Post-classical history




The years after Stamford Bridge saw the players in the Viking drama slowly recede into history, leaving their ‘Viking’ heritage behind. Magnus and Olaf ‘the Peaceful’, the sons of Harald the Ruthless, ruled Norway between them, and renewed hostilities between their lands and the Danish holdings of Svein Estridsen. For his part, Svein married Thora, the widow of Harald the Ruthless. While Olaf the Peaceful remained in Scandinavia, a coin bearing his face somehow made it all the way across the Atlantic to Godard Point, Maine, either through shipwreck, or trade between Arctic Inuit and Greenlanders, or perhaps even one final, unrecorded visit to Vinland.

Svein Estridsen and, after his death, his son Canute (later St Canute) plotted to send a massive Danish fleet against England. Canute was assassinated before he could act on it, and the threat to England from Scandinavia faded permanently. If Vikings counted on any support from Northumbria, they could forget it after 1080. William the Conqueror laid waste to northern England, to ensure that it never rose up in support of any rebels against him.

Edgar the Atheling, the grandson of Edmund Ironside and the true heir to the English throne, made a half-hearted attempt at claiming the throne of England, before becoming a patsy of the new regime, fighting in Normandy on behalf of the Normans, and accompanying William the Conqueror’s son on a crusade to Jerusalem. Eastern Europe was the destination of many other exiles. Tostig’s sons stayed on in Norway with King Olaf’s blessing, and their descendants fell into obscurity there. Godwinson’s daughter Gytha remained in Russia, as the wife of the prince of Kiev, Vladimir II. Kiev continued to send Varangian mercenaries to Constantinople, but in the years after 1066 the Byzantine army was swelled by many Englishmen fleeing the new Norman order to seek their fortune elsewhere. The ‘Viking’ nature of the Varangians was permanently diluted, and the Varangian guard henceforth gained a far more Anglo-Saxon character.1 Others were rumoured to have permanently settled on the coast of the Black Sea with the Emperor’s blessing, at an unknown location that may have been the Crimea, which they called Nova Anglia – New England.

In Scandinavia, the rulers of the areas we now call Norway, Denmark and Sweden continued to jockey for position. As Christianity took firmer hold, they found new causes to unite them. Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they continued to war and raid in foreign lands, but in eastern Europe, and in the name of the Lord. The Northern Crusades turned swathes of the southern Baltic kingdoms into vassal states of the Swedes and Danes. As the family trees branched and interwove, a time came in the fifteenth century when a single monarch presented a reasonable claim to all the thrones of the region; Sweden, Denmark and Norway were joined for a century or so in the medieval Kalmar Union, before Sweden broke away again. Denmark and Norway continued to function as a single entity, before Norway seceded after the Napoleonic wars to form a union with Sweden. The union was eventually dissolved in 1905, supposedly because the Norwegians were unhappy with being ruled by a foreign power. As an indicator of just how confusing and contradictory this was, when the newly independent Norwegians decided to find a new king, their choice settled on a Danish prince, who ascended to the Norwegian throne as Hakon VII.

Norwegian influences continued among the people of the Celtic fringe. Viking expeditions continued in the Irish Sea, some led by the grandson of Harald the Ruthless, King Magnus Barelegs, who gained his name after he showed a predilection for wearing a kilt. Viking influence in Ireland had, however, been curtailed by the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, although modern historians dispute its importance – the Vikings had already been going native by that point.2 Their mixed-race offspring remained separate enough to gain their own identity – Ostmen, a name derived from their dwelling predominantly in the east of Ireland, but local intermarriage and Christianity wore away Viking elements. Although the Vikings have been blamed for destroying countless treasures of monastic Ireland, their function as traders and the founders of towns did much to bring it into contact with other parts of Europe.

