Norse Greenland: a lost Civilization

This month is Island month here on the W.U.hstry blog, and I’ve chosen to write about an island and a civilisation that fascinates me greatly. Not only because it is a civilisation that no longer exist, but also because of its relevance and importance in understanding the early medieval world, and the problems historians are facing when working with the period.

Greenland  is the island I have chosen, it is one of the biggest islands in the world, and have been the home to a civilization which played an important part in European trade links, and was the starting point for the first attempt to settle North America from Europe. Well, the first provable attempt, as there are several theories about Irish monks living in North America, and other less plausible theories such as contact between Egypt and America, but this is not the time, nor place to debate them.

When anyone is working on Norse Greenland, one is forced to work interdisciplinary as the written sources, which consist of a few letters, charters, Norwegian laws, and two sagas, do not give a full and complete picture of the Norse settlements in Greenland. The sources are for the most part written after the events themselves, and do therefore not explain the contemporary ideas, and attitudes within Greenland and within its wider cultural connections. Although there is Norse literature dealing with Greenland, most of it has survived in Denmark or in Iceland, so the local perspectives are very hard to see through the written sources. Therefore have most modern scholars also supported their work with Archaeology and the excavated material that have been found over the last centuries. Archaeology do not lie, so it is a very good way to find objective data, however, they cannot explain the ideas, thoughts and feelings of the Norse population in Greenland, so we cannot discard one or the other type of source. In fact, the best possible understanding of Greenland, its inhabitants and their life might possible be found through a comparative reading of the Norse settlements in Northern Norway, Iceland and other more peripheral regions of the Norse and Christian world, which were faced with climatic, ecological and nutritional changes over the later part of the middle ages.

In 985, sailed 25 ships from Iceland in direction Greenland, only 14 made it to Greenland, among these ships were Erik the Red, a farmer who was forced to leave Iceland due to his implication in a series of crimes. Another member of the group was a man who, according to the Saga of Greenlanders, was a Christian and who had chosen to follow Erik by his own free will. The same can be said about the majority of the settlers in Greenland, the came to the island by their own free will, and brought with them their own Norse culture and traditions. The first settlers arrived in what later became known as the Eastern Settlement, along the southern tip of Greenland, this area had great possibility for pasture farming, with sheep, goat and cows, and unlike on Iceland was the land still fresh and undisturbed by the hand of man. This agricultural possibility might have helped to encourage settlers to come to the island. However, Greenland did not only offer good pastures for sheep and cows, but the island had also an abundance of wild birds, seal, walrus, narwhals, polar fox and Ice bears, all which could be hunted and used in the production of export goods.

As suggested above, was there a Christian presence on Greenland already from the first settlement. This is furthermore supported by the finds of a church dating to the first years of the 11th century at Erik the red’s farm on Greenland. It is suggested in the sagas that Erik and other settlers still followed the traditional pagan beliefs  when they arrived in Greenland in the 980’s, but that there were a period of co habitation with the two faiths living side by side, until Greenland formally converted around 1000AD simultaneously with Iceland. It has been suggested by Jette Arneborg, that similarly to the Icelandic church building structure, was it the rich and powerful landowners on Greenland that controlled the Churches, their lands and income after the conversion. Greenland did not gain its own bishop until 1124, but it is clear that the dietary changes that the religious change brought with it, must have been followed as there seems to be an increase of marine protein in the diets of corpses found while excavating some settlements in Norse Greenland.

