Category: Headlines in History


 

The Viking warriors swept down from the north like ravenous wolves, spreading terror and bloodshed wherever they went. From their Scandinavian homelands, they ranged as far south as Spain and as far east as Russia. Throughout Europe, people trembled in fear at the very mention of their name.

 

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford Illustrated Histories)

 

The Viking raids began in the ninth century, and the destruction they wrought greatly contributed to the turmoil experienced by western Europe during the Dark Ages. However, the Vikings were not merely roving pirates: they were explorers, traders, colonizers, conquerors. In the course of their expansive travels, the Vikings opened up trade routes that enabled valuable goods from the Middle East and Asia to reach the Europeans. Invaders from Denmark gained control over a large section of England – which became known as the Danelaw – and at various times during the eleventh century, the entire nation of England was ruled by Scandinavian kings. The French region of Normandy was conquered in the tenth century by Viking warriors whose descendants achieved important military victories in the 1000s, including the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 and the liberation of Sicily from the Muslims in 1091. And around the turn of the millennium, Viking sailors from Iceland discovered North America and established settlements on its coast – the first European to do so.

Clearly, the exploits of the Vikings had positive effects on Europe as well as negative ones, and their accomplishments were essential in shaping the course of European history. Yet as the year 1000 dawned, the Viking age was already nearing its end. Across Scandinavia, the pagan worshipers of Odin and Thor began to convert to Christianity; as good Christians, they became reticent to attack the churches and monasteries that they had once plundered with abandon. The growth of strong centralized monarchies in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden also “ultimately resulted in taming the Viking spirit,” according to historian C. Warren Hollister. “As Scandinavia became increasingly civilized,” he writes, “its kings discouraged the activities of roaming warrior bands, and its social environment gave rise to a more humdrum life.” By the middle of the eleventh century, the glory days of the Viking raiders had faded into twilight, never to return.

 

 

The Vikings reached North America. This is an historical fact. The evidence, written, and archaeological, allows for no doubt sometime around the millennium men whose cultural ties reached beyond Greenland and Iceland to Scandinavia arrived on the shores of North America. To deny or even to cast doubt on this would be to fly in the face of overwhelming historical evidence.

 

 

The question of the historicity of the Vikings in the New World arises only because it is related to the question of who actually discovered America. The fascination with the discovery of America is really a fascination, not with the discovery of the Western Hemisphere – it was discovered perhaps 30,000 years ago by Asiatic – but with its much later discovery by Europeans: who was the first European to sight the New World? A more significant question historically would be: what circumstances, what patterns of human development led to a European presence on the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean? The discoveries in the late fifteenth century led to European settlements and, since then, to a continuous and dominant European presence. If not Christopher Columbus, then surely someone else would have landed in America during the last decade of the fifteenth century. The person is less important than the historical forces at work which made, at least at that time, such a discovery inevitable. In the Viking age, four centuries earlier, still other forces made a landing in North America a virtual inevitability. The identity of the first Viking to sight America may never be known, perhaps with historical justice, for the first Viking to make landfall there was driven by forces spanning in distance the North Atlantic from the fjords of western and southern Norway and spanning in time several centuries of Viking explorations.

The Viking Explorations

In about the year 1000 Vikings sighted, landed at, explored, and attempted to settle on the North American littoral [coast]. The earliest written source is not, as one might suspect, the saga accounts, which exist in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts drawn from twelfth- and thirteenth-century texts. The earliest written source dates from within a few generations of the attempted Viking settlement in America: The History of the Archbishops of Hamburg, completed by Adam of Bremen in about 1075. Book four of this history is entitled ‘A Description of the Islands of the North,’ which makes Adam the earliest known German geographer. Sometime during the late 1000s Adam of Bremen visited the Danish court to gather information for his history and, while there, interviewed inter alois [among other persons] King Svein Estrithson, nephew of King Cnut the Great.

The king spoke about yet another island which had been discovered by many in that ocean. It is called Vinland because there grow wild in that country vines which produce fine wine. Free-growing crops abound there. I have learned this not from fanciful tales but from the trustworthy reports of the Danes.

The Reign of Cnut: The King of England, Denmark and Norway (Studies in the Early History of Britain)

 

Adam of Bremen had gathered this information in the late 1000s. King Svein, at whose court he learned these things, had been born in 1017, about the time when Vikings were attempting to colonize Vinland. It will never be known exactly when Svein learned about this land – as king (1047-74) he seems to have been visited by the Icelander Eadwine bearing the gift of a polar bear from Greenland – but what is certain is that we are dealing here with a nearly contemporary account.

Three other early, non-saga references, confirm the continued knowledge of the existence of Vinland in Iceland. A geographical treatise of the twelfth century states:

South from Greenland there lie Helluland and then Markland and, not far beyond, Vinland.

The Icelandic Annals under the year 1121 record that “Bishop Eric of Greenland set out in search of Vinland.” Iceland’s first great historian, Ari Thorgilsson, writing in about 1127, indicated that he knew of Vinland and its native inhabitants from his uncle, Thorkell Gellison, who had learned about these things from one of the original settlers of Greenland. And thus, within a hundred years or so of the Vinland settlement Ari wrote about Vinland, almost incidentally, without need of explanation for none was needed.

