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22.08.06 Campbell, Norse America

22.08.06 Campbell, Norse America

The Norse communities of Iceland and Greenland, and the attempted settlement of Vínland in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, were the first experimental European societies of the New World, revealing patterns of human interaction and self-government that anticipated British colonization of the mid-Atlantic seaboard centuries later. There are even similarities between the 1789 Constitution of the United States and the unwritten protocols of the Icelandic Commonwealth founded at the annual Alþingi “People’s Assembly” at Thingvellir circa 930 CE and lasting until 1264--a century longer than the American republic so far. Both political systems established legislative and judicial functions, but faced a serious constitutional crisis within two generations of their founding: conflicts over slavery in America, religion in Iceland. The Greenland settlements had their own Alþingi at Garðar (now Igaliku), but like the Icelanders, eventually submitted to the Norwegian crown in the early 1260s. Soon into the fifteenth century the Norse Greenlanders, after almost half a millennium of subsistence, had abandoned their farms in the wake of global cooling.

Our sources for this Nordic diaspora in the North Atlantic are the oral histories and feud stories of founding families written down and elaborated by their descendants during the thirteenth century as the Íslendingasögur (Sagas of Icelanders). These “family sagas” were the Icelanders’ way both of celebrating and critiquing their ancestors’ achievements and way of life, their pre-Christian beliefs and religious practices, as well as their provisional forms of government and very imperfect capacity to control violent conflicts between individuals and groups in an environment of scarce resources and even scarcer personal honor. Icelanders used their sagas to think with, to reflect more deeply on the character of their forebears and the nature of their lives in these new lands, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their traditional value system and patterns of social interaction. This collective self-assessment included an intense interest in the lives of their kinsmen further west in Greenland and a fascination with the even more distant and different peoples those ancestors had encountered on the shores of Greenland and Vínland in North America.

The author dedicates his book to these “Skrælings” with whom the Scandinavian parvenus had “completed the human circling of the globe” (25). Skrælingjar is a generic term in Old Norse for the indigenous peoples these refugees from Norway and Iceland first met in the new lands. Campbell understands the term to be “pejorative” (217), even though two later accounts in which it appears--Grænlendinga saga “Saga of the Greenlanders” and Eiríks saga Rauða “Saga of Eirík the Red”--depict these native inhabitants as rather friendly at first and only subsequently antagonized by the Norsemen themselves, effectively thwarting further efforts to establish permanent homes. Among other proposed possibilities, the name may at first have referred more descriptively to the skrá ‘cured animal skins’ that indigenous folk wore instead of the homespun woolens of the incoming Norse (sub verbo in Ásgeir Blöndal Magnússon, Íslensk orðsifjabók[Icelandic Etymological Dictionary] [1989]). A soapstone spindle whorl, sewing needle and loom weights have been discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows, the only certainly attested Norse habitation in North America proper, managed by Parks Canada on the northern tip of Newfoundland, supporting the saga accounts that women accompanied and sometimes led their menfolk during the first expeditions launched from Greenland. Spinning sheep’s wool was an important female occupation in these Scandinavian families, so that clothing material seems to have been the first and most obvious ethnic marker to distinguish native North Americans from the Norse newcomers.

In chapter 1, “Discovering America,” the author begins his study by surveying competing claims to priority in the finding and peopling of the North American continent, most of them inspired by explicit or ulterior motives of sectarian, ethnic or national pride. In 1893, for instance, a replica of the Gokstad ship, unearthed three years earlier in Oslofjord, was sailed across the Atlantic in 22 days from Bergen, Norway, to New London, Connecticut, and on to New York City. This was also the year of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, in part to promote the inclusion of Italian- and other Catholic Americans in the nation’s aspiring “melting pot.” The Norwegian captain and crew were attacked by a mob in Brooklyn, but themselves arrested by “the police (Irish Catholics and so pro-Columbus),” as well as “greeted with cries of execration from Columbus enthusiasts on bridges and canal banks” as they made their way via the Erie Canal to Chicago (5). Earlier writers had offered biblical or other creative possibilities for the discovery of the new continent: polyglot post-Babel migrants from ancient Mesopotamia, Canaanites expelled from the Promised Land, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, survivors from the sunken Atlantis, the Greek wanderer Odysseus, Phoenician merchants, Muslim mariners, Prince Madoc of Wales, Saint Brendan of Ireland, the Chinese admiral Zheng He.

