Jens Ulff-Moller

title.none: Barnes, Viking America (Jens Ulff-Moller)

identifier.other: baj9928.0207.006 02.07.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jens Ulff-Moller, University of Copenhagen,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Barnes, Geraldine. Viking America: The First Millennium. Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2001. Pp. v, 341. 75.00. ISBN: 0-859-91608-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.07.06

Barnes, Geraldine. Viking America: The First Millennium. Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2001. Pp. v, 341. 75.00. ISBN: 0-859-91608-1.

Reviewed by:

Jens Ulff-Moller
University of Copenhagen

The legendary Viking expeditions to the mythical Vinland around the year 1000 are, without doubt, the most exciting of all the Icelandic saga literature, magnificent tales of 'derring-do', recounting a series of violent conflicts between Norsemen and the native peoples of Northern America. Historians have debated the sagas at length and with passion--and, indeed, continue to do so. One burning issue has been the precise intention and nature of the saga texts. Do they present a historical reality or are they instead mere fiction, of little or no intrinsic worth? The discovery, in 1960, by Helge and Anne Ingstad, of a settlement of Norse houses at L'Anse-aux-Meadows at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, confirmed a Viking presence--but this location was, however, not Vinland, which has never been found. It is only in Viking Greenland, with a population capable of sustaining some sixteen churches, that Norse settlements can be truly said to have existed on the continent of North America. This book, leaving archaeological and historical evidence strictly to one side, makes no claim to uncover any further evidence for the existence of Viking America, or even to assess the state of historical inquiry to date. The title is, therefore, misleading for historians, archaeologists and those who seek the reality behind the Vinland story. Readers should bear in mind that the author approaches this subject from a strictly literary angle.

Geraldine Barnes, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, is a specialist of Middle English and Middle French whose particular areas of interest focus on the literary intentions of those who composed the Vinland sagas, and the post-Medieval reception of these sagas over the past two hundred years. The book's five chapters cover the Vinland voyages in saga narrative; in nineteenth-century history, criticism and scholarship; the popular legacy of the sagas in the theater, in the polemic of the same period, and finally, their reception in British literature to 1946 and in American literature to 1926. Her epilogue addresses the radical shifts of perspective that have occurred in views of the Vinland voyages in Post-World War II English literature. The bibliography of twenty-six pages is primarily literary but also includes some historical and archaeological publications that are not discussed in the book.

In the introduction, Barnes debates briefly whether the Vinland expeditions qualified as a 'discovery'. As long ago as 1929, Dewey in Experience and Nature disqualified the Norse expeditions as 'discoveries' on the grounds that they lacked global cultural consequences. Considered in such stringent terms, only the expedition of Columbus to America in 1492 would constitute a discovery, yet the discovery of America has continued to be a controversial issue, particularly at the centennial anniversaries of this event in 1892 and 1992. In contrast to this opinion, the archaeological evidence, ignored by Barnes, reveals the importance of Norse influence on Eskimos in the extreme Arctic who entered a proto-Iron Age, stimulated by the trade in iron with the Norse. As Robert McGhee has stated, "The relationship between the Norse and aboriginal North Americans was clearly more enduring, complex and significant than hinted by the few, brief mentions of hostile Scraelings in the sagas and annals of Norse exploration" (Scientific American Discovering Archaeology, Sept.- Oct. 2000). Urs Bitterli, moreover, in Cultures in Conflict, considers that "the history of relations between Europe and Canada begins with the Viking voyages around AD1000."

Barnes analyzes the Vinland voyages from two perspectives, first, as an unrealized paradigm of Icelandic landnam or 'land-taking', and second, as a Christian exemplum of the narrative mode of romance. For her, the Christian "moral- social overtones" reveal that the author of the saga intended to promote his own genealogy by giving his family a prominent role in the conversion of the Greenlanders, which he set at the time of the Vinland expeditions. The story relates, in particular, to Greenland's chieftain family, Eric the Red, whose descendants were to become prominent Icelandic bishops. Even though the authorship and audience of the sagas have been so widely debated, Barnes does not hesitate to identify Thorfinnr Karlsefni as the source of the Vinland tale (xvii) and Bishop Brandr Saemundarson (1163-1201) as the likely candidate for authorship of the Groenlaeninga Saga. (1) In trying to identify the character of Norse settlements, Barnes attempts a false comparison with the modern Australian concept of terra nullius, or land owned by nobody, by which land rights were denied to aboriginals in Australia. The Norse concept of landownership, however, differed substantially from that of modern Australia, where, rather than the personal appropriation of land, Viking ownership involved usus, a family's right of use.

Barnes also misrepresents the nature of the Vinland settlement (13) when she translates budir and skalir as 'temporary' buildings. In fact, these words have precise definitions, as workshops and longhouses respectively, but do not indicate the existence of tun, or complete Norse farmstead, with the obligatory stables, barns and toft. Elsewhere, Barnes's citations of Icelandic texts and translations appear accurate and clear, and provide a valuable addition to this book.

