Leif Erikson Day and America’s European Heritage

Joseph F. Healey has pointed out that White ethnic identities are evolving into new shapes and forms, merging the various “hyphenated” ethnic identities into a single, generalized “European American” identity based on race and a common history of immigration and assimilation. In the light of the fact that virtually every minority group has generated a protest movement (Black Power, Red Power, Chicanismo, etc.), proclaiming a recommitment to its own heritage and to the authenticity of its own culture, European Americans also need some space to express their ethnic heritage.  St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day, and Leif Erikson Day are festive occasions that White Americans should seize in order to honor their rich history and heritage.

In all societies with a history of migrations, the question “who came first?” becomes important. Centuries before Columbus, the Icelanders answered this question by meticulously recording the names and deeds of the pioneers for posterity, thus inspiring George W. Bush to conclude that on Leif Erikson Day,

we remember that son of Iceland and grandson of Norway for his journey to North America, and we celebrate the influential role Nordic Americans have played in our society. Leif Erikson was among the world’s greatest and most daring explorers. More than 1,000 years ago, he led a crew across the Atlantic to North America. … America is grateful for the many contributions of Nordic Americans, and we continue to draw inspiration from the courage and optimism of the adventurous Leif Erikson.

The discovery of new lands in the West by the Northmen came about in the course of the great Scandinavian exodus of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries when Vikings “swarmed over all Europe,” conquering kingdoms, founding colonies and empires. In these centuries waterborne Vikings exploded out of their native lands to trade, raid, and settle all the way “from the Pillars of Hercules to the Ural Mountains.” The main stream of Norsemen took a westerly course, striking Great Britain, Ireland and the Western Isles, and ultimately reached Iceland (in 874a.d.), Greenland (in 985) and North America (in 1000).

Leif Erikson’s father, Erik the Red, was the founder of the first European settlement on Greenland. Tradition reports that he gave the island its name as a marketing strategy designed to disguise its harsh environment and make it attractive to would-be colonists. Erik the Red’s father, Thorvald, left Norway for western Iceland with his family, having been exiled for manslaughter. When Erik was similarly outlawed and exiled from Iceland about 980, he decided to explore the land to the west (Greenland), across 175 miles (280 km) of water. The settlers encountered no other inhabitants, though they explored to the northwest, discovering Disko Island. Of the 25 ships that sailed from Iceland, only 14 ships and 350 colonists are believed to have survived to reach their destination – an area later known as Eystribygd (Eastern Settlement). By the year 1000 there were an estimated 1,000 Scandinavian settlers in the colony, but an epidemic in 1002 considerably reduced the population.

The second of three sons of Erik the Red, Leif Erikson (d. 1025) sailed from Greenland to Norway in the year 999 AD, and was there converted to Christianity by the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason, and Leif “the Lucky” Erikson joined the king’s body-guard. The following year Leif was commissioned by Olaf to urge Christianity upon the Greenland settlers. On returning to Greenland, he proselytized for Christianity and converted his mother, who built the first Christian church in Greenland. By 1053 the Christian church was well enough established to warrant inclusion in the Archbishopric of Hamburg–Bremen since Pope Leo IX includes it in a bull dated 6 January 1053, the earliest known reference to Greenland by name.

According to the “Saga of the Greenlanders” in the Flateyjarbók, Leif learned of Vinland from the Icelander Bjarni Herjulfsson, who 14 years earlier had become the first European to sight mainland America when his Greenland-bound ship was blown westward off course. He apparently sailed along the Atlantic coastline of eastern Canada but did not go ashore. In the year 1000 AD a crew of 35 men led by Leif Eriksson set out to find the land sighted by Bjarni. The sagas refer to three territories: Helluland (“Flat-Stone Land”, probably Baffin Island), Markland (“Wood Land”, probably Labrador) and Vinland – usually thought to have been located in the area around the Gulf of St Lawrence, possibly New England or New Brunswick.

