The Vinland Voyages, The Market, And Morality: The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga In Context
From the desk of Thomas F. Bertonneau on Sat, 2010-09-25 16:40
Scholarship places the composition of the two Vinland Sagas in the Twelfth century, in the case of The Greenlanders’ Saga, and in the Fourteenth Century in the case of Eirik’s Saga. But like most of the saga-literature the two narratives reflect a non-mythic oral tradition, linked with the settlement and early chronology of Iceland and Greenland, the general (if not the minutely detailed) trustworthiness of which much research both literary and archeological over the last century has attested. Quite apart from scholarly and technical arguments, even the ordinary reader must take the wealth of circumstantial detail and the laconic matter-of-factness of the storytelling as signs of an essential veracity. The two Vinland Sagas reflect the Nordic people at a particular epoch: The transformational moment, namely, at the end of the Ninth Century, when the old warrior-ethos began yielding to the new Gospel ethos and when success in the market began replacing notches on a sword haft as the paramount sign of masculine status. Both The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga represent this change in the generational differences that distinguish Eirik the Red (above left) on the one hand from his male children, especially his son Leif (above right), on the other. (The two portraits, from the Sixteenth Century and the Nineteenth Century respectively, are obviously conjectural.)
I. Eirik the Red brashly and loudly elbowed his way into the Icelandic literary consciousness. A testy and abrasive man, Eirik came to Iceland with his father Thorvald from Jaedaren, in Norway. The relocation became necessary “because of some killings,” as both The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga put it. Thorvald settled at a place called Drangar in Hornstrands, on the northern shore of the northwest peninsula of Iceland. When Thorvald died, Eirik took for his wife Thjodhild, bringing her to live at the place that he designated by the personal possessive, “Eirik’s Stead,” in Vatnhorn. (There would be several “Eirik’s Steads” over the years.) Thjodhild bore Eirik a son, whom the parents called Leif. Eirik’s ancestral disposition continued to assert itself, however: He picked fights with two neighbors, Eyjolf Saur and Hrafn the Dueler, killing them both. The local Thing or assembly met to outlaw Eirik, forcing him to relocate again, this time to Breidafjord, where he settled anew on Oxen Island. Peace remained elusive for Eirik, however: In the words of Eirik’s Saga, the master of the farmstead “lent his bench-boards to Thorgest of Breidabolstead”; when Thorgest failed to return Eirik’s equipment, Eirik raised a posse against him. Soon the whole district had split itself into warring camps.
Feuds of this kind afflicted Icelandic society perpetually, entailing much bloodshed and waste. The institution of the Thing functioned less as a standing parliament than as an ad hoc committee responding spontaneously to a crisis – typically to a feud – that, in the opinion of the community, had exceeded the limit of tolerability. The members of the assembly would act to banish one or both parties to the conflict. Being declared outlaw meant that the proscribed person had either to leave the territory or endure the risk of being a marked man, whose death no one would raise his hand to stop and which no one would be permitted to avenge. The Thorsness assembly, meeting to address the argument over the bench-boards, indeed branded Eirik an outlaw, to which condemnation Eirik responded by making ready his ship. In the words of The Greenlanders’ Saga, “He was going in search for the land that Gunnbjorn… had sighted when he was driven westwards off course and discovered the Gunnbjarnar skerries.” In need of elbowroom, Eirik, in company with his followers, found it at last in Greenland, habitable in those days before the Little Ice Age, and whose promising name Eirik coined.
Eirik resembles many another Icelandic goði or chieftain (the word actually means “priest”). Consider the case of Hrafnkel Hallfreðrsson, the protagonist of Hrafnkels Saga Freysgoði. Like Eirik, but two hundred years before him, Hrafnkel came from Norway with his father to stake a claim on hitherto untenanted acreage in Iceland. He lived with his father until his late teens, but then struck out on his own, establishing his household, Adalbol, in a remote valley. Hrafnkel parceled out his claim to other settlers willing to swear fealty to him; or rather, accepting the offer implied the oath. The saga describes Hrafnkel as physically robust, strong willed, and quick to follow up his anger with a blow. Hrafnkel killed many men, but at the same he prospered. He made sure that his tenants prospered with him, thereby winning their increased and quite adamant loyalty. The case of Hrafnkel exemplifies the degree-zero of the feudal principle, and the type of the goði.
