|Alaska is a big enough and complicated enough place to have seen armies of armoured "Eskimo" warriors. Greenland? No idea, frankly.|
"In 484 AD Brendan was born in Tralee, in County Kerry, in the province of Munster, in the south-west of Ireland. He was born among the Altraige, a tribe originally centred around Tralee Bay, to parents called Finnlug and Cara. Tradition has it that he was born in the Kilfenora/Fenit area on the North side of the bay. He was baptised at Tubrid, near Ardfert by Saint Erc, and was originally to be called "Mobhí" but signs and portents attending his birth and baptism led to him being christened 'Broen-finn' or 'fair-drop'. For five years he was educated under Saint Ita, "the Brigid of Munster". When he was six he was sent to Saint Jarlath's monastery school at Tuam to further his education. Brendan is one of the "Twelve Apostles of Ireland", one of those said to have been tutored by the great teacher, Finnian of Clonard."
Thus Wikipedia. Fact piled on fact, all, as far as we can tell, the fantasy of later medieval Irish chroniclers inventing useful pasts for their monasteries --or, rather, "church settlements."
None of them, however, are more fantastic, or, at least, more fantastic in a way that resonates with readers, than the story for which we remember Brendan of Clontard: Brendan the Navigator. For in 512AD or so, Brendan set out from Clontard to travel the Atlantic in a medieval Irish hide boat(1,2), in search of the island of the Garden of Eden. Which, amongst other marvels, he and his companions found. Unlike, for example, Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis Pontificum, recovered in a single text from a Danish monastery in the Sixteenth Century, or the lost, anonymous Færeyinga Saga, recovered in small part from other early Icelandic sagas, the voyages of Brendan are known from over a hundred medieval manuscripts. As later with Mandeville's or Marco Polo's travels, the European reading public made its tastes known with pen in hand. It liked travel stories. (And stories of monks performing and witnessing miracles in the liminal wilderness, to give Brendan's readership their due credit.) It seems likely that one of those manuscript traditions can be traced through an 11th Century High German exemplar. Adam of Bremen, voracious and eclectic reader, could have read it. If the number of surviving manuscripts is evidence of readership, he could hardly have been unaware of it, at least.
sicne Adam was writing for Archbishop Liemar, Adalbert's successor, he did not have to gloss over all of Adalbert's mistakes and faults. At the same time, Liemar replaced Adalbert at court as much as in his archdiocese. Liemar was one of the very few companions to accompany Henry on his difficult winter passage of the Alps to atone for his sins at Canossa. He subsequently led the negotiations with Gregory VII, and joined his royal master in excommunication in 1074, when the Canossa settlement fell apart. It was at this juncture that Magister Adam presented his great work to his spiritual father. One assumes that its contents are not entirely irrelevant to the conjuncture of events.
That being said, perhaps you can go too far down this road of subordinating everything to high politics. Four years later, Berengar of Tours would be called before Gregory VII to bring closure to a theological argument which had been raging for seven years. Think that the Investiture Controversy is to arcane, detailed, boring and Medieval to be relevant to anything we like today? (Vikings, whaling and the premature discovery of North America, just in case you were losing track.) Try Transubstantiation and the Real Presence. But Leo IX, that very same Pope who gave aid and comfort to Adalbert's plans to create a Patriarchate of the North on a level with Constantinople and Jerusalem, and who incidentally provoked the Great Schism with, precisely, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, had also nailed the colours of "the reform Papacy" to the mast of the Substantial Presence of the Divine flesh and blood in the communion bread and wine of the Eucharistic Host.
Just so as not to lose that track, I will point out right now that the first thing we know about "Vinland," out of Adam of Bremen, is that it is a miraculous island with grapevines and "self-sowing" wheat. The Icelandic sagas amplify the former point, and have encouraged much geographical specualtion about how far south the Vikings must have fared to find vines: but the Viking sagas are two centuries later than Adam of Bremen's account. Unlike, say, the many and miraculous islands discovered by Brendan the Navigator, which most certainly include islands with magic loaves of bread, grapes, and other strange and Scripturally-resonant things. As Kirsten Seaver pointed out, the wheat and grapes of "Vinland" can be interpreted in that light. Of course, she then goes on to conclude that the grapes must be real, because the self-evident meaning of Vinland, "Meadow Land," is a too-archaic form of Norse. (Wikipedia has the scoop.)
Besides, we've got to get the Vikings down to the North Shore of New Brunswick, or they're just lame. Except that, quite frankly, the idea that "Vinland" is Proto-Norse is more than cool enough to weigh against the idea that the Viking voyagers only got as far as L'Anse aux Meadows.
|This wall of text needs some greenery to liven it up.|
So that's where we're going. The Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. Via the Investiture Controversy. Groan.
I'm not going to go all in on this one. I. S. Robinson has a modern, English-language biography of the Salian Emperor out, and I've got it, and I'm going to skip over it lightly, because appear to have left the library copy at the supermarket down the street, and I really should do something about that as soon as I've got a post up. In short, if you're interested and have either the spare change or access to a library with more conscientious borrowers, you can get a jump on approximately a century of overtly nationalistic, overtly "primacy of politics" German medieval history and find out what the Controversy was really about.
