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16.12.10, Ahronson, Into the Ocean

The Medieval Review

16.12.10, Ahronson, Into the Ocean

The exploration and settlement of the North Atlantic have been preoccupations of historians for a long time, but now they are being joined by archaeologists and environmental scholars. Central to everyone's investigations has been Iceland. Since the island received settlers from Scandinavia at the end of the ninth century, the history of people and landscape can be investigated within fairly well-defined bounds. Or can it? That is a question Kristján Ahronson asks in Into the Ocean. His thesis has two main parts. The first part is that the earliest settlers in Iceland were from Ireland and that he can provide evidence to make a persuasive case for that view. The second component is that the conversion of the Icelanders to Christianity was largely due to their contacts with the Gaelic-speaking world.

Neither idea is new, but this book differs from others in that Ahronson examines place-names, the environment, and art history to make his argument. The medieval Icelanders believed that they had been preceded in the island by Irish clergy, which is flatly stated in Ari Þorgilsson's Íslendingabók and implied by the ninth-century Irish scholar Dícuill's Book on the Measure of the Lands of the World (Liber De Mensura Orbis Terrae) with its description of a land called "Thile" (Thule) where it was possible to remove lice from clothing at night. While most scholars generally have subscribed to that view, there have been a few dissenting voices in recent years. Contacts by the Norse in the northern isles with the Gaelic-speaking world could hardly have been avoided by the Norwegians, who largely supplied the Icelandic settlers, since their empire extended alongside Gaelophone Scotland and into the Irish Sea.

Before getting to his arguments on those points, Ahronson devotes roughly a quarter of the book to a digression on how to conduct research. Much of his discussion revolves around the work of the nineteenth-century Canadian scholar Eugène Beauvois. Despite the author's claims of his importance and influence, Beauvois was unknown to this writer until reading Into the Ocean and one looks in vain to find him cited in any influential study of the past century. Ahronson never convincingly explains why Eugène Beauvois' work deserves special attention. His information makes clear that Beauvois was representative of his generation of scholars who believed all the Old Iceland/Norse sagas to be factual histories composed by eyewitnesses to the events, a view somewhat at odds with more recent scholarship. Ahronson continues his lecture on research across disciplines with theories from various scholars outside the field of Viking or Celtic Studies together with his own judgments. Again, while this is interesting in its way, there is nothing new. The methodological theme is continued in each chapter, which is prefaced with a literary or historical excerpt that the author apparently believes to have some relevance for the following discussion, together with long and obscure expositions.

When Ahronson finally gets to his main argument, he selects three elements for examination: the distribution and possible date of papar names, the tephra (material from a volcanic explosion) found in caves in Iceland at Seljaland, and the cross-shaped images found in caves throughout the northern Atlantic isles generally, but specifically those of Iceland in the caves of Seljaland. The combined results of his studies, which the author admits must remain possibilities rather than proof, is that there were inhabitants on Iceland prior to the arrival of the Scandinavians; Iceland had substantial vegetation that was subsequently destroyed; the name papar is a descriptive term of Norse, rather than Irish, vocabulary and has no connection, other than incidental, with Christian communities; and that the cave crosses found in Seljaland parallel the crosses found in Britain and Ireland, but particularly in Scotland.

The first two items on the list of conclusions are the "received wisdom" of most modern scholars. The last two are less certain. For the discussion of the pap-names, Ahronson relies on secondary studies. The Old Norse and Old Irish papar is a borrowing from Latin by way of the Christian Church. In his discussion of Old Irish papa (sic) / popa / pupu the author apparently is unaware that: 1) any word beginning with p- in Old or Middle Irish is a loan-word; 2) all three words are borrowings from Latin papa; and 3) they all mean the same thing, "father," which modern translators interpret with differing nuances. A passage in the Book of Leinster (a marginal note on page 373) states bluntly that Pupu apud Scotos id est papa. Confidence in his argument is not increased when the author claims to quote an Old Irish passage on the feast of Enda of Arran from the ninth-century calendar of saints' feast days known as the Calendar of Óengus. The passage quoted is Middle Irish, however, not Old Irish, and it comes from explanatory notes added to the original treatise in the twelfth century. A similar confusion is visible in the argument (61) about the question of Old Norse use in the Hebrides and how long it continued. This has little connection with the book's main theme and an explanation is needed for why, if the inhabitants spoke only a dialect of Old Norse, the King of the Isles was the recipient of a twelfth-century Irish poem of praise.

In the chapter on the cave and alcove crosses there is a different problem: the ease with which a cross can be carved. Ahronson acknowledges the evidence for cross carving in later centuries and, at present, there is no method of physically dating these images. He does not use the techniques for analyzing rock art that have been developed in Sweden, which at least would allow for speculation on the number of carvers. Many of the crosses are little more than two lines at 90 degrees to each other, but Ahronson claims to see artistic similarities with crosses from Britain and Ireland, but particularly Scotland. To support his speculation, he claims (167) that the written materials show a prominent connection between the British Isles monasteries dedicated to St. Columba of Iona and early settlers in Iceland. There is only one actual notice: an aside in Landnámabók where a settler named Ørlygr built a chapel that he dedicated to Columba. No connection is made with another saint mentioned in Landnámabók where Ørlygr dedicated his first landfall to St. Patrick and gave it the name Patreksfjörðr. On the topic of Landnámabók, the author seems unable to decide if it is a useful twelfth-century record or merely a late medieval elaboration of some possibly genuine material.

On the archaeological material Ahronson reveals himself to be a careful and methodical scholar. He explains in detail the methods he is using and gives good catalogues of significant items such as the tephra layers, excavation layout, chemical analyses, and sample contents. The chapter "Three Dimensions of Environmental Change" shows how tephra can preserve the botanical record and how a careful analysis of it gives a perspective on the environment at the time of infiltration. While he acknowledges the debt of his work to that of earlier scholars, much of the narrative is the result of his own excavations. To illustrate his argument, the book has copious black and white maps, photographs, and illustrations. Unfortunately there is no index and the bibliography is confusingly labeled "References."

Into the Ocean is a thought-provoking study. The identification of Seljaland as a place of settlement in the early ninth century is interesting. Many books claim to use an interdisciplinary approach to studying the past, yet rarely is it put into practice as completely as in this book. Ahronson is asking difficult questions, so it is not surprising that the answers are tentative and somewhat incomplete. His rehearsal of material is important for showing what a close reading of the sources can yield. Anyone interested in the northern Atlantic during the early Middle Ages should read this book.