Information From The Sagas

The sagas, arising out of a different, if kindred, tradition, support this information and add significant facts of an indisputably historical nature. Meant for entertainment, the sagas existed in oral form at first and were written down only much later. The sagas require care in the use made of them by historians: not every detail can be relied on and not every statement rejected. Sagas celebrated the great deeds of the ancestors of later Icelanders, who enhanced their own importance through the flattering descriptions of the heroic men and women from whom they claimed descent. The two sagas which describe at length the Viking experience in the New World derive from this entertainment-giving, ancestor-praising tradition of the sagas. The Greenlanders’ Saga, the earlier of the two was committed to writing in the twelfth century and has about it a primitive crudeness which, while not particularly attractive literally, does add to its historical credibility. The great anthology of Icelandic material, the Flatey Book, compiled towards the end of the fourteenth century in northern Iceland, contains the earliest extant text of this saga. The Eric Saga, on the other hand, has a more polished appearance and dates, in its earliest written form, from the mid-thirteenth century, but exists only in two later medieval versions. . . . The Geenlanders’ Saga and the Eric Saga tell essentially the same story, yet in some places they complement and in other places they contradict one another. It is known that the Greenlanders’ Saga is more reliable and its text more faithful to an oral original. Its story should be related.

 

 

The Greenlanders’ Saga tells the Vinland story in three stages: the sighting, the exploration, and the attempted settlement of Vinland. This land to the south and west of Greenland, according to the saga, was discovered not by Leif Ericsson but by Bjarni Herjolfsson. This Icelander was accustomed to spend alternative winters in Iceland, with his father, and Norway. One winter while Bjarni was in Norway, his father Herjolf moved from Iceland to Greenland with Eric the Red and established a homestead there at Herjolfsnes. Bjarni did not learn about this until the following summer when he arrived in Iceland. Although neither Bjarni nor any of his crew had ever previously sailed to Greenland, they set sail and headed west. Strong north winds and deep fog forced them off course. When the bad weather lifted, they hoisted their sail and headed west once again. One day later they sighted a land, which was thickly forested and had low hills. This did not tally with the description of Greenland Bjarni had been given in Iceland, and, instead of landing, he turned the prow of his ship north. The land ebbed away from his port side. Two days later land was once again sighted. This flat, wooded land, was not the Greenland of the glaciers, and, against the advice of his crew, Bjarni ordered his ship to sea once again. Three days later they sighted a land, mountainous, glacier-topped, and, in Bjarni’s estimate, worthless. Putting this land astern, Bjarni sailed his ship in front of strong, gale-force winds from the southwest and four days later they sighted a fourth land. Bjarni judged this to be Greenland and landed at a promontory, which by chance would have it was Herjolfsnes. There he settled and, in time, took over his father’s farm.

 

The settlement of Iceland, a critical approach: Granastadir and the ecological heritage

 

Some years later Eric the Red’s son Leif, who, like all Greenlanders, was curious about new lands, decided to explore the places sighted by Bjarni. He bought Bjarni’s ship – was there a feeling that the vessel might know its own way? – and enlisted a crew of thirty-five. The sailing plan was simply to retrace Bjarni’s route. This they did successfully. They sighted, first, the mountainous, glacier-topped land, which Bjarni had sighted last. Unwilling to bear the same criticism that had been heaped on Bjarni, Leif lowered a boat and went ashore. The land was, indeed, worthless: glaciers inland and, between glaciers and the sea, slabs of rock. He called the place Helluland (i.e. Slab-Land). The next land they sighted had white sandy beaches and, beyond these, flat woodlands. Leif landed, called it Markland (i.e. Forest-land), and sailed on. Two days later they caught sight of land again. To the north of this land lay an island and they landed there. They put the dew from the grass to their lips and marveled at its sweetness. Leif now ordered his ship to go west around the promontory which lay to their south into an open sound. Not waiting for the tide to turn, they rushed ashore. Late they brought the ship up a river and anchored it in a lake at the riverhead, where they set up temporary shelters for themselves. The river had salmon bigger than they had ever seen and the plentiful grass appeared abundant for their livestock. They decided to winter there and so built houses. Leif arranged exploring parties to go out from their camp, but one of his men, a southerner (a German?) called Tyrkir, disappeared and, while Leif was preparing a search. Tyrkir stumbled into the camp, tipsy on the grapes he had found. Leif called the place Vinland (i.e. Wine-land). Night and day in this land were of more equal length than in Greenland. Leif and his crew readied a cargo of vines, grapes, and timber and returned to Greenland the following summer. That was the extent of Leif’s involvement in the explorations: he had retraced Bjarni’s route, landed at three places, named them, and spent a winter at the third (Vinland). Thus ends the story of Leif Ericsson and the New World.

 

Before Columbus: The Leif Eriksson Expedition: A True Adventure (Landmark Books)

 

The Saga of Eric the Red : The Vikings Discovery of America (Kilcoyne’s Viking Sagas)

 

Encounters With Native Peoples

The colonizing expeditions which followed involved other children of Eric the Red: Thorvald, who died in Vinland, Thorstein, who never reached his destination, the latter’s widow Gudrid and her then husband Thorfinn Karlsefni, and Eric’s murderous daughter Freydis. The boat which had taken Bjarni by accident and Leif by design was sold to Thorvald Ericsson. With a crew of thirty he sailed to Vinland and found Leif’s houses, where they wintered. Explorations to the west revealed attractive country of woods and sandy beaches. After another winter at Leif’s houses Thorvald and his men sailed, first, eastward along the coastline and then, north, putting in at a thickly wooded promontory between two fjords. It was here that the Vikings made their first recorded contact with the native people of North America. The Vikings noticed what looked like three humps on the beach; closer inspection showed the humps to be skin boats, each covering three men. One man escaped; the other eight were captured and executed. Europe met America in unprovoked violence. Suddenly the fjord was alive with skin boats, and the Europeans fled for their lives, although Thorvald, stung by an arrow, failed to escape with his. The crew returned to Greenland without Thorvald’s body but with tales of skraelings (uglies) on the beautiful shores of Vinland.

