1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vinland

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VINLAND (Old Norse, Vinland, i.e. Vineland or Wineland), some region on the eastern coast of North America, visited and named by the Norsemen in the beginning of the 11th century. The word first appeared in print in Adam of Bremen's Descriptio Insularum Aquilonis, an appendix to his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, published by Lindenbrog in 1595. In pursuit of historical study, Adam visited the Danish court during the reign of the well-informed monarch Svend Estridsson (1047-1076), and writes that the king “spoke of an island (or country) in that ocean discovered by many, which is called Vinland, because of the wild grapes [vites] that grow there, out of which a very good wine can be made. Moreover, that grain unsown grows there abundantly [fruges ibi non seminatas abundare] is not a fabulous fancy, but is based on trustworthy accounts of the Danes.” This passage offers important corroboration of the Icelandic accounts of the Vinland voyages, and is, furthermore, interesting “as the only undoubted reference to Vinland in a medieval book written beyond the limits of the Scandinavian world” (Fiske). Adam's information concerning Vinland did not, however, impress his medieval readers, as he placed the new land somewhere in the Arctic regions: “All those regions which are beyond are filled with insupportable ice and boundless gloom.” These words show the futility of ascribing to Adam's account Columbus's knowledge of lands in the West, as many overzealous advocates of the Norse discoveries have done. The importance of the information, meagre as it is, lies in the fact that Adam received from the lips of kinsmen of the explorers (as the Danes in a sense were) certain characteristic facts (the finding of grapes and unsown grain) that support the general reliability of the Icelandic sagas which tell of the Vinland voyages (in which these same facts are prominent), but which were not put into writing by the Norsemen until later — just how much later it is not possible to determine. The fact that the Icelandic sagas concerning Vinland are not contemporaneous written records has caused them to be viewed by many with suspicion; hence such a significant allusion as that by Adam of Bremen is not to be overlooked. To the student of the Norse sources, Adam's reference is not so important, as the internal evidence of the sagas is such as to give easy credence to them as records of exploration in regions previously unknown to civilization. The contact with savages would alone prove that.

During the middle ages the Scandinavians were the first to revive geographical science and to practise pelagic navigation. For six centuries previous to about 800, European interest in practical geographical expansion was at a standstill. During the 6th and 7th centuries, Irish anchorites, in their “passion for solitude,” found their way to the Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes and Iceland, but they were not interested in colonization or geographical knowledge. The discovery of new lands in the West by the Norsemen came in the course of the great Scandinavian exodus of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries — the Viking Age — when Norsemen, Swedes and Danes swarmed over all Europe, conquering kingdoms and founding colonies. The main stream of Norsemen took a westerly course, striking Great Britain, Ireland and the Western Isles, and ultimately reached Iceland (in 874), Greenland (in 985) and Vinland (in 1000). This western migration was due mainly to political dissatisfaction in Norway, doubtless augmented by a restless spirit of adventure. The chiefs and their followers that settled Iceland were “picked men,” the flower of the land, and sought a new home from other motives than want or gain. They sought political freedom. In Iceland they lived active, not to say tumultuous, lives, and left fine literary records of their doings and achievements. The Icelandic colony was an interesting forerunner of the American republic, having a prosperous population living under a republican government, and maintaining an independent national spirit for nearly four centuries.

Geographically Iceland belongs to America, and its colonization meant, sooner or later, the finding of other lands to the West. A century later Greenland was peopled from Iceland, and a colony existed for over four hundred years, when it was snuffed out, doubtless by hostile Eskimos. Icelandic records, among them the Vinland sagas, also a Norwegian work of the 13th century, called Speculum regale (The King's Mirror), and some papal letters, give interesting glimpses of the life of this colony. It was from the young Greenland colony that an attempt was made to establish a new outpost in Vinland, but plans for permanent settlement were given up on account of the hostility of the natives, with whom the settlers felt powerless to grapple. Gunpowder had not yet been invented.

Icelandic literature consists mainly of the so-called “sagas,” or prose narratives, and is rich in historical lore. In the case of the Vinland sagas, however, there are two independent narratives of the same events, which clash in the record of details. Modern investigators have been interested in establishing the superiority of one over the other of the two narratives. One of them is the “Saga of Eric the Red” as found in the collection known as Hauk's Book, so called because the manuscript was made by Hauk Erlendsson, an Icelander who spent much of his life in Norway. It was copied, in part by Hauk himself, between the years 1305 and 1334, the date of his death, and probably during the period 1310-20. It is No. 544 of the Arne-Magnaean collection in Copenhagen. Another manuscript that tells the same story, with only verbal variations, is found in No. 557 of the same collection. This manuscript was made later than Hauk's, probably in the early part of the 15th century, but it is not a copy of Hauk's. Both were made independently from earlier manuscripts. The story as found in these two manuscripts has been pronounced by competent critics, especially Professor Gustav Storm of the university of Christiania, as the best and the most trustworthy record.

