Saturday, September 24, 2005

BOOK: Kirsten Seaver, "The Frozen Echo"

Kirsten A. Seaver: The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America ca. A.D. 1000–1500. Stanford University Press, 1996. 0804731616. xviii + 407 pp.

The Viking discovery of Greenland and America, and their subsequent colonization of some areas of Greenland, has long been a topic of fascination for me. Perhaps what attracted me most was the fact that their settlements endured for several centuries but then disappeared. Firstly, there is an element of mystery in that, just like in all disappearances: what exactly happened, what went wrong? What was it like for the last survivors; how did the last generations experience the decline of their settlements? And besides, these colonies had managed to survive for several centuries; they weren't like those that fail in within the first few years, nor yet were they like those that actually manage to survive for good: they did decline and disappear eventually, but not so soon. This is what makes it especially curious. And how could contact between Europe and Greenland be so completely lost for several centuries, after there had been plenty of contact during the middle ages? And what would have happened if the Norse colonies in Greenland had endured and prospered, and if they had managed to start colonizing North America as well? As I said, it is a fascinating subject, full of very interesting questions. So it is not surprising that I first noticed this book by Seaver several years ago after doing a bit of searching on Recently I read Jared Diamond's Collapse, where a couple of chapters deal with the decline of Norse Greenland; I found this so intriguing that I decided it was finally time to order Seaver's book and read more about this subject.

Although this book was interesting, reading it was nevertheless a bit of an effort. The author goes into a lot of detail, discusses various historical sources and archaeological finds, points out questions on which the historians have not reached a consensus (and she often presents various points of view, names their supporters, arguments in their favour, etc.), and so on. On the back cover of the book, there is a quote from the Times Literary Supplement: “The clear and precise text, the skillful management of complex themes, [...] make it as easy to read as a novel.” I agree that the text is clear and precise, and handles the complexity of the subject well enough, but I totally disagree that it was as easy to read as a novel. On the contrary, I found much of it fairly dry. I am reminded of Steven Runciman's preface to his Sicilian Vespers: “The canvas is wide; [...] It is also crowded with characters; but a historical canvas is necessarily crowded, and readers who are afraid of crowds should keep to the better-ordered lanes of fiction.” Here in The Frozen Echo the canvas also felt wide and quite crowded, especially with people bearing complicated Icelandic names which all looked alike to me. Fortunately you can usually more or less ignore many of these details and still have a reasonably good idea of what is going on and what is the message of that part of the book.

The first chapter contains some interesting passages about early Norse navigational instruments (pp. 16–19). It also discusses their voyages to America; in addition to those that took place around the year 1000 and were reported in the sagas (pp. 24–7), it is likely that the Norse Greenlanders returned to the American coast in later centuries as well, chiefly to obtain wood (which they would otherwise have to import from Europe at great expense); pp. 28–30. There are even some hints of possible later attempts to settle in America, pp. 33–6. Curious arrangements of walrus jaws and skulls in Norse burial sites: p. 31.

Chapter 2 presents the Greenland society and economy. Though it was a hard life, they were doing reasonably well. Greenland exported luxury items such as white falcons, walrus ivory, nawhal horns, fur (including that of polar bears), as well as more commonplace things such as animal skins and wool (p. 48); on the other hand, it imported iron, as well as luxury items for the wealthy Greenlanders (grain, malt, honey, pitch; p. 47). Their houses were built of turf and stone (due to lack of wood); pp. 49, 51. They raised and ate sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, horses (pp. 54–5) and supplemented their diet with various edible plants (pp. 50–1). They also hunted seals, but lacked harpoons to hunt ringed seals like the Eskimos did (p. 55). It would be surprising if they did not also catch and eat fish, but the evidence is inconclusive (pp. 56–7). Due to their isolation and low population density, both the people and their animals were fairly healthy compared to many other parts of medieval Europe (p. 58). The distance from Europe also protected Greenland from the worst forms of plague: a ship's crew infected with the plague would die before the ship could reach Greenland (p. 89).

