History of the Vikings
THERE is no chapter in the history of the Norsemen abroad that is finer reading than the tale of those brave and simple seamen who discovered America. For they were only poor Greenlanders and Icelanders, these first white men in the New World, not commanding for their explorations a well-equipped and magnificent fleet from Norway, but embarking upon their audacious enterprise, a most fearless navigation of unknown seas, if not in a single ship, at most only in tiny companies of two or three vessels.
Their names are Bjarni Herjolfsson of Iceland, who in the hazard of the winds and storm found America when he sought Greenland; Leif Ericsson of Greenland who discovered 'Wineland the Good', the fair and pleasant country of Maryland and Virginia; Thorvald Ericsson, his brother, who was killed out in Wineland by the Indians; and Thorfinn Karlsefni, an Icelandic merchant who spent three years in America and whose son, Snorri, was born there.
But before the narratives of these brave voyages are repeated, it is necessary to say something about the historical worth of the passages in the sagas that record them. At the outset one may with a full confidence dismiss any uncertainty as to whether the Norsemen really did discover America, for this few have dared to doubt. And in that matter there is an early testimony that is independent of the sagas since the pious geographer, Adam of Bremen, declared, less than half a century after the voyage of Karlsefni, that he had been told by Svein Estridsson, king of Denmark, of the existence in the Atlantic of an 'island', discovered by many, and called Wineland because grapes were found growing there. Moreover, he had heard that there was also self-sown corn abounding, and this report he knew depended not on mythical tales but on trustworthy information from the Danes.
Nevertheless it is the wild vine and the self-sown corn of Wineland that laid the saga-tales of the voyages under the suspicion of containing much legendary matter, and on this score
Dr. Fridtjof Nansen has been their harshest critic. For though he did not deny the Norse discovery of America, yet this most distinguished scholar claimed that the rich and pleasant Wineland is a country that existed only in Norse imagination, a fictitious paradise that was the result of too much hearing of the Isles of the Blest, the lovely archipelago in western Ocean that in ancient days Horace and Plutarch, and, in the seventh century, Isidore Hispalensis, praised. And certainly it is true that the unusual name Vínland hit góða, though in fact only very rarely used, may be some muddled Norse equivalent of the classical Insulae Fortunatae where, in cornfield and vineyard, the wheat and the grapes ripened under the hot sun.
It is, of course, an injustice to the learned and closely-reasoned dissertation wherein Dr. Nansen expounds his views (1) to sum up his charge against the historicity of the Wineland-sagas in a sentence, yet it chances that there is little need to debate the matter at great length inasmuch as the case against the Norse tales has been tried and, in the opinion of most students of the subject, a verdict won for their sincerity as travel-records. But if the reader would himself be judge, let him, after Dr. Nansen has been heard, turn to Mr. G. M. Gathorne-Hardy Norse Discoverers of America (2) and there read the admirable and convincing defence that most manfully opposes, point by point, the contentions of Dr. Nansen.
It is not, of course, wholly unknown to saga-literature, even though the tales are normally couched in the most simple and direct of all narrative styles, that legendary matter should be introduced. But in this special instance it does seem unlikely that make-believe voyages of the kind posited by Dr. Nansen could have been paraded before the attentive and critical ears of the listeners as historical fact; for cogent arguments to support a declaration of faith in the Wineland stories are not wanting, since it is assured that although their writing down is of comparatively late date (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), (3) yet the Icelanders of a much earlier time must have been familiar with them. It has been said that the self-sown corn and the grapes of Wineland were known to Adam of Bremen by about 1070, and so too in Iceland when, about 1130, Ari the Learned, the first of the great Icelandic historians, wrote his Ísletidingabók, he was aware that his countrymen would understand a casual allusion
1. In Northern Mists, London, 1911, I, p. 312 ff. (esp. p. 345 p. ff.); II, p. (1) ff.
2. Oxford, 1921, p. 147 ff.
3. See note 3, p. 373.
to Wineland; (1) for he says of Greenland that the first Norse settlers found there ruins of houses and the stone implements of a people such as inhabited Wineland. He knew, then, and most Icelanders knew, the stories of the voyages, and that he could only know a reasonably accurate and strictly historical version of them is nearly certain since Ari was the grandson of Karlsefni's cousin and he wrote his book to interest, among others, the grandson of that Snorri, Karlsefni's son, who was born in America. It is difficult to imagine any accretion of classical and Celtic legend around the narratives of the voyages up to the time of Ari's death in 1148, and as only just over sixty years later there is a written saga-reference to Leif Ericsson's adventure in Wineland, there must have been a continued oral repetition of the narrative until the time of its first setting down in writing. Thus in the thirteenth century, when the archetype of the saga of Leif's father, Eric the Red, was committed to manuscript, it is improbable that it would depart in any noteworthy degree from the versions of the tales known to Ari, tales that may even have been related in his hearing by members of Karlsefni's expedition.
Not, of course, that anything approaching a sustained and detailed accuracy can be claimed for the written tales after this long interval and this passing from mouth to mouth. Indeed, some of the stories are twice-told in manuscript, appearing in sources that are independent of one another, and they are found, when compared, to present all those puzzles and discrepancies that are to be expected of distinct versions of ancient and often repeated travellers' yarns. Yet these contradictions must be held to give the collection of stories a most satisfactory stamp of honesty, for nowhere do they show suspicious signs of the too facile agreement that might easily betoken a common legendary basis. It is, in fact, not the skeleton of the narratives that convinces the reader of their underlying truth; rather is it an occasional detail, abbreviated, perhaps, and out of place, that, standing forth suddenly as a sentence of the real story that in ancient days the returned sailor himself had told, prove the intended veracity of the whole account.
