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Book Review: The Last Vikings

The Last Vikings

by Kirsten A. Seaver

I. B. Tauris & Co. (distributed by Palgrave Macmillan), 2010

One of the earliest and most charming notes struck in Kirsten Seaver’s balanced and engaging The Last Vikings is her ungrudging affection for that famous name from Norse history, Erik (she writes it Eirik) the Red. She defends him against a charge if idiocy, though even she must allow that he was a bit of a homicidal maniac.

Somewhere in the second half of the tenth century, Eirik fled his native Norway because he’d been convicted of murder (under his sentence, any man could kill him out of hand without penalty, and of course the victim’s family would want a word with him too). He settled in Iceland, until, around 983, he was convicted of murder and fled – westward again, this time to the gigantic, semi-mythical land he himself (in the Atlantic world’s first public relations campaign) would later call Greenland in order to attract colonists who would lease their land from him. To make himself feel at home, he started murdering people there as soon as his bags were unpacked, but by that point Seaver’s story has moved on (although she’ll perhaps always have a tender spot in her heart for the blood-splattered old lunatic).

Her story moves on to the Norse Greenland colonies that flourished in Eirik’s wake, and she is their best and brightest chronicler. She describes the society that developed there, the people, the religion, the customs and commerce. She details the various inroads made by the visiting (marauding?) English, and the changes in animal husbandry necessitated by Greenland’s climate and thready soil. Parliaments, pioneers (John Cabot, Martin Frobisher, and half a dozen other sea-dogs get their due mentions) and prelates get meticulous and fascinating attention – and that attention is evenly drawn from literary, archaeological, and cartographic evidence; our author is indefatigable.

But there’s one stand-out question concerning the Norse Greenland settlements, and once Seaver finally gets down to it, she’s truly in her element – and that question is: where did everybody go? By the middle of the 15th century (Seaver very convincingly demonstrates that the final date is a good deal later than has usually been assigned), the Norse settlements were entirely abandoned, and there’s never been any scholarly consensus as to why.

There’s been no lack of theories, and Seaver sledge-hammers most of them with an clear and ruinous proficiency that no doubt has two generations of dead Nordic scholars grinding their teeth in Valhalla. She may not be 100 percent certain of what did happen to all those people, but she’s splendidly belligerent about what didn’t happen, including the long-held notion with which I myself was most familiar:

It is a commonly held theory that the Greenland Norse returned ‘home’ to Iceland and/or Norway. That is akin to suggesting that in an economic downturn, today’s denizens of Boston, Massachusetts, would go ‘back’ to England, which the Pilgrim Fathers left in 1620. An eastbound exodus by the Norse Greenlanders is highly unlikely for several weighty reasons, quite apart from the fact that throughout the medieval Norse colonisation in the North Atlantic, the settlers each time soon regarded themselves as belonging to their new homes, not to their former one.

If there’s the smallest fissure of a flaw in that analogy, it’s one of ideology: those Pilgrim Fathers left England for entirely different reasons than did the Norse settlers and would therefore need an entirely different set of reasons to contemplate returning. A closer – and more problematic – analogy might be the waves of Irish immigrants who came to the East Coast in the 19th century … many of whom did indeed return to Ireland once famine abated, although perhaps not a great enough percentage to overturn Seaver’s point.

And if not back east, what about further west? Seaver notes the long history of, shall we say, fanciful literature attesting to an extensive Norse first-contact with the shores of America, and hardly any of it escapes her lash:

Much as in the discussion about who reached America before Christopher Columbus, chauvinism nurtured by ‘Norse roots’ accounts for several of the cult notions that have sprung up around the Greenland Norse. Basement-inventor stubbornness, anti-intellectualism, overblown egos, indiscriminate competitiveness and even racism may also enter the picture, but common to all these stores is their origin in post-Columbian myths.

Any historian who can come up with ‘basement-inventor stubbornness’ must feel very secure ground under her feet, and Seaver’s further theories are as carefully-buttressed as they are invigorating. The subject of the Nordic Greenland settlements has long needed the epic dusting-off it gets in these pages, and readers interested in the subject are urged not to miss this book

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