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Vinland was the name given to an area of North America by the Norsemen, about the year 1000 CE.

In 1960 archaeological evidence of the only known Norse settlement in North America (outside of Greenlandmarker) was found at L'Anse aux Meadowsmarker on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundlandmarker, in what is now the Canadianmarker province of Newfoundland and Labradormarker. Although this proved conclusively the Vikings' pre-Columbian discovery of North America, whether this exact site is the Vinland of the Norse accounts is still a subject of debate.

There is a consensus among scholars that the Vikings did reach North America, approximately five centuries prior to the voyages of Christopher Columbus.

Etymology

The name Vinland has been interpreted in two ways: traditionally as Vínland ("wine-land") and more recently as Vinland (meadow- or pasture-land).

Wine-land

The earliest etymology of "Vinland" is found in Adam of Bremen's 11th Century Latin Descriptio insularum Aquilonis ("Description of the Northern Islands"): "Moreover, he has also reported one island discovered by many in that ocean, which is called Winland, for the reason that grapevines grow there by themselves, producing the best wine." (Praeterea unam adhuc insulam recitavit a multis in eo repertam occeano, quae dicitur Winland, eo quod ibi vites sponte nascantur, vinum optimum ferentes). The implication is that the first element is Old Norse vín (Latin vinum), "wine".

This explanation is essentially repeated in the 13th-century Grœnlendinga saga, which provides a circumstantial account of the discovery of Vinland, and its being named from the grapes (vínber) found there.

Pasture-land

Another interpretation of the name Vinland, quite popular in the late 20th century, is that the first element is not vín (with a slightly lengthened vowel sound) but vin (with a short sound, like "tin"), an Old Norse word with the meaning 'meadow, pasture'. (Proto-Norse winju.) Vin is a common name on old farms from Norse times in Norwaymarker, and present-day use of the word are Bjørgvinmarker, the Norse (and Icelandic) name of Bergen, Norwaymarker, and Granvinmarker, where -vin translates into 'pasture' in both. A poetic Norse name of the Danishmarker island of Sjælland (Zealandmarker) was Viney 'pasture island'. A cognate name also existed in Old English (Anglo-Saxon), in the name of the village Woollandmarker in Dorsetmarker, Englandmarker: this was written "Winlande" in the 1086 Domesday Book, and it is interpreted as 'meadow land' or 'pasture land'.

The sagas

The main sources of information about the Norse voyages to Vinland are two Icelandic sagas, The Saga of Eric the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. These stories were preserved by oral tradition until they were written down some 250 years after the events they describe. The existence of two versions of the story shows some of the challenges of using traditional sources for history, because they share a large number of story elements, but use them in different ways. For example, both sagas feature a mariner called Bjarni, who is driven off course on a voyage to Greenland, and whose authority is subsequently called into question; in "Greenlanders" he is Bjarni Herjolfsson, who discovers the American mainland as a result of his mishap, but in "Eric" he is Bjarni Grimolfsson, who is driven into an area infested with shipworms on the way home from Vinland, with the result that his ship sinks. A brief summary of the plots of the two sagas shows many more examples.

Saga of the Greenlanders

In "Greenlanders" Bjarni Herjolfsson accidentally discovers the new land when travelling from Norway to visit his father in the second year of Eric the Red's Greenland colony (about 986 CE). When he does manage to reach Greenland, making land at Herjolfsness, site of his father's farm, he remains there for the rest of his father's life, and does not return to Norway until about 1000 CE. There, he tells his overlord (the Earl, also named Eric) about the new land and is criticised for his long delay in reporting. On his return to Greenland he tells the story and inspires Leif Ericsson to organise an expedition, which retraces in reverse the route Bjarni had followed, past a land of flat stones (Helluland), and a land of forests (Markland). After sailing another two days across open sea, the expedition finds a headland with an island just offshore; nearby is a pool accessible to ships at high tide, in an area where the sea is shallow with sandbanks. Here the explorers land and establish a base which can plausibly be matched to L'Anse Aux Meadows, except that the winter is described as mild, not freezing. One day, an old family servant, Tyrkir, goes missing, and is found mumbling to himself; he eventually explains that he has found grapes. In spring, Leif returns to Greenland with a shipload of timber towing a boatload of grapes. On the way home, he spots another ship aground on rocks, rescues the crew and later salvages the cargo. A second expedition, one ship of about 40 men, led by Leif's brother Thorvald, sets out in the autumn after Leif's return, and stays over three winters at the new base (Leifsbutha, meaning Leif's temporary shelters), exploring the west coast of the new land in the first summer, and the east coast in the second, running aground and losing the ship's keel on a headland they christen Keel Point (Kjalarnes). Further south, at a point where Thorvald would like to establish a settlement, the Greenlanders encounter some of the local inhabitants (Skrælings) and kill them, following which they are attacked by a large force in hide boats, and Thorvald dies from an arrow-wound. After the exploration party returns to base, the Greenlanders decide to return home the following spring.

