Ian D. Whyte
Northern Studies: Volume 21 (1984)
It has long been appreciated that the expansion of Norse exploration and settlement in the lands surrounding the North Atlantic coincided with, and may have been aided by, a period of favourable climatic conditions, often called the ‘medieval climatic optimum’, while subsequent climatic deterioration has frequently been invoked as a principal influence behind the ultimate demise of the Norse colony in Greenland.’ However, the chronology and nature of climatic variation in the North Atlantic area have rarely been considered in detail in relation to the Norse expansion. In addition, cause and effect links between Norse activity and climatic variations have usually been assumed rather than demonstrated convincingly. In recent years climatologists and other specialists in the physical sciences have produced much new evidence relating to the timing and cause of climatic fluctuations in the North Atlantic during the medieval period.
The purpose of this article is to examine this evidence in relation to the known chronology of Norse voyaging and colonisation. It will be shown that the climatic changes which occurred in this area during medieval times were more complex, and varied more in space and time, that the simple models of early medieval warming and late medieval cooling which have often been used by historians. This more complex picture of climatic fluctuations does, however, provide a better framework for interpreting some of the main events in the Norse expansion including the discovery and settlement of Iceland and Greenland and the eventual disappearance of the Greenland colony.