Viking America: A New Theory

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In 1965 widespread interest was excited by the first publication of a fifteenth-century map showing “Vinland” and purporting to be the earliest cartographic representation of any part of the North American continent. [See “Vinland the Good Emerges from the Mists,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, October, 1965.] The Vinland Map tended to reinforce the conclusion long held by many historians that Leif Eiriksson (or Ericson) and other Vikings landed on the northeast coast of the continent around A.D.1000. It did little if anything, however, to encourage the idea that this Norse discovery of America was more than an isolated event, one that led neither to permanent settlement nor to important historical consequences.

This impression of the ephemeral and inconsequential character of the Viking experience in America is about to be challenged in a new book, Viking America, by James Robert Enterline, which Doubleday & Company will publish this month. According to Enterline, Norse contact with the American mainland actually accelerated just before the fifteenth century, when recorded European communication with Greenland’s Norse settlements is known to have been interrupted. Indeed, that very interruption now appears to have been associated with a dispersal of the Greenland settlers, driven by climatic changes from their farms at Julianehaab and Godthaab into hunting grounds on the American continent. The implications for later historical consequences come from the fact that maps and other kinds of geographic information about that dispersal evidently were rather widely circulated in southern Europe during the century preceding Columbus. If it can be inferred that Columbus was motivated by such information, then the consequences of the Norse discovery were indeed important.

Despite its title, Enterline’s book pursues the subject from the standpoint of the history of ideas and avoids an ethnic or partisan approach. The revisory role of the book begins in its second chapter, which lays the groundwork for controverting most of the standard interpretations of the Icelandic sagas recounting Leif Eiriksson’s landfalls. It has hitherto been generally held that Markland (Norse for “woodland”), one of these landfalls, was the forest-covered Labrador coast. But close attention to the context of the sagas describing Markland shows, in case after case, that Markland was not a land of continuous forest cover, but a land of isolated stands of dwarf trees that could be slashed down by Norse battle hatchets. The information that just such isolated stands of dwarf trees do exist far north of the tree line allows the possibility that Markland was much closer to Leif’s starting place near Julianehaab in Greenland. Among other things, this fits in better with how long the sagas sav Leif took between landfalls.

Vinland has almost always been interpreted to mean “wine land,” a land of wild grapes. Yet a small minority of researchers has held to the idea, at least a century old, that the name Vinland was instead based on an archaic Norse word meaning “pastureland.” That minority view has now been newly supported. First of all, the evidence shows that the Greenlanders who named Vinland had no knowledge at all of wine or grapes, being mead and beer drinkers. Second, close reading of the sagas describing Vinland shows that its harvest was not grapes or vines, but hay for the cattle the explorers carried along on shipboard. Third, besides the Vinland Map announced by Yale University in 1965, there are two other old maps that, though not labelling it Vinland, do show a similarly shaped island in the same relative position. In each case the label, irrespective of the language used, means “pastureland.”

The first of these maps actually exists in several versions, all of which were made in the early and middle 1400’s in central Europe by the so-called Vienna-Klosterneuberg school of cartographers. On this map the island is labelled Insula Dicolzi, freely translated as “island of wild cabbage pastures.” Unfortunately, little is known about the background of this map, and the source of the information for this Insula Dicolzi, is lost to history. The opposite case occurs in the second map, Gerardus Mercator’s famous world map of 1569, which introduced the projection bearing his name. Mercator’s label for the island that the Vinland Map calls Vinland is Grocland. Mercator is known to have received this information from Dutch sources two centuries old in 1569, and Grocland in the fourteenth century meant, roughly, “land of wild heather pastures.” The source of this Dutch information, in turn, is known to have been very close to the anonymous author of the famous lost book Inventio Fortunatae, who travelled throughout all the Norse countries including Greenland in the 1360’s, and may well have been escorted on a visit to Vinland.