Post-classical history




There are some who claim that Gotland, with its hoards of silver, is the treasury of the Viking Age. But it is Iceland that preserved the most valuable relics of all – the words of the Vikings themselves. Cut off from Europe by long distances across treacherous seas, the colonies of Iceland first became a haven for fugitives, both well-intentioned and criminal. In the centuries after the Viking Age, the isolated Icelanders chronicled the activities of the Viking Age in the many sagas that are our main literary source for the period. The conservative, exclusive society of Iceland maintained heavy restrictions on change, leading to a homogenous population and a language that has changed little from the medieval Norwegian tongue spoken by the original settlers. The precise identity of the original settlers, however, is more problematic.

According to the ancient Greek writer Pytheas, six days’ sail north of Britain, mariners would reach the Arctic island of Thule. There, the local inhabitants lived a peaceful farming life, and drank a beverage made from grain and honey – a forerunner perhaps of Viking mead. Pytheas paints a bleak picture of life in the frozen north, claiming that the barbarian farmers of Thule brought their harvest indoors so that they could thresh their grain out of the wet, sunless weather. Considering that Pytheas’s other descriptions of the far north include what appear to be several descriptions of the Baltic, it is likely that the Thule to which he referred was a location somewhere on the coast of Norway. For some, however, his comments are the first known reference to Iceland.1

Although popular wisdom credits the Vikings with the discovery of Iceland, that distinction belongs to the Irish. It was, after all, Irish monks that explored the coasts of Ireland and Scotland right round to luckless Lindisfarne, in search of remote places to set their hermitages and monasteries. As part of the contemplative life, some of the early Christians ascetics would set out in wickerwork boats clad in skin, or curachs, in search of a ‘desert in the ocean’. It was the ultimate leap of faith, a ‘wandering’ or peregrinatio, in which the monks would steer a course into the unknown, trusting in God to bring them to a safe landfall. Such blind sailing may indeed have brought monks to Ireland in the first place, from Gaul.

It is likely to have been Irish monks, sailing into what they believed to be open sea, who first witnessed the hillingar effect, the ‘uplifting’ or ‘looming’ of an arctic mirage. When significantly colder air underlies a layer of warmer air, as can happen at northern latitudes particularly in the summer months, objects on the ground can be refracted so that they appear higher than they really are. Distant ships may appear to float inverted in the air, and distant lands may suddenly become visible, even though they are over the horizon. Although Iceland lay beyond the normal range of ships of the pre-Viking period, its phantom image may have encouraged early sailors to seek it out.

When Viking sailors ‘discovered’ Iceland, the Irish were already there. The sagas of Iceland’s colonization, written long after the event, attempt to revise history to exclude the Irish presence. Norse tradition tells of the legendary Gardar the Swede, who sailed west from the Scandinavian mainland, hoping to reach the Hebrides, where he expected to pick up his wife’s inheritance. Gardar was blown far off course in a gale, missed the Hebrides by miles, and reached the easternmost part of Iceland – tellingly, this is exactly where two communities of Irish monks were trying to eke out an isolated existence. Rather kindly for the sake of prosperity, Gardar then sailed clockwise along the coast of the ‘new’ land, all the way around to the secluded cove of Husavik (‘Houses-bay’) on the northern shore. After a winter at Husavik, Gardar then supposedly completed his circumnavigation of the island, which he modestly named Gardarsholm, before heading back to civilization.

If Gardar truly had relatives and colleagues in the Hebrides, then his accidental trip to Iceland probably owed more to stories heard from the Irish and those who associated with them. The tale of his journey seems to exist for one reason only, as a means of retroactively crediting a Norseman with the first circumnavigation of the island, and thereby its ownership.2 Gardar supposedly spread the word about his discovery, but even so, the next Viking arrived in Iceland by crashing into it. His name was Naddod, and he was supposedly a Viking of some high standing, forced to leave his native Norway for reasons undisclosed. Hitting a storm somewhere off the Faeroes, Naddod and his crew were blown to Iceland’s eastern coast, once again, close to the sites of earlier Irish settlement. Naddod, it is said, put ashore with his men and climbed the hill of Reydarfjall, hoping to see the smoke of cook-fires, or some other evidence of human habitation. Conveniently for later claimants, Naddod and his men reported no sign of human life whatsoever, and set off back to the Faeroes amid a punishing snowstorm. Unhappy with their experience, they chose to call the putative Gardarsholm by a new name – Snowland.