Thorstein, Leif's brother, marries Gudrid, widow of the captain rescued by Leif, then leads a third exedition to bring home Thorvald's body, but is driven off course and spends the whole summer wandering the Atlantic. Spending the winter as a guest at a farm on Greenland with Gudrid, Thorstein dies of sickness, reviving just long enough to make a prophecy about her future as a Christian. The next winter, Gudrid marries a visiting Icelander named Thorfinn Karlsefni, who agrees to undertake a major expedition to Vinland, taking livestock. On arrival, they soon find a beached whale, which sustains them until spring. In the summer, they are visited by some of the local inhabitants, who are scared by the Greenlanders' bull, but happy to trade goods for milk and other products. In autumn, Gudrid gives birth to a son, Snorri. Shortly after this, one of the local people tries to take a weapon, and is killed; the explorers are then attacked in force, but manage to survive with only minor casualties by retreating to a well-chosen defensive position a short distance from their base. One of the local people picks up an iron axe, tries it, and throws it away. The explorers return to Greenland in summer with a cargo of grapes and hides. Shortly afterwards, a ship captained by two Icelanders arrives in Greenland, and Freydis, daughter of Eric the Red, persuades them to join her in an expedition to Vinland. They sail that autumn, but disagreements during the winter lead to the killing, at Freydis' order, of all the Icelanders, including five women, as they lie sleeping. In spring the Greenlanders return home with a good cargo, but Leif finds the truth about the Icelanders. That is the last Vinland expedition recorded in the saga.

Saga of Eric the Red

In the "Eric" version of the story, Leif Ericsson accidentally discovers the new land when travelling from Norway back to Greenland after a visit to his overlord (King Olaf Trygvesson) who commissions him to spread Christianity in the colony. Returning to Greenland with samples of grapes, wheat and timber, he rescues the survivors from a wrecked ship, and gains a reputation for good luck; his religious mission is a swift success. The next spring, Thorstein, Leif's brother, leads an expedition to the new land, but is driven off course and spends the whole summer wandering the Atlantic. On his return, he meets and marries Gudrid, one of the survivors from a ship which has made land at Herjolfsness after a difficult voyage from Iceland. Spending the winter as a guest at a farm on Greenland with Gudrid, Thorstein dies of sickness, reviving just long enough to make a prophecy about her future as a Christian. The next winter, Gudrid marries a visiting Icelander named Thorfinn Karlsefni, who, with his business partner Snorri Thorbrandsson, agrees to undertake a major expedition to the new land, taking livestock. Also contributing ships for this expedition are another pair of visiting Icelanders, Bjarni Grimolfsson and Thorhall Gamlason, and Leif's brother and sister Thorvald and Freydis, with her husband Thorvard. Sailing past landscapes of flat stones (Helluland) and forests (Markland) they round a cape where they see the keel of a boat (Kjalarnes) then continue past some extraordinary, long beaches (Furthustrandir) before landing and sending out two runners to explore inland. After three days, the pair return with samples of grapes and wheat. After sailing a little further, the expedition lands at an inlet next to an area of strong currents (Straumsfjord), with an island just offshore (Straumsey)- a location which can plausibly be matched to L'Anse Aux Meadows- and makes camp. The winter months are harsh, and food is short. One day, an old family servant, Thorhall the Hunter (who has not become Christian), goes missing, and is found mumbling to himself; shortly afterwards, a beached whale is found, which Thorhall claims has been provided in answer to his praise of the pagan gods. The explorers find that eating it makes them ill, so they pray to the Christian god, and shortly afterwards the weather improves.

When spring comes, Thorhall Gamlason, the Icelander, wants to sail north round Kjalarnes to seek Vinland, while Thorfinn Karlsefni prefers to sail southward down the east coast. Thorhall only takes nine men, and his vessel is swept out into the ocean by contrary winds; he and his crew never return. Thorfinn and Snorri, with Freydis (plus possibly Bjarni) sail down the east coast with 40 men or more, and establish a camp by a pool accessible to ships at high tide (Hop), in an area where the sea is shallow with sandbanks, and the land abounds with grapes and wheat. The teller of this saga is uncertain whether the explorers remain here over the next winter (said to be very mild), or only for a few weeks of summer. One morning they see nine hide boats; the local people (Skraelings) examine the Norse ships and depart in peace. Later a much larger flotilla of boats arrives, and trade commences (Karlsefni forbids the sale of weapons). One day, the local traders are frightened by the sudden arrival of the Greenlanders' bull, and they stay away for three weeks. They then attack in force, but the explorers manage to survive with only minor casualties by retreating inland to a defensive position a short distance from their camp. Pregnancy slows Freydis down, so she picks up the sword of a fallen companion and brandishes it against her bare breast, scaring the attackers into withdrawal. One of the local people picks up an iron axe, tries it, and throws it away. The explorers subsequently abandon the southern camp and sail back to Straumsfjord, killing five natives they encounter on the way, lying asleep in hide sacks.

