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The Ethnicity of the Vinelanders
Gunnar Karlsson

Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 2 (2009–10): 126–130

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126 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 2 What was the ethnicity of the European people who attempted to settle on, or at least close to, the continent of North America some time around the turn of the eleventh century? This question necessarily leads back to questions about people who had settled the other North Atlantic lands—Greenland and Iceland—and even about the inhabitants of Northern Europe, where the people who settled on these islands originated. This discussion will not introduce any new, and hardly many unexpected, historical facts about the subject; it is intended to be a theoretical one. The question which will be dealt with may perhaps be rephrased as: What is the truest answer to the question: what was the ethnicity of the Vinelanders? This question is about ethnicity, not nationality, and I will seek to avoid, as far as possible, the long-standing dispute on whether something existed in pre-modern times which should be called nationality (cf. Hastings 1997, Jenkins 1997:143–147). Scholars seem to be able to agree that the connection between ethnicity and state, which is expressed in the term nation in our times, was far from necessary in the Middle Ages or the Viking Age. There was some connection, of course: the kingdoms of France, England, and Denmark, for instance, came to be predicated on the idea of French, English, and Danish ethnicity, respectively, although the idea might have been completely strange to a large part of the inhabitants. The connection was neither as necessary nor as strong as it became, at least in Europe, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many ethnic groups seem to have lived relatively peacefully without forming their own states, and many kingdoms thrived excellently although only a minority of their inhabitants belonged to the same ethnic group, and normally the heads of state did not care whether they did. This perception may be a commonplace now, but it was not so among historians until after Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson published their infl uential books on nationality, both in 1983, strongly supported by English historian Eric Hobsbawm in 1990. Before that time, it was, for instance, common in Icelandic historiography to assume that an Icelandic nation, þjóð as we call it in our language, had been founded in the year 930, because it was calculated that that was the year of the establishment of the Icelandic Alþing, the general assembly, at Þingvellir. In 1910, in an era when historians still allowed themselves some measure of romantic elevation, the Icelandic historian Bogi Th. Melsteð wrote about the settlers of Iceland (p. 3, my translation): “They all colonized the same land, far out in the ocean, far away from other countries. Nature itself showed them, and internal necessity commanded them, to enter into a community, establish a state and become one nation (þjóð). Thereby begins the national history of Iceland.” Historians do not write like this any more; we have lost the support of the formal institution of state in our search for ethnicity. On the other hand, we can be sure that something has existed since time immemorial which can be called ethnicity, which of course does not mean that any defi nite ethnicities are primordial and unchangeable. As Jenkins (1997:44–48) has argued convincingly, the theory of ethnic primordialism is largely a straw-man. A good defi nition of ethnicity can be sought in Anthony D. Smith’s book The Ethnic Origins of Nations, according to which ethnies, as he calls them with a French word, are collectivities which have at least most of the following features: 1) a collective name, 2) a common sense of descent, 3) a shared history, 4) a distinctive shared culture, such as language and/or religion, 5) an association with a specifi c territory, whether they live there or not, and 6) a sense of solidarity (Smith 1986:22–31). Before we can consider what might have been the ethnicity of the settlers of Vineland, we must know who these people were; we must know their biographies. This is a problem because there are, of course, no contemporary sources available about them, only Icelandic sagas which were originally written some two or three centuries after the events took place and only preserved in still later manuscripts. However, the sagas are all we have, and there is, as far as I know, nothing to contradict them. So the best we can do in the situation is to base the discussion on them. At least we can assume that they relate what was the The Ethnicity of the Vinelanders Gunnar Karlsson* Abstract - This paper searches for the most logical answer to the question about the ethnicity of the European people who attempted to settle permanently on the continent of North America around the turn of the 11th century. Were they Norwegians, Icelanders, Greenlanders, or just Norsemen? Following a short study of the ethnic identities of Icelanders and Norwegians in the Viking Age, the answer suggested is that the Vinelanders had a double ethnic identity, a Greenlandic and a Norse one. 2009 Special Volume 