Christopher Columbus disovery of America


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Monks on discovery

Deutsche Version
St. Brendan stamp St. Brendan stamp The part of Irish monks in the history of the discovery of America was hardly considered. It is well-known that the faithful men came to Iceland during the Middle Ages. They had already reached the Orkney islands in the 6th century. It's also possible that they arrived, by regular travels or on erring ways, to Greenland or to the North American coast and reported about it after they returned.

Some remarkable information about an adventurous sailing by the holy Brendan is given in a narration which was recorded during the 10th century - the Navigatio Sancti Brendani abbatis. It was one of the best known books in the Middle Ages and had a lasting influence as well on cartography. Even on the first Earth globe created by Martin Behaim of Nuremberg in 1492, the year of Columbus's arrival in America, a large island in the Atlantic Ocean is shown with reference to the Brendan text.

St. Brendan was born around 484 in the Irish County of Kerry. He was one of the most important missionaries in Ireland and Wales and led several monasteries in his long lasting life. Brendan died in 577 or 578 as abbot of the monastery of Clonfert.

The monk started his journey over the sea to the west around the year 545. Together with 17 monks he sailed in a leather fisherman's boat, a curragh. According to the oldest preserved version Brendan wanted to arrive at the Promised Land of the holy ones, paradise, of which another monk had told him. Before they arrived there, the sailors must have overcome numerous dangers and adventures. Thus they passed at several purgatories, met some devils, came to an island, on which they found a constantly set desk, met the fallen angels, who lived on an island, and talked to the traitor Judas. Once they came to a wooded island, which emerged suddenly as a whale and moved away. After seven years the monks arrived at paradise, but they were not allowed to stay there and returned to Ireland.

St. Brendan The Navigatio is not a factual report: it served religious education. Middle Age literature or science did not describe things as they were. Even knowledge and perception were subjected to the authority of the Bible and had to accept its dogmas. That applied also to geography, obviously by the representation of the paradise on medieval maps.

But already in the 17th century some scholars believed that Brendan crossed the Atlantic. They had noticed that the story gives many exact geographical specifications. Thus some destinations of the monks, for instance the Faroer islands, could be identified. Also a volcanic eruption is described, which Irish monks could have seen at the south coast of Iceland. In an episode the monks discovered a crystal column, which was surrounded by a silvery network. Is this a note about an iceberg and luggage ice? The monks finally discovered the Promised Land at a coast completely covered by fog like Newfoundland. These details make probable a northern route of medieval Irish navigations. But also an adhesive sea is mentioned, in which the ships were stuck: That could be the Sargasso Sea with its driving carpets of berry seaweed. Details from different parts of the Atlantic may represent different information, which were used for the text.

Whether St. Brendan actually undertook an adventurous sailing journey will never be clarified. The text may have assimilated different experiences of mediaeval navigation. However there's proof that such a journey would have been possible at his time with the available technical means. The adventurer and writer Tim Severin followed the tracks of St. Brendan in the 70's in a reconstructed fisherman's boat and landed on June 26th 1977 on Peckford Island near Newfoundland.

Sources: St. Brendans wundersame Seefahrt. Herausgegeben, übertragen und mit einem Nachwort versehen von Gerhard E. Sollbach. Frankfurt/M. 1987
Ingo Hermann: Terra-X. Und dann kam Kolumbus. München 1992
John Smith: General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles. 1624
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