In 1003 Leif’s brother Thorvald led an expedition to Vinland and spent two years there. A couple of years later, Thorfinn Karlsefni, encouraged by Thorvald’s reports of grapes growing wild in Vinland, led a colonizing expedition of about 130 people in three ships to Vinland, possibly making their first landfall at Baffin Island. They followed the coastline southward until they reached a heavily wooded region, perhaps some part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and settled there. According to some reports, “there came no snow” in the land which the Wineland explorers had found, indicating that they reached a territory farther south than usually assumed.

Thorfinn Karlsefni’s wife Gudrid (the widow of Leif’s brother Thorstein) gave birth to their son, Snorri (born c. 1005) – the first European in recorded history to be born on the North American mainland. By the time they had stayed there three years, the colonists’ trade with the local Native Americans had turned to warfare, and so the colonists returned to Greenland.

A few years later, Leif Erikson’s sister Freydis led an expedition to Vinland and soon afterward returned to Greenland. She is portrayed in the Saga literature as a personality steeled with a willpower and a strength of character that makes Wagner’s Walkyries look like a group of extras. Pursued and encircled by hostile Natives (“Skraelings”) in Vinland, Freydis (who was pregnant) took up the sword of a slain Viking to defend herself: “she stripped down her shift, and slapped her breast with the naked sword. At this the Skrellings were terrified and ran down to their boats, and rowed away.”

The Norsemen’s name for the land they discovered, Vinland, means “Wine Land.” A German crewman on board Leif Erikson’s ship is said to have been the first to associate the new land with wine:

In the beginning Tyrker spoke for some time in German, rolling his eyes, and grinning, and they could not understand him; but after a time he addressed them in the Northern tongue: “I did not go much further [than you] and yet I have something of novelty to relate. I have found vines and grapes.” “Is this indeed true, foster-father?” said Leif. “Of a certainty it is true,” quoth he, “for I was born where there is no lack of either grapes or vines.”

Thorfinn Karlsefni also reported that he found “wine berries” growing there, and these were later interpreted to mean grapes, though the Norsemen referred to any berry as a “wine berry,” and it is probable that they had actually come upon cranberries. The Vinland name entered the literature of continental Europe, almost certainly first in 1075 through the History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen written by Adam von Bremen. Adam mentioned Vinland on the authority of King Sweyn II Estridsen of Denmark, who told of Iceland, Greenland, and other lands of the northern Atlantic known to the Scandinavians. Adam says of King Sweyn:

He [the king of the Danes] spoke also of yet another island of the many found in that ocean [where Greenland lies]. It is called Vinland because vines producing excellent wine grow wild there. That unsown crops also abound on that island we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relation of the Danes. Beyond that island, he said, no habitable land is found in that ocean, but every place beyond it is full of impenetrable ice and intense darkness.

Despite the failure of their efforts to establish a permanent presence in North America, the Norse did make later visits to Vinland to secure materials, and stray finds have turned up in the excavation of native American sites, including a late eleventh-century Norwegian coin found on the central Maine coast (the coin was minted in Norway between 1065 and 1080 during the reign of King Olaf Kyrre). An Icelandic chronicle, Skálholtsannáll (1347), makes reference to a Greenlandship that had been to Markland on a timber-gathering expedition. Timber for shipbuilding was crucial to the Norse as both Iceland and Greenland were largely deforested.

It has been suggested that Christopher Columbus himself spent some time sailing in the North Atlantic, and may well have had knowledge of earlier Norse explorations. His son, Fernando, quotes a note of his father stating: “I sailed in the year 1477, in the month of February, a hundred leagues beyond the island of Tile [Thule, i.e. Iceland], whose northern part is in latitude 73 degrees north and not 63 degrees as some would have it … the season when I was there the sea was not frozen.

Contrary to popular beliefs, the European world (or the concept of Europe) —with its division of powers, its plurality of small, autonomous and competing nation states linked by a common history, religion and elite language (Latin), maintaining a sophisticated but unstable order of power balance — is to a large extent a medieval creation. Historians like Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre pointed out that “Europe arose when the Roman Empire crumbled”, and that “Europe became a possibility once the Empire disintegrated.”