As late as 1171, Orkney islanders with names as un-Scottish as Svein Asleifarson made seasonal raids westward towards the Hebrides and Ireland, and preyed upon English shipping. The twelfth-century leader Somerled, who counted Scots and Vikings among his ancestors, kept Argyllshire and Caithness free from Scottish sovereignty, preferring to pay his allegiance to the king of Norway. According to popular myth, Land-waster, the fabled banner of Harald the Ruthless, somehow made it into Scottish hands as the ‘fairy flag’ of Clan MacLeod, carried in battle as late as the sixteenth century, but now kept in Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye.

But the Viking spirit was waning, and the families of the isles were steadily losing their connections to their distant homeland. The nascent Scottish kingdom gradually retook the Norse-dominated areas chief by chief, until 1263, when the Norwegian King Hakon IV felt obliged to lead a fleet to remind his Hebridean subjects who he was. After his death in the Orkneys, his son sold the Isle of Man and the Hebrides to the Scots. The Orkneys followed in 1472, in lieu of a dowry for Margaret of Denmark, the wife of the Scottish King James III. The highlands and islands of Scotland finally became possessions of that kingdom, and would remain so, although Norse words persist in Shetland and Orcadian dialect. Despite being the northernmost region of Scotland, the region known as Sutherland retains a name based on its position relative to Norway and the isles, not Britain itself.

The Vikings were similarly edged out in other parts of the world. The ill-fated voyages to Vinland were not repeated, although vessels continued to make occasional trips to arctic Canada to collect timber for the Greenland colony. By the beginning of the twelfth century, the Earth’s climate had taken a turn for the colder.3 The first places to feel the effects were the Viking colonies on Iceland and Greenland’s western coast, where farmers noticed that the winters were becoming significantly harsher. Drift ice, once merely a seasonal hazard, became increasingly prevalent off the north coast of Iceland. In Greenland, it began to clog the northern fjords for much of the year, and made the voyage east to Europe ever more perilous. The old straight route to Europe, pioneered by Leif the Lucky, was no longer possible. Navigators were forced to swing farther to the south to avoid icebergs, and the trip became even less appealing than it already was.

Greenland and Iceland were officially made dominions of Norway in 1261, an acknowledgement of the stranglehold on communications held in olden times by the port of Trondheim, and in later years by the flourishing harbour at Bergen. The king of Norway promised to send one ship a year to Greenland, but even that annual lifeline became irregular as Norwegian trade was undermined and surpassed by the German Hanse in the later Middle Ages. The Germans had no family ties with the remote Viking colonies of the north Atlantic, and Greenland in particular suffered from the lack of communication. By the fourteenth century, the length of time between ships had reached dangerous proportions – once, nine years elapsed with no communication between Greenland and the outside world, causing some to speculate that the colonists had turned their back on Europe, and on Christ. In fact, although no bishop could be persuaded to go there, Greenland remained resolutely Christian, its inhabitants holding fast to every single aspect of the faith from their glory days in the eleventh century.4

As the ice grew worse, and they clung suicidally to a way of life that only really worked in temperate Europe, the former raiders found themselves subject to incursions by unwelcome visitors. Perhaps crossing new bridges formed by new ice, perhaps following seals as they headed south, the Skraelings came to Greenland. It is unlikely that the people who came to Greenland were the same tribe of ‘wretches’ who had fought with the Vikings in Vinland. Instead, these new arrivals were Inuit from the Arctic regions, fully adapted to life in an unforgiving climate. Around 1200, the Inuit occupied an area of fjords and islands termed the Northern Hunting Grounds by the European settlers. It is thought that there was some trade between the Inuit and the Greenlanders – iron ship rivets have been found deep in the Canadian arctic, where any metal object was highly prized.5Such trade also led to conflict, as the 1379 records of the Icelanders demonstrate – ‘The Skraelings attacked the Greenlanders, killed eighteen of them and carried off two boys, who they made their slaves.’6

