flatey Book refers to this voyage in the following words: ‘ That same summer he [King Olaf Tryggvason] sent Gizur and Hialti to Iceland, as has already been written. At that time King Olaf sent Leif to Greenland to preach Christianity there. The King sent with him a priest and certain other holy men to baptize the folk, and teach them the true faith. Leif went to Greenland that summer and took [on board his vessel] a ship’s-crew of men, who were at the time in great peril upon a wreck. He arrived in Greenland late in the summer, and went home to his father, Eric, at Brattahlid. The people afterwards called him Leif the Lucky, but his father, Eric, said that Leif’s having rescued the crew and restored the men to life, might be balanced against the fact that he had brought the impostor to Greenland, so he called the priest. Nevertheless, through Leif’s advice and persuasion, Eric was baptized, and all of the people of Greenland[18].’

It will be observ^ed, that, in this record of Leif’s missionary voyage, no allusion is made to the discovery of Wineland, as in the other accounts of the same voyage, with which, in other respects, this passage agrees. By this variation a conflict with Biarni’s claim to the priority of discovery, previously promulgated in the ‘ Short Story of Eric the Red,’ is avoided. A portion of this passage may not, however, be so happily reconciled. It is said that, through Leif’s advice and persuasion, Eric the Red was baptized, while we find in the ‘ Short Story of the Greenlanders,’ the statement, that ‘ Eric the Red died before Christianity.’ Moreover we have, in the ‘ Short Story of the Greenlanders,’ in addition to this direct conflict of statement, an apparent repetition of the incident of the rescue of the shipwrecked mariners, when we are told that Leif effected a rescue of castaways on his return from a voyage of exploration to Wineland, and was therefore called Leif the Lucky. If this be not a repetition of the same incident, then we must conclude that Leif upon two different voyages saved the lives of a crew of ship-wrecked mariners, for which he twice received the same title from the same people! In the description of the rescue, contained in the ‘ Short Story of the Greenlanders,’ we read that the leader of the castaways was one Thori Easterling [Þórir austmaSr], whose wife, Gudrid, Thorbiorn’s daughter [GuSríír Þorbjarnardóttir], seems to have been among the rescued. This Thori is mentioned nowhere save in the Flatey Book. His wife was so famous a personage in Icelandic annals that it seems passing strange this spouse should have been so completely ignored by other Icelandic chronicles, which have not failed to record Gudrid’s marriage to Thorstein Ericsson, and subsequently to Thorfinn Karlsefni. Indeed, according to the biography of this ‘ most noble lady,’ as written in the Saga of Eric the Red, there is no place for Thori, for Gudrid is said to have come to Greenland in much less romantic fashion, namely, as an unmarried woman, in the same ship with, and under the protection of her father, Thorbiorn.

Another chronological error occurs in that paragraph of the ‘ Short Storj’ of Eric the Red,’ wherein it is stated that, ‘after sixteen winters had lapsed from the time when Eric the Red went to colonize Greenland, Leif, Eric’s son, sailed out from Greenland to Nonvay. He arrived in Drontheim in the autumn when King Olaf Tryggvason was come down from the North out of Halogaland.’ It has previously been stated in this same chronicle that Eric set out to colonize Greenland fifteen years before Christianity was legally adopted in Iceland, that is to say in the year 985. Whence it follows, from this chronology, that Leif’s voyage must have been undertaken in the year looi, but since Olaf Tryggvason was killed in the autumn of the year 1000, this is, from the context, manifestly impossible. If we may suppose that the scribe of the Flatey Book, by a careless verbal substitution, wrote ‘ for at byggja’ [went to colonize], instead of ‘for at leita’ [went in search of], the chronology of the narrative becomes reconcilable.

