Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir* was the most travelled woman in the middle ages. Born in Iceland around the year 980, she travelled to Greenland, then on to North America, where she had a son, and then back to Greenland with her husband and son. Not content with that, she decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, where she met the Pope, before retiring to the church to live as a nun.
Gudridur was born in Iceland, the daughter of Icelandic farmers. One of her grandmothers was a slave, quite probably captured from Ireland or Scotland, as many of the first female settlers of Iceland were. When her father refused her permission to marry a local slave, she travelled instead with her father to Greenland, to accompany Erik the Red, who had settled there. She married one of Erik the Red’s sons, Thorstein. She and her husband made an expedition to North America, where her husband’s brother, Leif Eriksson had visited and attempted to settle some years before, in what is now regarded as the first visit from a European to North America. Her husband Thorstein died on the return journey to Greenland.
Gudridur stayed in Greenland, and married again, this time a merchant named Thorfinnr Karlsefni. In 1010, they led another expedition to North America, which they called Vinland, with three ships and 160 settlers. While they were in North America, Gudridur gave birth to a son, Snorri Thorfinnsson, who is the first European known to have been born in the the Americas. They returned to Greenland after two years, finding themselves outnumbered, and unsafe, because of the large groups of native inhabitants. Eventually, Gudridur’s husband died and her son inherited the farm.
This was around the time that both Iceland and Greenland became Christian, and presumably with the fervour of a new convert, Gudridur decided to go on a pilgrimage, once her son married. She travelled to Rome, where she met the Pope, and then came back to Greenland to the church her son had built for her on the family estate. She became a nun, and died there in Greenland.
All of this information comes from the Greenland saga, recorded in the 14th century by an anonymous scribe. She was described as stunningly beautiful and gracious in manners, as well as well liked by everyone.
It seems fairly likely that she was the most travelled woman at that time, and probably for quite a while afterwards. The expedition to Rome was probably not as physically dangerous as the sea voyage to the unknown North America, but far from easy from far away Greenland.
*throughout this post I have used anglicised spellings. Icelandic has several letters that are not used in English, and Gudridur’s name is correctly spelled Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir.
This is part of a serious of notable women from where we are as we travel the world. I’d love suggestions for future subjects – our itinerary is here.