In chapter 2, Gordon casts a glance over the Icelandic chronicles and sagas that recount several early Norse expeditions from Greenland to Vínland in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, noting that these narratives were adapted from oral traditions back in Iceland well over a century or two after the events they purport to describe. They evince considerable literary shaping in the process of being elaborated in written form, including features that would become characteristic of the Icelandic family sagas as a whole. These include a laconic, matter-of-fact style of succinct prose; an interest in characterization focalized through the foreshadowing of “preparatory ancestors”; the use of parallelism and foiling to highlight distinctive character and leadership traits by contrast; “stealth protagonists” introduced rather far into the narrative, revealing that the real focus of an Icelandic saga is rarely on the figure with whom it begins nor even necessarily on the one after whom it is named, but rather the character with whom it concludes. Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir is a poor girl of humble background, rescued with others from a shipwreck by Leif Eiríksson. She marries Leif’s younger brother Thorstein, who leads a completely fruitless expedition to the new shores, never finding them even after months at sea. Gudrid later remarries a more competent newcomer, Thorfinn Karlsefni, and subsequently emerges as the true heroine of the saga, mother of the first European born in the New World and a figure with whom the saga ends, but only after her superior character has been revealed through several trying episodes, especially by contrast with the treacherous Freydís Eiríksdóttir. Gudrid returns to Iceland with Karlsefni, becoming the grandmother and great-grandmother of the Icelandic bishops mentioned in the closing lines of the saga, the learned clerics who were presumably responsible for these curated memories of their ancestress’s career.

The degree of historicity in the depiction of any particular details in these sagas is thus highly suspect, since many of the individuals mentioned cannot be independently verified as genuine historical figures, except perhaps a few like Eirík the Red and his son Leif Eiríkson. In Gordon’s view, these classics of medieval narrative art are a very insecure basis for any attempts to promote a “myth” of Norse America, but a convenient rule of thumb is to assume that the more prominent an individual and more general the events described, the more likely their rough historical reliability; the more detailed and circumstantial the accounts, especially in their use of direct quotations, the more likely they are to have been the product of the saga-writer’s creative imagination or implicit thematic goals.

In chapter 3, Gordon turns to the various early cartographic depictions of Greenland and the North American littoral, often derived from the sagas themselves, with some maps of contested provenance and authenticity. The most notable of these is the mappa mundi in the Beinecke Library of Yale University, the “Vinland Map,” putatively dated to the mid-fifteenth century, but now likely to represent a forgery using modern ink on medieval parchment.

Chapter 4 touches briefly on the settlement of Iceland and the role of Eirík the Red in the settlement of Greenland, an effort which yielded at its maximum extent about 200 farms in the fjords of the “Eastern Settlement” on the southwest coast of the island and 100 or fewer farms in the “Western Settlement” further north. Archaeologists have discovered a smaller “Middle Settlement” of about 20 farms not mentioned in the sagas, so that the entire population of Norse Greenland is unlikely ever to have exceeded more than a few thousand souls and their domestic animals, a society whose economy was based primarily on the one renewable resource available in these latitudes: the grassy meadows close to sea level on the margins of protected fjords.

In chapter 5, “Norse Greenland,” Gordon describes what we know or can conjecture about the lives of these pastoralists and fishermen, seal- and walrus-hunters, and assesses the strength of various arguments put forward for the mysterious disappearance of the Norse Greenlanders sometime in the fifteenth century. The most compelling of these explanations, however, is simply climate change, the cooling of the environment after the later twelfth century with the onset of the “Little Ice Age.” The sites excavated so far show no sign of violent conflict and genetic analysis of human remains rules out assimilation between the Norse and indigenous populations. It is probable that many of the last Scandinavian occupants of Greenland, whose numbers were small in any case, simply returned to Iceland or Norway.