Medieval Expansion: The Discovery of Vinland and the Birth of Europe

The medieval expansion of European “Lebensraum” can be seen in Viking colonization of the islands of the North Atlantic, even establishing footholds in the New World, in their Norman offshoot’s march eastward to create Western European states in the eastern Mediterranean, and in the settlement of Frankish (German) and Dutch colonists in Eastern Europe that gathered momentum from the eleventh century onwards. In this period, the northern and western isles of Britain, northern Scotland, and the North Atlantic isles (the so-called insular Viking zone) became part of what Peter Heather has called “a Scandinavian commonwealth.”

Christian Krogh (1893): Leif Erikson sights land in America

During the Viking Age (roughly 800–1100), the Vikings played a decisive role in the development of much of Western and Eastern Europe. War was a means of social engineering in a world that lacked rigid social hierarchies. It was, in the words of Clifford R. Backman, a brutal sort of meritocracy. In the long run, this meant that the Germanic groups were led by men with talents for ferocity and ambition.

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The Vikings attacked France 214 times; Great Britain and Ireland, 94 times; Spain, 9 times; Portugal, Morocco, Italy and Turkey, 6 times; and the Germanic lands, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg, 34 times. The geographical range of waterborne Viking activity was unprecedented, as John Haywood points out:

In the east the Vikings sailed down the great rivers of Russia to cross the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea to attack Constantinople and the Abbasid Caliphate. Vikings settled extensively in the British Isles, Normandy and, to a lesser extent, in Russia but they also pushed the limits of the known world, crossing the North Atlantic to settle in the uninhabited Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland and to discover, but fail to settle, North America. Viking traders and hunters extended the limits of the known world even further, sailing far into the Arctic waters of the White Sea and exploring the west coast of Greenland as far north as Melville Bay in search of walrus ivory and hides.

The Viking expansion was all about ships, whose expense posed considerable limitations in terms of scale and access. Moving by land, as Heather points out, “early medieval populations could hope to manage maybe forty kilometers a day. Viking sailing ships, however, could cover four times that distance or more in twenty-four hours.”

Access to the relevant mode of transport — ships — was of critical importance to the Vikings, and ships were expensive. It was for this reason that colonization of the North Atlantic was led by aristocrats: Only they could afford the necessary ships.

Viking Longship

As buoyant and flexible as a longship, but a good deal broader, the so-calledknorr carried twenty tons and fifteen to twenty people, and with a good wind and a friendly sea it could sail at six knots, a respectable pace as recently as the Napoleonic Wars.

Viking Knoor

These vessels could carry horses, so that once they were beached the warriors could mount and ride across the countryside raiding. The vessels could also be transported across land on rollers, then put back into the water at a suitable point to continue on their journey. As Backman points out, a fully loaded Viking warship could sail in as little as four feet of water: “This made it possible to strike with lightning speed far inland, without warning, and then disappear just as quickly.”  In this way the Vikings were able to cross the Russian countryside, hauling their ships overland between rivers and across watersheds. F. J. Byrnenotes:

Ship-building was the craft that gave the Vikings their terrifying power and enabled them to span a quarter of the globe with an ease unparalleled until modern times. … The long sea-voyages, and especially the transatlantic explorations, were made not in the famous longship (langskipr) but in the rounder merchant vessel (knorr, whence Irish cnairr), and mainly by sail. … [I]t is estimated that the larger Viking ships carried crews of forty or sixty men, while later, in the eleventh century, royal ships — such as those of Cnút, or the Great Serpent of Olaf Tryggvason — held a hundred men.

The Viking ships provided models for imitation elsewhere, as in the case of Alfred the Great’s langscipu — sometimes described as the first attempt to establish a Royal Navy. The skalds of King Cnut — who built a North Sea empire stretching from Dublin, via Scotland and Scandinavia, to the Baltic — advertised their prince’s ships as a symbol of power, a technological advance as revolutionary in the first decades of the eleventh century as ‘dreadnoughts’ were in the opening years of the twentieth.