Karlsefni, with Thorvald Erikcsson and others, then sails round Kjalarnes and south down the western side of the land, hoping to find Thorhall. After sailing for a long time, while moored on the south side of a west-flowing river they are shot at by a one-legged man, and Thorvald dies from an arrow-wound. The explorers return to Straumsfjord, but disagreements during the following winter lead to the abandonment of the venture. On the way home, the ship of Bjarni the Icelander is swept into the Sea of Worms (Madkasjo) by contrary winds. The marine worms destroy the hull and only those who escape in the ship's worm-proofed boat survive. That is the last Vinland expedition recorded in the saga.

Medieval geographers

The oldest surviving written record of Vinland is that by Adam of Bremen, a German (Saxon) geographer and historian, in his book Descriptio insularum Aquilonis of approximately 1075 (quoted above). To write it he visited the Danish king Svend Estridson, who had knowledge of the northern lands, and told him of the "islands" discovered by Norse sailors far out in the Atlantic, of which Vinland was the most remote. Unfortunately, Adam became confused between Helluland and Halaglandmarker, the northernmost part of Norway where the "midnight sun" is visible. He also spelled Vinland in Latin the same as Wendland, the German province which adjoins Denmark.

In the early 14th century, a geography encyclopedia called Geographica Universalis was compiled at Malmesbury Abbeymarker in England, which was in turn used as a source for one of the most widely-circulated medieval English educational works, Polychronicon by Ralph Higden, a few years later. Both these works, with Adam of Bremen as a possible source, were confused about the location of what they called Wintland- the Malmesbury monk had it on the ocean, but east of Norway, while Higden put it west of Denmark but failed to explain the distance. Copies of Polychronicon commonly included a world map, on which Wintland was marked in the Atlantic Ocean near Iceland, but again much closer to the Scandinavian mainland than in reality. The name was explained in both texts as referring to the savage inhabitants' ability to tie the wind up in knotted cords, which they sold to sailors who could then undo a knot whenever they needed a good wind. Neither mentioned grapes, and the Malmesbury work specifically states that little grows there but grass and trees, which, interestingly, reflects the saga descriptions of the area round the main Norse expedition base.
Medieval Icelandic geographical concepts
More geographically correct were Icelandic texts from about the same time, which presented a clear picture of the northern countries as experienced by Norse explorers: north of Iceland a vast, barren plain (which we now know to be the Polar ice-cap) extended from Biarmeland (northern Russiamarker) east of the White Seamarker, to Greenland, then further west and south were, in succession, Helluland, Markland and Vinland. The Icelanders had no knowledge of how far south Vinland extended, and they speculated that it might reach as far as Africa.

The "Historia Norwegiae" (History of Norway) compiled around 1200 does not refer directly to Vinland, and tries to reconcile information from Greenland with mainland European sources; in this text Greenland's territory extends so that it is "almost touching the African islands, where the waters of ocean flood in".

Later Norse voyages

Icelandic chronicles record another attempt to visit Vinland from Greenland, over a century after the saga voyages. In 1121, Icelandic bishop Eric Gnupsson, who had been based on Greenland since 1112, "went to seek Vinland". Nothing more is reported of him, and three years later another bishop, Arnald, was sent to Greenland. No written records, other than inscribed stones, have survived in Greenland itself, so the next reference to a voyage also comes from Icelandic chronicles. In 1347, a ship arrived in Iceland, after being blown off course on its way home from Markland to Greenland with a load of timber. The implication is that the Greenlanders had continued to use Markland as a source of timber over several centuries.

Modern geographers and the location of Vinland

The 16th-century Skálholt map of Norse America
16th century Icelanders realised that the "New World" which European geographers were calling "America" was the land described in their Vinland Sagas. The Skálholt Map, drawn in 1570 or 1590 but surviving only through later copies, shows Promontorium Winlandiae ("promontory/cape/foreland of Vinland") as a narrow cape with its northern tip at the same latitude as southern Ireland (NB: the scales of degrees in the map margins are inaccurate). This effective identification of northern Newfoundland with the northern tip of Vinland was taken up by later Scandinavian scholars such as bishop Hans Resen.

Although it it generally agreed, based on the saga descriptions, that Helluland includes Baffin Island, and Markland represents at least the southern part of the modern Labrador, there has been considerable controversy over the location of the actual Norse landings and settlement. Comparison of the sagas, as summarised above, shows that they give similar descriptions and names to different places. One of the few reasonably consistent pieces of information is that exploration voyages from the main base sailed down both the east and west coasts of the land; this was one of the factors which helped archaeologists locate the site at L'Anse Aux Meadows, at the tip of Newfoundland's long northern peninsula.

