Several Irish Christian anchorites (holy-men seeking seclusion from society) reportedly discovered and lived in Iceland before the arrival of Norse settlers from Scandinavia. As questions like “which nation arrived first?” and “which religion was here first?” can inspire nationalistic and theological biases, the existence of such anchorites on Iceland remains hotly debated to this day. Some scholars want to entirely disregard written sources about the Irish anchorites in Iceland until archaeological evidence is found. Other scholars take a more literalist approach and want to blindly believe written records unless archaeology proves the sources wrong. Here, however, we will take a neutral stance and present the earliest written evidence behind the idea that Irish anchorites were present on Iceland, doing this simply for public awareness and intellectual entertainment—the metaphorical “food for thought.”
It is believed that the earliest person to claim that Irish hermits had set up camp in Iceland was the Irish monk, Dicuil, who published a text called Concerning the Measurement of the World in the year 825. In the work, Dicuil claimed that three Irish anchorites sailed to the mysterious island of “Thule” around 795. The so-called island of Thule has a history stretching back to the 4th century BCE, when the Greek explorer, Pytheas, found a large landmass (which he named Thule) after having sailed for nearly a week out into the sea off the northern coast of the British Isles. The identity of Pytheas’ Thule is still debated—many believe the explorer found Iceland, yet others think he may have reached Norway, instead.
It is unsurprising that we are not in agreement on the location of Thule, as even the ancients did not seem to know exactly where to find Pytheas’ Thule. By the time Julius Agricola was the Roman governor in Britannia (r. 77-84 CE), his fleet apparently believed Shetland was Thule. With multiple islands being called Thule by various authors, modern scholars have a difficult task of using the geographical description and latitude information to differentiate the regions. In the case of the 9th-century monk, Dicuil, his description of Thule has convinced many that he was referring to Iceland. The renowned Icelandic scholar and translator, Hermann Pálsson made mention of Dicuil in the introduction of his translation of The Book of Settlements. On Dicuil’s Thule, Hermann Pálsson confidently wrote, “The latitude he assigns to ‘Thule’ makes it certain that this must have been Iceland” (Pálsson, Landnámabók introduction, 1972, reprint 2006).
Another source from outside of Iceland is the Historia Norvegiae (History of Norway), an anonymous work that is believed to have been written in the 12th century. In that text, monkish figures called “Papae” were said to have lived on islands scattered around the British Isles before the arrival of Norse settlers. The anonymous author explained the title given to the religious figures by stating, “the Papae have been named from their white robes, which they wore like priests; whence priests are all called papae in the Teutonic tongue” (trans. A. O. Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, vol. I, 330-2). The author of the Historia Norvegiae did not specifically mention Iceland as a destination of these so-called papae, yet if they were sailing to places such as the Orkney Islands, who is to say that they did not keep sailing farther out.
Although the Historia Norvegiae did not connect the Papae to Iceland, another 12th-century writer did make that connection. Ari Thorgilsson the Learned (c. 1068-1148) was the first known historian of Iceland to write in the Icelandic vernacular and he claimed that when Norwegian settlers first arrived in Iceland, they found a few Irish monks already present on the island. This claim was first written in Ari’s text, the Book of Icelanders (Islendingabók). The assertion was later repeated in the Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), of which Ari the Learned is thought to have been a major contributor or original author. The Book of Settlements became a generational affair, with numerous versions being produced over the centuries and additional information included in each new edition.
There are five existent versions of the Book of Settlements, the oldest of which is the Stulubók (produced c. 1275-1280). The Stulubók and the Islendingabók have a nearly identical passage about the existence of Irish monks in Iceland before the arrival of Scandinavian settlers. Sturla Thordarson, the author of the Sturlubók, wrote, “before Iceland was settled from Norway there were other people there, called Papar by the Norwegians. They were Christians and were thought to have come overseas from the west, because people found Irish books, bells, croziers, and lots of other things, so it was clear they must have been Irish” (Sturlubók, chapter 1, trans. Hermann Pálsson, 1976, 2006). Ari Thorgilsson’s earlier account matched that of Sturla Thordarson except that Ari also claimed that the Christian monks left Iceland after the arrival of the Norse settlers. Ari the Learned was also slightly less committal to the monks’ origin—whereas Sturla claimed it was “clear” that the monks were Irish, Ari wrote “one could perceive” the monks of having an Irish origin based off of the evidence left behind (the books, bells, croziers, etc…). Although the Book of Settlements and the Book of Icelanders both mention Christian relics being left behind by the monks, no convincing archaeological remains of such pre-settlement items (or of the monks who left them there) has yet been discovered on Iceland.
In addition to the lack of physical evidence, some have questioned the truthfulness of Ari the Learned on the claim of Irish monks in Iceland because of Ari’s close connections to the See of Skalholt in Christianized Iceland. Like most medieval scholars, Ari received much of his education through the church, and two of his greatest patrons were the bishops, Thorlak Runolfsson of Skalholt and Ketil Thorsteinsson of Holar. Nevertheless, the question of whether or not Ari the Learned and other Christian scholars in Iceland would lie about the pre-settlement Irish monks is a debate of opinion, not fact. As of now, with no archaeological evidence to prove or disprove the claims, historians can only fall back on the stereotypical government response—we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of Irish monks in Iceland before the arrival of Norse settlers. Yet, although the existence of the monks cannot be confirmed, a majority of the historical community still seems to give Ari Thorgilsson and his successors the benefit of the doubt on their claim that Irish monks were present on Iceland before the time of settlement.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Public Domain: (An image from the tale of Saint Brendan, published by the Franciscan Sisters of the Perpetual Adoration (La Crosse, Wis.), c. early 1900s, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
- The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.