Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Vinland and Wishful Thinking: Medieval and Modern Fantasies

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Vinland and Wishful Thinking: Medieval and Modern Fantasies

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

That an island named Winland or Vinland exists is asserted in four medieval texts. Three of them were written in Old Norse and one in Latin. The oldest texts-chronicles composed in the 1070s and 1120s--briefly mention Winland and its inhabitants. There exist two longer accounts in three manuscripts from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These four written accounts are the only textual evidence about what the medieval Norse might have known about the Winland and its surroundings in the Middle Ages.

There are no contemporary, or near-contemporary, written records of journeys to Winland and the nearby islands. All reconstructions of those events spring from later texts, some of them written down three centuries or more after the fact. Yet what may, or may not, have happened has gradually been granted the status of a real event. A detailed analysis of these textual sources is essential for a reassessment of the Winland journeys, past and present. The focus of the present study will not be on whether events actually took place in the manner depicted by the sources, but rather on the conventions of their narration.

Reevaluating the wishful reality of the Vinland islands requires that the stories of the Vinland journeys be squarely situated in the context of the world geographic system adopted by those who told those stories. Did the worldview of medieval Christianity shape accounts of possible events at the western edges of the world? A careful dissection of the narrative of the Winland journeys might make it possible to comprehend the morphology of this worldview, its epistemic underpinnings, and the spell it continues to cast on the Western imagination.

II. The Evidence of the Texts

The earliest mention of Greenland is in the Latin source, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, composed by Adam of Bremen in the 1070s. It notes the fact of Greenland's settlement and Christianization, even if no particular date is mentioned, and, in addition to this, refers to an island even further away than Greenland, called Winland. It is described as follows, based on the testimony of King Svend of Denmark (r. 1047-1076):

      Besides, he [the king] told of an island in that ocean round by
   many, which is called Winland, because of the wild grapes that grow
   there, out of which a very good wine can be made. Moreover, that
   grain unsown grows there plentifully is not a fabulous fancy, but
   is based on trustworthy accounts of the Danes. He said that
   following that island, there is no land to be found in this ocean,
   but all those regions which are beyond are filled with insufferable
   ice and boundless gloom.

      (Lat. Preterea unam adhuc insulam recitavit a multis in eo
   repertam oceano, quae dicitur Winland, eo quod ibi vites sponte
   nascantur, vinum optimum ferentes. Nam et fruges ibi non seminatas
   habundare non fabulosa opinione, sed certa comperimus relatione
   Danorum. Post quam insulam, ait, terra non invenitur habitabilis
   in illo oceano, sed omnia, quae ultra sunt, glacie intolerabili
   ac caligine inmensa plena sunt.) (1)

This description is very brief, and linked with King Harald of Norway's (r. 1046-66) attempt to discover the outermost extremity of the Earth. That the Norse had come upon a country known as Winland was thus a common belief in the late eleventh century, even if no details of the events connected with its exploration can be derived from these early sources.

In the early twelfth century the founder of Greenland was known in Iceland as Eirikr rauoi (Erik the Red), and he was also known as the man responsible for giving Greenland an attractive name in order to encourage settlement there. According to the earliest known Icelandic sources, Eirikr had organized a Norse settlement in Greenland in 985 or 986. All of this is related in a typically laconic manner in the Book of the Icelanders (ON. …

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