Nevertheless, the survivors of Hrafnkel’s hot-tempered outbursts grew more numerous. In their numbers they became a force, which, under the leadership of the law-expert Sam, brought its long simmering wrath against Hrafnkel. A cycle of violence erupted that, after consuming many innocent lives, finally saw Sam’s faction humiliatingly defeated and Hrafnkel on top again. The last to die, a victim of Hrafnkel’s counter-violence, was a brother of Sam who had been away from Iceland during the entire episode – a merchant, not incidentally, who had returned rich from a sojourn in Constantinople bringing with him a shipload of goods for sale. The anonymous saga-author presents this final death as an extravagance revealing the excessiveness of feud. During the course of the action, when Hrafnkel experiences the lowest ebb of his fortune, he forswears his cult-god Frey, saying that worship of the Aesir has come to seem to him latterly like so much useless gesticulation. The exhaustion of feud as an organizing principle coincides with the exhaustion of the old religion. While Irish and English missionaries played a role in the Christianization of the North, so did those of Viking stock who went to serve for a time in the Eastern Caesar’s “Varangian” guard. Sam’s brother was such a man.
The market theme, while impinging only obliquely on the story of Hrafnkel’s Saga, informs the two Vinland Sagas directly; the Vinland Sagas, treating as they do events at the end of the Tenth Century and the beginning of the Eleventh, also make a theme of the Viking religious conversion. Eirik, even more than Hrafnkel, seems to have grown skeptical of the old gods, just as he seems to have grown tired of the violence that his character had hitherto called forth wherever he exercised his irascible presence. Greenland becomes the refuge where, laying claim to new land like Hrafnkel, Eirik can exercise his leadership without bumping elbows with neighbor-competitors. Eirik’s first trip to Greenland has something of the flavor of a scientific survey; his Greenland proposition to his prospective followers has something of the flavor of a mercantile exchange. By a coincidence, the Norse word for profit, góði, differs from the word for a chieftain, or goði, only in the quality of its vowel. Eirik’s mellowing shift in character forecasts the shift in Norse arctic society from warrior-chief values to merchant- or profit-values.
The Greenlanders’ Saga attests with geographic punctiliousness how Eirik “found the country he was seeking and made land near the glacier he named Mid glacier.” Later: “He sailed down the south coast to find out if the country were habitable.” Eirik’s Saga says that, “he gave names to many landmarks there.” Altogether Eirik spent three winters and three summers in Greenland reconnoitering before crossing back to Iceland. “He named the country he had discovered Greenland, for he said that people would be much more tempted to go there if it had an attractive name.”
The scale of Eirik’s enterprise is impressive. According to The Greenlanders’ Saga: “In the summer in which Eirik the Red set off to colonize Greenland, twenty-five ships sailed from Breidafjord and Borgarfjord, but only fourteen reached there; some were driven back, and some were lost at sea.” Some of Eirik’s followers did not take up the invitation at once, but later saw in Greenland relief from low fortune. One of these was Thorbjorn Vifilsson, who, according to Eirik’s Saga, counted as “a man of considerable stature… a chieftain [who] ran a large farm.” Eirik’s Saga gives a thumbnail sketch of Thorbjorn – the father of Gudrid, who would marry in succession Eirik’s son Thorstein and Thorfinn Karlsefni, two resourceful explorer-merchants – that emphasizes Thorbjorn’s wisdom and generosity. Thorbjorn fulfilled his feudal obligations by serving feasts to his neighbors and endowing them with gifts. When Thorbjorn fell on hard times, he told his friends: “I would now rather abandon my farm than forfeit my dignity, rather leave the country than disgrace my kinsmen. I have decided to take up the offer that my friend Eirik the Red made to me when we took leave of one another in Breidafjord; I intend to go to Greenland this summer, if I can have my way.”