Obviously, the marine technology that raiding and trading in the Viking Age demanded did not emerge overnight; its foundations lay in the 5th to 7th centuries. In fact, sea-raids out of Scandinavia were not unknown before the Viking age: The Heruls (from Jutland) raided Frisia in a.d. 287 and Spain in c. 455 and c. 460; the Danes are known to have raided Frisia in c. 528 and c. 570. As noted in Viking Empires:

[A]lthough nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers have tended to regard the ‘Viking Age’ as a distinct period of history, it is arguable that the Viking raids were only the culmination of a much longer period of empire-building among the Germanic tribes that inhabited the Scandinavian peninsula, a process that found its beginnings at the start of the first millennium in what is now known as the Roman Iron Age. The beginning of this process was the re-alignment of military strategy that took place in the Roman Empire as a consequence of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9.

Throughout the centuries before the Viking expansion — the emigrants from Scandinavia included GothsLombardsVandalsBurgundiansCimbri, and Anglo-Saxons. The Vikings, thus, were merely the last of a long succession of Germanic emigrants. To the 6th-century Gothic historian Jordanes, Scandinavia was the officina gentium — the “womb” or cradle of the Germanic peoples of the Völkerwanderung.

Over the long run, through the interplay of competition and technological change, war and preparation for war produced the major components of European states. In the Middle Ages, a series of inventions started to make an impact on European society. The Germans acquired or perfected all sorts of metalworking techniques which were remarkable for their ingenuity and efficiency, producing special steel for the cutting edge of swords or battle-axes which was, according to Lucien Musset, unequalled until the 19th century and infinitely superior to that which the imperial arms factories were producing during the Later Roman Empire.

By the time of Leif Erikson’s explorations in North America — at the turn of the second millennium (1000 a.d.) — the bulk of the “cultural DNA-structure” of Western civilization was taking shape: Latin Christendom centered around the Catholic Church (“the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire”), science (embryonic universities), representative government (parliaments), the rule of law, a monogamous family structure based on the nuclear family, nation states and autonomous towns, citizenship rights etc.

Medieval Europe, thus, became an alloy of the classical, Greco-Roman heritage, Germanic laws and customs, together with elements from the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Heather points out, “Europe finally took on something of the shape that it has broadly retained down to the present: a network of not entirely dissimilar and culturally interconnected political societies clustering at the western end of the great Eurasian landmass.”

From the ranks of the Viking-descended Normans came, as J. R. S. Phillips points out, “the steady supply of highly trained mounted warriors who helped to guarantee European freedom from outside attack, and who were to play a major part in successful European expansion and military superiority overseas, in much the same way as ships armed with cannon were to do in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.”

Alain Erlande-Brandenburg points out that after the treaty of St-Clair-sur-Eptein 911, which granted to the Northmen a territory later known as Normandy, “the destroyers became builders, founding an advanced national state before going on to conquer other lands in southern Italy and England.” In fact, the origins of the English nation state itself can be traced back to the crisis of the Viking invasions.Preparation for large-scale war built up an infrastructure of taxation, supply, and administration that required maintenance. European national states united substantial military, extractive, administrative, and sometimes even distributive and productive organizations in a relatively coordinated central structure (see here and here). As Leonard Dudley points out,

[the Normans] were at the forefront in northern Europe in introducing a monetary economy.  Bishops and secular lords financed the construction of new towns with the revenues of tolls levied on trade. … The Normans were also innovators in military techniques. … After a half millennium of declining skills in architecture, economic organization and warfare, Normandy in the eleventh century was suddenly at the forefront of a technological renaissance.

The Norman Conquest opened England to the ethos of chivalry — derived from “cheval” (French for horse) and often associated with important changes in the rules and conduct of war.  Elements of that famous ethos — as Michael P. Speidel points out – can be traced back to ancient times:

The ideal of winning in a fair fight, going back to the second millennium BC and known to Homer, was still held by Emperor Julian in the fourth century AD. Germanic armies, in this spirit, were ready to settle beforehand on a time and place for battle. Vandal warriors followed the same ideal when in the decisive battle at Tricamarum in AD 533 they fought only with their swords. Maurice, around AD 600, said that Franks, Lombards, and other blond peoples scorn dirty tricks. The ideal of fairness in battle, so as to show one’s true strength, also guided Beowulf in his fight with Grendel, and later still the English in the battle of Maldon.