2:126–130 Norse Greenland: Selected Papers from the Hvalsey Conference 2008 Journal of the North Atlantic *Department of History, University of Iceland, Sæmundargötu 2, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland; gunnark@hi.is. 2009 Gunnar Karlsson 127 tradition of the origin of the settlers in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Iceland, and whether or not the individuals named existed or were involved, the reconstruction of events presented in the sagas is consistent with the dating of Norse archaeological remains in Greenland and Newfoundland (Fitzhugh and Ward 2000). Two sagas relate the colonization attempts in Vineland, Eirik the Red’s Saga and the Saga of the Greenlanders, as they are called in the English translation (Viðar Hreinsson 1997, vol. 1:1–32). The question of the historicity of the sagas is a complicated one, and a few words must suffi ce about it here. The two sagas relate mostly the same recognizable stories, but differ so much in the details that it seems unlikely that one of them is based on the other, or that they are to a large extent both based on the same written text (Ólafur Halldórsson 2001:39–50). For this reason, it could be argued that these sagas were the very best indication of an oral tradition behind the Icelandic family sagas, which of course is some indication of their historicity. However, Helgi Skúli Kjartansson (2000) has suggested that the common, but in many cases somewhat different, elements in the two sagas are based on a poem which is now lost and which the authors of the sagas have understood imperfectly and interpreted in different ways. Even if we accept that idea, the two sagas support each other to a certain extent, and about the biographical facts of persons they do not contradict each other— admittedly, however, because only a few such facts are related in both of the sagas. At any rate, it seems inevitable to base a study of the ethnicity of the settlers on the evidence of the sagas as if they were reliable, and the result is this: Although the colonization expeditions to Vineland (not including the exploratory expeditions of Leifr Eiríksson and others) counted scores of people, only twelve individuals are named. Of them, fi ve were defi nitely born and brought up in Iceland, but had emigrated to Greenland before they went on their Vineland expedition (Íslenzk fornrit vol.4:20, 135, 202–203, 207, 218–219, 221, 229–230, 260–262): Þorfi nnr Þórðarson karlsefni, Snorri Þorbrandsson, Bjarni Grímólfsson, Þórhallr Gamlason, Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir. Five others had been living permanently in Greenland before the expedition, and at least two of them, the children of Eiríkr the Red, must have emigrated to Greenland while still young (Íslenzk fornrit vol.4:221, 229, 254): Þorvaldr Eiríksson, Þórhallr veiðimaðr, Þorvarðr, Freydís’s husband, Freydís Eiríksdóttir, Þorbrandr Snorrason. The remaining two are only said to be Icelanders, from the Eastern Fiords, and seem to have come to Greenland as merchants (Íslenzk fornrit vol.4:264– 265): Helgi, Finnbogi. So, my conclusion is that most of the settlers of Vineland were born in Iceland. Does that make their ethnicity Icelandic? There has been a long-standing dispute about the ethnicity of the early Icelanders. Nineteenthcentury Norwegians claimed Norwegian identity for them. In 1914, Icelandic historian Bogi Th. Melsteð rejected their view, with arguments that are, in my opinion, mostly valid or at least worthy of attention. There are episodes in the sagas where Icelandic people call people from Norway útlenda menn, which in modern Icelandic means simply “foreigners”. It also occurs that an Icelandic person states: “ek em ekki norrænn maðr”: I am not a Norwegian. (The context shows here that the meaning must be Norwegian and not Norse, another meaning of the word norrænn.) In Icelandic law, there is a clause which states: “If foreign men are killed in Iceland, Danish or Swedish or Norwegian, the relatives own the case …” (Grágás 1992:239). Seven decades after Bogi Th. Melsteð, Danish ethnographer Kirsten Hastrup took up the case, and argued for the opinion that an Icelandic identity was created in the twelfth century through two written works: Ari the Learned’s history of Iceland, the Book of the Icelanders, and the First Grammatical Treatise, whose author set out to create an alphabet, and thus a written language, for “us Icelanders” (Hastrup 1984:239–240). The present author has discussed this question before and reached the conclusion that the inhabitants of Iceland probably began to call themselves Icelanders as early as the fi rst or second generation in the country. The argument for this was predominantly based on the opinion that the settlers of Iceland, coming mostly from the west coast of Norway, probably did not have any concept of a common Norwegian identity. The terms Norway (Noregr) or Norwegian (Norðmaðr) do not seem to occur in European texts until the 9th century, the former for the fi rst time around 840 (Jakobsen 1967b col. 336), the latter in 874 (Jakobsen 1967a, col. 334), the very same year as the fi rst settler settled permanently in Iceland, according to the tradition of Landnámabók, the Book of Settlements. It seems unlikely that people who emigrated from the western coast of Norway to Iceland