From “INTRODUCTION: The Arctic beyond Your Imagination”
The remote lands of the Scandinavian Arctic are still poorly known today. It is easy to imagine what the situation was like five centuries ago when there were much fewer sources of information, which I would not hesitate to describe as practically unilateral as they were primarily the work of the Church. This helps explain the bias of numerous written sources and the preference long granted to certain alarmist theories about the fate of the Scandinavian colonists and their relations with the indigenous peoples of Greenland. The Arctic is the preeminent domain of the Inuit people (who were long called Eskimos, an exonym that still survives in citations from the ancient historical periods). Less numerous are the people that knew of the existence of this Scandinavian colony (which was originally Icelandic, then Norwegian and Danish) that inhabited Greenland and very likely Eastern Canada for several centuries during the very heart of the Middle Ages, long before Columbus. Rarer still are the people who could conceive of the constant presence of a variety of European nations in these territories that will be described throughout this book: the English, the Germans, the Flemish, the Portuguese, and so forth who were all drawn there by the magnetic pole formed by the Medieval Arctic and its wealth. Contrary to longstanding notions, the Arctic was a source of precious goods: “unicorn” and walrus ivory, deluxe furs, royal falcons, and so forth. A quick glance through medieval source texts will give us some information about the provenance of all these riches. During the Great Age of Discovery before Columbus, the Scandinavian Arctic would occupy a strategic position. For one thing, people then believed it offered a Northwest Passage to Cathay. (“Cathay” is the ancient name for China, or sometimes part of China; for example, Marco Polo referred to North China as Cathay.)
My first objective is to dispel once and for all the longstanding isolationist theories about Medieval Greenland. It offered the advantage of explaining the disappearance of the Scandinavian colonists of the Arctic as a result of their forced isolation after contact with Norway became increasingly rare. We will show that Greenland and the neighboring Arctic regions were frequented quite often by sailors, hunters, and European expeditions in the Far North long before Columbus. Consequently, I also reject any Inuit responsibility in the disappearance of the Northmen, as is commonly and too easily believed.
To some degree, the Church’s responsibility is accepted by many Scandinavian researchers. As I noted earlier it was responsible for the source texts, and I shall strive to emphasize their one-sidedness. The Inuit were a perfect scapegoat for masking the disagreements that brought the Church into conflict with the Greenland colonists. A good grasp of this situation, and of the weight of the Church in Greenland and more generally in Scandinavia, can help us see the full scope of this situation. In fact, we can see that several elements tend to prove to the contrary that the Inuit and Scandinavian communities enjoyed fairly good relations. The hypothesis of an intercultural blending even takes on greater weight. So how do you explain the disappearance of the Northmen, one may ask? I will offer my vision of this in the last chapter but summarize it quite simply here: Inuit and Scandinavian for good and ill lived side by side for almost three to four centuries. A foreign element was introduced and silence reigned fifty years after. This should inspire at least a little curiosity. Deciphering European maps can offer significant revelations in this regard.
We may initially believe there is no lack of existing research on this subject. That’s true, but the holes characterizing the traditional approach to Greenland in particular, and the Medieval Arctic in general, can be summed up as practically self-evident. It is a Scandinavian, if not to say Scandinavianist vision based primarily on Scandinavian sources. In short as the Inuit would say, the gaze of a white man using his own criteria: which has the effect of restricting the research. I am suggesting a completely different approach here.
I have chosen as the framework for this historical study the entire period of medieval Scandinavian colonization (from 982 to around 1560, spilling over the boundaries of the Middle Ages by a few years). The geographical context appears clearly in the book’s title; restricting it to Greenland would have been to fall back into the error, of traditional research. I have slightly expanded the geographical focus eastward toward Iceland because this subject cannot be restricted to a rigid context: the inhabitation of Greenland was launched from Iceland (Scandinavian colonization, of course). The same population, the same type of society and traditions, moved westward; I would even say very far westward. The history of the two countries often followed the same fortune and misfortune. What is the final argument for using the Icelandic “factor?” Up to the present, no written source has been discovered in Greenland, all originated in Iceland or Norway—at least as far as the Nordic sources are concerned.
