jump to navigation
  • A Newland to the West of Iceland 1285? December 28, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    north atlantic history

    Those stray British, Scandinavian and Dutch references to exploration in the medieval northern Atlantic have frequently been set out on this blog: remember the inventio fortunatatae, or the incest island, brave bishop Erik or, for that matter, Vinland the Good?  Occasionally there is a hint that adventurers or, more typically, storm-driven sailors had stumbled into unusual coves, some of which were in the New World. Suddenly aftifacts like the Maine Penny become a little less controversial… Here, in any case, is a new record that has just swum onto Beach’s historical radar: a thirteenth-century discovery Newland and Downland. The Newland and Downland appear in the Icelandic Annals a late medieval complex of records that present many problems but that could have been contemporary for the 1280s and 1290s. (This is not the same as saying that they were…) The relative annals are as follows:

    1285 Discovery of Nyland, to the west of Iceland, Adelbrand and Thorvald, sons of Helge, discovered Nyland. Dunøerne discovered.

    1289 King Erik sent Rolf to Iceland to seek the new land

    1290 Rolf went around Iceland to encourage people for the Nyland voyage

    1295 Lande, Rolf died

    If anyone had access to the Norse we would love to put it up next to the English to add some science. Unfortunately Beach’s library doesn’t run to that great three volume nineteenth-century work and Italian public libraries can be unforgiving.

    Nyland here is, literally, Newland. It has been suggested that the annals above would be better rendered as newland (i.e. a description not a placename). So the first annal would be the discovery of a newland, to the west of Iceland… It is even conceviable that the second discovery, Dunøerne, the Island of Down (feathers) was newland? Never underestimate the ability of a chronicler abreviating history, to confuse later generations…

    Where the hell is Nyland/the newland? It should be to the west of Iceland, which is confusing as there are no islands in that region unless (that is by no means impossible) a volcano had created some temporary terra firma in the ocean. The Down Land might just be a coastal annex where it was possible to harvest vast amounts of eggs, feathers etc perhaps just some columns of rock in the ocean like Jan Mayer’s Island (that is though definitely in the wrong direction). It should be land that was not previously known. This makes the obvious New World candidates like Newfoundland and Labrador difficult, because they were certainly on the Greenlanders’ radar: can we assume easy knowledge in Iceland at this date? Was Newland an attempt to lay claim to Greenland ‘possessions’?

    Another explanation is that the Icelanders had discovered Greenland. This is, of course, silly as Greenland had long been known: indeed, for the best part of four hundred years. But the newland could have just been a part of the east coast of Greenland or some coastal annexes like those alluded to above. One of the Icelandic family of annals – the so-called Henrik Hoyer Annals has a reference to the sons of Helge visiting the uninhabited parts of Greenland. Again it would be wonderful to have Norse here! Then, if we are going to suggest Greenland, why not Icelandic coastal islands to the west, of which there are many. Perhaps one or two of these mattered because of some new economic opportunity. What on earth could have so excited Icelanders and, indeed, what news could have spread to Norway and have got King Erik involved? Even very good feathers doesn’t seem enough… Any suggestions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com This is one of these cases where Beach has not got the foggiest.

    29 Dec 2013: Wade wades in with useful contribution. Particularly found 1285 interesting even as a point of comparison. ‘Found a few posts about Nyland on this listserv archive: As many of you may already know, the Icelandic Annals ( published in Grønlands Historiske Mindesmærker Vol. III, Copenhagen 1845) has flw entries:1285: ” Discovery of land (Nyland (Newland)) west of Iceland. Adelbrand and Thorvald,sons of Helge discovered Nyland. unøerne ((Eider)Downislands) discovered.” (in note 35 Rafn suggests that Nyland be identical to New Foundland and that Cabot and co may have learned about it from English fishermen active in Icelandic waters. In note 36, Rafn suggests that the Dunøer may be identified as Baccalao and Penguin, two islands off the coast of NF. (?)’ It also seems a somewhat odd coincidence that the Pope approved the Swedish establishment of Nyland in Finland in 1285, so I learned in Googling about this topic.’ Thanks Wade!

    8 Jan 2014, Leif an old friend of the blog writes in: The following passages come from Fridtjof Nansen’s book. His passage on ‘Nyland’ is similar to your post– the best evidence points to Nyland lying somewhere on eastern coast of Greenland. But does note: ‘All this points to the east coast of Greenland having been little known at that time, otherwise a landing there could not be spoken of as the discovery of a new land.’ As for Finn magic, Nansen mentions two additional medieval sources, and an additional one from the sixteenth century.  This demonstrates that the association between the Sami and magic is historical. Thanks Leif!! There follows the extract from Nansen:

    In the Icelandic Annals it is mentioned (in various MSS.) that a new land was discovered west of Iceland in 1285. A MS. of annals, of about 1306 (written, that is, about twenty years after the event), says that in 1285: “fandz land vestr undan Islande” (a land was found to the west of Iceland). A later MS. (of about 1360) says of the same discovery: “Funduz Duneyiar” (the Down Islands were found). In another old MS. of annals there is an addition by a later hand: “fundu Helga synir nyia land Adalbrandr ok Þorvalldr” (Helge’s sons Adalbrand and Thorvald found the new land). Finally we read in a late copy of an old MS. of annals: “Helga synir sigldu i Grœnlandz obygðir”[259] (Helge’s sons sailed to the uninhabited regions of Greenland). According to this last statement, this would refer to the discovery of land on the east coast of Greenland, west of Iceland.[260] It may have been at Angmagsalik or farther south on the east coast that Helge’s sons—two Icelandic priests—landed.[261] In the late summer this part is usually free from ice. From other Icelandic notices it may be concluded that they returned to Iceland the same autumn. We see that some years later the Norwegian king Eric attempted to get together an expedition to this new land under the so-called Landa-Rolf, who was sent to Iceland for the purpose in 1289. In 1290 Rolf went about Iceland, inviting people to join the Newland expedition; but it is uncertain whether it ever came to anything, and in 1295 Landa-Rolf died. All this points to the east coast of Greenland having been little known at that time, otherwise a landing there could not be spoken of as the discovery of a new land; and it is not easy to see why the king should send Rolf to Iceland to get up an expedition to a country which, as they must have been aware, was closed by ice for the greater part of the year. As to the situation on this coast of islands to which the name of Down Islands might be appropriate, I shall not venture to offer an opinion.

    Alan L writes in, 25 Oct 2016 I’ve been re-reading some of your older posts, and I think that I may have found a clue to the location of the Down Island (or Islands, depending on the source). In my opinion, James Robert Enterline’s book “Viking America” is a bit nutty. But, like a fruitcake, it does contain the occasional cherry. In the New English Library hardback edition, one of these can be found in plate 13, which has the following caption: “Typical Norse arctic wild-duck house used to lure ducks into building down-lined nests, which the Norsemen then removed for down quilts. This and many others were found near the straits between Ellesmere and Baffin islands which lead westward to the central Arctic”. To me, this suggests that Devon Island and the southern part of Ellesmere Island were the Down Islands. Nyland may be Victoria Island or even the Canadian mainland. Hope that this is of some interest.