Chapter 3 contains much information about the establishment of the Church in Greenland, and the activities of various bishops. From the 13th century onwards, the gaps between episcopal appointments increased, partly because Norway was increasingly indifferent to its Atlantic colonies (the bishop of Gardar in Greenland had to be appointed by the archbishop of Trondheim); p. 69. From the mid-13th century, Greenland came under Norwegian influence (pp. 71, 73, and Greenland trade became a Norwegian monopoly, p. 81). There are some debates about whether the Greenland economy went into a decline after the late 13th century (pp. 81–2); however, Greenland exports such as walrus ivory and gyrfalcons retained their value (pp. 82–3), and navigation to Greenland was more difficult (due to colder climate) but still possible (p. 84). Trade continued throughout the 14th century, and Greenland was not exactly poor (p. 87).

An important 14th-century source of information about Greenland is the report of Ivar Bárdarson, a Norwegian priest who went there in 1341 and stayed for almost twenty years (p. 90, ch. 4). There were two Norse settlements in Greenland: the Western Settlement was slightly to the west and much to the north of the Eastern Settlement (both were in fact in the southwest of Greenland). Because of its location, colder climate, shorter summers, etc., the Western Settlement was smaller and went into decline earlier than the Eastern Settlement. Bárdarson stayed mostly at the Eastern Settlement, but visited the Western one around 1350 and found it deserted (p. 104). Hence many historians assumed that the Western Settlement had been abandoned by then. Hypotheses that fights with Eskimos might have caused the demise of the Norse settlements are now rejected (p. 105; relations with the Eskimos were mostly friendly, pp. 141–3); others have speculated that the people of the Western Settlement decided to emigrate across the Davis Strait and settle in America (pp. 107–9). However, there is evidence that the settlement was not yet abandoned in Bárdarson's time; it is likely that the inhabitants realized that Bárdarson was coming in the capacity of a tax collector, and fled when they saw his ship approach (pp. 109–10). The Greenlanders stopped sending taxes to Norway at some point in the 14th century, but this was probably due to alienation from the Norwegian authorities rather than from extreme poverty (p. 112). An unfortunate consequence was that it also encouraged Norway to lose interest in Greenland.

Chapter 5 discusses the likely end of the Western Settlement. At least some of the farms remained occupied to the late 14th century (p. 113), and the settlement still functioned as a community (communal hunts, p. 119). The last inhabitants did not die there (p. 127); they were “prospering to the last” (p. 128) and eventually emigrated, probably to the Eastern Settlement (p. 114). In this they were encouraged by deteriorating climate and erosion problems (pp. 115–8). In the mid-14th century, they were not yet isolated (e.g. a Scottish (Campbell) coat of arms was found in the Western Settlement, p. 122); indeed there is much evidence for British medieval contacts with Greenland (pp. 123–5). Greenland may have been visited in 1360 by an English Minorite friar, the author of the lost book Inventio fortunatae (both the book and the author “seem to have been genuine enough”, p. 135); pp. 132–6.

From the late 14th century onwards, Greenland was increasingly neglected by Norwegian officialdom; nor were things improved by the union of Norway, Sweden and Denmark (p. 144), the centre of which was Denmark while Norway was the least important part. Although titular priests of Gardar continued to be appointed (p. 145), none of them actually went to Greenland after the 1370s (pp. 139–40, 144). The Danish kings had a monopoly over trade with Greenland but didn't send any ships there, so private merchants from Iceland were increasingly tempted to sail to Greenland illegaly, knowing that the long isolation would make Greenlanders desperate for trade and thus willing to pay high prices. To avoid problems with the authorities in Denmark or Norway, traders pretended that they had planned to sail to Iceland but were driven to Greenland by storms (which was in fact not impossible); p. 146–7. There were several such voyages in the 1380s (pp. 147–50), and the last recorded voyage was in 1406–10 (pp. 151–8). Knowledge of and involvement in these lucrative trade routes was somewhat of a jealously guarded secret; thus, unsurprisingly, many of the people involved in these voyages were related by various close kinship ties. There is also evidence that “conditions in the Eastern Settlement were normal and prosperous” and that there was still normal communication with Iceland (p. 156). It is possible that another voyage to Greenland took place ca. 1417–9 (pp. 168–70).