Despite such unpromising beginnings, the place soon attracted another sailor, this time intentionally. Floki Vilgerdason later gained the name Raven-Floki for his legendary assistants – a trio of ravens cast out from the ship, whose flights were closely watched for signs of land sighted. The first raven, set free early in the trip, turned and flew back to the Faroes. The second, released later, returned to Floki’s ship, unable to find another place to land. The third (and we may wonder why the second raven was not reusable) flew ahead of his ship, confirming that land lay beyond the horizon. Like so many other sagas, the tale of Raven-Floki seems too neat to be taken at face value – with its avian navigational aids, it bears too close a resemblance to the story of Noah. However, other elements of the Raven-Floki tale ring true, such as the miserable time he had once he arrived.

Raven-Floki and his fellow Vikings eventually made landfall in the north-west of the island, and spent the summer clubbing seals and netting fish. They were obviously planning on staying for the long haul, since they had brought a considerable amount of livestock with them. But they were fooled by the deceptive Arctic summer – on a coast warmed by the Gulf Stream, and with long days to offset the cold latitude, Raven-Floki’s group made poor preparations for the turn of the seasons. When the autumn arrived, its severity took the Vikings by surprise. Raven-Floki’s livestock all died, supposedly for lack of fodder. After a bitter winter, Raven-Floki decided to return home, but was forced by spring storms to put back to land and wait another year. When he did finally make it back to Norway, he had nothing positive to say about his trip at all, and gave the place of his torment the name it bears today – Iceland.

Despite such unpromising beginnings, Iceland was colonized. Perhaps it was thanks to Raven-Floki’s more positive associate Thorolf, who claimed that Iceland’s pastures were so rich they dripped with butter. Possibly there were other pressures, political and logistical, that led large numbers of colonists to arrive between 870 and 930. Iceland’s sagas of settlement mention good Vikings wrongly accused of crimes, or fleeing the land reforms that accompanied Harald Fairhair’s consolidation of power in Norway. The age of the great land-rush to settle Iceland is also roughly contemporary with Viking difficulties elsewhere – defeats in France, Ireland and Scotland, and internal strife in the Orkneys, for example. Iceland was a chance for a new beginning, a fresh start far from the warring troubles of Old Europe. In later generations, the descendants of the first settlers would mythologize their arrival as a triumph of liberty, telling tales remarkably similar to those of later colonists who would flee further west on the Mayflower.

The Icelanders, so say the stories, fled the tyranny of Harald Fairhair, although he was not even born when the migrations began. The most famous of their number were Ingolf Arnarson and Leif Hrodmarrson, relatives who had become embroiled in a bitter vendetta over Leif’s rivalry with an unwelcome suitor for the hand of his betrothed. When the two kinsmen ended the feud in traditional Viking style, by murdering the suitor and his supporters, their estates were confiscated. With nothing to lose, they went in search of Raven-Floki’s Iceland.

For some reason, they had a lot of Irish people with them. Despite their Norwegian blood, the brothers appear to have spent a while pillaging Ireland – indeed, Leif was the proud wielder of a sword he had personally liberated from the tomb of an Irish warrior. Supposedly, their Irish slaves revolted, stole their remaining possessions and women, and set up on the Vestmannaeyjar – the Isles of the West Men to the south of the Icelandic coast. Ingolf killed them all in revenge, although the story sounds suspiciously like a rationalization for the removal of earlier Irish settlers, or perhaps even a joint colonization effort that went sour with the Norwegians emerging on top.3 The remaining Irish monks on the island soon quit their scattered hermitages, often in such a hurry that their religious paraphernalia was left behind to inspire later stories among the Icelanders.

