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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Canadian Conceptions of the Viking/Native Conflict: Imposing Canada on the Narrative

This paper was presented at the Trent-Carleton Graduate Student Conference in Canadian Studies, (Dis)Arming Canada: Protest, Conflict and (Un)Steady States, at Trent University in Peterborough Ontario on November 14, 2009. I chose to focus on the conflict between the Vikings and the Skraelings (natives) in the texts, and what tools historians have used to interpret this conflict. The issue of the historical content in the Vinland Sagas is one of the most discussed historiographical issues amongst North American scholars of the Viking Age. Many of these ideas will be further flushed out and expanded upon next semester for "Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier", the UWO Visual Arts Graduate seminar with Prof. Kathy Brush.

. . .

The two texts, Grœnlendinga saga or The Saga of the Greenlanders, and Eiriks saga rauða, or Eirik the Red’s Saga are among the Sagas of Icelanders, a collection of texts about the history of the Icelanders. <1> They are meant as legendary histories for the early settlers of Iceland. They are preserved in written form around the last half of the thirteenth century. These two texts are known as the Vinland Sagas because they detail the history of Eirik the Red and his family, who discover and name the lands known as Helluland, Markland, and Vinland among others around the year 1000 C.E. These events occurred at least 250 years before the sagas were written. There is evidence that suggests they were based in traditional oral histories. It is unlikely I will have to tell a room of Canadian historians et al. about some of the difficulties, despite the necessity, of using oral stories as history. However, the result of this tradition is a tale of several Viking expeditions that land in what we like to identify now as Canada. In the texts, when they arrive in Vinland they trade with, and ultimately come into conflict with the indigenous population. This is in fact the first conflict of which there is a written record that we can claim as a Canadian conflict. But historians have traditionally had difficulty with this source, because so many aspects of the documents call into question the truth of the tale. However, many who have believed these to be historical events have defended the texts passionately. One of the best tools to prove that these sagas are historical documents has been to take things that we know about Canada, or more broadly North America, and make that fit the text to show how it could have actually happened. This includes, most typically, imposing our geography on the geography described in the text. It also includes comparing the encounters, or conflicts, between the Skraelings (the Old Norse word for the indigenous people) and the Vikings with other encounters or conflicts recorded by the early 16th and 17th century European explorers. Unlike most of the conflicts that will be discussed here today, the actual conflict that occurred had little to no impact on the way that Canada or its people developed as a nation. Instead it is our conceptions of early Canadian conflicts, and of the geography of Canada which influences our understanding of this conflict.

Eirik the Red’s Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders both tell us the story of the Vinland expeditions. Both tales involve many of the same characters, and they are about the same events, the same expeditions to Vinland, but there are some radical differences in the narrative, including different events and discrepancies in the number of trips made. The Saga of the Greenlanders is shorter, but it breaks the voyages into four distinct trips, while Eirik the Red’s Saga is longer and is more stylized, combining the same four voyages into two. <2> There is a lot that has been written about why this might be, and how that affects the history as it is represented in the text. However, for the purposes of this paper we are going to focus specifically on how each of them represents the interactions between the Skraelings and the Vikings, though much more could be said about the voyages at large as well as the historiography. <3>

