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
THE INITIAL SETTLEMENT IN AD 985/6
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
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
CHURCH AND RELIGION
Collective and individual conversion
The Norwegian king and the Christianisation of Greenland
2 Church organisation before the parish AD 1000-1124
Minsters on Greenland?
Flexible burial customs
Bishops on Greenland before 1124
Power in the Greenland church before 1124
3 The parish 1124 – 1340
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
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
6 The supernatural and the natural world
Christian miracles and magic
A theoretical interest in the natural world
Combining religion and practical rationality
7 The Greenland church in its final decades 1340-1410
The church organisation after the bishops had left
Laymen’s religious rituals in their parish churches
Laymen’s religious practices in their homes
TRADE AND SHIPPING
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
Foreign trade and the Greenlanders’ material needs
3 Ships and boats
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
Under the Norwegian state 1261 - 1380
Under Danish rule 1380-1410
The hypothesis about "the royal monopoly ship"
Merchants and state
SUBSISTENCE FOOD PRODUCTION
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
Tradition and flexibility
3 Animal husbandry in crisis?
Landowners exploiting peasants?
Soil erosion and soil exhaustion
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?
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
ONE LAND – TWO SOCIETIES
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 ii, Introductory map and maps 1- 10
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).