The Icelanders’ own records mention around 400 original settlers, over 50 of whom had names that implied mixed Irish ancestry, or Celtic nicknames denoting considerable time spent outside Scandinavia. Their slaves and concubines (the mothers of many later generations) were also predominantly Irish, some of impressively noble birth. The Saga of the People of Laxardal mentions a haughty slave-girl with no appreciation of her duties, brought to Iceland already pregnant with the child of her Viking captor. She is eventually revealed as Melkorka (Mael-Curchaich?), the daughter of the Irish king Mýrkjartan (Muircertach?), kidnapped at 15 years of age. Faced with feuding women and clearly unable to control his Irish mistress, her owner eventually installed her in a homestead of her own across the river, recorded as the now-deserted site of Melkorkustadir.4

Not all of the Irish who accompanied the first settlers were ill treated. The Norse matriarch Aud the Deep-Minded, who figures large in the Icelanders’ tales of the first settlers, brought many Irish slaves with her from Dublin where her late husband Olaf the White had been king.5 After unsuccessfully relocating to Caithness, where her son Thorsteinn the Red was killed, Aud and her entourage gave up on the harsh life on the Hiberno-Scottish fringe and set out for pastures new. Aud would eventually free several of her slaves and set them up on their own – freedmen including Vifil, whose great-grandson would become the first European to be born in America, and Erp, a thrall whose mother was supposedly Myrgiol, an Irish princess sold into slavery in Britain.6 Although such tales often have the ring of truth, it is important to remember who was telling them – later generations of Icelanders hoping to put a polish on concubine ancestors by inventing noble backgrounds for them. Irish names certainly persisted among the Icelanders for many generations, including Njall, Kormakr, Brjan and Patrek.

Such was the place where agents of Crowbone arrived, spreading the word of God, or, more properly, the news that Crowbone was boss in Norway. Sources on the conversion of Iceland are, as with so much about the Viking Age, chiefly written long after it was over, and by the winning side. Although numerous medieval documents, contracts and church materials were collated during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into the Diplomatarium Islandicum collection, there are very few extant sources from the first couple of centuries of Christianity in Iceland. We do, however, have Ari the Learned’s Íslendingabók, written by a man who claimed to have heard stories of the conversion from old men who had been children at the time. Ari’s version, even though it was written down a hundred years after the event, is the closest we have to a reliable account – ifHeimskringla matches it, it is perhaps only because Íslendingabók was there for Snorri to use as reference.7

According to Íslendingabók, by the summer of 1000, heathens and Christians in Iceland were preparing to fight over their religion, in what would likely become only the first skirmish of a religious war. The one chance to head off the disaster came at the summer assembly meeting. The ‘law-speaker’, Thorgeir Thorkelsson was the master of ceremonies, the arbitrator of disputes, and had been so since 985. With impressive wisdom and foresight, he realized that if he made no attempt to settle the dispute, the 1000 assembly would be the last time that Icelanders could claim to be self-governing. If he failed to come to a solution, the following year would see two rival assemblies, and before long they would be at each other’s throats.

Somehow, Thorgeir’s agents managed to bring both sides into negotiations. He heard the arguments for and against, and took over a day to reach his decision. A heathen himself, Thorgeir nevertheless had enough support among the Christians to still command their respect.

Thorgeir demanded assurances from both sides that they would abide by his decision, to which they agreed. He then decreed a compromise that pleased everybody. Iceland, as a nation, would accept baptism en masse. Crowbone would be assured that the entire country was now Christianized. Meanwhile, the Icelanders also remained free to practise the old ways. Thorgeir specifically assured the heathens that the exposure of children and the eating of horseflesh were still permitted – a tantalizing reference to two particular sacrificial practices that may have formed part of the worship of Frey, Thor or Odin. As for actual heathen religious ceremonies, they were to be declared illegal, but only if accusers were able to produce witnesses to verify that such heathenism was taking place. Crowbone had his assurances, and unless he spied on the hearthside activities of every Icelandic family, he would never hear that anyone was not as Christian as their baptism implied.8

Thorgeir had done it; he averted the crisis. He was replaced as Law-Speaker by 1001, so probably had had to call in every single available favour. The Christians were fully aware of the nature of the compromise, and that pagan ways continued in secret, but such was the conversion experience all over medieval Europe. A few years after Thorgeir’s landmark decision, the ‘old ways’ were officially criminalized by a larger Christian majority, and the new religion was the victor.

But Iceland was not the last bastion of Viking culture. Restless settlers were soon looking beyond it, particularly after 930, when the initial land-rush had claimed the best settlement sites. On Iceland’s western tip, on the promontory of Snaefellsness, it is possible to climb the towering 1,446 metres of an extinct volcano that looks out to sea. On the rare clear days when it is not surrounded by clouds, it is sometimes possible to another coastline in the distance – floating upside down above the horizon in an arctic mirage.

