The stories of female explorers go way back in time, as far as 1000 years. Take Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, for example. She was a famous Icelandic explorer, born in the year 980. The fact that she lived such a long time ago sadly leads to us not knowing all the facts about Gudrid, nicknamed ‘the well-traveled’ and ‘the compassionate traveler’. But if you want to know more about Gudrid’s life, read on!
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10 facts about Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir you need to know
1. She was born and raised in Iceland
2. She left Iceland with her father because of a marriage proposal
When she was only 15 years old, her father, chieftain Thorbjorn of Laugarbrekka, received a marriage proposal for her. The suitor, Einar, may have been a good young man for all we know, but it was said that his father was a slave. Theirs would have been a connection unacceptable to Thorbjorn, so he decided to take his daughter, leave Iceland, and sail for Greenland. What may seem like an overreaction started Gudrid’s life of adventures. Sailing to North America in a longship, 500 years before Christopher Columbus, must have been quite the adventure.
3. There are two version of her life
Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir’s name appears in two famous Viking sagas: The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders (together they are the Vinland Sagas). In both sagas, certain elements of her life remain the same, while others differ. Both sagas were written in the early thirteenth century and are based on oral history, which may be the reason why there are certain contradictions between the two sagas. The main difference is that in the Saga of the Greenlanders, Gudrid was wealthy, while in The Saga of Erik the red she was poor.
4. She traveled To Meet Famous viking Erik the Red
Erik Thorvaldsson, known as Erik the Red due to the color of his hair and beard, was a famous Viking explorer. He’s credited with founding the first settlements in Greenland.
After the improper (in the eyes of Gudrid’s father) marriage proposal, both Gudrid and Thorbjorn of Laugarbrekka sailed west, to Greenland, to accompany Erik the Red. 15 people are said to have died on the voyage from an illness. It was a dangerous journey in rough waters, and the party was shipwrecked. Leif Erikson, Erik the Red’s son, rescued the surviving fifteen, though no more details are known as to the circumstances.
5. She May Have already Been married when she left Iceland
Another story claims that Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir was already married to Thorir, a Norwegian merchant, when she went on the long voyage to Greenland. This seems to be one of the contradictions between the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. After Leif Erikson rescued Gudrid and Thorir, he brought them safely to Brattahlíð, the Eastern Settlement Viking colony Erik the Red established in south-western Greenland. Thorir died in the winter after their arrival due to illness.
6. She Married (or re-married) in Greenland
After the death of her first husband (or simply after her arrival in Greenland, depending on which saga you want to believe) Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir married Thorstein Eriksson, son of Erik the Red and younger brother to Leif Eriksson, who rescued her after the shipwreck.
Together the young couple set out on a mission to retrieve Thorstein’s brother’s body from Vinland (an area of coastal North America). They failed to reach Vinland (literally: wine land) and spent the winter in a Western settlement of Greenland, called Lysufjord, but the group of people living there was struck by illness and Thorstein died.
7. She returned to Brattahlíð and married again
After the death of her husband Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir returned to Brattahlíð, where she eventually got married again. Thorfinn Karlsefni was a merchant from a good family, with a good reputation and ample funds to provide for his new wife. Gudrid convinced him to travel to Vinland and start a settlement there, along with 60 men and five women. They lived in Vinland for three years. Gudrid gave birth to a son, Snorri Thorfinsson, who was the first child of European descent born in the Western Hemisphere.
8. She returned to Iceland
Due to hostilities with the indigenous people, the family decided to move back to Iceland. After a detour through Norway, they settled in Seyluhreppur, Iceland, on a farm. Thorfinn passed away, and Gudrid decided to convert to Christianity. When Snorri was married and well cared for, Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir went on a pilgrimage to Rome. She walked almost the entire way. It is said that she even met the pope.
9. She became a nun
Upon her return from Rome, and after outliving three husbands, Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir became a nun. She founded several nunneries, and spent her last years living in a church that Snorri had built.
10. She has has been called the most traveled woman of the Middle Ages
Remember that back in those days, traveling wasn’t as easy as hopping on a plane for a few hours. Those were long, perilous journeys, and the travelers endured incredible hardships. A woman’s place in those was commonly at home, running the household. Traveling not just to Norway and Rome, but sailing to the New World, was extraordinary. Therefore it is safe to say that Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir was one of the, if not the most traveled woman of the middle ages.
Jenny grew up in Germany. All she ever wanted out of life was to leave and have adventures. Jenny always traveled as much as the budget would allow, and when she met her husband traveling became a full-time thing. You can follow Jenny on her blog and Facebook.