Thursday, August 18, 2016

Recapping The Bishops' Sea

I have a point when I talk about how the early settlement of the Atlantic took place in a "bishop's sea." It is, in the first instance, that before there were states or even capitalists, there were bishops promoting the settlement of remote places and the Christianising of faraway pagans. The second point is that in the English-language historiography, we tend to handle bishops with far too much kindness. We choose not to see them, as German historiography sees them, as politicians and statesmen, often bloody-handed and always liars and cynics. If we allow full reign for dark and bloody acts of politics, and then suppose that the worst of these acts are swept under the rug for the Good of the Church, we create a darkness and a mystery in which smaller and more human histories can be hidden.
C. Wellwood Beall, of Boeing. In spite of his importance to Boeing, contemporary fame, large fortune, and extensive family, he does not have a Wikipedia article. It's almost like the family doesn't want to call attention to itself for some reason.

When I went into this question last time, it was with a blog post entitled "Christ Stops at Kingcome."  In his 1945 memoir of his Fascist-era internal exile, teaching in two remote towns in the mountains of southern Italy, Carlo Levi promoted a powerful, although, as James Scott points out, actually fairly stereotyped idea. The idea that "Christ stopped at Eboli," the terminus of the railway on the plains far below, is that not Christianity, nor morality,even history itself, had penetrated any further than the last railway station. Substitute the names of assorted tribal communities of upland South Asia, and you get the old saw that Scott is criticising  in his History of Not Being Governed, and, as fresh as the idea may have been to Levi, he could have picked it up in casual conversation in any Qing commandery of the south, or in the palaces of any of fifty or so of the "paddy states" which have now been swept into Assam, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand. Mostly Thailand, actually.  

In my experience, oblivious to Scott, you can take this literally without your head exploding. An old Italian navy officer I knew in my MA programme, did. He would lustily explain that the fires of the high mountain villages visible as you sailed in and out of Taranto were lit by inexperessibly primitive people who never came down to the plain, and who presumably still spoke Samnite and worshipped Mars and Saturn, although in the last bits I am putting words in his mouth, and I am not all sure that the Samnite branches of Italic were ever spoken that far south. The point is, it didn't hurt Tullio Vidoni's historical acumen any. When he wasn't reminiscing about the old days, he had quite a sophisticated take about how the Viking voyages out of Greenland could only have been going "south," by their understanding of geography, and so needed to be understood as part of the genre of wonder stories about Africa and the tropics, and not about some New World which did not, yet, conceptually exist.

Or you can accuse Levi of being unserious, show that the people of the Basilicata were actually thoroughly involved in the life of the lowlands, as Horden and Purcell do. Fair enough, but my point in substituting the old Catholic mission station on Kingcome Inlet for Eboli.

Kingcome is a moderately famous place, being the setting of I Heard the Owl Call My Name, of which I'll say no more, because I am just trying to get clicks from everyone who did read it and liked it.  It's where a Catholic mission was built, many years ago, convenient to five different nations, which is why it is still known for an old time admiral commanding, Pacific Station, and, I assume, the father of one of the interwar Engineer Vice-Admirals of the Fleet. Otherwise, you'd have to favour one nation over the other, and "Kingcome" has both a West Coast sound and a Biblical ring.

What matters here is that the missionaries chose a natural meadow site to build in, and taught a bit of dairy farming along with the catechism. It didn't take in the long run, but it was a big enough deal that if a young man like Wellwood Beall was raised in a place like Kingcome in the early decades of the last century, he would have been brought up as much a farmhand as a fisherman. Since he probably was taught English in the school, and, if a member of the tribal elite, was probably part-Caucasian after a century of the Maritime Fur Trade, he would have had options that many West Coast Indians of his era didn't.

I have  no idea if that is the story of C. Wellwood Beal. First, it doesn't matter if it was. I'm spinning a story. Second, I am sure that the records do not exist. The Catholic church on the West Coast is pretty thin and fragile, and I would be surprised if baptismal records from the early days of the Kingcome Mission had been successfully preserved. More importantly, I think that once the nature of the colour bar in North American society became obvious, mission priests made sure that such records did not survive. What neglect did not accomplish, the standard bureaucratic response to Freedom of Information requests did. (Seriously: "Hi, We're from Boeing. We're thinking of hiring our good old buddy, Wellwood, on as Chief Engineer, but he has been anonymously denounced as part-Indian. I'm sure that's not what your records show, though, Father. Right?")