Early in the tenth century, the mariner Gunnbjörn Úlfsson overshot Iceland in a storm, and turned his ship around at a series of remote rocks known thereafter as Gunnbjörn’s Skerries. He was, however, convinced that there was land even further to the west. For those living in the west of Iceland, the existence of further territories became a matter of faith. Others may have reported similar looming lands in the distance on remote fishing trips, and many noted the flights of migrant birds that periodically headed beyond the western horizon.9

One family in particular was to become instrumental in the colonization of points even further west, partly through their roving Viking spirit, but mainly through their habit of getting into trouble. Their patriarch was Thorvald Asvaldsson, a man from Jaeder in south-west Norway, forced to relocate to Iceland ‘because of some killings’, as the sagas bluntly put it.10 With him went his son Erik, known to prosperity as Erik the Red, for his flame-coloured hair and beard, and as he reached manhood, his inheritance of his father’s belligerent ways.

Although Erik tried to settle into the peaceable life of an Iceland farmer, bad luck seemed to follow him. He reached maturity during a period when Iceland suffered one of its harsher famines, and tempers among the farmers were frayed. Icelandic conservatism was already settling in, with the earlier settlers established on the best land, and unwelcoming towards newcomers, particularly those with doubtful pasts. Erik’s slaves somehow caused a landslide that destroyed the farm of a fellow Icelander, Eyjolf. Eyjolf killed the slaves, causing Erik to kill Eyjolf himself sometime later. His saga also mentions offhandedly that he also killed someone called Hrafn the Dueller – Erik was clearly getting out of hand.11

The local population took limited action, and were happy merely to banish Erik from the area. He resettled in another part of Iceland, where he soon quarrelled with his neighbour Thorgest over the loan of some bench-boards. When Erik took back his furniture by force he was pursued by Thorgest’s sons, two of whom he also killed. Perhaps it did not escape the attention of the local Assembly that Erik’s crimes, although murderous, had not been without provocation. He and his men (who had also fought in the skirmish) were banished from Iceland for three years, leading Erik to turn his ship towards the west, and go in search of the fabled land beyond Gunnbjörn’s Skerries.

Erik was not even the first. Around 978, one Snaebjorn Galti had led a disastrous attempt to settle the coastline beyond Gunnbjörn’s Skerries. The small party of colonists did not last the first mercilessly harsh winter, and ended up slaughtering each other. Erik, however, had more time on his hands to go exploring, and ignored the forbidding, glacier-strewn east coast of the new land. Instead, he sailed down the coast and around the southern tip, to discover the far more welcoming lands of the western coast. Warmed, like Iceland, by the Gulf Stream, and with long fjords penetrating deep inland, the new area seemed deceptively like Erik’s native Norway. It was also apparently deserted, with land for the taking, meadows of green grass, and plenty of fish. Erik and his men spent their three-year exile exploring the new land, realizing that it presented the ideal settlement opportunity for the younger sons and newer arrivals of Iceland. If the old settlers in Iceland were refusing to budge, then this new island would be an excellent site for colonization. Erik even decided to help things along by picking a name that suggested a far more hospitable climate – he called it Greenland. He also may have neglected to widely publicize another important fact – although he and his men had encountered nobody in Greenland, they were patently not the first people to visit it. Scattered all around their new ‘discovery’ were the tell-tale artefacts of previous visitors, people who had arrived in small boats made from animal skins, with no metal but enough skills to make spearheads and arrowheads of stone.12

Erik and his men did a good job of talking up their discovery. After a triumphant return to Iceland and a grudging reconciliation with those he had wronged, Erik set out again in 986, in a fleet of 25 ships. These were not only longships but also wide-beamed high-capacity knorrs, loaded with livestock. It is a testament to the perils of navigation at the time that only 14 of the ships made it to Iceland – many of the knorrs were unable to make it through the cross-currents, and it is assumed that the vessels with more oars were more successful in the journey than the ones with larger cargoes.13

Approximately 450 people formed the initial Greenland colony, scattered across the fjords of the western settlement in two main locations. They explored their new land as far north as possible, to the point where the stony ground gave way to endless ice, and they soon formed a loose-knit community of homesteads in imitation of the Icelandic model. The colony prospered slowly, and the people were forced to adapt to the absence of some basic necessities. Although there were attempts to tease crops from the soil, grain was in short supply, and bread all but disappeared from the Greenlanders’ diet. Trees were also thin on the ground, and there was no metal to be had locally. The Greenlanders were forced to improvise, and to trade with the Icelanders across the dangerous strait. Perhaps the greatest lack of all was people – they had found Greenland to be ‘deserted’, without a local population that they could prey upon, trade with, and ultimately marry into.