Thorstein, another son of Eric, went with his wife Gudrid and a crew of twenty-five in search of his brother’s body so that he might bring it back to Greenland. They set out in the same ship, which had already travelled the route three times, but foul weather tossed them mercilessly until it was almost winter when they were able to land at the Western Settlement of Greenland. During that winter, sickness struck the settlement, killing Thorstein and leaving Gudrid widowed. She returned with her husband’s body to Brattahlid, in the Eastern Settlement, where she buried it in consecrated ground. There she met a visiting Icelander, the wealthy Throfinn Karlsefni, and they married. At Gudrid’s urging Karlsefni agreed to undertake a colonizing expedition to Vinland. Together they sailed, taking with them a company of sixty men, five women, and a cargo of livestock of various kinds. The familiar voyage – presumably some of the men had sailed this way before – was easily accomplished. The new settlers quickly adjusted to life at the Leif site: they put their cows out to pasture, lived off the wild fruit and crops as well as the game and fish they caught. The intention was to stay and create a permanent settlement. After the first winter they encountered a large number of skraelings, who one day simply came out of the woods at the settlement site. The settlers’ bull roared at the skraelings and frightened them. Soon, however, the Vikings and the skraelings were trading: the natives’ furs for the colonists’ cow milk. During the summer Gudrid gave birth to a son Snorri, the first European reported born in the Western Hemisphere. Early the next winter the skraelings returned to trade and, in a disagreement, a skraeling was killed. Battle soon followed and the Vikings, pushing their bull ahead of them, drove their attackers away. Karlsefni decided, when spring came, to abandon the settlement. After only two winters the colonists returned to Greenland. Karlsefni, Gudrid and the young Snorri eventually settled in Iceland. After her husband’s death Gudrid was to travel to Rome and, later, back in Iceland she became a nun. Among her descendants were three twelfth-century Icelandic bishops: small wonder that the twelfth-century Greenlanders’ Saga sang the praise of this woman and her relations (Eric’s family and Karlsefni).

One member of Eric’s family, however, is not praised in the Greenlanders’ Saga, and that is Freydis, Eric’s daughter. In partnership with two Icelanders she sailed to Vinland and the Leif site. Disagreements broke out there, and Freydis had her partners and their men killed, she herself slaying their five women with the sharp end of an axe. This tale of the murderous Freydis ends the Saga’s description of the attempted settlements in Vinland: three in number, all the same site, two unsuccessful because of hostile encounters with the native people and the third unsuccessful because of a wicked woman. Nine brief chapters and the story of Vinland is told – or, at least, part of the story.

The Eric Saga tells a fuller story, repeating some of the details of the earlier saga, omitting some, changing others, and adding still others. This saga makes no mention of Bjarni and attributes the discovery of the New World to Leif Ericsson, now described as a missionary sent by King Olaf of Norway to evangelize Iceland and Greenland. Difficulties at sea threw Leif’s ship off course, and he sighted a new land where there grew wild wheat, grapes and mosur (maple?) trees. Nearby he discovered and saved some shipwrecked men, and from this time he was called Leif the Lucky. After one winter there Leif made his way to Greenland to carry out his evangelizing mission. At this point, after less than a chapter, Leif disappears from the Eric Saga. The next voyage was led by Kalsefni and his wife Gudrid, widow of Thorstein Ericsson, and contained a company, including Freydis and Thovald, intent upon settlement. They sighted and landed briefly at a place they called Helluland and later at place they called Markland. Beyond a long stretch of sandy beach – they named it Furdustrand – they found inlets and after some exploration put into a fjord, where there were vines and wild wheat. The first winter proved so severe that they decided to sail further south. After sailing for a long time they came to the estuary of a river that flowed from a lake. Here there were vines and wild wheat and the sea teemed with fish. They settled here; no snow came that winter, but in the spring there came the skraelings, first to trade – skraeling pelts for Viking cloth – and later to do battle. At this point the Eric Saga seeks to rehabilitate he memory of Freydis and portrays her as a valiant woman who, standing her ground while men fled, pulled out one of her breasts and slapped it with a sword as the skraelings fled in terror. Despite her heroism the Vikings decided to return to Greenland. On the way they made several stops. At one place they met a uniped, who slew Thorvald with an arrow; at another place, Gudrid gave birth to Snorri. The saga ends by naming the three twelfth-century Icelandic bishops descended from Karlsefni and Gudrid.