Because it is less stylized, and includes fewer of the fantastic elements much, though not all, of the recent scholarship has seen The Saga of the Greenlanders as being more ‘historical.’ <4> In this particular text the first encounter with the Skraelings is during the second voyage which landed in Vinland. It is headed by Thorvald Eiriksson, Leif’s brother. To the west of Leif’s camp, which was established during the previous voyage, “they did find a wooden grain cover, but discovered no other work by human hands.” <5> Then they head east of Leif’s camp
[Thorvald] then spoke: ‘This is an attractive spot, and here I would like to build my farm.’ As they headed back to the ship they saw three hillocks on the beach inland from the cape. Upon coming closer they saw they were three hide-covered boats, with three men under each of them. They divided their forces and managed to capture all of them except one, who escaped with his boat. They killed the other eight and went back to the cape.
They then see that there are more settlements further up in that particular fjord. A voice warns Thorvald and his companions of an impending attack, so they prepare themselves. In the ensuing battle Thorvald is the only killed. The other members of the expedition go home. <7> Then Thorfinn Karlsefni, who is connected to the family by his marriage to Guðrid, who is under the protection of Eirik, makes the fourth voyage to Vinland. They too ran into the Skraelings;
after the first winter passed and summer came, they became aware of the Skraelings. A large group of men came out of the woods close to where the cattle were pastured. The bull began bellowing and snorting very loudly. This frightened the Skraelings, who ran off with their burdens, which included fur pelts and sable and all kinds of skins. … Neither group understood the language of the other. The natives then set down their packs and opened them, offering their goods, preferably in exchange for weapons, but Karlsefni forbade the men to trade weapons. He sought a solution by having the women bring milk products. Once they saw those products the Skraelings wished to purchase them and nothing else. The trading with the Skraelings resulted in them bearing off their purchases in their stomachs, leaving their packs and skins with Karlsefni and his companions. This done, they departed.
The second winter the Skraelings visit again but in greater numbers. During this time Guðrid is visited by a supernatural mimic, with pale skin and large eyes. When Guðrid is distracted by a noise the mimic disappears with a crack. “At that moment one of the Skraelings had been killed by one of Karlsefni’s servants for trying to take weapons from them, and they quickly ran off, leaving their clothes and trade goods lying behind. No one but Gudrid had seen the woman.” <9> They then make plans to ward off a Skraeling attack, using their bull as a scare tactic. During the course of the battle, one of the Skraelings picks up an axe, and uses it on one of his compatriots, killing him. The leader of the Skraelings takes it and throws it into the sea. It is then that the natives flee. After that winter the Vikings decide to go home.
Many of the episodes in Eirik the Red’s Saga are similar, however, the four expeditions are conflated into two, and it is Leif who merely investigates and Karlsefni that does all the exploring and naming of the new lands. When Karlsefni is at Hop, one of the bases they establish in Vinland, “early one morning they noticed nine hide covered boats, and the people in them waved wooden poles that made a swishing sound as they turned them around sunwise.” <10> They discuss what this means and decide that it means peace. The Vikings row to shore. The Skraelings “were short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads. Their eyes were large and their cheeks broad.” <11> The next day they go back and there are many Skraelings waiting for them. There is a trading scenario nearly identical to that in The Saga of the Greenlanders, except that they trade increasingly small amounts of red cloth instead of milk. In this text also they forbid the trading of weapons with the Skraelings. Karlsefni’s bull then frightens the Skraelings away. The next day the natives come back, their paddles waving counter sunwise. This is a prelude to the battle, similar to the one in the Saga of the Greenlanders between Karlsefni’s men and the Skraelings. The Skraelings are much more menacing in Eirik the Red’s Saga; they “saw the Skraelings lift up on poles a large round object, about the size of a sheep’s gut and black in colour, which came flying up on the land and made a threatening noise when it landed. It struck great fear into Karlsefni and his men.” <12> An interesting part of this battle is the character of Freydis, who had her own voyage in the Saga of the Greenlanders. She follows the fleeing Vikings, but is slower since she is pregnant.
She followed them into the forest, but the Skraelings reached her. She came across a slain man, Thorbrand Snorrason, who had been struck in the head by a slab of stone. His sword lay beside him, and this she snatched up and prepared to defend herself with it as the Skraelings approached her. Freeing one of her breasts from her shift, she smacked the sword with it. This frightened the Skraelings, who turned and ran back to their boats and rowed away.
Many of the Skraelings were slain, though only two of Karlsefni’s men perished. The text says the multitude of Skraelings had been an illusion. There is then a similar episode to the axe episode in the previous text, however the Skraelings take turns trying to axe on wood, and instead they throw it away when one of them tries it on stone and the axe breaks. In this saga the text points out how the Vikings would always be under attack from this party, and it is for this reason that they decide to depart for home. There are a few interesting interludes on the way home however, including stopping to kill five Skraelings whom they find sleeping, because they guessed that they were outlaws. They also, as they sail along the shore, come across a one legged man, who darts down to the ship and kills one of the Vikings. Then “they soon left to head northwards where they thought they sighted the Land of the One-legged, but did not want to put their lives in further danger,” so decide not to land. <14> The very last interaction between the Skraelings and the Vikings, in Markland, one of the lands named by Karlsefni, they come across five Skraelings, and manage to kidnap two boys. The Skraelings are able to tell them a bit about the region, including the presence of a pale faced people who lived across from their own land. The two boys are brought to Greenland, and spend the winter with Eirik the Red. <15>

The similarities in the text are actually more striking than the differences between the two, and have more to do with the oral traditions of the texts. <16> It has been suggested that it could be two competing oral traditions stemming from the same source, or one could be based off the other but trying to accomplish a different aim. <17>