Chapter 7 is about the increasing English presence in the North Atlantic, and the English relations with the Norwegian colonies. The English were primarily motivated by cod fishing (p. 162); advances in naval technology also contributed to the growth of ship traffic in the North Atlantic (pp. 161–2). The English were visiting Iceland since the early 15th century (p. 161), then started exploiting the more abundant fisheries northwest of Iceland, then soon sighted Greenland and since 1430 also visited the Newfoundland banks (pp. 170, 180–1). The English likely also had contacts with the descendants of the last Icelandic visitors to Greenland (p. 164). Bristol was particularly active in North Atlantic fishing and trading (p. 180). Various archaeological finds in Greenland show that there were contacts between the English and the Greenlanders in the 15th century (pp. 171–3; also the late 15th century, pp. 225, 227–34, 236–7); at the same time the Norwegian economy was in decline, and even its contacts with Iceland were weakening (p. 182). The English influence in Iceland grew (p. 186; and often became quite violent, pp. 176–9). Iceland also became quite a rough and lawless place during this time (and poor, p. 194), and its direct contacts with Greenland ceased (pp. 190–2). Only the English were likely to visit Greenland after the mid-15th century (pp. 196–7). Various restrictions concerning the activities of foreigners in Iceland were introduced after 1490 (the Piningsdómur, p. 204). By the late 15th century, the English were familiar with most of the North Atlantic (p. 205), and crossed the Davis Strait (p. 218). Various maps from that time (pp. 209–10, 212–17) show vague entities such as a “Green Isle” and an “Isle of Brasil” in the NW Atlantic. After the 1480, the English started trying to reach these areas by sailing westwards from Britain rather than via Iceland and Greenland (pp. 220–5); but knowledge of this was limited to a small circle of people in Bristol until the Cabot voyages of 1497 (p. 222).

Greenland, as we saw above, had contacts with the English throughout most of the 15th century. It was still doing well at the time (p. 235), nor was its society overly harmed by the loss of contact with the church (pp. 237–8). The Greenlanders did not suffer from malnutrition, or from degeneration due to inbreeding (pp. 238 9), nor did a sudden catastrophe force them to leave (p. 240). They were still able to produce and distribute food (pp. 241–2). The Little Ice Age was not particularly cold in Greenland (p. 246); however, the Greenlanders were certainly vulnerable to short periods of particularly harsh climate (p. 247; one such might have been caused by a volcanic eruption in the Pacific in 1453, p. 245). They were likely also affected by the loss of the Western Settlement, whence they had formerly sent their ships to Markland (i.e. Canada) to gather timber, and which was a good starting point for their expeditions to the hunting grounds in the North (Norðrseta). Possibly they abandoned the latter expeditions because of the presence of unfriendly Englishmen in the sea near Greenland, or they actually chose to fish for cod instead, so that they could sell it to the English (p. 248). The Greenland contacts with Europeans, which had been strong enough for most of the 15th century, weakened after 1480 (p. 251). Some of the Greenlanders might have taken jobs aboard English ships, which would deprive the Greenland community of the strongest, most vigorous part of its population; the remainder may have been unable to produce enough surplus for trade; and besides, the English eventually started going to the Labrador/Newfoundland area directly, without stopping at Greenland (pp. 251–2).

Chapter 10 presents the first stages of the Age of Discovery in the North Atlantic. The English (particularly the Bristolmen) and the Portuguese (particularly Azoreans) were the most active here. Thus John Cabot sailed from Bristol and reached North America in 1497, bypassing Greenland (pp. 265–73). The Bristolmen involved in these expeditions were substantially the same group of people who had been active in North Atlantic shipping and fishing in the preceding decades (pp. 290–1). Various Azoreans (the Corte Reals, Pedro de Barcelos, João Fernandes) visited Labrador, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia around 1500, and also sailed near Greenland (pp. 275–7, 281–3); as a 1502 map shows, the Portuguese were aware of Greenland but not of the Norse settlement (pp. 278–9). It is possible that unrecorded (Portuguese) voyages reached North America before Cabot (p. 280). In fact Portuguese navigational skills were more advanced than those of the English at that time, p. 284. Various associations of Azorean and Bristol venturers were also tried in the first years of the 16th century (pp. 291–302). In some of these ventures, Azoreans might have been seeking to establish permanent shore stations (and perhaps colonies) in North America to support the increasing Portuguese presence in the Newfoundland fisheries (pp. 302–4). Given their association with the Bristolmen, and given the Bristol awareness of Greenland, it is possible that some Greenlanders might have been invited to participate in such a colonization effort (p. 305). Emigration of this sort might be attractive to many Greenlanders, particularly the young, healthy, strong part of the population, while the remainder would slowly die in isolation (note that there was no longer much need for e.g. the English to visit Greenland, as they were now able to go directly to the fisheries near North America); pp. 306–7. Note that there is no evidence that such a colonization effort actually took place, but then it would be very likely to fail anyway, and given the concern with secrecy on part the (Bristol and Azorean) ‘investors’, the lack of written evidence would be unsurprising (pp. 309–11). There is a report that the last Norse Greenlanders were dying out ca. 1540 (p. 307), although some might have survived even into the early 17th century (p. 308).

