30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, "Limits of Cultural Identification on the Western Fringes of the Norse Diaspora"

According to the Vínland sögur (Eiríks saga rauða and Grænlendinga saga), the furthest western reaches of the Norse diaspora was Vínland, a strange world of giant salmon, self-sowing wheat and an unfamiliar native population referred to as the skrælingar (roughly translated as “wretched ones”). The Vínland of the sagas was a dark and ambiguous place, characterized at various points by clandestine murders, exotic natives and bountiful resources. Yet the long-term impact that the Norse expeditions had on this terrain was negligible, with factors such as the pre-existing skrælingar population limiting their ability to form a relationship with the land. Significantly, on numerous occasions the travellers declare, “gott land höfu vér fengit kostum, en þó megu vér varla njóta” [we’ve found a land of fine resources, though we’ll hardly enjoy them (Eiríks saga)]. With this in mind, the paper will examine the place of Vínland in the Norse sphere of cultural identification, highlighting pertinent differences and similarities in its representation in Eiríks saga and Grænlendinga saga. The degree of consistency with which the two texts portray the region suggests some stability within the oral traditions connected with the country, for whilst similarities led early scholars to favour a literary relationship, more recent research has concluded that they are unrelated literary texts with common oral elements.

The methodology employed will focus particularly on descriptions of the physical landscape of the region. The importance of landscape as a narrative device in the literary construction of the sagas has been a largely-neglected area of research, and little detailed analysis of it has been attempted in the context of traditional saga scholarship. However, recent work by scholars such as Ian Wyatt has focussed on the role of topographic references that function as elements within the ‘narrative grammar’ of the Íslendingasögur.1 The settlement of Iceland and the emergence of its colonial society represented a unique cultural situation in medieval Europe, with the transformation and humanisation of a wild, hitherto unpopulated landscape, and the instigation and self-conscious description of a new social organisation. However, in the case of Vínland, when this emerging Norse diaspora was extended to the edge of its sustainability, an examination of the landscape enables the creation of a more comprehensive picture of a Norse world view, in which the explorers created conceptual and physical boundaries between themselves and the unfamiliar spheres they encountered.

 


1 Wyatt, I. T., ‘Narrative functions of landscape in the Old Icelandic family sagas’, in Land, Sea and Home, ed. J. Hines, A. Lane and M. Redknap (2005), p. 273.

 

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