The History Behind the Story
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 grapes in England.
This is the age of the Vikings, a period of expansion throughout Europe, but especially in the North. The Norse raided (went a-viking) throughout Europeand into the Mediterranean. They also created Norse settlements in Northern Ireland (Dublin), England (the Danelaw), northwestern France (Normandy), and Russia. Also at this time, they discovered and settled Iceland.
It was a period of political unrest in Norway. Many of the Icelandic settlers were Norwegians who were on the losing side of the political battles. Iceland technically owed allegiance to Norway, but they were far enough away to have considerable independence. There was no hereditary nobility in Iceland. The Icelanders developed a new form of government, based on regional chieftains and an annual gathering called the Allthing, 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. Then came Eric the Red, a man with apparent anger-management issues. Eric was sentenced to lesser outlawry–three years of exile–for killing another Icelander in a dispute. Eric went to Greenland during this time. After his period of exile had elapsed, he returned to Iceland and gathered settlers to return to Greenland. Even during the relatively temperate Medieval Warm Period, twenty-five ships left Iceland for Greenland and only fourteen arrived.
Greenland at the time really would have been green with plenty of grass for the Vikings’ livestock. 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 growing season was too short and other resources simply weren’t available. 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 perhaps 450 farms in two enclaves–the East Settlement and the West Settlement. At its height, there may have been as many as 4,000 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, Eric’s son Leif led an expedition to explore this new land. They named three separate areas.
Helluland, meaning “land of flat stones”, is probably in northernCanada, possiblyBaffin 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 Greenland had none. Wood was needed for building ships and long houses.
The location of Vinland is unclear, although it is clearly farther south. Vinland may be named for wild grapes (or other 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 overwinter 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. The Vikings’ iron weapons were not enough of an advantage in those fights. 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. L’anse aux Meadows would likely have been used as a base camp and way station for these trips, as well as a place to make needed repairs. The Vikings’ method of navigation was to sail to a known location at the same latitude as their destination, then sail directly west or east.
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.
They could have tried to sail back to Iceland. Political changes in Iceland would have made this more 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 moving into 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 to sail to that part of the map that medieval cartographers would have labeled “Here be Dragons”. That, of course, is where this story starts.