 

A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America

 

What can be concluded from these saga accounts? Three facts stand out above all else as indisputable: The Vikings reached North America; they then attempted to establish a settlement at Vinland; and they abandoned their settlement after hostile encounters with the native people. Minor stories such as the tipsy Tyrkir or the breast-thumping Freydis can be placed to one side; interesting when telling a story, but not necessarily for anything else. Sagas had to be created within an historically and geographically credible context. The heroes had to be real people, their voyages true voyages, the sailing directions believable to sophisticated seafarers. Some details should be looked at. The omission, for example, of Bjarni as the discoverer of the new lands in the story as told in the Eric Saga is quite suspicious. That saga writer, well aware of the account of the Greenlanders’ Saga, suppressed the Bjarni incident entirely and left it to a sea-tossed Leif to sight the new land. The Eric Saga throughout magnifies the families of Eric and his daughter-in-law Gudrid, and, in the case of Leif, this author attributed to him the conversion of Greenland, which we know is untrue. The conscious bypassing of Bjarni in favor of Leif fits into this general patter. (Consider, too, the turning of the murderous Freydis into the valiant woman!) It is Bjarni Herjolfsson whom we must see in the sagas as the discoverer of North America. The references to the details of the land itself are so insistent and so much in agreement that there an be little doubt the Vikings found a land where crops and what appeared to be grapes grew wild and where salmon ran in the rivers. This is firm ground for a historian.

 

 

Further questions impose themselves: when did these Europeans visit the New World? And where did they land there? The latter question will be dealt with presently; the other, easier question, now. Bjarni made his discovery in the year in which Eric the Red brought settlers back with him from Iceland to Greenland. There is unanimous agreement that this has to be 985 or 986. It was in the late summer that Bjarni failed to find his father in Iceland and sailed on to sight the new land. Dating Leif’s voyage of exploration requires some attention. The Greenlander’s Saga, which generally is preferable, recounts that this voyage occurred while Jarl [Earl] Erik ruled in Norway (1000-14), whereas the Eric Saga portrays Leif as a missionary sent by King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway (995-1000). Olaf was killed and Jarl Erik became the ruler of much of coastal Norway in September of the year 1000. Bjarni’s visit to Eric can be dated as 1001 at the earliest and 1014 at the latest. Bjarni stayed in Norway a winter and returned to Greenland in the following summer, 1002 at the earliest and 1015 at the latest. It was at this point that Leif then sailed. Greater precision is unnecessary. The only settlement mentioned in both saga accounts was the settlement built by Thorfinn Karlsefni and Gudrid his wife; by each account it lasted three years. When did it take place? At the time of this settlement Snorri was born. We can follow his line. Snorri had a daughter Hallfrid, who gave birth to Thorlak, future Bishop. The Icelandic annals state that Thorlak was born in 1085. If we assume that Snorri was forty years old when he sired Hallfrid and that Hallfrid was twenty years old when she bore Thorlak, this would mean that Snorri was born in 1025. Other assumptions, of course, would lead to other conclusions. Yet it seems fairly safe to say that the Karlsefni settlement, during which Snorri was born, took place sometime during the second or third decade of the eleventh century. Where he was born and where this settlement was located remain to be seen.

The Location of Vinland

The vexed question concerning the location of Vinland must be faced. One distinction should be made at the outset. The Vikings, in giving names to places, gave names to large regions (for example, Iceland, Greenland) and names to particular places (for example, Breidafjord, Brattahlid). The names Helluland, Markland and Vinland were given to large regions, to areas with hundreds of miles of coastline. Historians are virtually unanimous in locating Helluland at Baffin Island, just two hundred miles across the Davis Strait from Greenland. There the land is much as it was at the turn of the millennium, towering glaciers in the interior and stone slabs sloping from them to the sea. Markland, that thickly wooded region with miles of sandy beaches, must be seen as Labrador, for, despite intervening climatic changes, the area of Labrador south of Hamilton Inlet is still thickly forested with a strand of sandy beaches, and in Viking times the timer-line might have been as far north as Okak Bay. No mountains are to be found here, just a rolling coastal plain. It was along this coastline that Karlsefni found an extraordinary length of sandy beach, which he named Furdustrand (i.e. marvelous shore). This should be identified, it would seem, with the Porcupine Strands, which are forty-five miles of virtually unbroken beach, at most points about fifty meters wide and backed by dunes.

 

 

Vinland, the land to the south of Markland, has been located at scores of places along eh eastern coast of North America, as far south even as Florida. Local pride, enthusiastic amateur archaeology, and (alas!) fraud have produced most of these claims.

Serious attention in recent years has been given to two archaeological projects in Canada, one in Quebec and the other in Newfoundland; neither has arisen or taken hold from sentiments of local piety. The first was undertaken by Thomas E. Lee in northern Quebec along the western shore of Ungava Bay at two sites (Payne Bay and Deception Bay). It would not appear unreasonable that Norse Greenlanders would have sailed south of Baffin Island through the Hudson Strait into Ungava Bay. Mr. Lee discovered at these sites a number of longhouses as well as stone implements, a piece of bone, and an iron axe-head, which was apparently laminated. The material object can be dated to the Viking age, and, although some opinion held them to be Norse, a scholarly consensus considers them not Norse but Dorset Eskimo, having parallels with known Dorset-type materials found elsewhere in the Canadian Arctic.