Some problems with using this text as an historical document are obvious. The history is compromised by the distance between the events and the writing down of the story. The texts themselves seem also to have a moral goal in mind, for instance the Saga of the Greenlanders, it has been argued, is a Christian exemplum for the descendants of Guðrid and Karlsefni. <18> This compromises the history in the text, because the events are slanted towards the moral goal. But there are more obvious problems, like the fantastic elements in the tales. In The Saga of the Greenlanders, Guðrid’s supernatural other is not real. Likewise in Eirik the Red’s saga the encounter with the uniped detracts from the other interactions portrayed in the text. In addition, when Freydis bears her breast to the attackers, this is clearly contrived. At the same time, they are less literary than other well known Sagas of Icelanders, like Njal’s Saga or Egil’s Saga, and so by comparison they seem more ‘historical.’ Because of this people have often tried to overcome the historical flaws in the Vinland sagas and to ground them in the Canadian, or more broadly the North American, historical tradition as well as the Medieval European historical tradition.

There are two major periods to the historiography of Vikings in North America. Really they have been as influenced by general trends in historical thought as any other subject, but there is a divide between pre and post discovery of the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows by Helge and Anne Ingsted. Before that there were a lot of false Viking discoveries in North America, but that is largely the only one that has been academically accepted as a true discovery. Therefore the scholarship is divided between that with and that without concrete proof, or the very early scholarship. Now we have a point of reference in the saga for the history that it purports to represent. However, the ways in which we use the evidence to prove that there were interactions with our native populations has not changed all that much since the discovery.

In fact it further complicates our interpretation of the historical grounding of these particular conflicts. As Birgitta Wallace points out, at L’Anse aux Meadows there is no evidence of there ever having been domesticated animals, which is a large part of this element of the story, particularly in The Saga of Greenlanders, where they trade milk with the natives. <19>

There are several ways in which our conception of Canada, or North America is used to interpret this as an Early European/Native conflict. Before L’Anse aux Meadows was discovered historians used the presence of indigenous populations in Canada and North America to point out that the tale is likely true. There was definitely someone here, so if you accept that the sagas are describing landings in North America the Skraelings are not an invention of some saga writer. The geography described in the Vinland Sagas is extensive, therefore it has been the most discussed point of historicity as people try to identify the places described with actual locations. Likewise for these conflicts historians use the surrounding description to try and identify the locations in which these conflicts took place. They then try and extrapolate what the actual nation, or which nation’s ancestors, the Skraelings might be. Even with the point of reference in Newfoundland there is a lot of debate about locations, so it is hard to define the people as well. The word Skraeling was used indiscriminately for different Native nations; it is mentioned in at least one other text, where it refers to the Inuit. <20> In this case, Richard Perkins argues that the Vikings may have not gotten further south than Labrador, which means that the nation they may have come into contact with would have been the Beothuk; but if the Vikings got as far south as the Gulf of Saint Lawrence then they may have run into the Mi'kmaq. <21>

Points in the story which seem similar to texts of early exploration are also used to justify the historicity of having met the native population here. The early accounts of Beothuk said they had a predilection for red cloth. Also, the story of the two boys who were kidnapped, parallels accounts like that of Jacques Cartier, who after his second voyage returned to France with Native captives. <22> It is also noteworthy that the people inferred in this way have no domesticated animals like the ones that the Vikings are said to have brought which scared the indigenous populations. In addition, their fascination with the axes is similar to later accounts of Native fascination with metal objects and European weaponry. This sort of reasoning is used before and after the discovery at L’Anse aux Meadows.

It is interesting because the location of Vinland in the scholarship often depends on the nationality of the scholar, determining whether it falls in modern Canadian borders or dips down behind the American border. I said before that the conflict had no direct impact on the future development of Canada. This was not entirely true when you think of the impact the landing made on the debate about the meaning and breadth of our own history, and its impact on our sense of self. It is easy for the pursuit of the history of this conflict to be driven by our impulse for nation building through the identification and exoneration of heroes, especially in the early historiography. For instance, from 1890, Marie Shipley tries to define the importance of the Norse accomplishments; “following out this conclusion, if it is indeed a matter of no importance whether the Norseman discovered America or not, it becomes equally unimportant whether Columbus discovered America or not, and the discovery of the western continent ceases to be one of the greatest of events.” <23> It may be that we use these interpretive tools too loosely as we try very hard to ground the saga, and the story of these early Skraeling/Viking interactions, in the Canadian historical tradition. Richard Perkins says “the fact that the perceived importance of Norse landings in America for the history of the continent has been enormously exaggerated, and the fact that it was argued that the Norseman (rather than, say, Christopher Columbus) discovered America, have led to unseemly dispute fuelled more by nineteenth- and twentieth-century-style nationalism than by scholarly debate based on any mature, long-term view.” <24> He does point out, however, that without this drive and notion of personal history not as much of the scholarship and varying debate and opinions would be left for us. <25> Historians would not want to discount the evidence of the sagas, especially in light of the archaeology at L’Anse aux Meadows and any other true archaeological finds in North America. Therefore, the closest we will come to understanding this conflict is by using these tools, this conception of other aspects of Canada including our history and our geography, which will if nothing else, tell us in what ways the tale could be true.