I must say that reading a book like this really fills me with admiration for the historians and the work they do. How much painstaking work there is behind a book such as this one; how many sources, scattered over so many areas and over such a time span, she had to study; how many persons and events had to be kept in mind; and all this evidence had to be evaluated, compared, unreliable parts weeded out; the whole large pile of facts had to be organized; much creativity was necessary in making sense of the whole thing. It can also be seen, in a book like this, that despite the historians' best efforts, much simply remains unknown; the sources are too patchy or too unreliable; there are many things about which the experts simply disagree, where there are several possible explanations and none can be clearly rejected; where the story cannot be made simple, because we cannot know it clearly enough.

One thing that had me partly amazed and partly annoyed was how the Norwegian and later the Danish kings neglected Greenland (and to a smaller extent even Iceland); they were interested in it as a source of taxes, but the less taxes they got from it, the less interested they were. Would it really have been so difficult to send half a dozen ships from Norway (or Iceland) to Greenland every year? Can the whole of Norway really not have afforded it? Evidently the poverty and economic backwardness of the middle ages was even worse than I thought. If they had kept on sending ships regularly like this (and also supplying priests, administrators and the occasional chronicler), we would, if nothing else, at least have regular and reasonably reliable reports of what had been going on in Greenland. If the Greenland settlements would have proved unviable despite such regular trade contacts, they could be evacuated in an orderly and well-documented manner, leaving no doubts as to their end. But it is also entirely possible that their decline could have been prevented altogether.

The explanation proposed by Seaver at the end of the book, i.e. that the final decline of the Eastern Settlement was due to involvement of many/most of its inhabitants in colonization/exploration of the NW Atlantic, is most intriguing. Of course, as she acknowledges, we have no definite proof of it, but then no clear proof against it either, especially considering that many of the other hypotheses had to be rejected.

Another thing that I found interesting was the emphasis on close relationships between many of the people involved in navigation and exploration. People were loath to divulge their valuable knowledge to outsiders, and often tended to keep it in the family or shared it only with the closest business associates. Thus the sagas about Eirik the Red were written in the 14th and 15th centuries by people who were either descendants and relatives of those involved in the saga, or by people living in the same area and relying on the local lore (p. 164). Similarly tight connections existed among the Bristol merchants (p. 222), and even among the Genoese merchants in Seville who helped finance Columbus' voyage in 1492 (p. 255: “a good example of clannish business interests intertwined with exploration”).

Another thing I appreciated about this book is the complex and nuanced picture it gives us of the early Atlantic exploration. Too often are we inclined to imagine these things in a simplistic way: one fine day Columbus was struck by this brilliant idea of sailing westwards rather than eastwards, and lo! the Age of Discovery sprang into life like Athena out of Zeus's forehead. OK, then we remember that the Portuguese were conducting various voyages throughout the 15th century, had come quite far south along the African coast, etc. But here we see that exploration of the North and Northwest Atlantic also has a rich history. It wasn't simply a matter of a handful of forgotten Viking voyages in AD 1000, to be followed by nothing until the Cabot voyages almost five centuries later. No, here, just like in the Portuguese efforts to circumnavigate Africa, it was a matter of progress by degrees: the English, unhappy with the catch in the North Sea, started visiting Iceland; still wanting more, they began to explore the areas NW of Iceland; soon they sighted Greenland; moving southwest along its coast, they eventually reached the shallow parts of the ocean east of Newfoundland; a bit later they learned how to sail directly across the Atlantic rather than hop to Iceland and Greenland first. Meanwhile they also sailed northwards along the western coast of Greenland and into the Davis Strait. It wasn't a matter of one or two intrepid explorers with a bold vision, but simply a matter of a number of hard-nosed fishermen, businessmen, merchants, making their living, seeking profit, gaining experience, introducing a technological innovation every now and then, and all this time progressing slowly but steadily, step by step, until the North Atlantic became for them as familiar a place as the sea just outside their native harbours. This view is, of course, altogether more humdrum and less heroic than the one focused on an individual famous explorer, and lends itself considerably worse to the production of epic movies with a pompous soundtrack; but it is, nevertheless, closer to the truth, and also more encouraging as it shows that progress comes from the humble efforts of ordinary people rather than from a minority of heroic demigods.

