Bad Heritage: The Vikings in North America

Bad Heritage: The Vikings in North America

By Karl Steel

Paper given at Nature – Culture – Ecologies: Heritage in a Transcultural Context Symposium, at Rostock University (2014)

Vikings in Newfoundland - photo by Douglas Sprott / Flickr

Introduction: The very first lines of Historic Newfoundland, a tourist brochure first printed in 1955, are “Come to Newfoundland! It is the cradle of white civilization in North America.” The program had some staying power: I’m quoting from the second printing of its 1968 revised edition, published in 1969; still more recent printings exist, running into the late 1980s, though as yet I don’t know if they also begin this way. Leo English, the brochure’s author, ran the Newfoundland museum from 1947 to 1960. Writing in a Newfoundland that had been absorbed into Canada in 1949, he obviously aims to argue that Canadian history proper and indeed that of North America began in Canada’s newest acquisition. Come to the east, the brochure cries out; come east and meet your ancestors!

Or, rather, meet them in the middle, as they sail west. Here’s the brochure’s cover: a Viking ship, complete with a dragon-headed prow and warriors outfitted in horned helmets. As soon as we pick it up, we’re in a world of fantasy, with the wrong helmets and the wrong boat, a warship instead of the mercantile knorr more likely used by Newfoundland’s Norse arrivals. Most charitably, this is just good marketing: Vikings are exciting. This same logic justifies calling a recent textbook on Old Norse Viking Language and decorating it with its own dragon ship.

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See also The Lure of Vikings, The Lure of Home from In the Middle

The promotion of the Vikings and the L’Anse aux Meadows site in Newfoundland continues to be an important part of the province’s tourism:

See also Viking Canada by Megan Arnott

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