Leaving generalities aside, then, the content of the Wineland sagas is in itself sufficient to demonstrate that they are based not upon legend but upon fact. Thus in one story a scrap of information concerning solar movement as observed in Wineland establishes the certainty that the observers had travelled as far south as Maryland. And beyond a doubt there are wild vines in these
1. Wineland is also casually mentioned in Landnámabók.
southern latitudes, so that a genial country of the grape was assuredly known to the Norse of Greenland and Iceland. This much granted, it is perverse to scorn those other details in the narratives that may reasonably be held to apply to this land and the voyage thither; for the references to the Indians, the descriptions of the coast and climate of North America, the remarkable reference in the sagas to the formidable Indian ballista, (1) and the mention of the self-sown corn that was likewise noted by later European explorers, (2) these are in themselves almost convincing enough to win for the Wineland sagas a full value as the secondhand history of real expeditions to the New World.
The chief problem, then, is to decide not whether the substance of the Wineland tales is true, but what parts of them are to be selected for the narrative that follows, and this is a matter that has to be decided summarily, for the long and intricate essays in textual criticism that the debate involves cannot be analysed here. The choice lies between what is known as the Hauk's Book version and that contained in the Flatey Book, (3) and the reader will find their respective merits discussed in Mr. Gathorne-Hardy's work and he will learn that Mr. Hardy is prepared to defend the superiority of the Flatey Book throughout. This version, then, for it has the added attraction of being fuller and more picturesque, is adopted as the principal source of the Wineland voyages now to be set forth; but it is only just to the memory of a very distinguished scholar and a profound student of saga-literature, Professor Gustav Storm, to observe that he saw reason to criticize severely the Flaky Book narratives, 4 rejecting, for example, the whole story of Bjarni Herjolfsson, who, according to the source preferred here, was the first Norseman to reach America. It will be important, therefore, to indicate in the following pages the divergences between the Flatey Book
1. See p. 384 .
2. There is, however, some difficulty about this self-sown corn. See Gathorne-Hardy, op. cit., p. 159 ff.
3. The sources for the detailed accounts of the Norse voyages to America belong to two traditions, the one (A) contained in two MSS., namely Hauk's Book (early fourteenth century) and Arne Magnusson 557 (fifteenth century), both being derived in all probability from a thirteenth-century archetype; the second (B) is contained in the Flatey Book, which was not compiled until the end of the fourteenth century. A is therefore the older source and in some respects it certainly does give an impression of greater trustworthiness; yet, contrary to expectations, the independent and later Flatey Book version reads as circumstantial and explicit fragments of history that compel the prior attention of the student.
4. Studier over Vinlandsreiserne, Aarb., 1887.
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account and those of the rival version, (1) but having thus cautioned the reader, with Bjarni the tale shall begin.
This, then, is the story. The discovery of America was a chance result of the peopling of Greenland in 986 and the hero of the first voyage was Bjarni, the son of one of Red Eric's colonists called Herjolf. When his father emigrated to Greenland, Bjarni was away with his trading-ship in Norway and it was a sad blow to him when he returned to Iceland to find his parents gone, for it was his wont to pass every winter with them; so he refused to unload his cargo and decided instead to follow them to Greenland. This was a perilous enterprise, for Bjarni knew little or nothing of the course to be followed except that somewhere in the west he would discover his people in a country of mountains and large glaciers, and very soon, thanks to northerly gales and fogs, he found himself lost in unknown seas. For many days his ship was driven by the winds or drifted aimlessly in fog, and when at last the sun appeared so that Bjarni could take his bearings a day's sail in the direction in which he had headed on leaving Iceland brought him in sight of land. But it was not Greenland, thought Bjarni, on sailing close in, because it was wooded and had low hills; and, indeed, he was right, for it was America that he had found, the currents and the winds having swept him past the Newfoundland Banks and Nova Scotia to the neighbourhood of the Cape Cod peninsula between Boston and New York. He must have known that he was now too far south, so he sailed for two days to the north-east and this brought him to land again, a flat wooded country that was probably the south of Nova Scotia; the crew wanted to land, saying that they were short of wood and water, but Bjarni refused to stay in spite of their grumbles and, realizing that once again he had failed to find Greenland, continued on his course for three more days before a south-westerly breeze until a third land, Newfoundland, was sighted. This certainly was mountainous, and there was ice about,2 but Bjarni would not put in to shore, for the country
1. The major discrepancies between the two authorities are these: (1) A knows nothing of Bjarni's voyage, which is recorded only in B (Flatey Book). (2) Leif's voyage is represented as the accidental result of a storm in A and as a deliberately undertaken exploration in B. (3) Thorvald Ericsson's independent voyage to extend the discoveries of his brother Leif is not mentioned in A, where it is merely said that Thorvald died a quite incredible death during the later voyage of Karlsefni. (4) B alone gives the story of Freydis's second voyage to America.
2. The word jökul ordinarily means glacier, but Mr. Gathorne-Hardy has rightly observed (op. cit., p. 249) that this need not necessarily rule out Newfoundland, where there are no glaciers, as Bjarni's third land, since the term might refer simply to icebergs. Professor Hovgaard, on the other hand, makes Newfoundland Bjarni's first land and the third Resolution Island off Baffin Land; on this view jökul can certainly be read as glacier, but there still remain serious objections to the itinerary proposed by Hovgaard (Voyages of the Norsemen to America, New York, 1915. p. 245).