Barnes's main aim is to trace the legacy of the Vinland sagas in English and American popular literature. The starting point of the literature is the first modern edition of the Vinland sagas by Carl Christian Rafn, entitled Antiquitates Americanae, which first appeared in 1838 with translations in both Latin and Danish, and with a summary in English of the Vinland voyages. This production was both expensive and grandiose, a work of showmanship to the detriment of the otherwise sound scholarship contained therein. The problem was that Rafn offered precise but utterly unfounded locations for the Viking landings in New England, giving rise to the myth of the existence of a spurious colony, namely 'Vinlandia'. This myth became integrated into the 'gothic' lineage of New England in the second half of the nineteenth century. Despite a lively exchange of letters with Rafn, George Bancroft, the Bostonian historian, found no reason to include a Viking presence in America in his multi-volume work, The History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent (1834-88), dismissing the saga stories as fictitious and exaggerated.

Rafn also aroused an interest in Old Norse linguistics through his contact with the New Englander George Perkins Marsh who, in 1838, translated the Compendious Grammar of Old Norse by the renowned Danish philologist, Rasmus Rask. This was followed in 1843 by George Webbe Dasent's translation of Rask's Grammar of Old Norse. The academic study of Old Norse began in 1869, when Daniel Willard Fiske, became professor of North-European Languages at Cornell University (55), thus opening up this field to a wider audience. It is unfortunate that Barnes does not continue her interesting exploration of the development of the study of Old Norse linguistics in the United States and England in later times.

The Vinland story entered into the realm of English literature through extracts of Rafn's work, which appeared in English translation in Joshua Toulmin Smith's The Northmen in America (1839), in Nathaniel Ludlow Beamish's The Discovery of America by the Northmen in the Tenth Century (London, 1843), and in Benjamin De Costa's The Pre-Columbian Discovery of America by the Northmen (1868). The real legacy of Antiquitates Americanae to Norse scholarship in America came with Arthur M. Reeves's The Finding of Wineland the Good (London, 1890).

After this, Barnes examines the more eccentric fringes of Vinland literature. In The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega (1889), the archaeologically-aware Eben Norton Horsford claimed to have found Vinland in Norumbega county west of Boston, and erected a memorial tower in a park off South Street, south of Brandeis University. In contrast, the interests of J. P. MacLean, and Marie Shipley were driven by an ethnic and religious bias, an aversion to Viking culture and preference for things Roman, also determining how they demonstrated their distaste for native peoples. Likewise, Henry Wheaton's History of the Northmen (1831) and John S. C. Abbot's The History of Maine (1882) also condemn the behavior of the Norsemen as worse than that of savages. On the other hand, Charles Kingsley, Works (1885), favored the Vikings despite their brutality, while Charles Morris in The Aryan Race (1892) attributed their brutality to the innate nature of the master race.

The exploration of Vinland in British literature began in 1819 with the publication of Greenland by the Scottish poet, James Montgomery. This work inspired by David Crantz's The history of Greenland (London, 1767), contains one episode which featured the Vinland voyages. The publication of R. M. Ballantyne's The Norsemen in the West (1872) coincided with the rise of competition from the European powers, combined with the first stirrings of British anxiety over colonialism. Ballantyne, in fact, saw England as the legitimate heir to the Viking virtues, in contrast to those he referred to as "grotesque, ursine, and infantile Eskimos".

In contrast, J. F. Hodgett's Edric the Norseman (1887-8) represented the genre of juvenile literature that functioned as popular imperial propaganda before World War I, whereas Frances Cashels Hoeys's Tamers of the Sea (1897) and Maurice Hewlett's Gudrid the Fair (1918) depicted the feminine menace to the Vinland colony in misogynist terms. In the post-War period, Nevil Shute's Vinland the Good (1946), a self-conscious 'deheroicization' of the story, reflected the point of transition from Empire to Commonwealth. 'Post-Colonial Vinland' takes on an even more mythical aspect, as, for example, in Kim Robinson's Vinland, the Dream (1991), an entirely modern construct.

American literary circles in the nineteenth century were more hospitable to Vinland than the historical establishment. The American reading public had first been introduced to a seductively romanticized view of ancient Scandinavia through the eyes of Esaias Tegner, the Swedish poet, in his Frithiofs sags (1831). Amongst American works are those of James Russell Lowell, The Voyage to Vinland and Other Poems (1868); Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Skeleton in Armour (1841); and John Greenleaf Whittier's The Norsemen (1841). For the centennial celebrations, Sydney Lanier wrote The Psalm of the West (1892), followed later by Ottilie Liljencrantz's The Thrall of Leif the Lucky (1904).

Barnes might have included the cartoon, Hagar the Horrible, details of the Kensington Stone, the supposed Viking settlement in the Midwest, a discussion of the Vinland Map and much recent historical scholarship on Vinland that raises the issue of Vinland in myth and reality.

It may be of interest to add that, while the book was in press, the following titles have been published on the Vinland question.

Erik Ingvar Thurin, The American Discovery of the Norse: an Episode in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (1999).

Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old Norse in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2000).