By Thomas W. N. Haine
Studies in the Medieval Atlantic, edited By Benjamin Hudson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
Introduction: The arcing Norse expansion across the subpolar North Atlantic ocean traces an inspiring tale of a stoic struggle against the elements. The sequence of accidental discovery, then deliberate exploration and settlement, repeated in turn as Faroe, Iceland, and Greenland were colonised between 825 and 985AD. With each step further west, the difficulty of leading a contemporary Norwegian lifestyle increased. In part, the increasing hardship is linked to the increasing distance from European power, and the dwindling access to essential commodities. Contact with alien native communities is another factor, and it was decisive in obstructing long-term Norse settlements in North America. But at almost every stage, the much colder, more polar, climate in Iceland, Greenland, and eastern Canada dominated the Atlantic Norse decision-making.
Despite the rigours of the climate, the Norse constructed a society in Greenland that endured for nearly 500 years. In total, perhaps 70,000 people lived in the eastern and western settlements in southwest Greenland. Eventually, the farms were abandoned, however, sometime in the mid-to-late 1300s for the western settlement, and sometime in the mid-to-late 1400s for the eastern settlement. The reasons for the disappearance of the Norse settlers has long been debated, and uncontroversial evidence that resolves this issue has not yet been found. What is clear instead is that the Greenland Norse maintained an intimate daily relationship with the North Atlantic environment. Although they did not adopt the native Inuit strategies to survive, the Norse farmed, fished, hunted, and sailed in Greenland with confidence and skill for many generations. Their attitude is presumably reflected in the modern northern Norwegian saying “Vi står han av” (meaning “we stand tall, regardless of stormy weather”). This close exposure to the unforgiving Greenland climate undoubtedly led to a detailed intuitive knowledge of the sea, weather, and ice.
Exploring this understanding, and its limits, is the subject of this essay. In particular, the aim is to document and discuss Norse knowledge of oceanographic phenomena including tides, non-tidal ocean currents, surface water properties, and sea ice. The clear-cut evidence on these questions is insubstantial. Nevertheless, we propose that medieval Norse knowledge of them was quite advanced, albeit lacking any modern conceptual foundation. A key line of reasoning to support this view concerns driftwood. Timber was a critical resource in the middle ages, and was a premium commodity in Norse Greenland. For this reason, the second theme here is to explore and understand the Greenland Norse relationship with wood, and with driftwood especially. On this topic, the main questions are: how did the Norse colonists use wood, what were their sources, and might lack of timber have contributed to the demise of the Greenland colonies? Again, the North Atlantic environment plays a key role.