Nor is that the story of Gardar Cathedral.

A scene from the meadows at Gardar. The slab marks a bishop's grave. I'm going to give Egede and Grah the benefit of the doubt and assume that it was heavily overgrown when they were blundering around digging up the cathedral proper. The lintelled building behind is "The Barn," and the source for this picture is an article in the flagship journal of old world archaeology, Antiquity, by Paul Buckland, et al. 

Gardar is the cathedral see of Greenland, and was the seat of bishops suffragen to the Archbishop of Nidaros (Trondheim) from 1142 to --well, today, although it has been a "titular see" for a very long time --just how long isn't exactly certain, since the actual, physical cathedral sent no notice when it went out of business. The Danes seem to have noticed that Gardar was missing within a decade of Columbus. This must have been awfully frustrating. The New World was hot hot hot, everyone was pretending to have a connection with it on whatever pretext was to hand, and here the Danes were heirs of a real connection, a half-millennium old, and they'd let it go to pot almost(?) within living memory. No wonder that there were still Scandinavians straining to believe that the Vikings were still there, somewhere, up the East Coast or in a lost valley in the interior, right into the Twentieth Century.

So with the realisation that "Vinland" must have been in North America somewhere, the Danes were well-launched on a programme of sending nostalgianauts to probe the high Arctic looking for blond Vikings. succeeded to the extent that was possible as early as 1727. Not bad considering how harsh  the high Arctic seas are!

Besides arduous voyages of rediscovery, Danish antiquarians had resources more congenial to their training. That training was in diplomatics, the study of old documents, mostly property deeds, often ones issued by obscure kings of lost kingdoms and forgotten bishops to institutions and individuals with sometimes dubious claims to be the recipients. The lesson of diplomatics, to which I will return below, is that a random inventory of medieval texts will rarely stand this much scrutiny, and far less the kind of literature that survived from high medieval Iceland. The core study of diplomatics is potentially-faked property deeds, and the science of interpreting them consists in a grounding in paleography, and a good list of kings and bishops, perhaps buttressed by a solid coin series. The literature of Iceland, by contrast, is a mix of tall tales and genealogies in which one expects a mix of truth and lie, because, you know, families. It is therefore perhaps forgiveable that much of the effort put into studying these sagas misses the fact that the stories themselves are nakedly ideological in the way in which they justify the power of the existing oligarchy, which, given that it had even won the power to deny ordinary Icelanders access to the courts, seems particularly unsavory to me, at least. (And this while manoeuvring to be praised by centuries of popular historians as the World's First Democracy.)

Or, more likely, the ideological project of the sagas continues to be salient to Icelandic, and perhaps world history. To put in the baldest possible terms, "Vikings" make better history than feuding bishops.

One of the issues which motivated later explorers was the notion that any remaining Greenland Norse had not received the Reformation, and thus were sunk into Catholic error. This might be why the very thin dossier of papal letters on the subject of Greenland have not got the attention they deserve. Or not. In 1448, Pope Nicholas V wrote to the two bishops of Iceland, pointing out that the Greenlanders had been without a priest for some thirty years, and had suffered various other hardships well known in the literature. When Alexander III wrote, fifty years later, nothing had been done, and it was, presumably, too late.

When I say that themes in these letters are well-known in the literature, I should probably expand on the point, because they are, at first pass, what you care about. Pope Nicholas' letter is the foundation of a very old argument that, without bishops to tell them what to do, the Greenland Norse stood around picking their noses while their cattle died due to the Little Ice Age that didn't happen anyway, instead of taking up fishing and sealing and flourishing like the Inuit. (The thesis that they might have turned into Inuit, straightforwardly presented by Pope Nicholas, is rejected on the grounds that Eskimo aren't blond, like Vikings. My argument, of course, is that the "Greenland Norse" were, from the beginning, about as blond as C. Wellwood Beall.)

