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Was There A Lasting Colony?

July 2024
6min read

The Vinland Map contains two statements that Bjarni (whose patronymic is not given) and Leif Eiriksson—who are named in this order twice overdiscovered Vinland in company. If this be fact, it is unrecorded in any surviving textual source for the voyage and must derive from an oral or written tradition otherwise lost.

The Vinland Map makes no verbal allusion to any of the other Norse voyages to America described in the two saga narratives. Its longer legend does, however, give some account of an event which is the subject of the latest reference to Vinland in the medieval Icelandic Annals, namely the voyage thitherward of Bishop Eirik Gnupsson early in the twelfth century. This episode has been interpreted by some modern historians as evidence of the survival of a Norse colony in America into this period.

An earlier voyage by Bishop Eirik, presumably from Norway or Iceland to Greenland, is recorded in the Lawman’s Annals under the year 1112, and in the annals for 1113 in the Flatey Book, a fourteenth-century compilation of the sagas. His name appears at the head of a list of the bishops at Gardar (the episcopal seat in Greenland), included in the twelfthcentury Icelandic work Rimbegla .

If Bishop Eirik did make a Vinland voyage (as the legend states) in the last year of Pope Paschal II, it must have been in 1117, since this Pope died in January, 1118, and the voyage was presumably made in the preceding summer. The point of departure, not named, was doubtless Greenland; and, according to the legend in the map, Bishop Eirik remained in Vinland for at least a year (“ longo tempore mansit estiuo et brumali ”) before returning to Greenland and thence—if we construe the text correctly—on to Europe under orders from his superiors, perhaps (since he was a papal legate) in consequence of the Pope’s death. There may have been two voyages, a first in 1117-18 and a second, on which the Bishop died, in 1121. We may, alternatively, suppose that there was only one voyage, that it was entered under the wrong year in the Annals. The version in the legend on the Vinland Map carries conviction because of its circumstantial character and the ecclesiastical expression of the date, in a form less liable to error in copying than a year number.

The purpose of the Bishop’s voyage recorded in the Annals under the year 1121 has been the subject of much historical debate. Was it made (as Fridtjof Nansen suggests) in search of a land whose very existence was doubtful, or (as supposed by Storm and Hermannsson) in search of one which was known to exist but the route to which, unfrequented for nearly a century, had been forgotten? Or did the Bishop sail by a familiar route to a land where Norse settlers still maintained themselves and needed the ministrations of the Church?

The discussion of this question has turned mainly on two issues: the precise sense of the Icelandic words leitadi and for at leita (here translated as “sought” and “went in search of”), and Bishop Eirik’s standing and duties. The best philological opinion, supported by the Icelandic scholarship of Gustav Storm, A. M. Reeves, and Hermannsson, holds that “the verb leita can, in this connection, only have the meaning ‘to search for something which is undetermined, or lost.’ ” If this be admitted, it follows that there could hardly have been a Norse colony surviving in Vinland and that the motive for the Bishop’s visit must have been evangelization of the heathen.

Previous writers have accepted the probability that Eirik did not return from his voyage of 1121; and Storm suggested that he never even found Vinland. If the evidence of the legend in the map be credited, the Bishop not only reached Vinland but also stayed there at least a year and returned safely with geographical information about the country, which he may have brought to Europe and from which the details given in the map legend were perhaps extracted. Here, then, we seem to have the latest information on Vinland which, so far as our knowledge goes, could have been derived from observation; if so, it was transmitted to Iceland within the age of written records, and perhaps to Europe. The bearing of these circumstances upon the compilation and preservation of the Vinland Map is evident, although (in the absence of collateral evidence) not precisely definable.

Whence the compiler of the map had his intelligence on Bishop Eirik Gnupsson we do not know. It is a fair guess (if no more) that its ultimate source, like that for the information on Bjarni, was Icelandic. However this may be, the map here, by supplementing and glossing a bald sentence in the Icelandic Annals, reinforces the conclusion that the voyages made to America in the early eleventh century had been without sequel. Barely a hundred years after these voyages, no Europeans were established in the westernmost lands of Norse discovery, and the sailing directions for navigation to these lands had been forgotten.

To Mr. Skelton’s opinion of the voyage of Bishop Eirik, Mr. Painter offers alternate speculations, “personal and sometimes hazardous,” which follow.