But for all Erik and his fellow colonists knew, there would be yet more lands further on, with yet more space for colonization. Although Greenland was destined to become the farthest edge of the Viking world, there was one more shore further to the west that would also briefly be visited by the Vikings. Our sources for it comprise two sagas, which unhelpfully contradict each other – each seemingly an attempt to assign credit for certain discoveries to a different person. They have, however, become the two most discussed sagas in the English-speaking world, because of their subject matter, and because later, tantalizing scraps of archaeological evidence have revealed them to be true, at least in their general narrative.

The existence of this new land was first mooted very soon after the initial settlement of Greenland, as usual by a sailor who had got lost. Bjarni Herjolfsson was a young merchant who plied the seas between Norway and Iceland on a two-year cycle that allowed him to sail in seasons when drift ice was not a hazard. He would load up with goods at his father’s farm in Iceland, and make the long voyage back to his ancestral home in Norway. There he would spend the winter selling his wares, before loading up with materials likely to sell back in Iceland. He would set off the next year and then repeat the process. Bjarni was thus rather surprised to arrive back in Iceland to discover that his father had left. He was told that Herjolf had tired of the declining state of Iceland, and decided to seek new lands with Erik the Red, to the west.

The news, so reports the Greenlander Saga, was a surprise to Bjarni, but his merchant’s mind was already working.14 Rather than unload his cargo in Iceland, he decided it would be more prudent to head after his father – presumably reasoning that colonists in Greenland would be pleased to find a ship of Norwegian luxuries turning up on their shores. Bjarni’s men were in agreement, although they did note that the route to Greenland was unknown to them, and that it might prove difficult.

Bjarni’s ship overshot Greenland by several days, possibly due to his ignorance of the route and currents, although his saga is swift to plead poor weather conditions. Beset by a severe fog that made it difficult to get their bearings by sun or stars, Bjarni sailed ever onwards, and when he did eventually sight land, it did not fit the description he had heard of Greenland’s eastern coast. Bjarni’s ship was the first European vessel to record a sighting of the place now known as North America, although Bjarni did not put ashore. Realizing that he was significantly to the south of his chosen destination, he sailed north along the strange shore for a further two days, but at no point did he see the glaciers that would identify the coastline as Greenland. His men did, however, note that the coastline was thickly forested – a fact that would encourage later explorers to seek it out from tree-starved Greenland. The exact location of Bjarni’s voyage is unknown – he never dropped anchor, but merely tracked the Canadian coast north. Somewhere in the region of Baffin Island, he stared out at the icy shore and pronounced it worthless.15 Turning back to the east, Bjarni sailed for several more days, until he reached a coastline that did indeed turn out to be Greenland. He found his father’s new homestead and supposedly turned to a farmer’s life, although by the next paragraph the Greenlander Saga reports that he began trading once more, with Norway.

It was 14 years after Bjarni’s historic voyage that the unknown coastline began to renew its pull on Vikings. The prime mover in the new venture was Erik the Red’s son, Leif the Lucky, the foolhardy pioneer of new sea routes. It was Leif who first sailed direct from Greenland to Norway, bypassing completely the staging posts of Iceland and the Faeroes, and instead pointing his ship directly at Scandinavia. Leif’s route headed due east from Greenland’s southern tip, and, if sailed properly, would pass neatly between the Faeroes and the Shetlands, steering with the former to port and the latter to starboard. Sailors might not arrive immediately at their destination port, but Norway was a large target and difficult to miss.

Leif bought the aging Bjarni Herjolfsson’s ship, and attempted to organize an expedition to the unknown coast at the turn of the eleventh century. He even tried to enlist the help of the venerable Erik the Red, but although the old Viking agreed to go, an injury from a fall as preparations were finalized caused him to excuse himself. It is therefore Leif the Lucky who is credited with leading the first party of Europeans to set foot in the New World. Deliberately retracing Bjarni’s trip homewards, Leif reached a flat, unpromising shore that was probably Baffin Island.16 Regarding himself as the rightful namer by virtue of actually making a landfall, he called it Helluland (Slab-land). Sailing further to the south, Leif’s crew sighted another land, covered in dense forests. This, too, matched Bjarni’s earlier descriptions, and was dubbed Markland (Forest-land) by Leif.

