Eighty one years ago W. S. Wallace commented on the first history of North America: He was correct that the history was created by people speaking Old Norse.
But the educators and publishers of the New World History over whelmed the continued research of the first history.
W. S. Wallace
The Canadian Historical Review
University of Toronto Press
Volume 20, Number 1, March 1939
THE LITERATURE RELATING TO THE NORSE VOYAGES TO AMERICA OR amere layman to invade the highly controversial field of the Norse voyages to America in the middle ages may smack of temerity. The subjectis so complex that it involves a knowledgeof Old Norse literature, medieval cosmography and navigation ,archaeology, anthropology, zoology, botany, and climatology ;and the present writer must disclaim anything but the most superficial acquaintance with any of those branches of knowledge. But the bibliographer has always a useful purpose to serve; and a survey of the literature relating to the Norse voyages to America may not now be without value, especially when interest in the subject has bee nrevived by the recent discovery of what seem to be Viking weapons near Beardmore in northern Ontario, and their acquisition by the Royal Ontario Museum, as described by Professor Currelly in the preceding paper. If, in the courseof this bibliographical survey,the writer attempts to pass judgment on the validity of some of the contributions made to the subject, it must be remembered that even in a court of law a simple juryman is often called upon to assess the value of the evidence of expert witnesses. Our knowledge of the Norse voyages to Americ are stsprimarily on (1) the detailed narratives of two apparently independent Icelandic sagas, known as the Sagaof Eric the Red and the Flatey book,committed to writing many years after the events they purport to describe;(2) a reference to Vinlandin Adam of Bremen's Description sularurnaquilonis,written before 1070, but not printedu ntil 115015; and (8) several references to Vinland, Maryland , and "Newland" in Icelandic and Norwegian annals. This evidence places, and has placed for a longtime,beyond any reasonable doubt the fact that the Norsemen found their way to the shores of the North American continent about the year 1000, and continued to visit it for about three and a half centuries. But about thedetail sof thesevoyages the widest diversity of opinion has prevailed. There are those who regard the sagas as in large part mythical, and admit no more th an the bare fact of the voyages themselves; and there are those who treat the sagas as if they were actual ship's logs. Among he latter, there are those who have identified Vinland with places in the north-eastern coast of North America as far apart as Hamilton inlet in Labrador and Long Island sound off New York; those who have identified the "Sara- LITERATURE RELATING TO THE NORSE VOYAGES TO AMERICA 9 lings" or natives of the sagasas Indians or as Eskimo; and those who have argued that the "wine-berries" of the sagas were grapes or cranberries. The imagination and in genuity displayed by each subsequent comment tor n the sagas has had, when one considers the divergent results obtained, almost a humorous side. Finally, attempts have been made to prove the existencein North America (apart from Greenland) of archaeological remains of the Norse visits. Of these only one, the Runic inscription found in 1028 on the island of Kingitors book in Baffin bay, and now lodged in the National Museum in Copenhagen.has, so far as I know, been universally accepted as genuine. Others, suchas the inscription on the Dighton Rock or the Rhode Island watch-tower to which Longfellow had referencein his ballad "The skeleton in armour," have been conclusivelyproved to have no connection with the Norsemen. Still others, such as the so-called Kensington runestone found in Minnesota and the Beardmore sword found in northern Ontario, are still the subjectsof controversy. A knowledgeof the Norse voyagesto America must have been common property among the people of Iceland and Norway in the middle ages, and (as we have seen) they were known to a German writer in the eleventh century. The fact that in 1121 Eric Gnupssonwas appointed by Pope Paschal II "bishop of Greenlandand Vinland in partibusinfidelium," and went in search of Vinland, has suggestedthat there may be documentsin the archives of the Vatican which might throw light on the Norse voyages to America; but no such documents have been found. It would seemprobable that someknowledgeof the Norse visits to America must have percolatedthrough to southernEurope in the middle ages;but, if so, such knowledge must have been lost and forgotten. It appearsthat when ChristopherColumbusand John Cabot set out on their epoch-makingvoyages,they knew little or nothing of the bold mariners who had preceded them. Even Adam of Bremen's brief description of Vinland was not printed until a century later. The first printed bookgiving an accountof the Norsevoyages to America was the Historia Vinlandiae Antiquae,publishedin Latin in 17015 by Thormod Torfaeus,an Icelander who was born in 1686 and died in Norway in 1710, and who actually had in his possession the Flatey book. Torfaeusattempted only a summary of the Norse sagas,and did not reproducethem...