The Scandinavian population of Greenland had strong maritime traditions, which, I would like to remind you, ended up with the “discovery” of American and its temporary inhabitation. To get a better understanding of the Greenland colonizers means following their tracks to Hudson Bay, Ungava Bay, and Labrador. Proceeding this way is not really a mistake as the geographical notions of the time were fairly broad if not to say variable. We shall see, for example, that for at least half a century Greenland was confused for Labrador. This allows me to introduce another important axis of my approach: the use of all sources, even foreign sources, concerning the medieval Scandinavian Arctic and its population, and the use of all concepts, even the ones proven to be erroneous. In fact, medieval history is rich in inexact notions touching on all the sciences. In my opinion, analyzing this world with data that has been corrected of their mistakes prevents the researcher from finding the thread of the era’s various concepts, and identifying the object of his or her study. The medieval Scandinavian Arctic’s world offers very illustrative examples in this field:
• The mistaken placement of the Scandinavian colony of Eystribygð persisted for several centuries, because correct modern criteria were used instead of the flawed medieval concepts (the Scandinavian colonists believed they were living on the East Greenland coast).
• The geographers of that era long believed that Greenland was connected to Norway by a gigantic land bridge; this could explain some of the confusions about different peoples during the Middle Ages such as the commingling of the “Skrælings” (a Norse term given to the indigenous peoples of northeastern North America) and the “Karelians” (a name used somewhat confusingly to refer to the inhabitants of northern Scandinavia, the Finns or Sami), or even the scholarly confusion of Norwegian with Greenland “trolls.” Similarly the notion of a western extension was equally real, the existence of the legendary “Norumbega” and so forth. As it is easy to see, there is no shortage of examples.
A total innovation that I will energetically defend is the use of European sources. We will follow the trail or European hypotheses concerning the fate of the Scandinavians in Greenland that I find extremely serious and increasingly consistent. I will make generous use of the European maps from the first explorations. As we shall see, the Europeans were not content, as long believed, with a discreet backstage presence in this Medieval Arctic space. Their presence was far from temporary for various economic motives that we will examine in greater detail. Of even greater interest is the fact that the commerce of these sailors from various nations went hand in hand with the interests and presence of the Church. We have the German period of the Hanseatic League accompanied by the nomination of German bishops and the confusion of Greenland with the mythical island of Friesland (according to Frisian sailors), an English period that followed the same process, and a Portuguese period that I suspect took the same path. This latter nation played a decisive and fatal role in the fate of the Scandinavian colonies in Greenland and Canada.
I will make broad use of the archaeological work concerning this subject, going from the last century to the present, and the most recent scientific studies from Scandinavian research. All the archaeological excavations of Greenland and Canada will serve—if not as a keystone—at least as a retaining wall for my research, permitting us to verify several axioms, or hypotheses provided by the traditional background such as Scandinavian written sources and so forth. Unfortunately due to various factors (distance, the chronic isolation of the young researchers, and so on), the place given to Canadian studies is fairly reduced in proportion to the research performed there; but it was not as easy to contact Canadian researchers on site as it was the Danish researchers, which continues to be a source of great regret to me. As a good portion of my research was performed in Scandinavia and Greenland, I have deliberately given a significant place to Scandinavian studies.
In accordance with my desire to follow a dividing line from the older approaches, and pursuing the path of contemporary Scandinavian research (Danish in particular), I adopted a resolutely ethnographic approach, restoring the traditional Inuit source material to its rightful place (while recognizing its risks and limitations (interpretation, suggestion). In fact, what we know today is the official Icelandic version and the clerics’ version. This neglects another important player. The Inuit also memorialized the white man’s presence in the Arctic for five centuries in their tales. Better than memorizing them, they carved them for posterity in walrus and narwhal ivory in the form of statuettes of white men whose trail can be traced from Greenland to Hudson Bay. These sources that have been common knowledge to all Scandinavian researchers for decades merit presentation to a wider audience.