Life on Greenland was partly influenced by the need for imported goods such as iron and timber, and the value of goods such as furs, ivory and bones, but also the close proximity to the sea and contact with Native American cultures in North Canada. Although it seems that the climate and geography was favourable to pastoral farming during the first century of the settlement, are there elements suggesting that the climate slowly became worse during the following centuries, which lead to the ice cap on Greenland to grow, and farming a less and less favourable way of producing food. This shift in climate, and thus also diet, followed by the introduction of the Christian dietary rules stimulated a more marine diet for the Greenlanders. Sometime in the 12th or 13th century did the Norwegian king monopolise the trade between Greenland and Norway, which meant that farmers on Greenland could not freely import Iron, other metals, timber or grains, all elements that were vital for the survival of the Greenlandic civilization. However, the trade was not only one-sided, for Greenland represented an important source for Ivory, whale skin ropes and warm furs from ice bears and polar foxes. As the climate changed in the Northern hemisphere and it became colder, the continent started to become less and less interested in Greenlandic walrus ivory, these two factors made Greenland less financially interesting for the Norwegian king, and the traders he sent to deal with the Greenlanders. Almost simultaneously to this did the Black death hit Scandinavia, although Greenland was spared for the first wave of plague, Norway suffered an estimated population decline between 35 – 60%, this together with the reduced economic interests in Greenland, reduced the Norwegian king’s ability to equip expeditions to Greenland in the years to come.

Excavations in the Western and Eastern settlement of Norse Greenland suggest that the Western settlement was desserted in the late 14th century, whereas the Eastern were desserted by the Norse in the middle of the 15th century.

But why did the Norse culture and civilization in Greenland decline and become extinct? To this question are there many theories, but it is apparent that this decline happen at the same time as both Iceland and Northern Norway have a population decrease of between 30-60% due to plague, which suggest the possibility that the plague and other epidemics could have struck the Greenlandic society hard. However, another possibility might also be that with the climate going colder, and the soil in Greenland becoming less productive due to traditional farming techniques, the population migrated first from the less productive regions of Greenland to the more productive regions and settlements, and then when land became available in Iceland after the plague, they might have re-settled in Iceland for agricultural purposes, and thus returning the their ancestral home. However, this is just a theory, none can safely say what happened to the Greenlanders, as there no decisive evidence, but the relocation theory seems to have been the most plausible and is advocated by among other Niels Lynnerup and Jenne Arneborg. What is certain at least is that the Norse settlements on Greenland, which started in about 985, ended in the 15th century, so after 500 years of settlement the descendants of the Vikings gave up their lives in Greenland, while the ethnic groups today known as Inuit arrived and found a living on the island. For the Greenland, just like America, became through this a lost settlement for the Norse culture, a lost land.

Today Greenland has autonomous home-rule, and is in a personal union with Denmark under one monarch, to many bystanders this might almost look like Denmark has lost a great part of its territory, and possible resources. However, it is not only Denmark that have ‘lost’ Greenland, for during the 1930’s the island of Greenland was divided between two states, or more correctly it was claimed by two states, as Norwegian fishermen and nationalists occupied parts of eastern Greenland in the name of the Norwegian state. The incident became rather embarrassing for the Norwegians, as the state and the fishermen wanted different things, it ended with an International court ruling that Greenland in its entirety was Danish territory, and that the Norwegians had no claim to it. So for a nation which once prided itself on being the origins of the settlers of Iceland, Greenland, and Norse North America, Greenland became a lost land, not unlike the modern political status of Greenland is to Denmark today. A land once home to a civilization of Norse hunters, gatherers and farmers, but now due to changing climate, pest, and declining interests from the medieval kings have become the home of a civilization very different from that which colonised the island more than a millennium ago.


The Saga of the Greenlanders

Eirik the Red’s saga

Arneborg, J., ‘Norse Greenland: Reflections on Settlement and Depopulation’, in Barrett, J.H., (Ed.), Contact, Continuity, and Collapse; The Norse Colonization of North Atlantic, (Turnhout, 2003).

Roesdahl, E., The Vikings, (London, 1998).

Roesdahl, E., ‘Walrus Ivory – demand, supply, workshops, and Greenland’, in Mortensen, A.; Arge, S.V., (Eds.), Viking and the Norse in the North Atlantic, (Torshavn, 2005).

Christiansen, E., The Norsemen in the Viking Age, (Oxford, 2002).


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