Here are some other interesting bits from the book:

“[F]rom the shark's flesh the Norse prepared the notorious dish hákarl, with which modern Icelanders can stil put tourists to flight.” (P. 248.) I couldn't resist looking it up on the web, and as this web page shows, the notoriety is well deserved. It is basically rotten shark. The meat is buried in gravel for a month or two, and then excavated and left to dry for several more months.

The origin of the name Labrador is quite interesting. It was named after João Fernandes, an Azorean llavrador or landowner (pp. 281, 285–8; originally the word meant just ‘farmer’). The name was initially applied to the southern tip of Greenland; after 1570 it was moved to its present location (p. 288).

The plague struck Iceland in 1402–4. One of its consequences was that wealth was now concentrated in the hands of a smaller number of people: pp. 140, 150, 324. “For survivors able to turn a grim situation to advantage, life not only went on, it went very well.”

I learned a curious word on pp. 229–30: “liripipe”. See this page for an explanation (“a dangling extension to the point of a medieval hood”). Such hoods were used in Europe after the mid-14th century, and many were also found in Greenland (p. 229).


  • Seaver recently wrote another book, Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vinland Map. As could already be seen in The Frozen Echo, the study of old maps can yield valuable information about the progress of geographic discovery and of contacts between different parts of the world. The Vinland Map is a map of the world, supposedly from the 1440s, and it shows among other things a bit of the North American coast with a legend mentioning its discovery by Leif Eiriksson around the year 1000. The map, bound together with the ‘Tartar Relation’ (the description of a 13th-century journey to Mongolia), first appeared in the antiquarian book market in 1957 and was eventually bought by Yale University. The Tartar Relation is generally accepted as authentic, but there have been many debates regarding the authenticity of the map; in this book, Seaver presents her arguments that the map is a recent forgery. I haven't read it yet, but judging from the synopsis at amazon it promises to be a very fascinating book. See also pp. 164–5 in The Frozen Echo.
  • R. A. Skelton, Thomas E. Marston, George D. Painter: The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation. After Yale bought the Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, various experts studied it and eventually prepared this book in 1965; it contains photographic reproductions of the map and the manuscript, a translation of the Tartar Relation, and various studies by the three authors. Their conclusion is that the map is genuine. I haven't read this book yet, but it seems interesting enough, and I'm looking forward to reading it. Somewhat surprisingly, it seems to have been almost a bestseller in its time, and inexpensive second-hand copies abound on ABE. A second edition was published in 1995, reprinting the old text but adding a few chapters, still upholding the genuineness of the map. The book is somewhat ostentatious — a large, thick hardcover (23 by 30 cm, 4 cm thick, although it's just 400 pages) and is currently listed at amazon for the abominable sum of $85. I got a near fine copy for $22.5 via ABE.
  • As can be seen in The Frozen Echo, cod fishing played a prominent role in medieval European exploration of the Northern Atlantic. The English fishermen and traders were particularly interested in cod. Well, this reminded me that, a few years ago, a book was published under the unlikely title Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, and in fact became a bit of a besteller. I'm not terribly fond of fish, and have never eaten cod nor do I see why I should want to, so I have until now been entirely indifferent to that book; indeed my first and probably only thought on hearing the word “cod” is the passage from Burns' The Twa Dogs, describing a Newfoundland dog: “His hair, his size, his mouth, his lugs,/ Shew'd he was nane o' Scotland's dogs;/ But whalpit some place far abroad,/ Whare sailors gang to fish for cod.” Anyway, now, after reading so much about cod fishing and its importance in The Frozen Echo, I find myself curious to learn more about it, and I just might eventually pick up Cod: A Biography as well.


Blogger BeeBee said...

Za tole bukvico bi se pa kdaj priporočila za izposojo, če bi se dalo. :)

Thursday, October 06, 2005 11:01:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home