in the decades around 900 had any sense of Norwegian identity, and it seems to be suffi ciently supported by archaeological evidence that the colonization of Iceland took place around that time. More probably the settlers thought about themselves as Sygnir if they came from the Sogn district, Hörðar 128 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 2 if they came from Hörðaland, or Mærir if they came from Mæri. Besides that, a considerable part of the settlers of Iceland originated in the British Isles and came from there—even a majority of the women according to recent genetic research on present day people (Agnar Helgason 2004:49–55). These people had of course no reason to identify themselves as Norwegians. When this mixture of identities had settled in Iceland and began to think and talk about themselves collectively, they could not use any other appellation but Icelanders (Gunnar Karlsson 1988:29–30, 1994:113–114). It does not seem likely that this new identity had very much content as yet. The Icelanders did not have a separate language or religion, nor a common myth of descent. But they had at least three components of ethnic identity: a common name, a shared history (predominantly the emigration to Iceland), and an association with a specifi c territory. Of any sense of solidarity, we do not know much at that early stage. What, then, can we conclude from this about the identity of the settlers of Vineland? What would they have answered if one of the Skrælingar, the native inhabitants of North America, had asked them in a language that they understood: Where do you come from? Well, they would of course have killed the Skræling, according to the sagas (cf. e.g., Viðar Hreinsson 1997 vol. 1:16). However, if he failed in doing so and if I am right in guessing that even the fi rst generation of Icelanders looked upon themselves as Icelanders, it seems logical also to conclude that the fi rst generation of Greenlanders called themselves Greenlanders. I guess that they would have answered the Skræling: Ek em maðr grænlenzkr—I am a Greenlander. This was one possible answer to the question posed above. There are, I think, other possible answers. One way of solving the problem is to disregard, at least provisionally, the idea of self-image and look upon the settlers of Vineland predominantly as the people who conquered the North Atlantic. This achievement was a historic deed, a milestone in the progression of mankind. This was actually the fi rst time that man achieved the full encirclement of the globe; descendants of people who had set out from Asia some millennia before in opposite directions met again, in Vineland rather than Greenland according to the sagas. Who were the people who did this deed? It is meaningless to say that the Greenlanders did so, because they were already more than halfway through the process before they had become Greenlanders. Icelanders too have only a weak claim to the honor, because it is the step to Iceland from the continent or the British Isles which is most important here. And we can hardly say that the Norwegians did the deed; other Scandinavians were also involved. What we come down to here is the concept Norse, norrænn. It was Norse people who developed the technique which was needed to conquer the North Atlantic. The question was about the ethnicity of the Vineland settlers, so one must ask further: was there a Norse identity? Yes, there was. As Kirsten Hastrup (1984:237) has pointed out, medieval Icelandic law distinguishes in some respects between all Norsemen and all other people. This distinction occurs in two kinds of cases. Firstly, men who had not in their childhood learned the Norse language, which is called Danish (dönsk tunga) in the law, were not to be nominated to join a court until they had lived in Iceland for three years (Grágás 1992:371, Dennis et al. 1980–2000 vol. 1:53). It follows that all speakers of the language were eligible to join a court. From other sources, we know that the language of Danes and Swedes was also considered to be Danish, so that the clause applies to all Germanic Scandinavians (Skautrup 1957:662–663). Secondly, the right of suing a person for manslaughter or claiming inheritance from a dead relative was unlimited for Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes, but for men of all languages other than Norse (dönsk tunga), this right was restricted to the father, son, and brother of the dead person (Grágás 1992:55, 239; Dennis et al. 1980–2000 vol. 1:160, vol. 2:11). The fi rst of these two stipulations obviously has a practical purpose: it is not good if the judges do not understand the proceedings. The other provision may have a practical side to it too; it may have been thought to be easier to determine whether the claimant was the proper one if he was of Nordic origin. At any rate, these legal rules make a distinction between people: whereby Scandinavians of all three kingdoms are within the same boundaries as Icelanders, all others are not. A further indication of Norse identity among Icelanders is the fact that Icelandic individuals are sometimes called Norsemen, norrænir menn, if they are located outside the Nordic countries. For instance, the Icelandic kings’ saga Morkinskinna relates of Norsemen in Mikligarðr, Constantinople: “En mikill fjolde var þar adr