Thorbjorn auctioned his farmstead and used the proceeds to buy a ship. Eirik’s Saga says that, “thirty people decided to go with him to Greenland.” The Greenlanders’ Saga reminds its readers that these events happened “fifteen years before Christianity was adopted by law in Iceland.” Thorbjorn, however, had already converted to the new faith, in whose morality he and his wife brought up their daughter Gudrid.
II. The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga depict Eirik the Red as a fighter but not as a raider; he is an Icelander, not a Viking in the earlier, warlike meaning of the term. Eirik’s Saga even links Eirik’s industry to his troubles. Eirik incurred the wrath of Eyjolf Saur when his slaves “started a landslide that destroyed the farm of a man called Valthjof,” in retaliation for which, “Eyjolf Saur, one of Valthjof’s kinsmen, killed the slaves.” For this, “Eirik killed Eyjolf Saur.” The slaves were presumably working to improve Eirik’s farmland, perhaps by constructing terraces on a hillside. Even the feud with Thorgest of Breidabolstead began as a clear-cut property dispute. When Eirik, who had made a loan of his boating tackle to Thorgest, “asked for his bench-boards back… they were not returned; so Eirik went to Breidabolstead and seized them.” Both The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga are replete with the imagery of wealth and wealth-creation. In Eirik’s Saga, for example, readers learn how, when Gudrid was living at Arnarstapi with her foster father Orm, a man named Einar sued for her hand in marriage. Einar, a “courteous man with a taste for the ornate… was a successful sea-going trader,” who “used to spend his winters alternately in Iceland and Norway.” One day Einar came to Arnastapi. “He opened his bales and showed them to Orm and his household, and invited Orm to have anything from them he wished.”
The opening of the bales is a positively ostentatious gesture, a display of Einar’s prosperity, and therefore of his eligibility. The bales themselves signify the order implicit in commerce; they are the portable version of the well-kept shop, whose owner knows the place of every item and whose arrangement is not only inviting, but also helpful, to the customer. Einar’s generosity to Orm itself has business overtones. Gift giving is a precursor institution of the actual market. Gift giving, as anthropologist Marcel Mauss points out in his Essai sur le don (1924), creates a relation of delayed reciprocity between the donor and the recipient. The recipient must return the donor-gesture, but never immediately: He may only return the gesture after a decent, but unspecified, interval of time. The rules of gift-giving reciprocity vary with the situation. Sometimes the donor leaves the decision how to reciprocate entirely to the recipient; but sometimes the donor offers a hint, thereby bringing the occasion closer to a genuine market-type transaction.
Einar lets on plainly that he would like Orm to speak to Gudrid on his behalf, making known to her the marriage proposal. Orm fulfils the bargain, but sadly for Einar, Gudrid’s preference lies elsewhere and she rejects his suit. The marriage proposal belongs, as a species, to the generic domain of exchange and contracts. Gudrid’s refusal reminds us that exchange requires the free participation of the negotiators and the right to say “no.”.
Gudrid sailed with Orm and his wife Halldis to Greenland, as part of the expedition organized by Thorbjorn. Orm and Halldis took ill during the voyage and died, along with many others of the crew. Gudrid survived, as did Thorbjorn, and when they landed at Herjolfsness, a settler named Thorkel invited the beleaguered voyagers to stay the winter with him. Eirik’s Saga, which might legitimately be called Gudrid’s Saga, narrates another complicated exchange that took place during the winter spent with Thorkel. This exchange involves a non-tangible, but culturally essential commodity, one much in demand in the homesteads during the Greenland winter. In Iceland and Greenland, the itinerant seeress offered much-prized diversion from the misery of the cold months. The seeress would sing songs, tell fortunes, and perform household rituals for a price. Such woman presented herself at Thorkel’s farm in full shamanistic regalia, with “a blue mantle fastened with straps and adorned with stones all the way down to the hem,” and carrying “a staff with a brass-bound knob studded with stones” along with other specialized accoutrements. Thorkel feeds her well, with “a main dish of hearts from the various kinds of animals that were available there.” In other words: Expensive protein in a time of gripping dearth.