A Momentous Discovery

Until 1960 L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, was a tiny, unknown fishing village of about seventy souls, cut off from its neighbors except by the sea. Now a road runs into that village, a national park has been opened there, and its name has been broadcast across lands and seas. L’Anse aux Meadows is the site of the well-publicized excavations which have unearthed ineluctable evidence of an early Norse settlement in the New World. In 1960 Dr Helge Ingstad, former Governor of Greenland, sailed north from Rhode Island along the northeast coast of North America in search of a Vinlandic site. At the village of L’Anse aux Meadows on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland he asked George Deeker, a descendant of original English settle, about any ruins in the vicinity. Dr Ingstad was led a short distance west from the village to the shores of Epaves Bay at Black Duck Brook. Contours on an old beach terrace led him to believe that this might be a site worth further investigation. Behind this beach-side site rise low, rolling hills. The forests are now some distance away. The outstanding feature today is the lushness of its fields, unparalleled at this latitude in North America. Great Sacred Island stands sentry-like to the north of Epaves Bay. Dr. Ingstad decided to excavate. Every summer from 1961 to 1968 the archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, his wife, directed the operations at the site, and in 1977 she published a scientific report of the excavations. Further work on the site was done from 1973 to 1976, first by Bengt Schonback and later by Birgitta Linderoth Wallace.

 

The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement in L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland

 

What did the Ingstads find at L’Anse aux Meadows? Quite simply, they found the remains of a small Norse community of the eleventh century. They discovered to the east of the brook three clusters of houses and to the west of the brook a smithy and a charcoal kiln. The buildings have walls constructed of horizontal layers of turf placed one on top of another. In each cluster there was a longhouse and one or more smaller, satellite houses; they were built on an ancient marine terrace which lies about 4 meters above sea level at high tide. Each of the longhouses had a side wall facing the sea. . . . In general, the buildings at this site represent Scandinavian buildings, and on the basis of the buildings themselves one has sufficient confidence to describe this as a Norse community.

The artifacts found at L’Anse aux Meadows, although not as plentiful as one would have liked, confirm the architectural evidence and point unmistakably to a Norse origin. Near the doorway to [one of the longhouses], a soapstone spindle whorl was found; it resembles very closely a spindle whorl found in Greenland – nothing of this sort can be attributed to aboriginal North Americans at this date – and indicates the presence of sheep at this Norse settlement. A small, rounded stone with a hollow was, no doubt, a lamp used to burn oil; it is very similar to Icelandic lamps of the Viking period and not similar at all to known Eskimo lamps. ,. . . A fragment of a bone needle had a drilled eye, a feature impossible for the Dorset Eskimoes. Of greatest significance is the ring-headed bronze pin, undoubtedly of Norse-Celtic origin. This pin, with a ring looped through a hole drilled at the top of the shank, ha no ornamentation and measures 10 centimeters, and it bears a very close resemblance to pins found throughout northern Europe. Over a score of such pins from the Viking period have been found in graves in Norway alone, a half dozen or so in Iceland, and one, most recently, has been found at the site of the High Street excavations in Dublin.

The age of this Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows is still to be discussed. The excavators have had some of the material found at this site subjected to radiocarbon testing. . . .

The carbon-14 dating would suggest a date at the turn of the millennium. This dating is consistent with the information derived from the sagas. The conclusion is ineluctable: sometime about the year AD 1000 a Viking settlement was established at L’Anse aux Meadows near the northern tip of Newfoundland. . . .

Thus the architectural and archaeological evidence is strongly supported by the carbon dating, and this evidence compels us to conclude that the Vikings reached North America. The saga evidence, as useful as it indeed is, takes second place to what was unearthed in Newfoundland. The significance of these findings can scarcely be exaggerated: the long line of Viking migration which had begun generations earlier in the fjords of western Norway had stretched all the way across the North Atlantic. The line that had reached Iceland in the 870s and Greenland in the 980s reached the shores of North America near the year 1000. . . .

Grapes, Wine, and Vinland

One worrying issue about L’Anse aux Meadows remains: the name Vinland. According to Adam of Bremen and the sagas, the land discovered by the Vikings abounded in wine-yielding grapes. No grapes now grow in this region. Inconveniently, sophisticated pollen analyses of samples taken from the site clearly show that no profound vegetational change has taken place there for the past seven-and-a half millennia and, hence, it is highly improbable that grapes grew there during the Viking age. The climate at the time of the Viking settlement, despite an intervening cold period, was similar to the climate of today: sharp differences between winter and summer temperatures, which, in both seasons, are moderated by the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream, thus producing much fog and a short season (about 100 days) for crops. Grapeless though this land was a thousand years ago, it did produce a wide variety of berries, some of which were ‘wineberries,’ particularly the squashberry and both the red and the black currants; these might quite conceivably have been interpreted as grapes. Currants are still used in Scandinavia for making wine and are commonly called ‘red and black wineberries’ in Sweden, and elsewhere in the north (in parts of Norway and England) the red currant is known as a ‘red wineberry.’ . . .

Is L’Anse aux Meadows, then, Vinland? The answer has to be that L’Anse aux Meadows must have been a Viking settlement in the large region called Vinland. It would be rash, indeed, to identify this settlement with any of the settlements mentioned in the sagas, although the temptation, which must be valiantly resisted, to see this as the colony established by Thorfinn Karlsefni is strong.

It still remains for scholars to determine the extent of Vinland. How far west did it extend? – to Ungava Bay? – to Hudson Bay? And how far south did it extend? — to Nova Scotia? — to the Maine coast? — to Cape Cod? — to Narragansett Bay or beyond? It is only archaeological evidence, perhaps accidentally found by fishermen, beachcombers, or amateur archaeologists, which will determine how far the Vikings went in the New World. . . . However far Vinland might have extended – and it remains an open question – there can be no question that the Vikings established a settlement, short-lived though it was, on the marine terraces overlooking Epaves Bay in Newfoundland.