Karin Seaver, took these letters in a different direction. We have any number of instances of outlying Newfoundland plantations being raided by barbarians/slavers/pirates who were actually just looking for labour in fish camps, and that seems to be what Pope Nicholas is describing. Either the Newfoundland fishery is a century older than we think --which is unlikely, or it has some kind of tentative prehistory. Seaver has it that the Greenland Norse decided to settle closer to the fisheries in Newfoundland, without realising how cold it got there in the winter, and died. The cited Buckland article proposes that Gardar was a very labour-intensive and closely managed agricultural institution, and the fact that the heavily-managed strata show a very abrupt and final  abandonment, shows that the See was in charge to the end, and perhaps relocated the whole population. To Vinland! Tah dah.

Probably not, actually, but also not the most romantic way of going at it. In the old days a "tyrant" named Zichmni was said to have been behind the disappearance, and at his earliest appearance, he was a prince of Great Ireland, usually seen as being in North America --whatever it was. Since we know that was that the Inuit were taking Greenland Norse slaves, we can now expand from a documented "two boys" to an entire population, and imagine Greenlanders being brought to Cahokia or "Aztalan," or, who knows, Chichen Itza or Chimu.  (Hey! It could be!) Speaking of Cahokia, Zichmni was identified as Sir Henry Sinclair --in 1784. Zichmni himself is a figment of the imagination, but Arthur St. Clair most definitely is not.

Again, the crazy talk tends to drown out what is actually most interesting in the letter. First, Pope Nicholas is authorising the Icelandic bishops to usurp the privileges of their metropolitan, the Archbishop of Nidaros (Trondheim.) That's some heavy church politics, right there. The last thing you want is for a suit to be thrown out of chancery because the bishop who signed the charter was consecrated by the wrong bishop! Nicholas, being as aware of the issue as anyone, had to have had a point in writing to the two Icelandic bishops instead of Trondheim, even if I haven't a clue what it might be. Second, the Pope, who is clearly working from some kind of locally-informed source, says that Greenland has been Christian for six centuries, thanks to the blessed King Olaf.

At first glance, the Pope seems confused, given that "nearly" six centuries take us back to "nearly" 848 AD, and the semi-legendary Olaf Trygvasson spread Christianity in the north in 995--1000.

Only, the thing was, there was a "King Olaf" in Nearly 848. The Annals of Ulster tell us that Amlaib [Olaf], King of Lochlann, arrived in Dublin in 855 and became the king of the "foreigners in Ireland." The Annals are not very helpful on the distinction between "Black Foreigners" and "White Foreigners," and even the identity of the Kingdom of Lochlann is a bit unclear. (Alex Woolf thinks that it is a precursor to the Kingdom of Manx and the Isles, albeit perhaps based at Whithorn in Galloway at this early date.) Olaf may be the same as the Ivar the Boneless who co-led the Great Heathen Army in England in the 860s, but practically everything said about the Great Heathen Army is controversial, so I will just point out that Olaf was in England and Scotland. He is a terribly unlikely candidate for spreading Christianity to the far northern isles, but he is also the grandfather of a later King Olaf at York, Olaf Guthfrithson, who reigned 939--41 and was an ally and patron of the archbishops of York.

In a spirit of promoting utter cynicism, I will point out that as vague as Amlaib Conron's origins and ethnic identity are in the Annals of Ulster, what he did is no mystery at all. His greatest feat in Ireland was the sacking of Kildare, the seat of St. Brigit's cult, while the greatest achievement of "Ivar the Boneless," if he existed, was to slaughter two kings of Northumbria before the walls of York. Kildare was then busy losing its bid for primacy in the Irish church to Patrick's Armagh, ultimately having to accept the double indignities of a new history in which Brigit was ordained by Patrick, and in which the archbishopric of Kildare was transferred to, yes, Dublin. This is the kind of thing that has led a new generation of Irish historians to see the "pagans" and "foreigners" of the age as actors within Irish politics, and not an exogenous force. In that  case, Olaf becomes a happier potential patron of Greenlandic Christianity.

The bit about York is more complicated. David Rollason's interpretation of what happened in the fatal third week of March, 867, when the "Great Heathen Army," it is said, destroyed the hosts of Northumbria, killed King Osberht and the usurper, Aelle II and . . . Well, that's Rollason's point, because, somehow, this great "heathen" victory left the Archbishop of York in the driving seat, leading him to conclude that the pagans were doing the Archbishop's dirty work, and that, thereafter, the "Viking Kingdom of York" is more nearly a theocracy ruled by the Archbishop of York. In that case, the Great Heathen Army is just some mercenaries in the employ of the archbishop, and the fact that we are forced to use dubious skaldic sources to identify their leaders is itself suspicious. York is covering up its complicity, and "Ivar the Boneless" may well be pure invention.