Some have assumed a gradual thinning out of the Greenland colony, until the last few stragglers left, perhaps on a forgotten voyage back to Iceland that never made it. Some have assumed a friendly assimilation, with the Greenlanders adopted into the Inuit way of life, melting into the arctic wastes with their newfound allies. However, there has yet to be any genetic proof of extensive medieval intermarriage between the Greenlanders and the Inuit. In fact, Inuit legends often sound more like the more violent of the Viking sagas. One tells of an Inuit hunter coming across a Greenlander collecting shells, and immediately killing him with a spear. This act of murder was followed by Greenlander retaliation, and still greater Inuit revenge, in a series of escalating atrocities. Another recounts the activities of two outlaws who kidnap and assault a Greenlander girl, and their successful repulse of a punitive raid by the girl’s kinsmen.7 In the later Inuit accounts, we hear of a Norse leader, Ûngortoq (thought to be an Inuit corruption of Ingvar), fleeing from his burning house, and casting his infant son into the icy waters rather than leave him to the pursuing Inuit.8

By the late fifteenth century, when parties of Inuit arrived in the Eastern settlement, they found it devoid of human habitation. Gardar, across Eriksfjord from the settlement of Erik the Red, where the people of Greenland had once proudly built a cathedral, was now empty. The Inuit called itIgaliko, ‘the deserted cooking place,’ a name it bears to this day. But, setting aside for a moment the unreliability of mere anecdotal evidence, if the Inuit found it deserted, then where did the Greenlanders go?

For a generation after 1420, Iceland and the Faeroes were subject to a series of attacks by English pirates. The chief aim of such attacks was, it seems, the kidnap of young and able-bodied boys and girls, something which became a source of some embarrassment to the English crown. Pope Nicholas V even brokered a return of some of these unfortunates to their native land. It is highly likely, if Iceland was subject to major raids by English marauders, that Greenland could have been too, and with no ships to carry the news back to Europe, the Greenlanders had no protection.

This would certainly explain another Inuit story, related to a Christian missionary many centuries later. According to this version of events, Inuit heading south ran into the Norse Greenlanders on the western coast, and lived peacefully alongside them for some time. However, the settlement was attacked by three ships, which the Greenlanders only forced away with great loss of life. Many more ships returned the following year, stealing the Greenlanders’ livestock and possessions, and causing a large number of the Greenlanders to sail away permanently – presumably in search of help from Iceland – leaving the remainder in the care of the Inuit. When the raiders returned in even greater numbers, the Inuit fled. When they returned, the last of the Greenland settlements was a smoking ruin – Herjolfness on the southern tip, is still known today to the Inuit as Ikigait – ‘the place destroyed by fire’. The only survivors were five women and a few of their children left for safe-keeping with the Inuit, and co-opted into the tribe as wives of local men.9

But not even these were truly the last of the Vikings in Greenland. As late as 1540, an Icelander sailing in a German vessel found himself blown off course from his native land, and made landfall at the southern tip of Greenland. When he went ashore, he found a dilapidated town devoid of inhabitants. Lying face down on the ground was a dead body – a man clad in sealskin clothes, left where he had fallen because there was nobody to bury him. This Norse hermit, an antique metal knife lying by his side, must have been the last descendant of the Vikings in the New World.10

During the late Middle Ages, Iceland was similarly cut off from its roots, with a sharp fall in the number of vessels plying the increasingly dangerous waters, particularly after the eclipse of Trondheim as the port of contact with the north Atlantic. The Icelanders were not completely isolated from the world like their counterparts in Greenland – far from it, since although their home had a reputation as an unpleasant place to live, the cold, dry gales were perfect for drying catches to make stockfish, a staple food of the late Middle Ages.

On several occasions, Iceland was seriously considered as another extraneous arm of the Scandinavian world that could be lopped off in much the same way as Shetland and the Orkneys. Still reeling from the dissolution of the Kalmar union, the Danish king scrabbled for means to bring new money into his treasury. Danish levies were imposed on traffic in the Baltic, and there was a plan to use Iceland as the collateral for a permanent loan of 100,000 florins from England’s King Henry VIII.11 Although nothing came of this offer, Iceland was offered to England a second time in the 1780s, as a straight swap for Crab Island in the Caribbean. For a burgeoning maritime power, the acquisition of a territory in the north Atlantic was a sound strategic move, and presented a possible alternative to distant Australia as a suitable place to banish convicts. However, the plan came to nothing due to a sudden improvement in relations with Denmark. A later proposal, that Iceland be ceded to Britain if Britain backed Denmark’s bid to hang on to the Schleswig-Holstein region in the 1860s, also came to nothing. Iceland maintained its reputation as Europe’s remotest point, until the nineteenth century, when its rich repository of sagas and stories rekindled interest in medieval Scandinavia and created the image of Vikings that persists to this day.