 


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At the beginning of the eleventh century, the Arab empire extended halfway across the know world from the Pyrenees to Persia. It had made inroads into India, and Arab armies were breaking through the Asiatic outposts of the Byzantine empire. The Muslims regarded Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire, as the eastern gateway to Europe: it must be captured and all Europe must fall under their sway. . . .

 

A History of the Crusades Vol. I: The First Crusade and the Foundations of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Volume 1)

 

It was as though Christianity and Islam were meant to engage in a death struggle, which would end only when one submitted to the other. Yet there were long periods when there was a kind of peace between them. Jerusalem, captured very early by the Arabs, was permitted to retain a Christian community, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher remained untouched. . . . Throughout the ninth century, relations between Christians and Muslims were fairly amicable. The Christians demanded only that Jerusalem should be accessible to them, and that pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher should be treated reasonably. And so it continued for another century. Even after the destruction of the church by the mad Caliph Hakim in 1009, there was peace, for the church was quickly restored. The pilgrims continued to come to Jerusalem, worshipping at the altars in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, passing freely in and out of the city. It was as though the two religions had reached an accommodation, as though nothing would interrupt the continual flow of pilgrims.

The Seljuk Turks

In the middle years of the eleventh century there occurred an event that would cause a drastic change in the military posture of the Muslims in the Near East. The Seljuk Turks, advancing from Central Asia, conquered Persia. Converted to Islam, they moved with the zeal of converts, proselytizing all the tribes they came upon in their lust for conquest. They had been herdsmen; they became raiders, cavalrymen, living off the earth, setting up their tents wherever they pleased, taking pleasure in sacking cities and leaving only ashes. The once all-powerful caliph of Baghdad became the servant of the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan. In August 1071, the Seljuk army under Alp Arslan confronted the much larger army of the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes near Menzikert north of Lake Van in Armenia. Romanus was an emperor with vast military experience, brave to excess, commanding a hundred thousand well-trained troops, including many Frankish and German mercenaries. There was, however, treachery among his officers; orders were not obeyed. The lightly armed Seljuk cavalry poured thousands of arrows into the tight formations of the Byzantine army, and when the emperor ordered a retreat at the end of the day, his flanks were exposed, his army began to disintegrate, and the Turks rushed in to fill the vacuum created by his retreating troops. Romanus fought bravely; he was seriously wounded in the arm and his horse was killed under him. Captured, he was led to the tent of Alp Arslan in chains. There he was thrown to the ground, and Alp Arslan placed his foot ceremonially on the emperor’s neck. The Seljuk sultan half-admired the broad-shouldered Byzantine emperor, and two weeks later the emperor was allowed to go free. Still the defeat was so decisive, so shattering, that the emperor fell from grace in the eyes of the Byzantines, who had no difficulty deposing him. When he returned to Constantinople, he was blinded, and in the following year he died either from the injuries caused by the blinding or of a broken heart.

 

 

Although Alp Arslan himself, and his son Malek Shah, had no thought of conquering the Byzantine empire, the chieftains who served under them had different ideas. They poured into the undefended provinces of Anatolia. While the Christians remained in the towns, the invading Turks ravaged the countryside. Gone were the days when the Byzantine empire stretched from Egypt to the Danube and from the borders of Persia to southern Italy. The Turks advanced to Nicaea, less than a hundred miles from Constantinople, and occupied the city, making it the capital of the sultanate that ruled over Asia Minor. The Turks were spreading out in all directions. In the same year that saw the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert, they captured Jerusalem from the Arabs of Egypt on behalf of the Caliph of Baghdad. In 1085 Malek Shah captured Antioch from the Byzantines. Malek Shah himself came to the Palestinian shore and dipped his sword in the waters of the Mediterranean, a ceremony by which he asserted that the Mediterranean itself belonged to him. . . .

Christendom was reeling from the Turkish invasions. In a single generation Asia Minor had fallen into their hands. The Byzantine empire had lost the sources of its greatest wealth. Christians could no longer be assured that they could journey to Jerusalem without being arrested or sold into slavery or ill treated in other ways. The Turks were fanatical Muslims, determined to exact the last ounce of power from their victories. But their survival as a united people depended on their leader, and when Malek Shah died in 1091, the empire was divided up among his sons and nephews, whose hatred for one another contributed to the early success of the Crusaders when at last they made their way across Asia Minor in order to recover Jerusalem.

An Appeal From Constantinople

In 1081, Alexius Comnenus, who had served in the army of Romanus IV Diogenes as a general fighting against the inroads of the Turks, came to the throne at the age of thirty-three. He was an able commander in the field and uncompromising in his determination to regain the lost provinces of his empire. . . . he reigned for thirty-seven years, recaptured some of the lost provinces, and there were few Byzantine emperors who reigned so long or fought so well.

 

The First Crusade: A New History: The Roots of Conflict between Christianity and Islam

 

When Alexius Comnenus came to the throne, the empire was in disarray. . . . He was confronted with dangers along the long Danube border from the Oghuz, Kuman, and Pecheneg Turks, half brothers to the Turks in Asia Minor, and from Slavs and Bulgars. Only a few coastal cities in Asia Minor remained in his hands. It was necessary at all costs to push back the frontiers of the sultanate of Roum. He appealed for military assistance to the pope and to the Western princes who might be sympathetic to his cause,. They were asked o raise armies, to march to Constantinople and to join forces under the banner of Christendom against the infidels. He recounted the atrocities committed y the enemy and pointed to the peculiar sanctity of Constantinople as the guardian of so many relics of Christ. Constantinople and the Byzantine empire must be saved, Jerusalem must be reconquered, and the pax Christiana [Christian Peace] must be established in the Near East. A copy of his letter to Robert, Count of Flanders, a cousin of William the Conqueror, has been preserved. The emperor speaks with mingled anguish and pride, despair and humility. . . .