Which, as near as I can tell, was an emergent conflict between Gregory and his successors and Henry and his advisors. It is "emergent" because the Pope has many other irons in the fire, and so does the Emperor. It is, I suggest, more than a little doubtful that Hildebrand entered the Controversy with any idea about the "investiture" of emperors and bishops that came anywhere near close to the position he eventually ended up articulating. Likewise, Henry's major objective was settling the ongoing troubles in Upper/(east) Saxony in a way that freed its resources for all the other things that needed doing. Although since that included leading an expedition to Italy to sort things out there, you can see how the side-by-side concerns of the Pope in Rome and the Emperor in Germany kept intertwining.
Those concerns are, of course, rooted in "investiture," or election. How Popes, and for that matter, bishops came to be bishops, and how Emperors and even kings came to be kings --now we are at the heart of Eleventh Century politics. Because, above all, we have to understand that there was only one rule of "election" that stuck, which was that he was no true lord who could not produce a compromise out of incipient violence. "Civil society" was constantly in danger of dissolving into feud and petty war, and nothing threatened that danger more intimately than the selection of a new prince or bishop. Add to that the problem with any given civil society, whose borders could only be defined once its membership was, and whose membership could only be defined once its borders were, and you can see why Eleventh Century people put up with lords in the first place. Oh, sure, the "lords of Iceland," giving up their republic on condition that future royal officials would only be selected from the five aristocratic kindreds, sound petulant and entitled. But if the choice is between that and the war of all against all, and you can kind of see Hobbes' point.
Look! I've just tried to turn the Investiture Controversy into a meditation on the nature of authority in the fractious Eleventh Century, with the intention of moving on to the "lordship" of Erik the Red. And I've pinned it on Ian Robinson. I hope he doesn't mind. Even the lack of royal and noble genealogies can be seen in the light of this kind of political struggle. Mediators at the same time that they were practitioners of violence, limited in their information, delayed and retarded in their actions by the endless constraints imposed by geography and limited literacy, Eleventh Century political actors could rely on the bonds of clan or of dynasty depending on the audience to whom they were trying to appeal. Clan meant a dispersed web of familial relationships in this generation, like the assortment of lords and bishops that Anno mobilised to regain his position at court in the early phases of the Saxon rebellion. "Dynasty" meant a long and exclusive chain of descent, like the one that the Salian Henry IV had to deploy to link himself to the Ottonians, a dynasty authentically East Saxon in origins, in order to claim Saxony's resources for his own rulership.
Genealogy, by nailing leadership to descent instead of affinal relations, was a dangerous, two-edge weapon. No wonder that it is a tool of a later age. Which is interesting, because on this reading, the Icelandic sagas, so often read for their insight into the lost age of German primitivism in general, and, in particular, for the history of Greenland and Vinland are a tool of the thirteenth century political context, and a product of that age.
|Herjolfsness 63, one of two frock-like late medieval garments recovered from the graveyard of Herjolfsness, the most southeasterly Norse settlement in Greenland, only 50 km north of Cape Farewell. It is usually cited as evidence that late Medieval Greenlanders had access to current European fashion trends, hence were not entirely isolated.|
So we are told that Erik Thorvaldsson, called "the Red," was the discoverer of Greenland about 986, and the son of Thorvald son of Ásvald, who fled the tyranny of Harald Fairhair (850--932) in Norway to settle in Iceland. Asvald Thorvaldsson was the son of Thorvald Ulfssonson, who was the son of Ulf Oxen-Thorisson, son of Oxen-Thorir, brother of Naddodd, discoverer of Iceland. Naddod appears in the medieval Icelandic "Book of the Landtaking" as a Faeroese Viking blown off course in 825, and accidental discoverer of Iceland. Naddod, in this story, lacks a patronymic, so we do not know how he is related to the Viking discoverer of the Faroes, Grimur Kamban, who discovered and settled the Faeroes while fleeing the cruel tyranny of Harald Fairhair.
So, just to get this straight, Thorvald Asvaldsson fled Norway not later than 925, and had a son who was active c. 986. His great-grandfather left Norway in the company of the man who, fleeing Harald Fairhair (so not before 850), discovered the Faeroes in 875. And then that great grandfather's brother discovered Iceland in 825.
To put it more skeptically, Alex Woolf, in his pathbreaking history of early Scotland, points out that the Icelandic sagas are full of incidental historic detail, which is usually entirely inaccurate when checked.
It's almost like a three century old oral tradition might not recall the facts accurately! You'll notice that I've already put the argument more strongly than any of the skeptical historians I have cited would. This is genealogical history, and we should expect to be fabulist, the further back we go.
It is also, I think, important to find the centre of gravity of that confabulation. In this case, it is certanly not Erik the Red. The two "Vinland sagas" trace his ancestry, but not his descent, and I cannot help mentioning, while I am in a skeptical mood, that "Leif Erikson" means "Successor, Son of Erik," which, although Leif is a real, honest Norse name, is pretty suspicious in a genealogy.