Once North America was more than merely a memory of legendary Vinland, Scandinavian settlers established the short-lived colony of New Sweden there in 1638, and the fortress of Elfsborg on the Delaware river in the 1640s. Sweden’s power in the New World, however, was already on the wane, and by 1655 the Swedish possessions were handed over to the Dutch. This, however, did not eradicate the Scandinavian presence – the oldest church in America is the Old Swedes Church in Wilmington (formerly Fort Kristina), Delaware.12

When Scandinavian settlers arrived in the United States in the nineteenth century, advertisements for colonists emphasized the new lands to the west, and that they might be reached by rail – by the 1870s, San Francisco was suggested as the ultimate destination. The Allan Mail Line, which had several routes from Norway, Sweden and Denmark to England, also made regular crossings to New York and Quebec. From those destinations, Scandinavian colonists were likely to enter the United States through the Great Lakes, to Chicago, and thence along the railway further west. But many of them did not make it too far, preferring to settle among the lakes and forests in America’s north, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, lands which often bore an uncanny resemblance to the ones they had left.13

Old stories about Vinland soon gained new credence, and the race was on to prove that the Vinland sagas were factual reports. The surge in interest in the Vikings in the English-speaking world saw a statue of Leif Eriksson unveiled in Boston in 1887, and culminated in 1893 with the voyage of the Viking, a full-sized vessel inspired by the design of the Gokstad ship, that successfully made the voyage from Bergen to Newfoundland in an impressive 28 days. Arriving in America as the Norwegian entry in an exposition that was supposed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America, the Viking instilled considerably national pride, both at home and among Americans of Scandinavian ancestry. The period also saw a disappointing number of hoaxes and bogus claims. The coin of Olaf the Peaceful, found in Maine, was a verifiable archaeological find. Others were of more doubtful origin.

Olof Ohman joined many of his countrymen as an immigrant settler in Minnesota. He had been farming his land for eight years or so when he uncovered a slab of stone in one of his fields in 1898, etched with what appeared to be runes – an illiterate scrawl from which could be discerned occasional words identifiable with modern Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and English ones. With the same year seeing the publication of the second edition of Samuel Laing’s landmark translation of Heimskringla, the American public were ready to hear more about Vikings, particularly if it related directly to them.

The discovery of the so-called Kensington Stone was largely ignored, until it was championed some 20 years later by Hjalmar Rued Holand, a writer in Wisconsin, who argued that it was a sign of a much deeper penetration into Vinland than had been previously thought. If the inscription on the stone was true, the Vikings had not turned back at Cape Cod at all, but ventured along the Great Lakes to Minnesota itself. What were the odds? The inscription, if a translator was feeling very flexible, could be interpreted as reading:

. . . 8 Goths [Swedes] and 22 Northmen on an exploring journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by two rocky islets one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we came home, we found ten men red with blood and dead. AVM [A Virgine Maria?] save us from evil. Have ten men by the sea to look after our ships, fourteen days’ journey from this island. 1362.14

Scandinavian scholars immediately dismissed the Kensington Stone as a forgery, but away from the groves of academia, others found Holand’s arguments very persuasive. There were, of course, plenty of reasons for the Minnesotans to want to believe in an earlier visit by their ancestors. The 1893 voyage of the Viking had swelled them with ancestral pride, and there was always some mileage to be gained by claiming America to have been discovered by Protestant Norsemen instead of Catholics led by Christopher Columbus. It was not until the 1950s that the hoax was exposed, the mysterious rune-carver established not as a beleaguered explorer from the fourteenth century, but a modern Minnesotan hoaxer with a well-thumbed dictionary of runes.