 

 

Mingling allurements and enticements with intimations of the final disaster that would overwhelm the community of Christians if the Turks and Pechenegs succeeded in conquering what was left of the Byzantine empire, Alexius Comnenus appealed to Robert of Flanders to come to his aid. The letter contained admissions of terrible defeats and was sustained by a vast pride, but it also provided a picture of the world as he saw it, with its pressing dangers and wildest hopes. Two images prevailed: the atrocities committed by the enemy, and the spiritual and material wealth of Constantinople, last bastion against the Turks.

The letter was addressed not only to Robert of Flanders but to Western Christendom. Pope Urban II read it and was deeply moved. . . . And now very slowly and with immense difficulty there came into existence the machinery that would bring the armies of the West to Constantinople and later to Jerusalem.

 


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There are seldom absolute stops in history or entirely new chapters. One event, however, which has been almost universally accepted in such terms, from the greatest scholars to the humblest schoolchild, is the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Not only was this the last time that England was successfully invaded, but it was followed by a complete change in the ruling dynasty, the introduction of military feudalism, the reform of the church and the rapid expansion of monasticism. Such social and political changes were accompanied by dramatic architectural and topographical development: the introduction of the castle, the spread of new towns, and the erection of hundreds of new ecclesiastical establishments, all executed in a new style of architecture. Whatever moral reservations must be expressed about the activities of the Normans in England there is no doubt that through their energy and administrative ability they transformed the face of town and country alike.

Two unique sources of historical evidence have contributed greatly to this impression of profound change: the Domesday Book, which was compiled some twenty years after the Norman Conquest, and the Bayeux Tapestry, which was probably competed within a decade of the Conquest. The Domesday Book (1086) provides us with the most comprehensive survey of the English landscape and society ever executed. Although doubts may be expressed about the proper interpretation of its contents, the survey represents the firm historical reference to the vast majority of English settlements and therefore intrinsically it represents an historical beginning.

 

 

The Bayeux Tapestry is a confident account of the Conquest which incorporated a justification of William the Conqueror’s claim to the English throne – a claim which scholars have argued about over the centuries. It seems probable that the tapestry was embroidered in England, perhaps at St Augustine’s, Canterbury, for William’s half brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, and was intended to be hung in Bayeux Cathedral. There has been considerable controversy over the dating of the tapestry, but it seems most likely that is was completed in time for the consecration of Odo’s new cathedral in Bayeux in 1077. The tapestry narrates in ostensibly simple terms the events leading up to the Conquest and the story of the battle of Hastings itself. The story is quire clearly told from the Norman viewpoint and appears to be based largely on accounts of two of William the Conqueror’s contemporary hagiographers, William of Jumieges and William of Poitiers, as well as a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

 

 

In brief the tapestry tells of [the English noble] Harold Godwinson leaving King Edward the Confessor’s court and undertaking the journey to Normandy, where, after being seized by Count Guy of Ponthieu, he is taken to William’s palace at Rouen. Harold then joins William in a successful campaign against the Breton border towns of Dol and Dinan. At Bayeux Harold takes an oath of obedience to William – an event which was pointedly of considerable significance in the light of subsequent events. On returning to England Edward dies and Harold accepts the crown. At this point the vision of Halley’s comet which appeared that year is seen as a terrible omen. On hearing of the news of Harold’s accession William prepares a fleet and then sails to England, where, after building a castle at Hastings, he goes into battle against Harold. Some of the most vivid scenes then follow, portraying aspects of the battle in considerable detail, including a brilliantly depicted cavalry attack, and Harold’s death. The final section which presumably showed William being crowned at Westminster is missing. Thus the actual event which led to Norman domination in England is graphically illustrated. No other event in English medieval history received such singular treatment. . . .

Duke William II, or William the Conqueror as he was known after the battle of Hastings, was born at Falaise in 1027/8, the bastard son of Duke Robert I, or Robert the Magnificent as he was popularly known. Robert’s death in 1035 while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem resulted in a politically troubled situation. William succeeded to the dukedom as a minor and there followed a period of near anarchy during which two of his guardians were assassinated. William survived this tumultuous period and formally came of age in 1044. Almost immediately he was involved in an internal revolt which was finally crushed at the decisive battle of Val-es-Dunes in 1047.

 

 

Williams long apprenticeship at the seat of power was to serve him well. In the following twenty years he consolidated his control and developed skills which he as later to apply with great success in England. Although regrettably the details are only scantily recorded in the early part of this period a strengthening of feudal ties was accompanied by a general tightening up of ducal administration most notably in the area of military service, providing the Norman duke with the strongest army in Europe. At the same time William insisted on exercising his right to garrison the castles of his strongest barons, and it was probably at this time that the castle became a particularly important element in William’s military strategy.

William embarked on a series of successful and by all accounts brutal campaigns which eventually brought the whole of Maine under Norman control, and subdued Brittany over which he claimed lordship. Thus by 1066 William had established himself as master of north-west Gaul, a powerful European sovereign in all but name.

