Norse Greenland: Viking Peasants in the Arctic  book cover
1st Edition

Norse Greenland: Viking Peasants in the Arctic

ISBN 9780815366294
Published October 2, 2018 by Routledge
432 Pages

SAVE ~ $31.00
was $155.00
USD $124.00

Prices & shipping based on shipping country


Book Description

How could a community of 2000–3000 Viking peasants survive in Arctic Greenland for 430 years (ca. 985–1415), and why did they finally disappear? European agriculture in an Arctic environment encountered serious ecological challenges. The Norse peasants faced these challenges by adapting agricultural practices they had learned from the Atlantic and North Sea coast of Norway.

Norse Greenland was the stepping stone for the Europeans who first discovered America and settled briefly in Newfoundland ca. AD 1000. The community had a global significance which surpassed its modest size.

In the last decades scholars have been nearly unanimous in emphasising that long-term climatic and environmental changes created a situation where Norse agriculture was no longer sustainable and the community was ruined. A secondary hypothesis has focused on ethnic confrontations between Norse peasants and Inuit hunters. In the last decades ethnic violence has been on the rise in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa. In some cases it has degenerated into ethnic cleansing. This has strengthened the interest in ethnic violence in past societies. Challenging traditional hypotheses is a source of progress in all science. The present book does this on the basis of relevant written and archaeological material respecting the methodology of both sciences.

Table of Contents


List of Figures




1 The problem

2 Earlier research

Rediscovery and mapping of the Norse ruins 1721-1920

The stone ruins are described and categorised 1921- ca. 1970

The university tradition enters Norse Greenland archaeology from the 1970-ies

Natural sciences in Norse Greenland scholarship from the 1970-ies

The present dominance of the ecological model

3 My contribution




1 The Icelandic sagas as historical sources

Islendingabok and Landnámabok

Who wrote the Vinland sagas and for what purpose?

Categories of sagas which are relevant for Norse Greenland

How reliable was the oral tradition on which the saga authors built?

Sagas used as "narratives" or "remnants"

2 The first Greenlanders

When did they go?

What motivated them?

Were the first immigrants Norwegians or Icelanders?

The chieftain and his clients

Was the Western settlement organised differently from the Eastern?

Population size at Eirik Raudi's time and later

3 Conclusion




1 Ethnic identity


How did they name their ethnic group?

The Norse narrative tradition on Greenland

Courtly culture imitated on Greenland?

2 Violence in a pre-state society

The Groenlendinga tháttr as historical source

The sense of honour

Were feuds less common on Greenland than on Iceland?

3 Jurisdiction on pre-state Greenland

Was there a Greenland law?

Legal proceedings at the Gardar Thing

How disputes in practice were settled

4 The Brattahlid chieftain as pre-state political leader

5 Ties to the Norwegian king before 1261

Collective obligations to the Norwegian crown before 1261?

Were individual Greenlanders members of the king’s hird?

6 Attempts to organise a state administration after 1261

The submission in 1261

The courts of justice

The royal manors at Foss and Hvalsey

A state which failed its subjects




1 Christianisation

The pagans

Collective and individual conversion

The Norwegian king and the Christianisation of Greenland

2 Church organisation before the parish AD 1000-1124

Private chapels

Minsters on Greenland?

Flexible burial customs

Bishops on Greenland before 1124

Power in the Greenland church before 1124

3 The parish 1124 – 1340

The tithe

The number of parish churches at population maximum

How many parish churches remained ca. 1360?

How often did the Greenlanders attend mass in their parish church?

Who owned the parish churches?

What did the parish churches look like?

The parish church as centre for the diffusion of literacy

The Norse Greenlanders’ aesthetic models

The parish as framework for social life and mentalities

4 The Gardar diocese

The bishop

Did the bishops live and work on Greenland?

The Gardar diocese and the archbishop in Nidaros

The Gardar diocese and the pope

5 The monasteries


Religious functions

6 The supernatural and the natural world

Christian miracles and magic

Geographic exploration

A theoretical interest in the natural world

Combining religion and practical rationality

7 The Greenland church in its final decades 1340-1410

The bishops

The church organisation after the bishops had left

Laymen’s religious rituals in their parish churches

Laymen’s religious practices in their homes




1 The imports

Necessities: iron and timber

Luxuries conferring status

How important were imports to the Norse Greenlanders?