In 1940, Reider Sherwin published The Viking and the Red Man, a misguided attempt to prove that the Old Norse language had made a considerable contribution to the vocabulary of Algonquin Indian. If this were true, it would mean that the Vikings had played a significantly greater part in the history of North America than was previously believed. Unfortunately for Sherwin, his thesis held little water – his book was largely a comparative dictionary of Scandinavian and Native American languages, and demonstrated little grasp of historical linguistics. Many of his supposed cognates are mere coincidences or laughably different, while others can be explained by simple onomatopoeia.

In 1957 an Italian bookseller began hawking yet another artefact around antiquarian booksellers in Europe. It was a battered book, The Tartar Relation, purportedly from sometime around 1440, containing a fragment of a report by a Franciscan monk who had visited the court of the Mongols in the 1240s. Friar Carpini’s 21-page account of China was interesting enough in itself, and constituted a rare find, but what interested Scandinavian scholars was the map that accompanied it. It showed the known world of Carpini’s time, including Japan, Tartary, what was known of Africa, and, with increasingly more accurate detail, Europe. Most crucially of all, far to the west of Europe, past Iceland and Greenland, was the unmistakable outline of Newfoundland and Labrador, markedVinilanda Insula – the isle of Vinland. If the map were genuine, it represented conclusive proof, not only that the Vikings had visited America, but also that the discovery had been appreciated and accepted in Europe itself. Such a find would destroy much of the historical achievement of Columbus and his successors.

Some historians were sceptical from the outset. The wormholes on the map did not match those on the rest of the book, nor did the ink used to draw it. If the map was not associated with the manuscript that accompanied it, then its date could not be established, and that rendered its inclusion of a ‘Vinland’ almost worthless. It was, however, regarded as an interesting enough find to be worthy of exhibiting at Yale University, its eventual owner. The manuscript was displayed for a decade, until modern forensics advanced to the stage where it could be examined not just for its content, but also for its material. Sadly for its creator, whoever he may have been, the Vinland Map was pronounced a forgery, with a high ink content of titanium dioxide, not found in inks before the early twentieth century.


Despite such muddying of the academic waters, the twentieth century did see a Vinland finding of undeniable importance, in the small Newfoundland village of L’Anse aux Meadows. Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian Arctic biologist, spent 1959 scouring the American coast north of New England, in search of any island redoubts that could conceivably fit the descriptions left in the Vinland sagas. In 1960, he heard of the Anse aux Meadows site – a series of humps and hollows known to the locals as the ‘Indian Camp’. It had indeed once been a campsite for Indian hunters, but at some point in the distant past, a different kind of settler had briefly occupied the windswept ground. These mystery visitors had stacked turf sods in order to create temporary shelters, presumably roofed over with tarpaulins from their ships.

At the time of its construction, around AD 1000, the time of Leif Eriksson’s voyage, the Anse aux Meadows site had been a beachfront – the intervening millennium has let a hundred metres of boggy ground silt up in between it and the sea. It was not an obvious place to site a settlement, but would have been ideally suited for the beaching of ships and their maintenance. In a separate enclosure were found relics of a small smith’s workshop, presumably set aside from the living quarters to avoid a risk of accident – and wisely so, since the building had caught fire at least once during its brief use.

In terms of tangible objects, there is not all that much at the Anse aux Meadows site. There is, however, definite evidence of human habitation, very clear residue from metal smithing, cracked flagstones in what appears to have been a sauna building, and a pin designed to hold a Norse cloak. Whoever had lived there had not been Native American, and their habitation had been brief. Ingstad believed that he had finally located the site of Leif Eriksson’s camp, and with it, proof of a Viking visitation.