fyrir Nordmanna er þeir kalla Væringia. þar var saa madr islenskr er Már hiet og var Húnrödarson …” (Morkinskinna 1932:60). I assume that Norðmaðr refers here to Norsemen collectively, not a Norwegian (cf. Sverrir Jakobsson 1999:119–122), so this can be translated: “But there was already a great number of Norse men whom they call Varangians. There was an Icelandic man named Már the son of Húnröðr.” When Icelanders were suffi ciently far away, their Norse identity took over, and the same has surely applied to Greenlanders. From this, I argue that Viking-Age and medieval Icelanders had at least a double ethnic identity, an Icelandic one and a Norse one. Actually, Kirsten 2009 Gunnar Karlsson 129 Hastrup (1984:237–39) has argued, based on the stipulations of medieval Icelandic laws, that they had a triple identity: one Icelandic, which excluded all other people; one that included Icelanders and Norwegians and excluded all others, and thirdly a Norse one, which included the whole Nordic world. This interpretation seems to be based on solid evidence, mainly from the law code of Iceland. However, only nominal identifi cations can count here—that is, group formations which have a separate name (Jenkins 1997:41). The common Icelandic-Norwegian identity does not seem to have had any name that could distinguish it clearly from the common Norse identity (including Swedes and Danes). It can hardly have been called anything but norrænn, Norse, which would not have separated the Icelandic-Norwegians from Swedes and Danes, as it could also apply to all Scandinavians. Therefore it is diffi cult to imagine that the Icelandic–Norwegian identity could apply to people living outside these countries. It is maintained here that the Icelanders had a Norse identity, but what about other Norse people, those who had founded their separate kingdoms within the Nordic space? There are strong indications of Norse identity in the Nordic countries, which is for instance expressed in the establishment of the Kalmar Union as late as 1397, after centuries of three separate and often mutually hostile Nordic kingdoms. That period, though, will not be discussed here because it seems more informative to look further back in time. Around the middle of the twentieth century, a Norwegian scholar, Håkon Melberg, put forward the theory that people who called themselves “Danes” had occupied the whole of Scandinavia during the great migrations in Europe. Thus, all Germanic Scandinavians had been “Danes” until the independent Norwegian and Swedish kingdoms were established in the Viking Age. Melberg presented a great number of arguments for his theory: archaeological evidence, mythological tales about prehistoric kings, and so on. However, in my view, only one of his arguments is really strong, namely the repeated use of the appellation dönsk tunga (Danish language) to refer to common Norse language in medieval Icelandic texts (Melberg 1951:840–924). Nonetheless, Melberg was not aware of the argument which I think is the strongest one. In the Sami language (Lappish) in Scandinavia, there is a loan word which derives from the Germanic word Dane, namely North Sami “Norwegian”/ South Sami “Swede or Norwegian”. This nomenclature was borrowed from the Proto-Scandinavian danja-, which yielded later Dan- (Ante Aikio, researcher, Giellagas Institute for Saami Studies, University of Oulu, Finland, pers. comm.). This etymology suggests that when the Sami people and the Germanic Scandinavians fi rst met, somewhere on the Scandinavian peninsula which later was to become Norway and Sweden, and the Sami asked: “Who are you?” then the Germanic person most often answered: “I am a Dane.” And if the pioneers in northern regions were “Danes”, it is most likely that they were all “Danes”, from the northern frontier to present-day Denmark. Melberg’s theory has never been accepted in Scandinavian scholarship. Thus for instance, in the encyclopaedia of medieval Nordic studies, Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder, at least two authors mention his opinions without really relating or discussing them, just stating that they were disputed or had not been accepted (Skautrup 1957, col. 663, Jakobsen 1967b, col. 337). It is true that Melberg had little support for his theory about a Danish kingdom covering the whole of Scandinavia. In that point, he overestimated the connection between ethnicity and state in pre–modern times, as most scholars did at his time. On the other hand, it seems convincing to assume that Danish ethnicity was shared by all Germanic Scandinavians, especially if we add to Melberg’s arguments the piece of evidence from the Sami language. Therefore, let me conclude by saying that I started out with four different candidates for being the settlers of Vineland, namely Norsemen, Norwegians, Icelanders and Greenlanders. In my opinion, the Norwegians and the Icelanders have lost; the winners are Greenlanders and the Norsemen, the latter perhaps without having yet completely abandoned the name of Danes. The settlers of Vineland had a double ethnic identity: they were Greenlanders and they were Norsemen. Literature Cited Agnar Helgason. 2004. Uppruni Íslendinga. Vitnisburður erfðafræðinnar. Pp. 48–55, In Hlutavelta tímans. Menningararfur á Þjóðminjasafni. 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