As Eirik’s Saga tells it, the witch requiring assistance to perform her rituals and Gudrid although Christian by faith nevertheless knowing the old songs, Thorkel prevails on her to take the role. Gudrid hesitates but then assents. Gudrid at first sees an insurmountable contradiction between her Christian belief and the heathenish character of the ritual. Why then does she change her mind? The answer is that the morality of exchange transcends the religious difference, at least in some circumstances. The winter is hard, disease has reduced the community, and people are demoralized; the witch-prophesies, understood more or less as entertainment, promise relief to all and sundry. The apparent contradiction vanishes. For Gudrid to participate in the exchange means for her to reciprocate the generosity of the host and to aid in a performance that she can construe as charitable to all.
The witch is grateful. She takes care to prophesy fully for Gudrid. The witch says to Gudrid, “I shall reward you at once for all the help you have given us, for I can see your whole destiny with great clarity now.” She tells Gudrid, among other things, that, “You will start a great and eminent family line, and over your progeny there shall shine a bright light.”
In spring, Thorbjorn sailed for Brattahlid, his original destination and Eirik’s main settlement. According to Eirik’s Saga, “Eirik gave Thorbjorn land at Stokkaness; Thorbjorn built a good house there, and lived there from then on.” Land, of course, is itself wealth. Eirik has claimed much land under his title and has presumably been giving it away in parcels, as he does for Thorbjorn. What does Eirik get in return? Like the feudal king in his function as “ring giver,” but less formally, Eirik puts his beneficiaries under the delayed obligation of his gift giving; he buys their long-term loyalty by incurring their gratitude through deeds of extravagant generosity. Eirik is the classical “big man,” as known to anthropology. The big man, as Eric L. Gans argues in The End of Culture (1985), is “from the standpoint of the modern observer… the least free member of his community” because “he works the hardest for the least material satisfaction.”
How to explain this non-materially motivated striving that increases its strength by giving its chattels away? The big man’s liberty, Gans writes, “lies in the realization of his desire for significance, which coincides with the production of an economic surplus at specified times.” The big man produces his own significance not passively from the mere fact of possessing “a simple quantity of wealth” but rather “from the act of ritual distribution [that he] perform[s] upon it.” The big man responds to what Gans names “producer’s desire.”
According to Gans, the appearance of the big man coincides with the breakdown of primitive, egalitarian society and the emergence, in embryo, of the monarch. The insight is essentially valid, yet in applying this analysis to Icelandic society, difficulties immediately arise. Kingship had already established itself in Norway, from which the largest number of settlers to Iceland came, many with the motive of escaping the involuntary obligations of a mere subject. Independence from mainland kings indeed belongs thematically to the Icelandic consciousness. However, Gans also sees the big man as replacing the purely totemic center of a naively religious society at the moment when that totemic center (under the image of divinity) begins to fail. (We recall Hrafnkel’s repudiation of Frey.) When Eirik’s Saga says that Eirik “was reluctant to abandon his old religion,” it implies that his intention to keep faith with that creed fell below the level of hearty conviction. Indeed, the final image in Eirik’s Saga of its namesake’s wealth has as its context a Christmas Eve feast at Brattahlid.
III. The mercantile ethos of the post-Eirik generation in Iceland and Greenland corresponds with the Christian ethos that takes hold with the same generation. Eirik’s exclusion from the Vinland expeditions belongs symbolically with his dispensational ambiguity. Eirik’s son Leif – known as Leif the Lucky – wants his father to sail with him. Eirik’s Saga says that Eirik wanted to go but that on the day of departure, “he took a chest full of silver and gold and hid it.” The Greenlanders’ Saga says that, as Eirik rode to board Leif’s ship, “he was thrown from his horse, breaking some ribs and injuring his shoulder.” The same saga quotes Eirik as saying, “I am not meant to discover more countries than this one [Greenland] we now live in.”
Now Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, in a footnote to their Penguin translation of The Vinland Sagas, remark laconically that “the burying of money was illegal in Christian Iceland,” but not apparently in heathen Iceland. One thinks immediately, in light of the scholarly note, of the Parable of the Talents in Matthew (25: 14-30) and Luke (19: 12-28). The burying of wealth is a hoarding gesture; something like a sacrificial gesture, in which the worshipper consecrates some item of conspicuous value to the idol of his god, thereby reducing the commonwealth. In the Gospel parable, the good master rewards the servant who multiplies the talents; he rebukes the servant who merely buried the talent in the ground. Thus the “producer’s desire” to build a surplus – to “grow wealth,” as people said in the 1990s – corresponds to a positive sanction. Not incidentally the anecdote about Eirik indicates that the beginnings of a money economy must have existed in Iceland and Greenland at the time.