Another two days further south, they found an even more promising region, where they decided to spend the winter. The exact site of Leif’s base is unknown – although the most likely site is a Viking camp excavated at L’Anse aux Meadows in north Newfoundland. Constructed somewhere between 1000 and 1020, the site appears to have been a base suitable for up to 90 men with the facilities for heavy-duty ship repair – a hollow for use as a dry dock, a smithy, and a kiln. At several points in the site, modern archaeologists have unearthed butternuts, which are not known to grow north of the St Lawrence river – whoever stayed at the L’Anse aux Meadows site had sailed further south, as confirmed by other information contained in Greenlander Saga. Leif reported the length of the day at winter solstice, which tallies with a latitude somewhere south of the Gulf of St Lawrence, but north of New Jersey.

The most famous feature of the land was discovered by Tyrkir the Southerner. Separated from the group while foraging, he returned babbling excitably in his native German, and had to be calmed down enough to speak intelligible Norse. Tyrkir had found some kind of berry (probably a cranberry) that he regarded as a grape, suitable for the making of wine. Leif took his word for it – they do not appear to have known much about wine themselves, and relied on Tyrkir’s hazy memories of vineyards from his childhood.17 Leif dubbed their new land Vinland (Vine-land), wherever it may have been.

Triangulating the solstice length of day, with the butternuts and the ‘grapes’, it appears that Leif’s wanderings took him somewhere near Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, or perhaps even further towards New England, somewhere north of Cape Cod. Even back in the warm summers of AD1000, true grapes did not grow in America north of Maine. After a winter in the new lands, and some brief further explorations, Leif set sail back for Greenland, his ship loaded with lumber from the Canadian forests.

The Greenlander Saga also reports an encounter that Leif made on the way home with a group of 15 fellow Vikings wrecked on a reef. He rescued them and brought them safely back to Greenland, before returning to the place of their wreck to retrieve their cargo. The saga implies that the ship was on its way from Norway, but it may have been another mission to America, specifically for the purpose of gathering timber. However, Erik’s Saga, a less reliable account that includes the same incident, makes no mention of the ship’s destination, instead noting that one of the rescued sailors was the first Christian missionary to reach Greenland. Considering that all the Icelandic sagas were committed to books long after the events they describe, it remains possible that the shipwrecked Vikings may have played a far greater role in the discovery of America than Erik’s Sagalets on. There is certainly a bizarre jumble of incidents concerning the survivors, which the suspicious-minded might interpret as signs of a whitewash. Among the rescued party was a woman called Gudrid, ‘a woman of striking appearance’ and the wife of the ship’s captain Thorir.18 Without a place to stay in Greenland, Thorir’s crew lodged among the locals, and the couple were invited to stay at Erik the Red’s homestead in Brattahlid. For some reason, Thorir did not survive the ensuing winter – the saga implies that an outbreak of disease did for several of the new arrivals, as well as causing the death of Erik the Red himself. But Gudrid had no trouble finding a new man; she married Leif the Lucky’s brother Thorsteinn, and was to play an important role in later explorations of America.

Whatever the truth behind Leif’s luck and Thorir’s peculiar lack of it, Leif did not return to America. With the passing of Erik the Red, Leif was the inheritor of Brattahlid, and had other responsibilities to concern him, chiefly his de facto position as the senior colonist. His seafaring days were over, but he passed his well-travelled vessel on to his brother Thorvald. Thorvald wasted little time in preparing another trip to Vinland, fired possibly by the desire for new conquests, but more probably by increasing tensions in Greenland. Whether the story of the missionary rescued by Leif was true or not, Christianity had begun to take hold in the Greenland settlements, and was leading to tensions between the new religionists and the pagan old guard. Quite possibly, the Christian Thorvald was searching for a new place for fellow Christians to settle.

Thorvald was able to sail across the Davis Strait and down the coast to the place where Leif’s crew had previously wintered – wherever it was, it was in a sufficiently prominent position to be easy for other sailors to locate if they knew what they were looking for. After a winter spent at Leif’s old camp, Thorvald ordered further explorations in the spring. On one such trip, his men found evidence of human habitation, a wooden stack-cover.

