Despite pervasive myths, Cristopher Columbus was not the first European to discover and explore North America. We know from the Sagas of Icelanders, confirmed by archaeological evidence, that Vikings traveled from Scandinavia to Newfoundland via Greenland from around 999 AD. Some more informed Europeans, including perhaps Columbus himself, weren’t oblivious to this fact.
In a new study, Paolo Chiesa of the department of literary studies at the University of Milan has documented the first written mention of America in the Mediterranean area. The researcher was stunned to come across a reference to a “terra que dicitur Marckalada,” found west from Greenland, in the work called Cronica universalis written by the Milanese friar Galvaneus Flamma in 1345.
“Galvaneus’s reference, probably derived by oral sources heard in Genoa, is the first mention of the American continent in the Mediterranean region, and gives evidence of the circulation (out of the Nordic area and 150 years before Columbus) of narratives about lands beyond Greenland,” Chiesa wrote in the study published in the Journal of the Society for the History of Discoveries.
Marckalada refers to Markland, the name Icelandic sources give to a part of the Atlantic coast of North America. The mention of Markland occurs in the third book, which discusses the third age of humankind from Abraham to David. At one point, the Middle Age author “inserts a long geographical excursus, mainly dealing with exotic areas: the Far East, Arctic lands, Oceanic islands, Africa,” Chiesa says.
In his texts, the Milanese friar employs a variety of sources, ranging from biblical to scholarly treatises, including the accounts of travelers the likes of Marco Polo and Odoric of Pordenone. Galvaneus ascribed his description of Markland to the oral testimony of sailors who traveled the seas of Denmark and Norway, which was most likely passed down to the friar by seafarers in Genoa. The port of Genoa was the nearest to Milan and was the city where the medieval scholar studied for his doctorate.
The full-text mentioning Markland, what we now know as North America, was translated from Latin to English and reads as follows:
“Further northwards there is the Ocean, a sea with many islands where a great quantity of peregrine falcons and gyrfalcons live. These islands are located so far north that the Polar Star remains behind you, toward the south. Sailors who frequent the seas of Denmark and Norway say that northwards, beyond Norway, there is Iceland; further ahead there is an island named Grolandia, where the Polar Star remains behind you, toward the south. The governor of this island is a bishop. In this land, there is neither wheat nor wine nor fruit; people live on milk, meat, and fish. They dwell in subterranean houses and do not venture to speak loudly or to make any noise, for fear that wild animals hear and devour them. There live huge white bears, which swim in the sea and bring shipwrecked sailors to the shore. There live white falcons capable of great flights, which are sent to the emperor of Katai. Further westwards there is another land, named Marckalada, where giants live; in this land, there are buildings with such huge slabs of stone that nobody could build with them, except huge giants. There are also green trees, animals and a great quantity of birds. However, no sailor was ever able to know anything for sure about this land or about its features.“
“From all these facts it is clear that there are settlements at the Arctic pole.”
The mentions of America are vague compared to those of Iceland and Greenland and even involves myth and hyperbole such as the land “where giants live”. This mention is likely owed to Galvaneus’ second-hand sources. For instance, Chiesa mentions in the study that the “huge stones” reference may recall the description of Helluland in the Eiríks saga rauða and in the Grœnlendinga Saga, which mention that Thorfinn Karlsefni “found many slabs of stones so huge that two men could stretch out on them sole to sole.” Giants are also common in Old Norse epic traditions.
Even the fact that the friar knew about Greenland in such stunning detail, a region that was very obscure to most 14th-century people living in south-central Europe, is very remarkable.
“Although the papal curia was aware of the existence of Greenland since the eleventh century, Galvaneus is the first to give some information about its features in the Italian area, and, more generally, in a Latin “scientific” and encyclopedic work, as his Cronica universalis claims to be,” the study mentions.
Columbus himself was a Genoese and these amazing descriptions may explain why the explorer was so daring in his plan to set off across the ocean when most of his contemporaries found the idea mad. Perhaps Columbus, like Galvaneus, was connected to sources that informed him that an entire continent may be found if he just sailed far enough west.
This article originally appeared in 2021.