<1> Because of the intended audience for this paper I have chosen to use the anglicized versions of the names and titles in the sagas.
<2>Erik Wahlgren. ‘Fact and Fancy in the Vinland Sagas.’ Old Norse Literature and Mythology. ed. by Edgar C. Polomé. Texas: University of Texas Press (1969), p. 28. These are the four voyages that actually land in Vinland. There are more voyages that never make it to those shores.
<3>In this paper I use the Vinland Sagas edited by Halldór Hermannson, and the translation of Keneva Kunz. However, because translating Skraeling as Native is in itself an interpretation, I changed all the mention of ‘natives’ in the text back to Skraeling, so that there is a further distinction between the literary people and the actual nations that lived in Canada at that time.
<4>Wahlgren, p. 28.
<5>Keneva Kunz ‘The Vinland Sagas: The Saga of the Greenlanders; Eirik the Red’s Saga’, in The Sagas of Icelanders Toronto: Penguin Books (2001), p. 642. “fundu þeir kornhjálm af tré. Eigi fundu þeir fleiri mannaverk” Halldór Hermannson ed.. The Vinland Sagas. Islandica Vol. 30 New York: Cornell University Press (1944), p. 53.
<6>Kunz, p. 642. “hann mælti þá: ‘Hér er fagrt, ok hér vilda ek bœ minn reisa.’ Ganga síðan til skips ok sjá á sandinum inn frá hǫfðanum þrjár hæðir ok fóru til þangat ok sjá þar húðkeipa þrjá ok þrjá menn undir hverjum. Þá skiptu þeir liði sínu ok hǫfðu hendr á þeim ǫllum, nema einn komsk í braut með keip sinn. Þeir drepa hina átta ok ganga síðan aptr á hǫfðann” Hermannson, p. 53.
<7>Kunz, p. 643.
<8>Kunz, p. 647. “Eptir þann vetr inn fyrsta kom sumar. Þá urðu þeir varir við Skrælinga, ok fór þar ór skógi fram mikill flokkr manna. Þar var nær nautfé þeira, en graðungr tók t belja ok gjalla ákafliga hátt; en þat hræddusk Skrælingar ok lǫgðu undan með byrðar sínar, en þat var grávara ok safali ok alls konar skinnavara … Hvárigir skilðu annars mál. Þá tóku Skrælingar ofan bagga sína ok leystu ok buðu þeim ok vildu vápn helzt fyrir; en Karlsefni bannaði þeim at selja vápnin. Ok nú leitar hann ráðs með þeim hætti, at hann bað konur bera út búnyt at þeim; ok þegar er þeir sá búnyt, þá vildu þeir kaupa þat en ekki annat. Nú var sú kaupfǫr Skrælinga, at þeir báru sinn varning í brott í mǫgum sínum, en Karlsefni ok fǫrunautar hans hǫfðu eptir bagga þeira ok skinnavǫru. Fóru þeir við svá búit í burt.” Hermansson, p. 57.
<9>Kunz, p. 647. “ok í því var ok veginn einn Skrælinga af einum húskarli Karlsefnis, því at hann hafði vilijað taka vápn þeira. Ok fóru nú í brott sem tiðast, en klæði þeira lágu þar eptir ok varningr. Engi maðr hafði konu þessa sét utan Guðriðr ein” Hermansson, p. 57.
<10>Kunz, p. 669. “Ok einn morgin snemma, er þeir lituðusk um, sá þeir mikinn fjǫlða húðkeipa, ok var veift trjám á skipunum, ok lét því líkast sem í hálmþúst, ok var veift sólarsinnis” Hermnasson, p. 24.
<11>Kunz, p. 670. “váru svartir menn ok illilegrir ok hǫfðu illt hár á hǫfði. Þeir váru mjǫk eygðir ok breiðir í kinnum” Hermansson, pg. 25.
<12>Kunz, p. 670. “[Þat sá þeir Karlsefni,] at Skrælingar fœrðu upp á stǫng knǫtt stundar mikinn því nær til at jafna sem sauðarvǫmb ok helzt blán at lit ok fleygðu af stǫnginni upp á landit yfir lið þeira Karlsefnis ok lét illilega viðr þar sem niðr kom. Við þetta sló ótta miklum á Karlsefni ok allt lið hans” Hermansson, p. 26.
<13>Kunz, p. 671. “gekk hon þó eptir þeim í skóginn. En Skrælngar sœkja at henni. Hon fann fyrir sér mann dauðan; þar var Þorbradr Snorrason, ok stóð hellustein í hǫfði honum. Sverðit lá bert í hjá honum. Tók hon þat upp ok býsk at verja sik. Þá koma Skrælingar at henni. Hon dró þá út brjóstit undan klæðunum ok slettir á beru sverðinu. Við þetta óttask Skrælingar ok hlupu undan áskip ok reru í brott” Hermansson, p. 26.
<14>Kunz, p. 672. “þeir fóru þá í brott ok norðr aptre ok þóttusk sjá Einfœtinaland. Vildu þeir þá eigi hætta liði sínu lengr” Hermansson, p. 28.
<15>Kunz, p. 673.
<16>Kunz, p. 631.
<17>Wahlgren, p. 28.
<18>Geraldine Barnes. Viking America: The First Millenium. Cambridge: D.S Brewer (2001), p. 32.
<19>Birgitta Linderoth Wallace. ‘L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland: An abandoned Experiment’. Contact, Continuity, and Collapse; The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic. ed. by James H. Barrett, Studies in the Early Middle Ages; Centre for Medieval Studies University of York, V. Belgium: Brepols Publishers (2003), p. 222.
<19>Richard Perkins. ‘Medieval Norse visits to America: millennial stocktaking’. Saga Book: Viking society for Northern Research, 28 (2004), p. 60. The other text is by Ari Thorgilsson, and it describes the discovery of Skraeling artifacts in Greenland. Perkins suggests they are the Dorset Inuit.
<20>Perkins, p. 60.
<21>Perkins, p. 61.
<22>Perkins, pp. 60-61.
<23>Marie Shipley. The Icelandic Discoverers of America or Honor to Whom Honor is Due. New York: John B. Alden (1890), p. 2.
<24>Perkins, p. 30.
<25>Perkins, pp. 29-66.