The Normans also inspired the evolution of administrative institutions which were the precursors of the bureaucratic machinery of the modern state. The German sociologist Max Weber emphasized the military basis of democratization, citizenship and modernization (e.g. the hoplites of antiquity, the guild army of the middle ages,  the lowering of the voting age in the US during the Vietnam War): “Military discipline meant the triumph of democracy because the community wished and was compelled to secure the cooperation of the non-aristocratic masses and hence put arms, and along with arms political power, into their hands.”  Marjorie Chibnall points out the warlike character of Normanitas:

The chronicles which describe the lives of the dukes of Normandyare dominated by two themes: their success in war, and their benefactions to the Church.  A subsidiary theme is their firm enforcement of just laws; however ruthless, they are never described as tyrants in the Norman chronicles. Warfare has been aptly called the national industry of the Normans, and it was as fighting men that they were most praised by their fellow-countrymen and remembered, with admiration as well as hatred, by their enemies.

Duke William II of Normandy, according to Dudley, may have enabled the West to cross a critical-mass threshold: “Within a century of William’s death, the basic characteristics of Western civilization — standardized media and non-standardized messages — had been established.  The rapid diffusion of information across a great mass of population made possible the ceaseless innovation that would henceforth characterize the West. While China, India and the Middle East were suffering from wave after wave of invasions, Western Europe became an impregnable fortress. Gradually it was developing the technologies that would allow it to achieve world dominance.”

The earlier vertical structure of command, with the ruler on top and his subjects below — carried over from the Roman Empire to that of Charlemagne — collapsed as local rulers were able to replicate the system for storage and retrieval of written information previously accessible only to an emperor. As Dudley points out: “With the Carolingian ruler’s monopoly on property rights broken and political power distributed across decentralized networks linked by a standardized communications medium, the stage was set for Western Europe’s great leap forward.”

The development of a standardized medium for written and spoken communication across Western Europe enabled competition among small, independent states. At the same time, the new communications technology permitted the formation of cultural institutions that spread across political boundaries. As Dudley points out,

There thus appeared simultaneously the two conditions necessary for rapid innovation: first, the incentive to do things better, in order to stay ahead of competitors; and second, the ingredients for doing so, namely, easy access to the stock of information accumulated in the past.  … [The Norman Conquest] resulted in the unhindered diffusion of a new communications technology that permitted accelerated innovation and economic growth. The ultimate beneficiaries were not just the English but rather the whole of Latin Christendom. The West had now attained a critical mass that would allow it to compete with the established civilizations of Eastern Europe and Asia. Over the long term, the Norman Conquest was perhaps the principal influence on the formation of the modern English language.

The Anglo-Saxon clergyman Alcuin brought together the best existing practices to develop a standardized procedure for preserving information, thus reducing information storage costs. As Dudley points out, it is no coincidence that the Times Roman typeface is a direct descendant of the Caroline Miniscule: “The use … of titles, periods, capitalized initial letters, paragraphs, word separation and chapter breaks replicates the structure standardized by the ninth-century monks who prepared the Tours Bibles.” From a technological point of view, Medieval Europe — with its waterwheels, sawmills, flour mills and hammer mills — became the first great civilization not to be run primarily by human muscle power.

It has been suggested that the Icelandic colony — from which the Vinlandexplorers emerged – was “an interesting forerunner of the American republic, having a prosperous population living under a republican government, and maintaining an independent national spirit for nearly four centuries.” The western world’s first parliament, called the Althing, was established in Iceland. It has convened every year without exception since 930 AD.  Without stretching it too far, Norse Vinland and Greenland, like post-Columbian America, can also be seen as a “frontier society” (in the Turnerian sense) marked by a “dual dynamics of war and peaceful interaction … a greater freedom, feelings of self-reliance, social fluidity … and multiple loyalties”.

George W. Bush certainly got this one right: “I call upon all Americans to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs to honor our rich Nordic-American heritage.” Would that American Whites —inspired by the shining examples of their past — could reclaim their courageous ways and pioneer spirit.

E. R. E. Knutsson (email him) is a freelance writer.

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