In the ‘ Short Story of the Greenlanders ‘ inaccuracies of lesser import occur, one of which, at least, appears to owe its origin to a clerical blunder. In the narrative of Freydis’ voyage, we are told, that she waited upon the brothers Helgi and Finnbogi, and persuaded them to join her in an expedition to Wineland; according to the text, however, she enters into an agreement governing the manning of their ships, not with them, but with Karlsefni. Yet it is obvious, from the context, that Karlsefni did not participate in the enterprise, nor does it appear that he had any interest whatsoever in the undertaking. The substitution of Karlsefni’s name for that of Helgi or Finnbogi, by a careless scribe, may have given rise to this lack of sequence. A blunder, which has crept into the genealogical list, at the conclusion of the history, ma}’, perhaps, owe its origin to a somewhat similar cause. In this list, it will be noted, Bishop Thorlak [i’orlákr] is called the grandson of Hallfrid [Hallfri&r], Snorri’s daughter; in the words of the manuscript, ‘Hallfrid was the name of the daughter of Snorri, Karlsefni’s son; she was the mother of Runolf [Runólfr], the father of Brshop Thorlak.’ Now Runolf was, indeed, the father of Bishop Thorlak, but he was the husband and not the son of Hallfrid. If we may suppose the heedless insertion of the word ‘mother’ in the place of ‘wife,’ the palpable error, as the text now stands would be removed. ‘

It has been conjectured that the Wineland History of the Flatey Book has been drawn from a more primitive source than the narrative of the discovery which has been preserved in the two manuscripts, Hauk’s Book and AM. 557, 4to[19] Two passages in the Flatey Book narrative lend a certain measure of plausibility to this conjecture. In the ‘Short Story of Eric the Red’ it is stated, that Eric called his land-fall in Greenland Midiokul [MibJ9kull], in the words of the history; ‘this is now called Blacksark [Bláserkr].’ In Hauk’s Book this mountain is also called Blacksark; in AM. 557 4to, it is called Whitesark [Hvitserkr]; neither of these manuscripts, however, recalls the earlier name. Again, in the list of the descendants of Snorri, Karlsefni’s Wineland-born son, appended to the ‘Short Stoiy of the Greenlanders,’ Bishop Brand is so called without qualification, while in both texts of the Saga of Eric the Red he is referred to as Bishop Brand the Elder [hin fyrri]. The second Bishop Brand ^vas ordamed m 1263[20]. This fact, while it would, without the other evidence which we possess, establish a date prior to which neither Hauk’s Book nor AM. 557, 4to, could have been written, seems, at the same time, to afford negative evidence in ‘support of the claim for the riper antiquity of the source from which the Flatey Book narrative was drawn. However this may be, the lapses already noted, together with the mtroduction of such incidents as that of the apparition of the big-eyed Gudrid to her namesake, Karlsefni’s spouse; the narrative of Freydis’ unpalliated treachery; the account of Wineland grapes which produced intoxication, and which apparently ripened at all seasons of the year, of honey-dew grass, and the like, all seem to point either to a deliberate or careless corruption of the primitive history. Nevertheless, despite the discrepancies existing between the account of the Wineland discovery, as it has been presented in the Flatey Book and as it is given elsewhere, so striking a parallelism is apparent in these different versions of this history, in the chief points of historical interest, as to point conclusively to their common origin. Í/

The two disjoined ‘accounts’ of the Flatey Book, which relate to the Wineland discovery, are brought together in the translation which follows.