Baitsholts, Kenneth. ‘Humour, Irony, and Insight: the first European accounts of Native North Americans’. Vinland Revisited: The Norse at the Turn of the First Millenium: Selected Papers from the Viking Millenium International Symposium, 15-24 September 2000, Newfoundland and Labrador. ed. by Shannon Lewis-Simpson. St John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, Inc. (2000), pp. 365-376

Barnes, Geraldine. Viking America: The First Millenium. Cambridge: D.S Brewer(2001)

Hermannson, Halldór ed.. The Vinland Sagas. Islandica Vol. 30. New York: Cornell University Press (1944)

Kunz, Keneva. ‘The Vinland Sagas: The Saga of the Greenlanders; Eirik the Red’s Saga’. Örnólfur Thorsson ed.The Sagas of Icelanders. Toronto: Penguin Books (2001), pp. 626-674

Larsson, Mats G.. ‘The Vinland sagas and the actual characteristics of Eastern Canada: some comparisons with special attention to the accounts of the later explorers’. Vinland Revisited: The Norse at the Turn of the First Millenium: Selected Papers from the Viking Millenium International Symposium, 15-24 September 2000, Newfoundland and Labrador. ed. by Shannon Lewis-Simpson. St John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, Inc. (2000), pp. 391-398

Perkins, Richard. ‘Medieval Norse visits to America: millennial stocktaking’. Saga Book: Viking society for Northern Research, 28 (2004) 29-69

Rowe, Elizabeth Ashman. The development of Flateyjarbók : Iceland and the Norwegian dynastic crisis of 1389. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark (2005)

Shipley, Marie. The Icelandic Discoverers of America or Honor to Whom Honor is Due. New York: John B. Alden (1890)

Wahlgren, Erik. ‘Fact and Fancy in the Vinland Sagas’. Old Norse Literature and Mythology. ed. by Edgar C. Polomé. Texas: University of Texas Press (1969), pp. 19-80

Wallace, Birgitta Linderoth. ‘L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland: An abandoned Experiment’. Contact, Continuity, and Collapse; The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic. ed. by James H. Barrett, Studies in the Early Middle Ages; Centre for Medieval Studies University of York, V. Belgium: Brepols Publishers (2003), pp. 207-238

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