Leif the Lucky, the son of Eirik the Red, organized the first expedition to those lands to the west that earlier wayward sailors had sighted but which they had not bothered to explore. Leif had spent a winter in Norway at the court of King Olaf Tryggvason, who famously or infamously, depending on the interpreter, imposed Christianity by fiat on his people. Eirik’s Saga tells how King Olaf charged Eirik with preaching the new faith when he went abroad in spring. Olaf said, “You are to go [to Greenland] with a mission from me, to preach Christianity… Your luck will see you through.” Once in Greenland, Leif advocated the Gospel effectively, converting, among others, his father’s wife, Thjodhild. Eirik’s Saga remarks how Thjodhild “had a church built not too close to the farmstead” and how she “refused to live with Eirik after she was converted, and this annoyed him greatly.”
Leif’s expedition is the best remembered of the Viking forays to the New World five hundred years before Columbus. I learned about it in grade school in the Los Angeles public schools in the early 1960s. A casual poll of my freshmen at SUNY Oswego indicates, however, that Viking-North-American lore no longer figures in the education of the young. The Greenlanders’ Saga gives additional details of Leif’s voyage, which used a single ship, than does Eirik’s Saga. According to The Greenlanders’ Saga, the voyage went smoothly. After an unspecified time at sea Leif sighted the last of the lands previously sighted by Bjarni Herjolfsson when he was blown off course on his way to Greenland. Leif “lowered a boat and landed.” In the description, “there was no grass to be seen, and the hinterland was covered with great glaciers.” This coast Leif named Helluland (“Slab Land”), whose inhospitable character urged him onward in search of better prospects.
Next Leif went ashore in Markland (“Land of the Soil”), as he dubbed it, a place “flat and wooded, with white sandy beaches wherever they went.” Neither did they linger there, however, but pushing on again, came to a third place, Vinland. Landing, “they carried their hammocks ashore and put up booths.” The “booths” (sod houses) have since been excavated at L’anse aux meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland.
Geographical exploration and economic exploitation go hand in hand. Leif sent out surveying parties. The Greenlanders’ Saga reports that, “There was no lack of salmon in the river or lake, bigger salmon than they had ever seen.” Leif’s men would have begun immediately to catch and preserve salmon. Leif’s German companion, Tyrkir, who returns from a solitary reconnaissance quite drunk, discovered the namesake vines. (Grapes can ferment while still hanging in bunches.) Leif issued the order, “On alternate days we must gather grapes and cut vines, and then fell trees, to make a cargo for my ship.” On the return trip, nearing Greenland, Leif sighted a ship stranded on a reef. He spoke her skipper, Thorir, offering rescue. Here again, the ethics of exchange come into play. The Greenlanders’ Saga says that, “Leif rescued fifteen people in all” and that “he gained greatly in wealth and reputation.” Later, he went “to fetch the timber that Thorir left on the reef,” the right of salvage being implied by the rescue. As Leif settled down with his wealth, the torch of exploration passed to his younger brother Thorvald, who would make the second expedition to Vinland, using Leif’s ship.
It was during Thorvald’s expedition that the Norsemen first encountered the people whom they called Skraelings, or “wretches,” and fell afoul of them. The Skraelings attacked the Norsemen. Before the defenders drove off the attackers, a hostile arrow struck Thorvald in the armpit, fatally wounding him. Thorvald’s men buried their chief, as he had instructed them, with crosses for grave markers at his head and feet. Without their leader, Thorvald’s crewmen nevertheless productively “spent the winter [in Vinland] and gathered grapes and vines as cargo for the ship,” after which, in spring, they returned to Greenland. Thorstein Eiriksson wanted to return to Vinland to retrieve his brother’s body, but bad weather at sea meant that he had to winter in Greenland, where took ill and died. Gudrid, now Thorstein’s widow, went to live with her brother-in-law Leif; a short while later Gudrid married Thorfinn Karlsefni, “a man of considerable wealth.”