The possibility of the existence of twelfth-century Norse settlement in America is so far-reaching, not to say romantic, that it has hitherto—when the sole documentary evidence was the entry in the Icelandic Annals for 1121 that “Bishop Eirik set out for Vinland”—been rightly regarded with the gravest skepticism. The suggestion has often been made, by way of obviating the need for this startling hypothesis, that Eirik went to convert the American Skraelings, the native dwellers in Vinland (and Markland) who figure prominently in the saga-narratives, but who thereafter, from a period at least a century before Bishop Eirik’s voyage, make little further appearance in existing documentary records until the early Icelandic maps of Sigurdur Stefânsson, about 1590, and Bishop Resen, in 1605. On examination, however, this conjecture seems to be no true alternative. A purely altruistic missionary journey to convert distant savages dwelling out of all contact with European civilization or commerce is not only inconceivable in a twelfth-century context but manifestly impracticable owing to language difficulties. If, as may willingly be granted, Eirik’s duties as “bishop legate of the Apostolic See in Greenland and the neighboring regions” included the conversion of American Skraelings, then his journey surely implies the contemporary existence of Norse settlers in Vinland. This alone would provide a sufficient motive for his mission, in the facilitation of peaceful relations with hostile tribes, together with adequate means of interpretation, in the availability of Skraelings who had learned to speak Norwegian, or Norsemen who had learned to speak Skraeling. Conversely, if we grant the existence of Norse settlers, then the conversion of their predatory and warlike Skraeling neighbors would become an urgent necessity, which could well have been mentioned in the Greenlanders’ petition for a bishop legate, and be alluded to in the wording of his title.

The probable nature of the hypothetical Vinland settlements may be inferred from our knowledge of the parent colony in Greenland. In Vinland, too, there would be the same pattern of the chieftain’s holding, with its main building consisting of hall and smaller rooms, and outhouses including cattle byres, hay barns, smithy, corn mill (for wild Iyme grass or other grain), and perhaps even a church.

It may be doubted whether the need for self-supporting farmland away from the population pressure of Greenland could alone suffice to motivate settlement in so unfriendly a country. The saga-narratives suggest stronger motives in exploitation and export of the natural resources of the country, and in fur trade with the Skraelings. The Skraelings, indeed, dangerous as they were, were not so much an obstacle as a necessary condition for commercial settlement.

The saga-narratives, as we have seen, may legitimately be used by extrapolation to suggest conditions prevailing a century later, since the motives, practices, and experiences of the twelfth-century settlers would not differ greatly from those of the eleventh-century discoverers. The further possibility arises that the sagas, which evolved over the whole period, may well emphasize or select elements common to both epochs; or even that features and incidents belonging historically to the twelfth-century settlements may then have been anachronistically embodied in the narratives of the age of discovery. Such a possibility seems especially inviting in the accounts of Karlsefni’s alternate battles and fur trading with the natives and the capture in Markland of native boys, whom the voyagers took home to Greenland, christened, and taught to speak Norwegian, and from whom they in turn picked up a few words of the Skraeling tongue. This last incident, though quite credible in itself, may be held to foreshadow the establishment of communication with the Skraelings through native interpreters, which was perhaps available to Bishop Eirik a century later. Karlsefni’s prohibition against parting with iron weapons would often be circumvented, either by illegal trading or in war; and this might possibly account for some of the many alleged finds of Norse weapons on the American continent, if any of these are indeed authentic. (See H. R. Holand, Explorations in America Before Columbus , 1956, pp. 137-38, 195-206, and references.) Such finds sometimes show a suspicious correlation with areas of nineteenth-century Scandinavian immigration, and genuine medieval ironware may well have been brought from Scandinavia and planted in modern times. The so-called “small halbards” are known to have been manufactured in the iSgo’s for cutting plug tobacco! Finds made in Minnesota and other districts far inland have been used to substantiate the fraudulent runic inscription on the Kensington Stone and the fantastic theory of a fourteenth-century Norse land expedition through the heart of the continent. On the other hand, it would not be surprising if Norse ironware acquired by Indians from trading settlements on the Vinland coast should have passed from tribe to tribe far inland. The whole rather scabrous question of these alleged finds perhaps deserves more serious investigation than it has hitherto received. We may conjecture, then, that the Vinland settlements were homesteads adapted from the Greenland model, made self-supporting through the cattle rearing, hunting, fishing, and food gathering of which the Karlsefni narratives have so much to tell, and installed chiefly for the export of timber and for fur trade with the Skraelings. The above hypothesis and discussion of the existence and nature of these settlements is perhaps nothing more than a more or less profitable exercise in speculation. On the other hand, it may be claimed that the concept is supported by testimony of real strength and abundance, including the new evidence of the Vinland Map caption, arguments of probability from the saga-narratives, and the suggestion that the sagas themselves contain material reflecting conditions in Vinland subsequent to the generation of the first Norse discoveries. The hypothesis requires further testing by a full reassessment in this light of all existing evidence concerning the Greenland colony and the Norse discovery of America, and by search for new evidence, both documentary and archaeological. As to the number and duration of the settlements, our present evidence can imply only that they existed in the first quarter of the twelfth century, and were sufficiently important to receive a protracted visit from Bishop Eirik at the express order of Pope Paschal, half the world away.

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