There was, understandably, some doubt in the academic community that such a fantastic site should be found by a man who was not even a professional (Helge’s wife Anne Stine Ingstad was the archaeologist of the team, Helge more the publicist), but extensive surveys have backed up the majority of the Ingstads’ claims. A later excavation by Bengt Schönbäck determined that the Ingstads had been overzealous in believing that some natural depressions in the ground were ‘boat-sheds’, but that their findings were otherwise sound. In fact, the Schönbäck excavation uncovered even more material of Viking origin – mainly wooden fragments of furniture and household items. It was established to the satisfaction of Schönbäck that the Ingstads were essentially correct in their findings. Europeans of Norse origin had lived at L’Anse aux Meadows for a few years, before presumably departing whence they had come.

In June 2000, on the estimated 1,000th anniversary of Leif’s supposed arrival, crowds flocked to the tiny L’Anse aux Meadows settlement for a double millennial celebration. The replica Viking vessel Islendingur led a small flotilla of Norse vessels back to the place the Vikings had left so long before, accompanied by captain Gunnar Eggertsson, a modern descendant of Leif the Lucky. The celebrations were even attended by representatives of the local Native Americans, happy to remind visitors that while the celebration was of the Vikings, the Vinland settlement had been chased away by the Indians, who had ‘discovered’ America considerably earlier than anyone else.

The modern replica houses built near the original L’Anse aux Meadows site are slightly misleading. They are not the turf ‘booths’ of saga and archaeological record, but buildings with stone foundations and turfed roofs and despite their supposed educational function, they give a far more permanent and lasting impression of the Vinland voyages than is perhaps warranted; they have probably already been occupied for longer than the originals. This willingness of the people of the twenty-first century to adapt Viking culture to their own ends is typical. When the Norse men and women first came to America, there were perhaps no more than 150 of them with their plans for a colony. A thousand years later, 15,000 people, a hundred times the headcount of the original settlers, turned out at L’Anse aux Meadows to welcome the Islendingur and its accompanying ships. The empire of the Vikings has faded, but their influence lives on – they are fictional creations today, the creatures of movies and comics, and figures of fun or lurid horror. Our impression of them is created largely through literature – the tales, tall and otherwise, spun by their isolated Icelandic descendants, and the retellings of the sagas by Victorian authors.

Modern research into DNA has established a heavy Viking presence in many places outside Scandinavia. Unsurprisingly, the prevalence of Y-chromosomes with a Danish or Norse origin runs in close correlation to the Norse place names to be found on an English map. The further north one goes in Britain, the more likelihood there is of Viking ancestry, and once into the Scottish isles, Norwegian genes are dominant. Such racial relics are less obvious in other places; the Rus, for example were bands of single men who most often took local wives and concubines, thus swiftly diluting the Scandinavian genes in their descendants.

The Vikings do not, should not, exist any more. The last vestige of the Viking spirit can be found in criminals and chancers, and hopefully, that is where it will stay. They are a part of our nature that we would like to deny – robbers, thieves and pirates, that we like to believe are expelled by modern times.

If anything can be learned from more recent studies of history, it is the role that climate and ecology can play in population movements. In the Viking Age and the centuries that preceded it, northern Europe’s unpredictable climate periodically forced barbarian tribes to go in search of new resources. In our supposedly enlightened age, the search for such resources has been sublimated, corporatized, sanitized perhaps, but it has not receded. You did not, I hope, steal this book from someone else. The clothes on your back were not snatched from Irish monks, and you did not appropriate your money by smashing up priceless holy relics, but there is still a perilously thin line that separates you from the hungry and the cold, and from the need to secure food and warmth. Few of us are more than a few months away from bankruptcy. We hand over new forms ofmanngjöld, hoping to shield ourselves against misfortune by paying tax and insurance. Our faith in our governments and welfare systems keeps us from having to consider what we would do if they were not there.

While the Vikings are inhabitants of the past, the forces that created them are not. Ours is still a world with famines, floods and incidents of overpopulation. Our battles over resources are fought by proxy in distant lands, but they are still fought. You do not lead a band of men to take from those less able to protect themselves, but somewhere far away, others do on your behalf. It takes only the tiniest turn of fate, the slightest lapse of law, to make Vikings of us all.

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