Gudrid now becomes prominent in the Vinland project. She “kept urging Karlsefni to make the voyage,” in which she intended to participate. “In the end he decided to sail and gathered a company of sixty men and five women.” A detail of participation merits attention: Karlsefni “made an agreement with his crew that everyone would share equally in whatever profits the expedition might yield.” It was something like a joint-stock company. Karlsefni asked Leif whether he could have Leif’s houses, but Leif only agreed, “to lend them.” Karlsefni much less resembles a classical big man than does Eirik or even Leif, representing himself as equal, in theory, with his collaborators. Another provocative detail of Karlsefni’s expedition is that is that it “took livestock of all kinds, for [the company] intended to make a permanent settlement there if possible.”
Of the four, recorded Vinland forays, the two sagas, but especially Eirik’s Saga, devote the most plentiful description to Karlsefni’s. Once again, but with even greater emphasis than in the earlier forays, the interest for the storytellers lies in the richness of Vinland’s resources and the commercial profit to be extracted from them by the industrious entrepreneurs. The Skraelings make another appearance.
IV. After Karlsefni’s Vinland expedition (1007 – 1011) there occurred one more recorded expedition to that destination, the one undertaken by Eirik’s daughter Freydis in cooperation with two brothers, Helgi and Finnbogi. Both The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga contrast the two expeditions – that of Karlsefni and that of Freydis – from a specifically moral perspective that communicates with the mercantile ethos that the two Vinland Sagas celebrate. The matter-of-fact report of the voyage signifies that the sailors had begun to address the sea-route as something confidently known: “They put to sea and arrived safe at Leif’s Houses and carried their hammocks ashore,” as The Greenlanders’ Saga says. The colonists – that word seems appropriate in context – freed their livestock to graze. When the saga remarks that, “the male beasts became very frisky,” the phrase implies the forthcoming multiplication of the herd, an augury of material gain. Like Thorvald, Karlsefni has a keen eye for exploitable resource. He “ordered timber to be felled and cut into lengths for a cargo for the ship, and it was left out on a rock to season.” The Skraelings meanwhile show up, carrying bundles of “furs, sables, and pelts of all kinds,” but the unfamiliar bellowing of the bulls at first frightens them off.
Karlsefni’s interactions with the Skraelings signify his intuitive sense for cultural difference and his alacrity concerning the safety of his people. In The Greenlanders’ Saga, the two sides tensely arrange for barter even though, as the text attests, “neither side could understand the other’s language.” In a gesture reminiscent of Einar’s opening of his bales, the indigenes “put down their packs and opened them up and offered their contents, preferably in exchange for weapons,” but wisely, “Karlsefni forbade his men to sell arms.” Why, one wonders, did the indigenes strive to make known their high interest in metal weapons? The answer must be that they were the same tribe that had encountered the previous Norse visit (when Thorvald died) and that they knew that foreign knives and swords were more durable and deadly than their own flint blades.
Karlsefni now conceives to offer in exchange for the skins and pelts a renewable, edible delicacy ordinary for the Norsemen but exotic for the indigenes. As The Greenlanders’ Saga puts it, he “hit on the idea of telling the women to carry milk out to the Skraelings, and when the Skraelings saw the milk they wanted nothing else.” In the sequel, “the Skraelings carried their purchases away in their bellies,” while the Norse took the exchangeable goods in return. On the next occasion, The Norsemen offered the indigenes strips of brightly colored cloth, which the indigenes again prized.
One can imagine the standard liberal-multicultural critique of these transactions. The crafty Europeans are tricking and bilking the indigenes. But there are two points against that critique. One is that if any party were under threat or coercion, it would be the Norsemen, who were immensely outnumbered by people whom they knew from reports to be warlike. The other is that the indigenes initiate the exchanges, which are freely negotiated. Indeed when the indigenes return for a third visit, they come with violent intention, the aim being not trade, but plunder. An alert Norseman catches a Skraeling trying to steal weapons and kills him. Eirik’s Saga describes “a fierce battle,” with the Norsemen initially on the defensive before they drive off the assault. After two winters, Karlsefni and his followers “made ready for the voyage and took with them much valuable produce, vines and grapes and pelts.” During the two-year stay, Gudrid gave birth to Karlsefni’s son. They named him Snorri, the first European born on the North American continent.
