Sunday, June 20, 2021

Fortnightly Book, June 20

Somewhere around the year 1000, Leif Eriksson, often known as the Lucky, made landfall on the North American continent. Vikings before then had made it as far as Greenland, and Bjarni Herjolfsson is the first person recorded as having seen the continental landmass, a number of years, after having been blown off course by a storm. But during a voyage from Norway to Greenland, Leif and his men, also blown off course, actually landed, naming the land "Wineland" or Vinland, and met the natives. We have some brief historical record of this fairly close to the actual event in the Islendingabok, but the full story that we have is the version of the Vinland Sagas, which give us an account of Leif's voyage and several successor voyages.

There are two Vinland Sagas: The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red's Saga, both of them thirteenth century works. They do not agree in all details, and are clearly based on various oral traditions, but coming from a people with considerable practice in ocean navigation, they give enough geographical and navigational details corresponding to the actual region to make clear that the Icelanders became familiar with all of the land around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Exactly where Vinland itself was located among those landmasses seems to be disputed; part of the difficulty is that the sagas treat Vinland as a dangerous destination to try to reach, so they weren't particularly focused on giving precise directions to get there. We know from archeological evidence that there was at some point a Norse encampment at L'Anse aux Meadows, and a lot depends on how one thinks this fits into the very general descriptions we get in the sagas. My own guess is that Vinland was either Prince Edward Island or the part of Nova Scotia south of Prince Edward Island (depending on whether one interprets the sagas as indicating that it was on an island or near an island). Just a guess, but I'm reading the notes by Gisli Sigurdsson in the Penguin Classics translation (the translation itself is by Keneva Kunz), and I notice that he draws the same conclusion.