If this is true (and, remember, this part is not my  crazy theory, but, rather, that of the acknowledged doyen of the field), Ladyhawke is better on early medieval politics than a century of professionals talking about the "Viking kingdom of Jorvik." It's not that there weren't Viking Kings of Jorvik, but rather that most of them were generals in the service of the archbishop, who was a fabulously wealthy, influential figure trading all the way from Istanbul to --Greenland?

Again, crazy? But York is mysterious. We do not know why archbishops of York were sometimes in the royal circles of Wessex, and sometimes absent. Nor do we know why, when hundreds of charters survive from the See of Canterbury, only five survive from the See of York. Or, rather, given that charters are forged all the time, we can guess that they do not exist because York does not need them. As near as we can tell (Durham is a bit iffy), not a single Christian community suffragen to York has a continuous institutional history through the "Viking period." If York deeded away land, it had precious little motivation to keep records of the fact. It is the children that it presumably cannibalised who would have kept them, and, well, they were all cannibalised.

That's the church history. It is saying that all the suffragen sees of York, whether well-known, such as Withhorn and Lindisfarne, or presumed, like Armagh (the claim was made), or romantic imaginings, are gone, and so are their diplomatic histories.

There's also an economic history. The basic outline of this alternative understanding of the rise of the North Atlantic economy is pretty clear. First, there was a demand for walrus ivory, widely appreciated for producing the effect of living flesh in sacred art, notably book covers. This was in large part a pre-capitalist trade. Church establishments gave other church establishments illustrated scriptures, sumptuously illustrated with book covers featuring inlaid walrus ivory in a sort of passive-aggressive gift-giving strategy of creating patron-client relationships. Thus, the search for walrus ivory in the accessible Arctic was more than a search for profit --it was an ecclesiastical arms race.

"Walrus ranching" is a bit reductive here. The key early-medieval document here is an account of the Arctic trade given by one Ohthere, a visitor to King Alfred's court. Othhere wants the world to know that Alfred's power and glory stretches all the way up the "North way" to the high Arctic, where people hunt for whales, walrus ivory and hides, furs, and all the other well-known Arctic naturalia,

   So there are plenty of reasons to go out into the high Atlantic looking for these goods, perhaps as far as Greenland. It's the organisation of this effort that's at issue here, and the current argument is that it was much more likely to have been groups of monks dispatched by wealthy monasteries. This is, after all, how Iceland comes to our attention: a particularly prominent Irish monk, one Dicuil, says that monks of his acquaintance were going off to Ireland. Assume that they left their servants behind to care for their camps and livestock, and you get a gradual and informal story of the early settlement of Iceland, a century earlier than the sagas would have it, but in line with the archaeological evidence, and, via argument by analogy, what we now know of the early settlement of the Faeroes.

So say that the information that Nicholas has in front of him is ecclesiastical in nature. What would it say? The obvious answer is that it would be a brief list of the bishops of Greenland, with a brief account of them. "X, c. Wulfhere Eboricum t g. Olavius Rex" will do. Now, Nicholas only needs to look at a list of archbishops of York to know the approximate date, six centuries before, when Greenland received Christianity. He knows from Icelandic sources, perhaps, that Greenland received Christianity from "Blessed King Olaf," or else the Icelandic saga writers are working from the same source that Nicholas is, in which case Olaf, or one or the other of Wulfstan I's Olafs is conflated with Olaf Trygvasson of glorious and probably legendary memory.

The reason that I am inflicting all of this speculation on you it used to be, back in Nicholas' time, that historians paid far more attention to bishops and their successions than to kings and capitalists. And that's not necessarily a problem. When we've pushed as far back as the 850s (950s), nad as far out as northern England, Norway and Ireland, bishops are a lot more important than kings and capitalists! We really do need to pay far more attention to the idea that the bishops of the North Atlantic were politicians, in constant conflict with each other.