Freydis, daughter of Eirik and sister of Leif and Thorvald, had accompanied Karlsefni’s expedition. Eirik-like, she played a role in fighting off the Skraelings’ attack when, pregnant, she ran towards the attackers beating her own breasts and shouting. She differs, however, from such as Leif, Thorvald, and Karlsefni, not to mention Gudrid; one might say that she more resembles the Skraelings than her countrymen and kinsmen, as she aims to plunder, as easier than to produce. The Greenlanders’ Saga tells how Freydis’ expedition set out in two boats, one under her leadership and the other under the leadership of Helgi and Finnbogi; the agreement, which Freydis had no intention of honoring, was that the two crews would work for equal shares in the profit. The plan called for two parties to be equal in number, but Freydis secretly shipped additional men, so that her party outnumbered that of the brothers.
In Vinland, where Freydis makes use of Leif’s houses, the expedition follows the usual routine, fishing, hunting, felling timber and setting it out to cure. They amassed considerable goods and prepared the houses for winter. (The brothers built their own houses when Freydis refused to share Leif’s with them.) One night, Freydis told her husband Thorvard that Finnbogi has assaulted her; she taunted Thorvard with being too cowardly to avenge the insult. When Thorvard “could bear her taunts no longer,” he “told his men to get up at once and take their weapons.” They broke in while Helgi, Finnbogi, and their followers slept, slaughtering the men straight away. When Freydis insisted that they slaughter the women too, the men balked. “Give me an axe,” Freydis said; “this was done, and she herself killed the women, all five of them.”
Later, as rumor of the killings circulated, Leif himself “seized three of Freydis’ men and tortured them into revealing everything that had happened.” Leif could not bring himself to punish his sister, but he disowned her and the community shunned her.
By contrast, at the time when Freydis returned, “Karlsefni had prepared his ship and sailed away”; he arrived in Norway, where he sold his cargo, after which he and Gudrid “were made much of by the noblest in the country.” The couple with their son settled in Iceland, where they built up a prosperous farm, Glaumby. After Karlsefni’s death, Gudrid made a pilgrimage to Rome; on her return, she found that her son Snorri had built a church on his land, whereupon she “became a nun and stayed there as an anchoress for the rest of her life.”
The morality of The Vinland Sagas is stark, but difficult to argue away and tantalizingly applicable to our own condition. There are two types of people: producers and plunderers. Producers recognize their ethical kinship with other people whose cooperation they seek through offers of generous collaboration, as in Karlsefni’s joint-stock company; and these collaborations increase wealth generally while seeing to its just distribution. The plunderers recognize no such ties, disdain work, and see themselves as entitled to the productivity of others. Plunder is the wage of a zero-sum game. It leads to nothing but extinction.
Did the Vinland project end with Freydis’ “horrible deed,” as Leif characterizes it in The Greenlanders’ Saga? John Haywood, writing in The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, avers that, “Voyages from treeless Greenland to collect timber in Markland [Labrador] continued as late as 1347.” Researchers Richard Nielsen and Scott F. Wolter have recently dated the notorious Kensington Rune Stone, found in Minnesota in 1898, to the Fourteenth Century; and they have therefore positively reconsidered its authenticity, long doubted. If this reconsideration were valid and the date true, then the Western voyages would not only have continued after A.D. 1012; but they must have penetrated up the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes, as far west as Lake Superior.
I would like to thank both
Submitted by Thomas F. Bertonneau on Thu, 2010-09-30 23:20.
I would like to thank both KO and Traveller for their appreciative remarks. I concur with KO that Njal’s Saga is the supreme example of the saga-literature generally.