Town life flourished and in particular William deliberately fostered the development of Caen between Bayeux and Rouen on an island at the confluence of the rivers Orne and Odon. William saw Caen as a new military stronghold with geographical advantages of Rouen, mainly access to the sea, but without Rouen’s vulnerability to attack. Caen also lies in the very heart of the narrow belt of Jurassic limestone, which provided the main source of Caen stone for the construction of castles, churches and monasteries both in Normandy and England. . . .

 

 

William’s claim to the throne of England lay principally through his grandfather’s sister, Emma, who was married to two consecutive kings of England, Ethelred and Cnut. Emma who was sister to Duke Richard II (966 – 1026), and the mother of Edward the Confessor, was largely responsible for bringing Normans and Norman customs into the English court. Edward spent half of his life in exile in the duchy and in the first years after succeeding to the throne relied on the political and military advice of his Norman comrades and generally throughout his reign maintained close personal contact with Normandy. It seems reasonably clear that Edward the Confessor had recognized William as his successor in the early 1050s, and probable that Harold’s journey to Normandy in 1064 was to confirm this recognition. On hearing of Edward’s death on 5 January 1066 and Harold’s accession, William had no doubt about his course of action and set in motion the diplomatic and military preparations necessary for the invasion of England. . . .

William’s preparation and organization, the characteristics of which were to be the hallmark of his rule as King of England, played a decisive role in his victory. Seldom can the events of one day – Saturday, 14 October 1066 – have had such a profound effect on the political geography of Europe. William of Poitiers wrote that, with his success at the battle of Hastings, Duke William had conquered all of England in a single day ‘between the third hour and evening.’ In reality, however, although this battle saw the end of united and national resistance to William, local resistance and piecemeal rising s continued and it was not until the notorious ‘harrying of the North’ (1068-70) that the pax Normanica prevailed.

The Norman occupation of England was virtually a re-run of the Scandinavian settlement in Normandy. England received a new royal dynasty, a new aristocracy, virtually new church, a new art and architecture and, in official circles, a new language. By 1086 only half a dozen of the 180 greater landlords or tenants-in-chief were English. The Crown itself held one-fifth of the land and a considerable percentage of the remainder was held by a few of William’s favorites, who had come with him from France. It has been estimated that about half the country was in the hands of ten men, most of whom were William’s relatives. The power and wealth of the country was held by a small Norman elite, and as if to demonstrate the change of management castles were built throughout the kingdom. Within twenty years of the Conquest they dominated all the shire towns and within half a century sat in virtually every settlement of importance in the country. By 1090 only one of the sixteen English bishoprics was held by an Englishman and six of those sees had been moved from their historic centers to large towns where they subsequently remained. By the end of the twelfth century virtually every Anglo-Saxon cathedral had been removed and rebuilt in Anglo-Norman style, as well as hundreds of new abbeys, and parish churches.

 

William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (English Monarchs)

 

It should, however, be remembered that Norman domination was largely confined to the upper echelons of society. Although groups of French settlers did move into England and were found in many towns particularly in the Welsh borderlands, the level of folk penetration was far less even than that perpetrated by the tenth-century Norsemen in Normandy. Indeed, recent analysis of place-names in Normandy suggest that there might even have been a modest movement of English settlers into Normandy after the Conquest.

The Norman Conquest of England was in no way a folk movement to be compared with the Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian settlements. Similarly, the place-name evidence demonstrates precisely the same pattern of hybridization that had already occurred in Normandy. Norman family names were attached to already existing Anglo-Saxon place-names and there was a considerable restyling of place-names to Norman design. Despite the use of French in polite society it never reached much beyond that, and although a considerable number of French words found their way into the English language, they did not change it profoundly. One reason for this was that the Normans transacted most of the written communication in Latin and not French, but in the process did displace Anglo-Saxon as the official language.

 

The Norman Conquest: England after William the Conqueror (Critical Issues in History)

 

Once William had successfully quelled all opposition he was able to create a state in England which was far stronger and more unified than anything that had gone before. The secret of this was his complete domination of the country through feudal institutions. Before 1066 feudalism was more developed in Normandy than in England, military obligation in return for land, known as knights’ service, was already a recognized institution and many feudal quotas had already been established. In the process of the Conquest, not only was the Norman model introduced into England, but it was made far more effective and systematic than it had ever been in Normandy. This was largely because, as conqueror, William quite literally claimed the whole of England as his own. He dispossessed all but a handful of English lords and gave lands to his own men, insisting that he, as king, was the only person allowed to regard land as his absolute property; everyone else was merely a tenant who paid rent, normally in the form of knights’ service. This was even the case with the English bishoprics and abbeys who also became Crown tenants and had to provide service. He was therefore both king and feudal lord of absolutely all the land in his kingdom, and consequently he controlled the sole source of wealth as well as the font of justice. England became the supreme example of a feudal military monarchy. The Crown and the Norman aristocracy found themselves extremely wealthy, wealth which was rapidly translated into buildings – cathedrals, abbeys, parish churches, castles and new towns.

It is a paradox that although it was in England that the Normans achieved their greatest success in all fields, in the long run the Conquest of England turned them into Englishmen. Although the new Norman aristocracy largely despised the English and their customs, they were operating essentially within an English matrix. Because their penetration of English society was at such an elevated level it was always probable that English traditions and institutions would survive in some form, and eventually absorb the Norman masters.

 


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