After another winter at the camp, further explorations led them to a heavily wooded promontory between, as the sagas quaintly put it ‘two fjords’. Wherever it was, it was idyllic enough for Thorvald to decide he had found a place to settle. However, someone else had beaten him to it – three anonymous lumps on a beach in the distance were found to be upturned animal-skin boats, each hiding three Native Americans.

The Norsemen called them Skraelings, a word thought to evoke elements of ‘wretches’ or ‘savages’, and possibly related to the pejorative prefix Skrit, used in earlier times to describe the inhabitants of Lapland.19 The exact identity of the Skraelings is impossible to determine from the limited saga descriptions; they could have been Beothuk or Micmac Indians. Whoever they were, they appeared sufficiently threatening for Thorvald’s men to kill them. After a scuffle on the shoreline, the first recorded encounter between Europeans and Native Americans ended with eight Indians dead, and a lone survivor paddling in fast retreat towards a distant cluster of huts. He soon returned with heavy reinforcements, and in the ensuing battle between Viking ship and kayak flotilla, the Vikings were victorious. Thorvald, however, was shot through the armpit by a Skraeling arrow, and died in the aftermath, becoming, in a day of many firsts, the first European to perish on American soil, buried at at unknown location recorded as Crossness.

Thorvald’s crew made it back to Greenland, dismayed at the loss of their leader, but still optimistic about the potential offered by Vinland. They arrived back at Eriksfjord to discover that the sons of Erik the Red had suffered a second tragedy – in their absence, Thorvald’s brother Thorsteinn had also perished of an unknown disease, leaving his widow Gudrid an exceptionally rich woman, with inheritances from two departed husbands.

Although by now she must have seemed remarkably unfortunate, Gudrid remained an attractive marital prospect. She was still young, famously beautiful, rich, and related by marriage to the celebrated Leif the Lucky, unofficial headman of the Greenland colony. The sagas report a strange incident that could refer to a failed love affair or courtship with another man,20 but by the time the Vinland explorers returned, Gudrid had found a third husband. He was quite literally fresh off the boat from Norway, a wealthy ship’s captain called Thorfinn Karlsefni. Leif brokered the marriage himself, functioning in loco parentis for his bereaved sister-in-law, and Gudrid’s groom soon found himself pestered into initiating another expedition to Vinland, this time with the intention of settling.

Karlsefni set out to colonize Vinland, but was expressly told by Leif that he could only ‘borrow’ the campsite where Leif and his brother had wintered. Leif clearly intended to maintain his claim on Vinland by reminding all successive travellers exactly who had reached it first. Karlsefni’s party was expected to find land of its own; certainly if it was a colonization mission, it was intended merely as the spearhead – only five women accompanied the settlers.

Karlsefni’s group had been at Leif’s camp for some months before they had their first encounter with Skraelings. A group of natives approached the settlement from the woods, bearing packs loaded with furs. This is in itself a strange occurrence – how did they know what the Vikings would want to trade? If this truly was the first peaceful encounter between the Skraelings and the Vikings, it is not likely to have been as sudden as the saga reports.21 Despite a complete lack of shared language, trade was made possible by accident. In a gesture of hospitality, Karlsefni sent the women out with milk for the skittish new arrivals, but the Skraelings regarded the simple drink as such a delicacy that they were happy to trade their wares simply for more of it.

The incident gave Karlsefni pause. He ordered for a wooden palisade to be erected around the camp – hardly the act of someone not expecting trouble. Some of his companions grew restless, reportedly angry at the complete absence of the much publicized wine-grapes; one, Thorhall the Hunter, setting off back to Europe in disgust.22 But in time, Gudrid gave birth to a baby boy, Snorri, the first European to be born in America.

The next visit from the Skraelings came when Snorri was still in his cradle. Trade went on in a similar manner to the previous occasion, but more Skraelings arrived, and may have even overwhelmed the little camp. Greenlander Saga reports an encounter between Gudrid and a mysterious woman, described by most commentators as an ‘apparition’, although if we look at the information revealed in the text itself, she is nothing of the sort:

. . . a shadow fell across the door and a woman entered wearing a black, close-fitting tunic; she was rather short and had a band around her chestnut-coloured hair . . . She walked up to Gudrid and said, ‘What is your name?’