On the Norman polity in Sicily, as mentioned by Traveller: I know only a little and would be grateful to any Journal reader who supplied a discussion. King Roger famously had a Muslim advisor or prime minister, Idris; Norman Sicily was a sufficient power that the Byzantine emperors had to take its existence into consideration when they contemplated policy for the Western Mediterranean. Sicily has always been a crossroads, with Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans contending for possession of it in ancient times; and Arabs, Normans, native Sicilians, and Byzantine and Papal armies in the medieval centuries. The Viking states outside of Scandinavia tended to be opportunistic and short-lived, as in Scotland, England, and Ireland; and so too in Normandy and in Sicily. Of course, by the time the Norman dukes were ruling Sicily, they were likely more French than Norwegian in language and culture. We might also recall that the Vikings went east as well as west and south, and that the earliest Slavic polities, Kiev and Novgorod, were founded by Swedish adventurers. But here too the original Scandinavian elites were quickly absorbed by the native population.
@ Prof. Bertonneau
Submitted by traveller on Fri, 2010-10-01 11:36.
I saw an English television series a couple of years ago about the Kingdom of Sicily.
My reaction was WOW, the liberty, the open mind of the early kings was astonishing, they not only had muslim advisors, they also spoke Arabic and invited Arab artists of all kinds. They had intensive trade links with the Arabs and all this notwithstanding the fact that the Pope was their ultimate boss.
At the same time they were ex-crusaders who opened their minds and borders for this exchange between cultures.
It seems that the Vikings learned something while conquering territories.
@ Prof. Bertonneau
Submitted by traveller on Thu, 2010-09-30 21:30.
Interesting as far as conflict handling is concerned, like KO points out.
In this respect, did you ever compare the Sicily County and afterwards Kingdom and its unbelievable modern handling of the crossway of cultures Sicily was in those days with the Viking's own culture. When I first read and heard about the Sicily Kingdom I couldn't believe it was a Viking Kingdom and there policies were Viking policies.
Excellent Article 2
Submitted by KO on Mon, 2010-09-27 23:22.
Yes, a most excellent, very rich article that greatly adds to the enjoyment of the Vinland sagas. Warmest thanks to Prof. Bertonneau, again! As he shows, the Vinland sagas are of interest for the development of Western Civilization, and they are clearly of direct interest for American history.
For the benefit of anyone coming to the sagas for the first time, however, I would like to add that Njal's Saga is arguably the masterpiece of them all. It focuses on conflict and modes of conflict resolution, with the characters pitching from feud to public litigation to private arbitration in search of a rational end to their disputes. Magnificent character portraits abound. There is also a delightful, interesting, rather terse depiction of the conversion of Iceland to Christianity, which is pertinent to Prof. Bertonneau's discussion, and which I will refrain from spoiling.
Responding to Siegetower
Submitted by Thomas F. Bertonneau on Sun, 2010-09-26 18:11.
I would like to thank Siegetower for his kind comment. The saga literature is fascinating, among many other reasons, for its appreciation of individuals, and for its objectivity of presentation. Eirik, Leif, Gudrid, and Freydis are all cases in point. I am particularly impressed by the fact that the saga-authors, although they belong to the Christian era of Iceland, conspicuously refrain from condemning the heathen past. In Norway, the kings imposed Christianity from above, often by brutally suppressing heathenism; in Iceland, the people, through the Althing, voted to adopt Christianity (this was in the summer of the year 1000). But the decision to become a Christian community included various considerations, for example, that those who continued to worship the old gods in private would be free from harassment. The later transition from Catholic to Protestant Christianity was not so easygoing. By that time, the Icelanders had submitted to the rule of the Norwegian kings. The Protestant changeover came violently, as it did elsewhere.
Best to Siegetower
Submitted by siegetower on Sun, 2010-09-26 14:15.
And old fashioned in that it has a moral to tell for all people who would open their minds to learn it. Well done and well written.
As an Anglo-Saxon with family history going back to Lancashire in the North -West of England, where there wasn't much influence or integration of Norsemen as opposed to the North-East, in fanciful moments I wish that my bloodline includes some stock from those most industrious people. In these bleak multi cult times the Norsemen are examples to us all.
Defend Christendom. Defend Jewry. Oppose socialism in Europe.