Day 2 of the World Building Blog Fest hosted by Sharon Bayliss is about history. Here’s the history behind what happens in THE BARD’S GIFT:
The High Middle Ages coincided with a climatic period called the Medieval Warm Period. The North Atlantic region was warmer then than it is now. For example, winters were mild enough to grow wine grapes in England.
This is the age of the Vikings, a period of expansion throughout Europe, but especially in the North. The Norse raided throughout Europe and into the Mediterranean. They created Norse settlements almost everywhere they went. At this time, they also discovered and settled Iceland.
Iceland technically owed allegiance to Norway, but they were far enough away to have considerable independence for the first couple of hundred years of the settlement. There was no hereditary nobility in Iceland. The Icelanders developed their own form of government, based on regional chieftains and an annual gathering called the Althing, where they would hash out any disputes or changes in the laws.
Soon after the discovery of Iceland, a ship got blown off course and discovered Greenland. Some time later, Erik the Red, a man with apparent anger-management issues, was sentenced to lesser outlawry–three years of exile–for killing another Icelander in a dispute. Erik spent his exile in Greenland. When the period of banishment was over, he returned to Iceland and gathered settlers to return to Greenland. Even during the relatively temperate Medieval Warm Period, the passage was risky. Twenty-five ships left Iceland for Greenland and only fourteen arrived.
Greenland at the time really would have been green, at least along the fjords, with plenty of grass for the Vikings’ livestock. There would even have been stands of birch trees in the most sheltered parts of the fjords, which the settlers used to build their longhouses. Archaeology tells us that the original settlers’ diet came 80% from the land and only 20% from the sea, despite plentiful schools of cod just off Greenland. Nevertheless, the Greenland settlement was never completely independent. The Greenlanders were always partly dependent on trade with Iceland and through Iceland with Europe.
The Greenland settlement was also never very large. There were about 600 farms in three enclaves–the largest East Settlement (500 farms), the West Settlement (95 farms), and a small scattering of farms in the Middle Settlement (20 farms), which is sometimes considered part of the West Settlement. (This story begins in the Middle Settlement.) At its height, there may have been between 4,000 and 10,000 Greenlanders.
In 985, shortly after Greenland was settled, another ship was blown off course and discovered that there was still more land farther to the west–North America. Fifteen years later, Erik’s son Leif the Lucky led an expedition to explore this new land. They named three separate areas.
Helluland, meaning “land of flat stones”, is almost certainly in northern Canada, possibly Baffin Island.
Markland, meaning forested land, is probably the area around the Saint Lawrence River. This would have been a very important discovery to the Greenlanders. Iceland’s forests had all been harvested and so had much of Greenland’s. Wood was needed for building ships and longhouses, as well as for cooking and heating.
The location of Vinland is unclear, although it is certainly farther south. Vinland may be named for wild grapes (or other native berries such as gooseberries that the Norse mistook for grapes) or it may refer to pastureland. Since the Norse lived largely off their flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, this would also have been an important discovery for the Greenlanders.
There was certainly a Viking habitation at L’Anse aux Meadows. It was probably a gateway camp used as a place to make repairs, and possibly over winter on voyages to Markland or Vinland, but not a permanent settlement.
The Greenlanders made several attempts to establish a colony in Vinland, but failed for several reasons. The main one appears to be that they just couldn’t keep from getting into fights with the local Native Americans, who were far more numerous. Ultimately, the Greenland settlement, which was itself a fairly recent colony, just wasn’t large enough or rich enough to sustain another colony at that distance in a hostile environment.
However, the Greenlanders did continue to make regular voyages to Markland to harvest timber until at least 1347, within 150 years of Columbus’s voyage to “discover” the New World. The Vikings’ usual method of navigation was to sail to a known location at the same latitude as their destination, then sail directly west or east. The passage from Greenland to Helluland and beyond, however, could also be made by following the Greenland current north along the Greenland coast to the Nares Strait, which separates Greenland and Ellesmere Island by only about 15 miles at its narrowest. From Ellesmere Island, nearly constant northerly winds and the south-flowing Labrador Current could carry them to Helluland and then on to L’Anse aux Meadows. This is the route detailed in Erik the Red’s Saga.
Graphical description of the different sailing routes to Greenland, Vinland (Newfoundland), Helluland (Baffin Island) and Markland (Labrador) travelled by different characters in the Icelandic Sagas, mainly Saga of Eric the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders. Modern English versions of the Norse names. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the 14th century, the climate began to shift toward the cold period known as the Little Ice Age. The weather became much colder. There were more frequent and fiercer storms. This was a one-two punch to the Greenland settlements. It was harder to survive by the Viking way of life in Greenland. By the end of the settlement, archaeology tells us that the settlers’ diets came 80% from the sea and only 20% from the land, the reverse of what it had been at the beginning of the colony. The storms and the increase in sea ice also made travel between Greenland and Iceland more hazardous. There were years in which no trade ship made it back to Greenland.
History tells us that the Greenlanders starved to death, probably in the 15th century. But there are at least three other things that they could have chosen to do.
The last written records of the Norse Greenlanders are from a 1408 marriage in the church of Hvalsey – today the best-preserved of the Norse ruins. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
They could have tried to sail back to Iceland. Political changes in Iceland would have made this undesirable for them, especially after the settlers’ families had been living in Greenland for 400 years or more. As in the story, that voyage had become hazardous.
They could have learned the techniques of the Inuit who were also living in Greenland at that time. The Inuit survived the Little Ice Age in Greenland, but the Vikings had contempt for them and seem to have been much too determined to stick to a way of life that wasn’t well suited to Greenland.
Or they could have tried again to colonize North America. There is some disputed evidence that Vikings might have made it into the heart of North America. To do this, they would essentially have had to sail to that part of the map that medieval mapmakers would have labeled “Here be Dragons”. That, of course, is how this story started.
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