Chapter 6 surveys the site of L'Anse aux Meadows, the strategically located fitting station at the northern entrance to the Belle Isle Strait between Newfoundland and Labrador, gateway from Greenland to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. It has been identified with Leifs búðir ‘Leif [Eiríkson]’s Shelters’ mentioned in the Vínland sagas, first built by him and then “lent” to his brothers and sister for their later expeditions after he had inherited his father’s fine farm at Brattahlíð (probably modern Qassiarsuk). L'Anse aux Meadows contains eight buildings: “three halls (each with several rooms), three huts, a small house, and a hut with a smelter for making and working iron” (117). This latter discovery finally confirmed the site as Norse rather than a set of Native American longhouses. The three halls of turf raised over wooden frames are designed in the traditional Icelandic fashion, seemingly to accommodate three ships’ crews in a small fleet. These structures were never significantly altered or rebuilt, indicating a relatively short period of use, perhaps only a decade or two. There are no burials, animal pens or evidence of farming or even pasturage, but Eiríks saga suggests that cattle were kept on an offshore island, perhaps Green Island within sight of L’Anse aux Meadows. Evidence for exploration further south is suggested by the presence of butternuts (a kind of walnut), which “had never grown in Newfoundland. Its range includes the St Lawrence River Valley, the Southwest Miramichi River Valley in New Brunswick, and the New England coast, especially where rivers drain into protected coves. Currents would not have brought the nuts in the direction of Newfoundland” (119). The occupants of L’Anse aux Meadows, however transitory their stays there, had certainly probed further south.

Chapter 7 moves on to review evidence for “The Limits of the Norse Presence in North America” through trade, hunting or exploration. The richest material remains have been found not south, but in the Arctic north on the eastern coast of Ellesmere Island, revealing “many Norse artefacts, mostly datable to the thirteenth century. Finds include chess pieces, chain mail, knife blades, a carpenter’s plane, iron ship rivets, woven woolen cloth, and barrel bottoms” (130). The western side of Ellesmere has yielded the bronze component of a Norse weighing balance, while the Norse cemetery at Sandness (now Kilaarsarfik) in the Western Settlement of Greenland has yielded an arrowhead resembling those of the Point Revenge Culture of Labrador, an Innu people (circa 1250 to 1450 CE) who crafted their projectile points from the same translucent Ramah chert (134-135). Other Canadian finds, however, have been shown to be spurious, wishful thinking or downright hoaxes. The one Norse artefact that has been found in the territory of the United States is a pierced silver coin judged to have been struck in Norway between 1065 and 1080. The authenticity of this find in a Native American assemblage in Blue Hill Bay, Maine, has been challenged, but the current consensus is that it does indeed suggest at least trading contacts between the Greenland Norse and communities further south.

In chapter 8 Gordon surveys various “American Runestones,” most of them discouragingly inept “modern fakes, carved to support a Scandinavian claim to the ‘discovery’ of North America” (172), though some have inspired even more fantastic interpretations, involving Knights Templar, Freemasons, Phoenicians, etc.

The most famous runic hoax, however, “The Kensington Rune Stone,” enjoys its own separate treatment in chapter 9. This artefact was “discovered” in 1898 by a Swedish immigrant Olof Ohman in Minnesota, claiming a date of 1362 for “8 Götalanders and 22 Northmen” who had come west from Vínland. Some of the party returned from a fishing foray to find ten of their companions “red with blood and dead” (176). The find was received with enthusiasm by the Scandinavian-American community and in 1949 displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. By 1958, however, a philologist Erik Wahlgren “demonstrated that the spelling, grammar, and style were not medieval, but rather corresponded to a modern Minnesota dialect of Swedish. He showed that the orthography is highly irregular, combining runic conventions from various periods,” but apparently adapted from an old schoolbook account of runes owned by the farmer who found the stone (179). An unsavory subtext for this discovery has been adduced in memories of the Dakota War of 1862 that were still raw and regularly commemorated in Minnesota at the time. 400 white settlers had been massacred by Dakota of which 38 leaders were executed and the remaining Dakota expelled from the state. Even the choice of the date 1362 on the runestone is suggestive of this event: it not only antedates Columbus’s Caribbean landfall in 1492 by over a century, but also memorializes the Dakota War of 1862 by exactly 500 years after which settlers of Scandinavian heritage had finally fulfilled their long-awaited ownership of the land.

Chapter 10 summarizes the author’s attempt to expose the “myth” of the finding or “founding” of America by Norsemen. In fact, there are many such “myths,” virtually all of which are local, strained and of a very short shelf-life with a few notable exceptions like the Vínland Map or Kensington Runestone. These, too, now seem pretty stale and objectionable. The Vínland sagas are different, however. They preserve imaginative but thoughtful reflections on a remarkable moment in human history, best interpreted with the aid of excavations at sites like L’Anse aux Meadows and elsewhere. These sagas recount distant cultural memories of the first encounters between Europeans and the First Peoples of what was for them not the New World, but a very old one indeed.