  1. ‘Five pages or ten columns of it fill twenty-eight printed pages.’ Vigfusson, Preface to the Rolls Ed. ‘Icelandic Sagas,’ London, 1887, vol. i. p. xxvii.
  2. ‘The only title-page found in any Icelandic MS.’ Ibid. p. xxv.
  3. Cf. Storm, Islandske Annaler, Christiania, 1888, pp. xxxiv-xxxvi. This view, however, conflicts with the opinion held by others that this date should be 1380. Cf. Flateyjarbók, ed. Vigfusson and Unger, Christiania, 1860-68, vol. iii, Fortale, i-iii; Finnur Jónsson, Eddalieder, Halle, o. S., 1888, i. p. viii.
  4. Magnus Thorhallsson.
  5. Cf. Preface, Icelandic Sagas, ubi sup. vol. i. p. xxx.
  6. ‘Annales non in occidentali Islandia, sed potius aut Vididalstungae aut in monasterio Thingeyrensi [qui uterque locus in septentrionali Islandia situs est] scripti esse videntur.’ Islenzkir Annálar, Copenh. 1847, p. xv. This opinion is partially sanctioned by Storm, who suggests that Magnus’ predecessor probably had his home in the north of Iceland. Cf. Storm, Islandske Annaler, Christiania, 1888, p. xxxiv.
  7. Cf. Flateyjarbók, Fortale, ubi sup. p. vi. John Ilaconsson appears to have lived at one time in the north of Iceland at Víðidalstunga (cf. Safn til’sögu Islands, Copenh. 1861, vol. ii. p. 77), which in some measure may tend to confirm the view that the book originated in the north of Iceland.
  8. Ibid. p. iii.
  9. Cf. VigfusBon, Icelandic Sagas, ubi sup. vol. i. p. xxx.
  10. That is from Flatey [Flat Island], the home of the owners of the book.
  11. Cf. Vigfusson, ‘Prolegomena’ in Siuriunga Saga, Oxford, 1878, vol. i. p. cxliii, note i.
  12. He says: ‘ Though I believe I have had in my hands every scrap of the Old Norse or Icelandic vellum writing existing in Scandinavia, I have never been able to identify a scrap of the material they used, nay more, I never remember having found a line in the well-known hand of either John or Magnus, though it is not probable that the Flatey Book was their first or only work, so great has been the destruction of MSS. Again, there would have seemed great likelihood of the Flatey Book being much copied; it was easy to read, and very complete in its contents. Yet, with one exception, there is no vellum transcript of it, and the great book for some 250 years apparently lay unseen. The one exception is AM. 309 fol., which contains parts of Tryggwasson’s Saga, and gives its date thus: ” He was then king when the book %vas written, when there had passed from the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ 1387 years, but there be now gone at the time when this book is written 1498 years.”‘ Vigfusson, Pref. Icelandic Sagas, ubi sup. vol. i. p. xxix.
  13. Cf. Corpus Poeticum Boreale, Oxford, 1883, vol. i. p. xlix.
  14. Cf. e.g. Corp. Poet. Boreale, ubi sup. vol. i. p. xlii.
  15. Schöning, who adopted the narrative of the Flatey Book in his edition of Heimskringla, assigns the date of Biarni’s visit to the Earl to the year 988 or 989. With him, in this view, the editors of Grönlands historiske Mindesmærker seem inclined to agree, but the Flatey Book itself does not appear to furnish any support for this conjecture. Cf. Grönlands historiske Rlindcsmærker, Copenh. 1838, vol. i. pp. 266-7.
  16. Amgrimr Jónsson, in his Gronlandia, the earliest account of the Wineland discovery printed in Iceland, gives as the date of Biarni’s voyage the year 1002. Cf Gronlandia, Skálholt, 1688, ch. i..
  17. Munch, the eminent Norwegian historian, says looi. Concerning this date there may well be a diflference of opinion, but Munch, while accepting the Flatey Book’s account of Biarni’s discovery, fixes the date of it in the year 1000, a date which does not at all agree with the chronology afforded by the narrative itself. Cf. Munch, Det norske Folks Historic, Christiania, 1853, Part i. vol. ii. p. 461.
  18. Flateyjarbók, Christiania, 1860, vol. i. p. 448.
  19. Cf. IMaurer, ‘ Grönland im Jlittelalter,’ contained in Die zweite deutsche Nordpolarfahrt Leipsic 1873, vol. i. n. 2, p. 206.
  20. Cf. Biskupa tal á fslandi, in Safn til Sögu islands, Copenh. 1856, vol. i. p. 4.



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