In around the year 1000, groups of Viking settlers from Iceland and Greenland visited the Atlantic coasts of North America in search of new lands to settle. The undertaking does not seem to have had a long duration and has left only modest archaeological traces; however, it was the subject of narratives, which later found results written in some Icelandic sagas and of which echoes are found in historiography and in Nordic encyclopedic literature. According to these stories, the lands that the settlers reached, more and more livable as we proceeded towards the south, were called Helluland , “The land of flat stones”, Markland , “The land of the woods”, and Vinland , «The land of wine».
The discovery of America”
This story is the oldest episode of what – with a very Eurocentric expression and with the odor of political impropriety – is commonly called the “discovery of America”. A circumscribed episode because it had no sequel, and whose memory was confined to the northern areas; and which therefore is considered completely unrelated to the new navigations that five hundred years later departed from the Mediterranean and Iberian area and produced the consequences known to all of us. When Columbus planned his trip – it is thought – he had no inkling of previous Icelandic experiences.
What the “Cronica universalis” reveals
Some inkling, in fact, he might have had. A surprising reference to “America” before the letter mentioned in the sagas has recently been identified in a work written in Milan around 1340. This is the so-called breaking latest news Universalis by the Dominican friar Galvano Fiamma, a vast and rather chaotic history of the world that was to extend from creation to the time of the author, but which was interrupted long before Christ, at the time of the twelfth king of Israel. Inside the breaking latest news Galvano inserts a long geographical digression, aimed at demonstrating that it is possible for the human species to live even outside the temperate area. The supporting pieces used by the author for this demonstration are generally the authorities bookish books of late ancient and medieval geography, such as Solino and Isidoro.
But when he goes on to talk about the lands of the far north he instead turns to an openly oral source: «The sailors who sail the seas of Denmark and Norway say that beyond Norway, towards the north, is Iceland. Further on there is an island called Greenland …; and beyond, to the west, there is a land called Marckalada. The inhabitants of this land are giants: there are buildings of stones so large that no man would be able to put them in place, if not very large giants. Green trees grow there and many animals and birds live. But no sailor has ever been able to know with certainty news about this land and its characteristics ».
The link with the Nordic sagas
The Marckalada of Galvano – a flourishing, intimidating and mysterious land, which exists but of which little or nothing can be known – is evidently the Markland of which the Nordic sagas spoke: the same name, with the normal graphic variations to which an unusual geographical term is subject; the same location west of Greenland; the description is similar, which cumulatively unites various traits ascribed by the sagas to one or the other of the ultra-Atlantic lands. But in other points of the work Galvano also appears very informed about Greenland, equally unknown in fourteenth-century Italy: it is so far north that the Polar Star remains behind; the inhabitants do not practice agriculture and eat meat and fish; it is governed by a bishop; large hawks live there, in great demand on the market, but difficult to export: the journey is difficult and dangerous, and the ships arrive so battered that they often cannot leave.