03.07.14, Sigurdardottir, Wawn, ed., Approaches to Vinland

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Marc Pierce

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.014


Sigurdardottir, Thorunn, Andrew Wawn, eds.. Approaches to Vinland: A Conference on the Written and Archaeological Sources for the Norse Settlements in the North-Atlantic Region and Exploration of America. Series: Sigurdur Nordal Institute Studies vol. 4. Reykjavik: Sigurdur Nordal Institute, 2001. Pp. 238. ISBN: 997991114-X.

Reviewed by:
Marc Pierce
University of Michigan

The volume under consideration here is the proceedings of an international conference on the Vinland sagas (Groenlendinga saga and Eiriks saga rautha, which deal with the Norse settlement in Greenland and various voyages to, and explorations in, America which took place around 1000), held in Reykjavik in August 1999. The papers are of high quality, and the book is certainly a valuable contribution to the literature. It is divided into four main sections, namely Literary and folkloristic perspectives, History and ethnicity, Scientific approaches, and Reception studies. There is also a brief preface which describes the conference, an introduction which outlines the contents of the volume, a list of the contributors, and an index.

The first section begins with "'My name is Guthrithr': An Enigmatic Episode in Groenlendinga saga" (15-30), by Bo Almqvist. This paper deals with the entry of an indigenous woman into the home of one of the Icelandic settlers (Guthrithr). When the settler offered her own name, and asked for the other's name, the intruder simply repeated her own words, and then vanished. The next paper is Robert Kellogg's "The Vinland Sagas: A Romance of Conversion" (31-38), which focuses on what the Vinland sagas reveal about the process of Christianization. Olafur Halldorsson then discusses "The Vinland Sagas" (39-51), surveying a number of well-discussed issues (he points out in the introductory paragraph that his paper focuses on "old chestnuts" [39], which he had also examined in earlier work), e.g. the historical reliability of the sagas. This section concludes with "Prerequisites for Saga Writing" (52-59), by Arni Bjornsson. Issues discussed in this paper include older theories about this topic, economic conditions, and the role of literacy.

The second section contains three papers: "The Vinland Sagas in a Contemporary Light" (63-77), by Helgi Thorlaksson; "The Western Voyages: Women and Vikings" (78-87), by Jenny Jochens; and "'Black men and malignant-looking'. The Place of the Indigenous Peoples of North America in the Viking World View" (88-104), by Sverrir Jakobsson. The first of these argues that the Vinland sagas cannot offer any truly reliable information about the Norse explorers in America, because "oral traditions changed from generation to generation and the written texts were also subject to alteration" (75). This does not mean, however, that the sagas are unworthy of scholarly investigation. In a paper concentrating on conditions in Greenland and Vinland (as dictated by the theme of the book), Jochens points out that women were clearly crucially important for the survival of the colonies; the question then arises as to where the women would come from. Did some of the men bring their wives? Did women arrive later? Or were the explorers willing to mingle with the indigenous women (assuming, of course, that they existed)? The final paper in this section examines Viking views of the indigenous people, who are generally lumped together in the sagas as 'Skraelings'. Jakobsson concludes that the sagas reveal more about the people who wrote them than they do about the indigenous people, but also that they can be very valuable in ascertaining the Viking view of the world.