Fortunately, considering his primacy in the story as a discoverer of Vinland and heir of Brattihild, Leif is not a big deal, either. The sagas cannot wait to move on to Thorfinn Karlsefni (a nickname meaning "Man's Man"), his wife, widow of one of Erik the Red's sons, and their son, one Snorri Thorfinnson (b. 1004--1013, d. 1090), born on Vinland the Blessed, Master of Galumbaerr Farm, first builder of a church on Iceland, ancestor to the first bishops of Iceland (both sees).
This guy? That's what the centre of gravity of a genealogical/ideological instrument of legitimation looks like. This is why Vinland is important in 1075. It is the liminal place where the proximate agent of Christianity in the Patriachate of the North is born. Yes, Snorri does not appear by name in Adam of Bremen's account. It's all too likely that Snorri is as much "made up" as Naddod or Grimur Kamban, perhaps as Erik the Red and Leif Erikson and Brendan the Navigator. He is a way to locate the boundary of Heaven on Earth in a place where you can travel by ship from the port of Bremen. (Or from western Iceland.)
Hey, Gregory IX. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Now we need to ask ourselves how. What might the real story of the "founding of Greenland" be? Remember that for Adam of Bremen, it is a land of savages, turned green by the ocean, who once lived by piracy and have turned to Christianity of late. This sounds like it could be a story of Norse settlers.
Except... We have already thrown out the story of noble men fleeing Harald Fairhair. It's not just the absurdities of the chronology that make us do it. It's also the fact that Harald Fairhair did not exist. It's also the fact that the "population pressure" once seen as driving the Vikings forth did not exist. At its late Medieval height, Iceland has a population of 32,000, and unless demographic history is meaningless, its population in 986 was smaller, probably, on an archaeological argument, much smaller. It does not even seem that all the good Icelandic land was claimed in 986, and so the story that Erik the Red was able to find more than a thousand settlers to follow him to Greenland is . . . unlikely.
This is just as well, because the rest of the story doesn't make much more sense. We can start with the fact that it entirely omits the Western Settlement, which seems to have been the bridging point for western voyages. We can add the mystery of Gunnbjorn's skerries, and, more productively, the fact that the sagas somehow omit to tell us why we have an account of the settlement of Brattihild, but not of Gardar (in my last posting, I made the reasonable but quite wrong supposition that Gardar
was at Brattihild. In fact, the cathedral is on the largest estate in southwestern Greenland (with artificially irrigated water meadows, yet!), and we have no idea who the farmer there was, in Erik the Red's time or later.) We can add that Herjolfness is also a large estate and the first one encountered after the turn around Cape Farewell. It's where all those European-influenced artefacts are found, and where we expect to find them. Yet in the sagas, it is the farm of Bjarni Herjolfsson's father. Bjarni's father is a follower of Erik the Red --we infer-- and Bjarni is the man who discovers Vinland. But it is a mysterious and diffident discovery that, in the sagas, leaves the glory to Leif and Thorfinn. The presumption is that the sagas are minimising Bjarni's share of the glory. But given the early date and the problematic character of these genealogical histories, I would diffidently suggest that the actual social group being minimised here is the kindred of Herjolfsness. That is, the political act of minimising "Bjarni's" contribution has to be able to survive dropping Bjarni himself from the story. (Which it does in one of the sagas, where the Herjolf kindred are not mentioned in connction with Herjolfness.)
|The Hay harvest at Gardar|
If we take the modest step of decentering probably mythical people and placing kindreds and economic/ecclesiastical nexi in the story, then we come back to Gardar. After all, to at least some readers of Adam of Bremen, the bishopric there already exists when he writes. We do not know who held it, but if the context were the Celtic isles, there would be nothing mysterious about a "lost church settlement." Iona herself has dark centuries, and practically the only thing we know about its Dalriadic rival of Lismore is that it was a church settlement. There are tantalising hints of other church settlements further to the north and west, and, as I say, in the context of the history of Celtic Christianity, there is no reason not to think that histories, and lists of bishops, have been lost. (This is even true of the first Swedish dioceses, where the foundations and first bishops are wrapped in obscurity.) Heck, the historian who wants to know what is really behind the tales of Harald Fairhair might well be satisfied the day that the fabled 1549 inventory of 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings buried at Iona is turned up.
Well: this has gone on, as usual, long enough. You will probably have guessed the key hypothesis: that a Christian Greenland-Vinland was important enough at this conjuncture to justify a brief evangelisation of the far northwest, leading to an ethnogenesis of the aboriginal inhabitants of Greenland as (Christian) Norse. The plausibility of this hypothesis begins and ends with the idea that there might have been "Paleo-Eskimos" at Amassalik capable of interacting with early Icelanders on their own terms and leading the Norse forward; and this thesis has the advantage that it disposes of the problem of understanding how "Erik the Red" was able to explore the whole of southwestern Greenland in three years, when it took Hans Egerde's Eighteenth Century mission almost a generation to accomplish the same. I am not going to press that one too strongly, inasmuch as saying that something is impossible is likely to go crashingly astray. You can, apparently, sail a currach/umiak across the Atlantic from Ireland to Newfoundland, for example. And that's going the wrong way with respect to prevailing weather!