The other saga, which by chance came to be looked upon as the chief repository of facts concerning the Vinland voyages, is found in a large Icelandic work known as the Flatey Book, as it was once owned by a man who lived on Flat Island (Flatey), on the north-western coast of Iceland. This collection of sagas, completed in about 1380, is “the most extensive and most perfect of Icelandic manuscripts,” and was sent to Denmark in 1662 as a gift to the king. It was evidently the general excellence of this collection that gave the version of the Vinland story that it contained precedence, in the works of early investigators, over the Vinland story of Hauk's Book. (Reeves's Finding of Wineland contains fine photographs of all the vellum pages that give the various Vinland narratives.)

According to Flatey Book saga, Biarni Heriulfsson, on a voyage from Iceland to Greenland in the early days of the Greenland colony, was driven out of his course and sighted new lands to the south-west. He did not go ashore (which seems strange), but sailed northward to Greenland. Fifteen years later, according to this account, Leif Ericsson set out from Greenland in search of the lands that Biarni had seen, found them and named them — Helluland (Flat-stone-land), Markland (Forestland) and Vinland. After his return to Greenland, several successive expeditions visited the new lands, none of which (strangely enough) experienced any difficulty in finding Leif's hut in the distant Vinland.

According to the Vinland saga in Hauk's Book, Leif Ericsson, whose father, Eric the Red, had discovered and colonized Greenland, set out on a voyage, in 999, to visit Norway, the native land of his father. He visited the famous King Olaf Tryggvason, who reigned from 995 to 1000, and was bending his energies toward Christianizing Norway and Iceland. He immediately saw in Leif a likely aid in the conversion of the Greenlanders. Leif was converted and consented to become the king's emissary to Greenland, and the next year (1000) started on his return voyage. The saga says that he was “tossed about” on this long voyage, and came upon an unknown country, where he found “self-sown wheatfields, and vines,” and also some trees called “mösur,” of which he took specimens. Upon his arrival in Greenland, Leif presented the message of King Olaf, and seems to have attempted no further expeditions. But his visits to the new lands aroused much interest, and his brother Thorstein made an unsuccessful attempt to find them. Later, in 1003, an Icelander, Thorfinn Karlsefni, who was visiting the Greenland colony, and who had married Gudrid, the widow of Leif's brother Thorstein, set out with four vessels and 160 followers to found a colony in the new lands. Here they remained three years, during which time a son, Snorri, was born to Thorfinn and Gudrid. This expedition, too, found “grapes and self-sown wheat,” though seemingly not in any great abundance. Concerning the southern-most region of Vinland, the saga says: “They found self-sown wheatfields in the lowlands, but vines everywhere on higher places. . . . There were great numbers of wild animals in the woods.” Then the saga relates that one morning a large number of men in skin canoes came paddling toward them and landed, staring curiously at them: “They were swarthy men and ill-looking, and the hair of their heads was ugly; they had large eyes and broad cheeks.” Later the saga says: “No snow came there, and all of their live stock lived by grazing, and thrived.” The natives appeared again the next spring, and a clash occurred. Fearing continued trouble with them, Karlsefni resolved to return to Greenland. This he did a year later, and spent the winter of 1006-7 there, whereupon he settled in Iceland. From him and Gudrid a number of prominent ecclesiastics claimed descent, and also Hauk Erlendsson. The Vinland story was doubtless a cherished family possession, and was put into writing, when writing sagas, instead of telling them, came into fashion. And here it is important to remember that before the age of writing in Iceland there was a saga-telling age, a most remarkable period of intellectual activity, by the aid of which the deeds and events of the seething life of the heroic age was carried over into the age of writing. “Among the medieval literatures of Europe, that of Iceland is unrivalled in the profusion of detail with which the facts of ordinary life are recorded, and the clearness with which the individual characters of numberless real persons stand out from the historic background” (Origines Islandicae). Icelandic literary history says that Ari the Learned (born in 1067) was “the first man in this land who wrote in the Norse tongue history relating to times ancient and modern.” Among his works is the Book of Settlements, “a work of thorough and painstaking research unequalled in medieval literature” (Fiske). His work The Book of Icelanders is unfortunately lost, but an abridgment of it, Libellus Islandorum, made by Ari himself, contains a significant reference to Vinland. It tells that the colonists in Greenland found “both broken cayaks (canoes) and stone implements, whereby it may be seen that the same kind of folk had been there as they which inhabited Vinland, and whom the men of Greenland (i.e. the explorers) called the 'skraelings' (i.e. inferior people).” From this allusion one cannot but think that so keen and alert a writer as Ari had given some attention to Vinland in the lost work. But of this there is no other proof. We are left to affirm, on account of definite references in various sagas and annals to Leif Ericsson and the discovery of Vinland, that the saga as preserved in Hauk's Book (and also in No. 557) rested on a strong viva voce tradition that was early put into writing by a competent hand. Dr Finnur Jonsson of Copenhagen says: “The classic form of the saga and its vivid and excellent tradition surely carry it back to about 1200.” This conservative opinion does not preclude the possibility, or even probability, that written accounts of the Vinland voyages existed before this date. Vigfusson, in speaking of the sagas in general, says: “We believe that when once the first saga was written down, the others were in quick succession committed to parchment, some still keeping their form through a succession of copies, other changed. . . . That which was not written down quickly, in due time, was lost and forgotten for ever.”