First, and for the purposes of this discussion, the most important conflict is internal to Britain. For most of its history, the Church of England has had an ambiguous hierarchy. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the metropolitan of the English Church --but is the equal of the Archbishop of York. This didn't just happen. It's arguable that Bede's history of the English church is a salvo in this long-running war, and, as I have already noted, at the very least, the dark and bloody days of 867, and perhaps the whole "Viking era" in England should be understood in the light of this struggle. York is quite possibly autonomous and free in the north, and not averse to using "Viking" armies to achieve its ends. No wonder, then, that it would claim the right to appoint bishops out there in Ocean Sea. As to where the cathedrals, monasteries and minsters that might have sent missionaries around Cape Farewell and up the Greenland fjords might have been --well, we're well in the realm of romance here.

So instead of fancies built on enigmatic cathedral ruins of the Western Isles, I'll take on an institution that most definitely did exist, and which definitely was a foundation of York --"the archdiocese of Hamburg and Bremen." Willehad, a monk of York, was at first, in the age of Bede, more or less, a missionary to the Frisians, in the footsteps of the martyred Boniface. In 787, he was raised to be a missionary bishop to the Saxons, and, we are told by Ansgar, founded a beautiful cathedral at Bremen, a town first mentioned in a document of 782.

The problem with this is that Ansgar was a missionary/church politician of two generations after Willehad, active in both Sweden and Denmark. Ansgar was made Archbishop of Hamburg, but lost Hamburg to some kind of Danish raid, or something, and was, in compensation made bishop of Bremen, but, since this would be a demotion, Bremen was raised to archiepiscopal status by combining it with nearby Hamburg --we are told. Because Bremen was a suffragen of the Archbishop of Cologne, and as far as Cologne is concerned, this whole story of Willehad and Ansgar, which I have spun, is nothing but a farrago of forgeries. From Utrecht to Verden and all the way back to Roman antiquity, it is all invention and interpolation, forgery and lies, and out of it issues, when one gets right down to it, the conflicting property deeds you see before you, Your Honour. 

Nor is it just  matter of disputed property rights, even the kind that lead to wars. York's pretnesions, and Hamburg-Bremen's inventions, can matter in the politics of the great and good. Who are these early bishops that Ansgar presided over in Scandinavia? If Scandinavia was not the home of a militant and reactionary paganism, we might be led to question the autonomy of the Great Heathen Army, and start to wonder whether Armagh might have  had something to do with the fall of Kildare. And history marches on. Vinland and Greenland were first mentioned by a historian of Hamburg-Bremen in 1080 or so, and he is far from just sharing trivia. His point is that Hamburg-Bremen is the archdiocese presiding over so many farflung lands, so many kings and peoples, that he is by right not merely a metropolitan archbishop, but a Patriarch, the still-higher title otherwise accorded only to Jerusalem and Istanbul --oh, okay, Constantinople. Is that claim aimed at the Eastern Roman Emperor? Cologne? Is it to make a point in the great Investiture Controversy? I'm sure that it is aimed in all of those directions, ,just because of the response, which was to raise Archdioceses of Lund, in Sweden, and of Nidaros (Trondheim), and hand them Greenland, Iceland and Vinland (if any). .

This is a lot of words to get to the point of observing that the reason that the lists of bishops of Iceland and Greenland (and the Faeroes) begin with appointments by Lund, is politics, and the fact that Adam of Bremen (the historian of Hamburg already mentioned) says that there were earlier bishops on the high Atlantic is not an error or a random, discountable observation. Hamburg-Bremen had a reason for claiming that it had suffragen dioceses in the high Atlantic. For our purposes, it hardly matters whether they were real or invented. All we need is a Christian "place," a Kingcome, if you will. The Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen stretches out an archiepiscopal finger, points it at a nearby clerical courtier, and says, "You. You are now the bishop of, uhm, what's the place called? Gardar." Appointing them is the point: not actually having a bishop in place. And just as appointing them is the point, so is erasing them from history, in the name of cutting Hamburg-Bremen, and York before it, back down to size.

Backdating the settlement of Iceland and Greenland by a century each is small beer, relatively speaking. The early days of these communities were too small-scaled and tentative, in this model, for it to make much of a difference. It is getting rid of the "Viking Age" in favour of a "Bishop's Sea" that is the big game here.


  1. Minor nitpick: Lund was in Denmark, 'Sweden' (whatever that meant at the time) only got an archbishop in Uppsala in 1164.

  2. Not the only boo-boo in this here mess, either. Certain constraints applied during the composition of this post.