‘My name is Gudrid. What is yours?’

‘My name is Gudrid,’ the woman replied.23

Surely this is no apparition, but merely an inquisitive Indian girl repeating the first Norse phrases she has heard. Meanwhile, a fight broke out among the men when one of the Skraelings attempted to make off with a Viking sword – Karlsefni had expressly forbidden the trading of weapons with the inhabitants of Vinland. The would-be thief was killed, and the others fled during the struggle. Since none of the other Vikings remembered seeing Gudrid’s ‘apparition’, it is possible that she was one of a second party of Skraelings that had been detailed to pilfer the camp while the traders caused a distraction.24

The Skraelings were soon back in greater numbers, and openly hostile. The Vikings killed many of them in the ensuing battle, and witnessed a Skraeling chief hurling a captured Viking axe into the lake – purportedly in fear of its magical properties. The saga reports no further trouble from the Skraelings, but Karlsefni was clearly not prepared to take any more chances. Like Thorvald before him, he had successfully queered his pitch with the locals, and was unwilling to stay in Vinland waiting for the Skraelings to return with reinforcements. The following spring, the Vinland expedition broke camp and sailed back to Greenland, with a cargo of pelts and lumber, but still with no permanent settlement established.

Greenlander Saga recalls one further attempt by the descendants of Erik the Red to establish a colony in Vinland, this time by his illegitimate daughter Freydis, who may have been one of the women on the Karlsefni expedition. The year after Karlsefni’s return, Freydis convinced two brothers newly arrived from Iceland to join her and her husband on a trip back to Leif’s camp. The Freydis mission, however, went swiftly wrong in what was either a series of highly unfortunate misunderstandings, or the resurgence of the belligerent genes of Erik the Red. Freydis implied that the brothers would be allowed to stay at Leif’s camp in Vinland, but refused to allow them in on arrival, claiming that Leif was renting the base to her crew alone. Although the brothers grudgingly moved to a different camp, an attempt at reconciliation at a sports meeting went similarly sour and ended in a brawl. A final attempt at reconciliation led to a pitched battle between the separate crews; a self-contradictory account in Greenlander Saga suggests that Freydis either falsely accused the brothers, or was assaulted by them in the midst of negotiations. Whatever the truth of the matter, Freydis was able to goad her husband and crew into killing their rivals. When only five women remained as witnesses, Freydis dispatched them herself with an axe. The Freydis expedition returned to Greenland the following summer, its survivors clinging to a carefully constructed alibi that the missing Vikings had remained as colonists. Word eventually got out, but Freydis remained unpunished – the aging Leif limiting his retribution to a curse on her descendants.

The disastrous Freydis mission is the last reported attempt at colonizing the area known as Vinland, a land whose historical significance was not truly appreciated until recent times, when its relation to the New World that Christopher Columbus reached in 1492 became apparent. To the people of the eleventh century, Vinland was merely one more place where they could find furs and wood, but simply too dangerous and remote to justify increased attention. In the time it took to reach Leif’s fabled Vinland, a Greenlander vessel could make it all the way to Europe, where Vikings could expect to find a much better price for their pelts and wares. To a trader, it also made sounder economic sense – a merchant could return from Europe with a cargo of even greater value: books, new devices and technology, news itself and fine cloths. A journey to Vinland merely meant an arduous trip to a land populated by potentially limitless numbers of hostile people. Even if the Vikings found someone with whom they could trade, they would only be buying more of the same things they could acquire elsewhere. The discoveries of Leif and his family faded from consciousness. Vinland was still referred to in Icelandic sagas, but it seemed to interest the Icelanders little. Leif, let us not forget, was regarded as headstrong and lucky by the Vikings themselves; we know that he was setting out in an antique ship. As later generations of Greenlanders clung to their increasingly precarious colony, they became more cautious. With ships in dwindling supply, and the children of the original sailors and explorers becoming increasingly land-bound, the Greenlanders developed other priorities.

As the Viking Age gave way to the High Middle Ages, the north Atlantic population was periodically thinned by plague, and the need for new colonies to relieve population pressure never became as great as it had been during the first settlement of Iceland and Greenland. Later Greenland records of America do not refer to Vinland at all, but merely to Markland, to which occasional trips across the Davis Strait were made to obtain timber, as late as 1347.

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