Other clues appear to place the main settlement further south- the mention of a mild winter, and the reports in both sagas of grapes being found nearby. A very specific indication in the Greenlanders' Saga of the latitude of the base has also been subject to misinterpretation. This passage states that in the shortest days of midwinter, the sun was still above the horizon at "dagmal" and "eykt", two specific times in the Norse day. Carl Christian Rafn, in the first detailed study of the Norse exploration of the New World, "Antiquitates Americanae" (1837), interpreted these times as equivalent to 7.30am and 4.30pm, which would put the base a long way south of Newfoundland. However, an Icelandic law text gives a very specific explanation of "eykt", with reference to Norse navigation techniques. The eight major divisions of the compass were subdivided into three hours each, to make a total of 24, and "eykt" was the end of the second hour of the south-west division, which in modern terms would be 3.30pm. "Dagmal", the "day-meal" which is specifically distinguished from the earlier "rismal" (breakfast), would thus be about 8.30am. The sun is indeed just above the horizon at these times on the shortest days of the year in northern Newfoundland- but not much further north.
Viking colonisation site at L'Anse-aux-Meadows, Newfoundland
L'Anse-aux-Meadows, Newfoundland

Clues at L'Anse Aux Meadows

Newfoundland marine insurance agent and historian William A. Munn (1864-1939), after studying literary sources in Europe, suggested in his 1914 book "Wineland Voyages: Location of Helluland, Markland & Vinland" that the Vinland explorers "went ashore at Lancey [sic] Meadows, as it is called today". In 1960 a Viking settlement was discovered by Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad at that exact spot, L'Anse aux Meadowsmarker in northern Newfoundland, and excavated during the 1960s and 1970s. It is most likely that this was the main settlement of the sagas, a "gateway" for the Norse Greenlanders to the rich lands further south. Many wooden objects were found at L'Anse Aux Meadows, and radiocarbon dating confirms the site's occupation as being confined to a short period around 1000 CE. In addition, a number of small pieces of jasper, known to have been used in the Norse world as fire-strikers, were found in and around the different buildings. When these were analyzed and compared with samples from jasper sources around the north Atlantic area, it was found that two buildings contained only Icelandic jasper pieces, while another contained some from Greenland; also a single piece from the east coast of Newfoundland was found. These finds appear to confirm the saga claim that some of the Vinland exploration ships came from Iceland, and that they ventured down the east coast of the new land.

Based on such interpretations, and archaeological evidence, it is now generally accepted that L'Anse Aux Meadows was the main base of the Norse explorers, but the southernmost limit of the Norse exploration remains a subject of intense speculation. Samuel Eliot Morison (1971) suggested the southern part of Newfoundland, Erik Wahlgren (1986) Miramichi Baymarker in New Brunswickmarker, and Icelandic climate specialist Pall Bergthorsson (1997) proposed New York Citymarker. The insistence in all the main historical sources that grapes were found in Vinland suggests that the explorers ventured at least to the south side of the St. Lawrence estuary, as Jacques Cartier did 500 years later, finding both wild vines and nut trees. Three butternuts were a further important find at L'Anse Aux Meadows: another species which grows only as far north as the St. Lawrence.

It has been speculated that the reference to grapes near the main settlement is to another of the abundant berries in Newfoundland, including gooseberries or blueberries, which are both abundant near L'Anse-aux-Meadows (51°N) and are both suitable for winemaking. Blueberries look very much like small Black Corinth grapes, although they grow on bushes very unlike grape vines. It is also possible that grapes did in fact grow in Newfoundland (46°40′ - 51°35′N) in the past. The first recorded grapes were grown 2002, when a successful vineyard was established in Gambo, Newfoundlandmarker, 48°50'N. The time period of the Vinland settlement corresponds with the Medieval Warm Period (from about the 10th century to about the 14th century). Water temperatures in the northern hemisphere during this time were up to 1°C warmer, allowing the planting of vineyards as far north as the coastal zones of the Baltic Sea (ca. 56°N) and southern England (ca. 51°N). There are vineyards at 54°N in Lancashire and Yorkshire, northern England.

Other Norse finds in America

Numerous artefacts attributable to the Norse Greenlanders have been found in Canada, particularly on Baffin Island and in northern Labrador. A late-11th Century Norwegian penny, with a hole for stringing on a necklace, has also been found in Mainemarker USA. Other possibly Norse artefacts in the area south of the St. Lawrence include a growing number of stones inscribed with runic letters, such as the Kensington Runestonemarker. The real age and origin of these stones is debated, and so far none has been firmly dated, or associated with clear evidence of a medieval Norse presence.

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