The third section begins with "Navigation and Vinland" (107-121), by Thorsteinn Vilhjalmsson, which looks at the nautical aspects of the voyages, which the author views as "the crowning medieval Norse achievement in the field of seamanship and navigation" (107) -- an assessment that is difficult to dispute. Issues discussed here include navigational instruments (since some scholars have answered the question of how the Norsemen navigated by suggesting that they possessed one navigational instrument or another) and sailing speed and time. Jette Arneborg looks at the relationship between the sagas and archaeology in "The Norse Settlement in Greenland: The Initial Period in Written Sources and in Archaeology" (122-133). Arneborg concludes that the archaeological evidence is more reliable, and calls for "an ethnohistorical dialogue" (131) between the artifacts and the texts. Brigitta Wallace Ferguson argues, in "L'Anse aux Meadows and Vmnland" (134-146), that L'Anse aux Meadows is Straumfjorthr, a place mentioned in the Vinland sagas. This conclusion is based on archaeological evidence from L'Anse aux Meadows and on an "anthropological analysis of the picture we derive of the Vmnland settlements from the sagas" (134). The next paper, "Eiriksstathir: The Farm of Eirikr the Red" (147-153), by Guthmundur Olafsson, reviews the excavations done at a site in western Iceland. Only one site in the area is a farm from the Viking Age; local tradition has recognized it as Eirikstathir for more than two centuries, and numerous excavations have taken place there, most recently in 1999. Thomas H. McGovern, Sophia Perdikaris, and Clayton Tinsley then discuss "The Economy of Landnam: The Evidence of Zooarchaeology" (154-165), focusing on the role of domestic and wild animals and changing landscapes. The essay concludes with a comparison of economic change in northwestern Iceland and western Greenland. Benjamin J. Vail offers "An Assessment of Human Ecological Approaches to Viking Studies" (166-172), suggesting that human ecological theory can contribute significantly to Viking studies, by means of the ecosystem concept, for instance. The section concludes with a paper by A.E.J. Ogilvie, L.K. Barlow, and A.E. Jennings, "North Atlantic Climate c. A.D. 1000: Millennial Reflections on the Viking Discoveries of Iceland, Greenland, and North America" (173-188). This paper outlines "current knowledge regarding environmental and climactic conditions of the North Atlantic in the present and in the past" (173), with a focus on the times around the exploration and settlement of Iceland, Greenland, and Vmnland. Three major types of evidence are considered here: written records, isotopic ice core records from the Greenland ice sheet, and marine sediment cores from Nansen Fjord in Greenland.

The final section of the volume, Reception Studies, consists of the following papers: "Victorian Vinland" (191-206), by Andrew Wawn; "The Recovery of Vinland in Western Icelandic Literature" (207-219), by Kirsten Wolf; and "Leifr Eiriksson versus Christopher Columbus: The Use of Leifr Eiriksson in American Political and Cultural Discourse" (220-226), by Inga Dora Bjornsdsttir. Wawn examines the Victorian era's fascination with Vinland (amply demonstrated by the popularity of Rudyard Kipling's well-known work "The Finest Story in the World"), focusing mainly on primary texts, pedagogy, and popularisation" (193). Wolf's paper looks at how Icelandic settlers in Canada viewed Vinland. As pressure to assimilate increased, and traditional practices were lost, it became necessary to somehow maintain links to Iceland. Wolf argues convincingly that Vinland functioned as an important symbol of Iceland in this effort. The final paper in the volume notes that some Americans resisted the idea of a "Columbus Day," since the "real" discoverer of America was Leifr Eiriksson -- a resistance which grew out of ethnic strife. Leifr Eiriksson's "cultural currency" (223) in American culture is also discussed, along with some Icelandic efforts to capture the attention of America.

The papers are, as remarked above, of high quality. The parameters of the book have had, in my view, two negative results. First, some of the papers are disappointingly laconic. Second, some papers are tantalizing, in that they are excellent and could be expanded, but the authors were unable to do so, because of the requirements of the volume. It is always dangerous to single such papers out, but here I would mention the outstanding contribution by Jenny Jochens. Jochens notes that there were four major stages in the expansion of the Norwegian Vikings (the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland), and further that the role played by women in the colonization of each of these places should be considered. However, in this volume, she was only able to briefly summarize events in the British Isles and Iceland. (Fortunately, she has since filled this gap with another paper.) And it is certainly not entirely fair of me to criticize here, since the parameters of the volume are easy to defend. After all, perhaps this limitation was for the best, for what we now have is an excellent survey of many important issues, by a number of accomplished scholars from a wide range of disciplines.

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Marc Pierce

University of Michigan