2 The exports

Walrus tusk and walrus rope

Walrus tusks as raw material for objects of art

The Norse Greenlanders’ "nordrseta" in the Disco region

Hides and skins

Falcons and polar bears

Lamp oil

Foreign trade and the Greenlanders’ material needs

3 Ships and boats

Ocean-going ships

Inshore ships of middle size

Small boats for use in the fjords

Driftwood as raw material in boatbuilding

Were ships and boats built on Norse Greenland?

4 Crossing the Greenland Ocean

Bergen – the commercial centre of the Norse realm

Tackling the problems

Those who failed to reach their destination

How many ships reached Norse Greenland annually?

5 The merchants

Country of origin

Part time and professional merchants

Retailing foreign goods on Greenland

6 The political framework for trade and shipping

Pre-state Greenland

Under the Norwegian state 1261 - 1380

Under Danish rule 1380-1410

The hypothesis about "the royal monopoly ship"

Merchants and state



1 The basis: animal husbandry

The local resources

Milk from cows

Milk from goats and sheep

Meat from domestic animals



Conclusions and sources of error

2 Providing fodder for domestic animals

Indoor or outdoor winter feeding?

Gathering winter fodder in outfields and common land

Improving the meadow

Summer pastures


Tradition and flexibility

3 Animal husbandry in crisis?

Landowners exploiting peasants?

Soil erosion and soil exhaustion

The climate

Rising sea level

Conclusion: A sustainable agricultural production

4 Hunting and fishing as flexible supplements

Hunting and fishing open to all?

Seals – less dominant than assumed?

Reindeer –the most attractive game


Hunting expeditions to the east coast

Cod and other sea fishes

Char and other fishes in lakes and rivers

How important was fish for the Norse Greenlanders?

Edible plants

Peasants and hunters

5 Did the quality of the diet decline?

From terrestrial to marine food in the diet?

Was the Norsemen’s "marine food" fish or seal?

From cattle to sheep and goats?

The Norwegian model




1 Inuit attitude to violence

Who exploited Greenland’s resources most efficiently?

How exposed were Inuit to starvation?

Violence to demonstrate power


Fear of being killed

The social background

2 Norse encounters with Inuit from beginning to end

Did the Inuit exterminate Dorset?

Norse and Inuit AD 985 - 1341

Ivar Bárdarson’s account 1341 - 1363

How did the Norse defend themselves?

When did the Western Settlement cease to exist?

Inuit close in on the Eastern Settlement 1379 – 1406

The last ship

When did the Eastern Settlement cease to exist?

Inuit memories of a vanished society

Was the end of the Eastern Settlement violent?

Was the end preceded by a slow population decline?

Four new methods and four new conclusions

3 "We found a rich land, but are not destined to enjoy it"



Appendix i

Appendix ii, Introductory map and maps 1- 10


View More



Arnved Nedkvitne is Professor Emeritus of Medieval History from the universities of Trondheim and Oslo. His main field of study has been pre-modern Norwegian social and economic organisation. Relevant monographs include: The Peasant Economy of the Atlantic and North Sea Coast of Norway 1500–1730 (Oslo 1988, translation of the Norwegian title), Lay Belief in Norse Society (Copenhagen 2009) and The German Hansa and Bergen 1100-1600 (Cologne 2014).


'What happened to the Norse people? A widespread hypothesis is that climate change drove them away. But in [this] new book, the Norwegian medieval historian Arnved Nedkvitne reaches a far more bloody and inconvenient conclusion about the lost people: that it was the Inuit who moved down the coast and killed them' [translation from original Danish] - Anne Knudsen, Weekendavisen.

‘While conclusive determination of the exact cause of the ultimate demise remains elusive, the book makes a valuable large-scale contribution through the successful embedding of the Norse Greenlanders in greater Norse political, economic and social identities.’ – The Economic History Review (72: 3).