The fact that there are discrepancies between the two versions as they appear in the Hauk's Book and in the Flatey Book does not justify the overthrow of both as historical evidence. The general truth of the tradition is strengthened by the fact that it has come down from two independent sources. One of them must be the better, however, and this it is the province of competent scholars to determine. The best modern scholarship gives the precedence to the Hauk's Book narrative, as it harmonizes better with well-established facts of Scandinavian history, and is besides a more plausible account. In accordance with this decision, Biarni Heriulfson's adventure should be eliminated, the priority of discovery given to Leif Ericsson, and the honour of being the first European colonists on the American continent awarded to Thorfinn Karlsefni and his followers. This was evidently the only real attempt at colonization, despite the numerous contentions to the contrary. Under date of 1121 the Icelandic annals say: “Bishop Eric of Greenland went in search of Vinland.” Nothing further is recorded. The fact that his successor as bishop was appointed in 1123 would seem to indicate that the Greenlanders had information that Eric had perished.

The only important phase of the Vinland voyages that has not been definitely settled is the identifications of the regions visited by Leif and Thorfinn. The Danish antiquarian Rafn, in his monumental Antiquitates Americanae, published in 1837, and much discussed in America at that time, held for Rhode Island as Leif's landfall and the locality of Thorfinn's colony. Professor E. N. Horsford, in a number of monographs (unfortunately of no historical or scientific value), fixed upon the vicinity of Boston, where now stand a Leif Ericsson statue and Hereford's Norumbega Tower as testimonials to the Norse explorers. But in 1887 Professor Storm announced his conviction that the lands visited by the Norsemen in the early part of the 11th century were Labrador, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. And a careful reading of the Hauk's Book narrative seems to show that the numerous details of the saga fit Nova Scotia remarkably well, and much better than any other part of the continent. This view has in recent years been quite generally accepted by American scholars. But in 1910 Professor M. L. Fernald, a botanist of Harvard University, published a paper in Rhodora, vol. 12, No. 134, in which he contends that it is most probable that the “vinber” of the sagas were not “grapes,” but “wineberries,” also known as the mountain or rock cranberries. The “self-sown wheat” of the sagas he identifies as strand wheat, instead of Indian corn, or wild rice, and the mösur trees as the canoe birch. He thinks the natives were Eskimos, instead of American Indians, as stoutly maintained by John Fiske. Professor Fernald concludes his paper by saying that: “The mass of evidence which the writer has in hand, and which will soon be ready for publication, makes it clear that, if we read the sagas in the light of what we know of the abundant occurrence north of the St Lawrence of the 'vinber' (Vaccinium Vitis-Idaea or possibly Ribes triste, R. prostratum, or R. lacustre), 'hveiti' {Elymus arenarius), and 'mösur' (Betula alba, i.e. B. papyrifera of many botanists), the discrepancies in geography, ethnology and zoology, which have been so troublesome in the past, will disappear; other features, usually considered obscure, will become luminous; and the older and less distorted sagas, at least in their main incidents, will become vivid records of actuaL geographic exploration.”

It is possible that Professor Fernald may show conclusively that Leif's landfall was north of the St Lawrence. That the “vinber” were mountain cranberries would explain the fact, mentioned in the Flatey Book saga, that Leif filled his afterboat with “vinber” in the spring, which is possible with the cranberries, as they are most palatable after having lain under the snow for the winter. But Thorfinn Karlsefni found no abundance of “vinber,” in fact one of his followers composed some verses to express his disappointment on this score. “Vines” were found only in the southernmost regions visited by Karlsefni. It is to be noted that the word “vines” is more prominent in the Hauk's Book narrative than the word “vinber.” At present it does not seem likely that Professor Fernald's argument will seriously affect Professor Storm's contention that Thorfinn's colony was in Nova Scotia. At any rate, the incontrovertible facts of the Vinland voyages are that Leif and Thorfinn were historical characters, that they visited, in the early part of the 11th century, some part of the American continent south-west of Greenland, that they found natives whose hostility prevented the founding of a permanent settlement, and that the sagas telling of these things are, on the whole, trustworthy descriptions of actual experience.

Bibliography. — The bibliography of this subject is large, but adequate documents, accounts and discussions may be found in the following modern works: Gustav Storm, Studies on the Vineland Voyages (Copenhagen, 1889); Arthur M. Reeves, The Finding of Wineland, the Good (London, 1890 and 1895); John Fiske, The Discovery of America, vol. i. (Boston, 1892); Juul Dieserud, “Norse Discoveries in America,” in Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, vol. xxxiii. (New York, 1901); Gudbrandr Vígfússon and F. Yorke Powell, Origines Islandicae (Oxford, 1905); and Julius E. Olson and others, The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503 (New York, 1906), the first volume of Original Narratives of Early American History. (J. E. O.)