Lost Viking Settlements: 2. The Western Frontier (Part 2)

A little more Ragnarök on the Viking Western Frontier.

Updated 05 December 2018.

This is the second part of an article on Lost Viking Settlements: The Western Frontier. Part 1 can be found here.

The story continues after the abandonment of the L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada. We return to Greenland to find out how the settlers coped in the generations after Eirik the Red.

Death & Taxes

Site of the original bishop’s house at Skaholt (Source: Flickr / Ian McBride)

Whatever happens in Canada, stays in Canada. You are a settler who arrived with Eirik the Red on the first ships. Whilst you never travelled to Newfoundland, you hear of the younger generations sailing back and forth. You also hear about the killings there, but little else about Leif’s camp on Vínland. What you do notice, however, is how he starts to travel more often to Norway. He is king Olaf Tryggvason’s man and the king persuades Leif to speed up Greenland’s conversion to Christianity. You observe how some folks remain loyal to the old ways, but more and more others follow the new religion. Christianity spreads on Greenland, and many attend mass in the churches near the longhouses.1

By 1124, Norway bestows the Greenlanders the prestigious bishop’s seat at Garðar.2 Though, in effect, the Norwegian king and Archdiocese then control the Church on Greenland. They can exert their influence and control the monopoly on the flourishing ivory trade.3 The Norwegians also impose heavy taxes on Greenland in due time.4 The Greenlanders pay their taxes until the early fourteenth century when they send a final shipment of 520 walrus tusks.5 The Norse are all caught up in domestic problems and fail to notice the lack of income.

The Church, the largest landowner in Greenland, only sends a clergyman to inspect the situation twenty years (!) later in 1347.6 This man is Ívar Bárðarson. He travels to the Western Settlement and writes about what he finds. The homesteads are abandoned and the cattle roam freely in the countryside. He blames the skraelings.7 Yet no evidence of violence has been found so far. Perhaps a threatening presence might have been enough, if there are no longer enough Greenlanders to defend themselves?8

Roaming the Canadian Arctic

Based on the Saga texts in Íslendinga sögur, Svart á hvítu, Reykjavik, Iceland, 1987 (Source: Wikipedia / Masae).

On the other hand, there is also peaceful interaction between the Norse and native people through trade and cultural exchanges. The sagas mention the Greenlanders exploring the region and objects have been found across the Canadian Arctic that may be Norse.

Research started as early as 1999 to determine if these objects are indeed Norse. Unfortunately, the professor in charge was fired before her project was finished.9 Some scholars are still sceptical about the Helluland Project, as it was called. Some pieces of textile are in question. One thing that was known, was that the Norse were adept at weaving hair of Artic animals into their garments. The most one recent study now shows that the pieces of textile found were actually woven by the Inuit and not Norse or Greenlanders.10

Hopefully, a similar full-scale research will still be conducted sometime in the future. It might present a better picture of the extent of interaction between indigenous people and Greenlanders. Perhaps it might even reveal more on how the Greenlanders adapted to living in the harsh conditions. For example, the settlers know about taking fat to keep fit during the winter. And there is also a major shift noticeable in their diet from game to maritime food. But did they know enough to keep themselves alive?11

A Changing World: 1350–1400

Norway’s lack of response to the tax situation in Greenland is a sign on the wall. Not everything is going well in Scandinavia. In the rapidly changing world of the fourteenth century, the northern countries adapt to the feudal and chivalric courts.12 They lose their political footing and, in time, also their economic advantages.

Main trading routes of the Hanseatic League in northern Europe (Source: Wikipedia / Flo Beck).

One to intervene with the Scandinavian trade monopoly in the East, is the Hanseatic League. In 1358 German trading cities come together to form this alliance to protect their business, particularly in the Baltic. Swedish traders see no other option than to sign the treaty of Visby, become a part of the alliance and give up their monopoly. Later on, Denmark loses its wars against the Hanseatic armies in 1370 after which the Hansa cities have a firm trade monopoly throughout Scandinavia and the Baltic.13

The outlook becomes really grim when Europe is hit by war and the Plague that decimate the population. The Scandinavians suffer, too, from much death, as well as steep declines in trade and income. With fewer people and farms deserted, taxes cannot be collected and rents are no longer paid.14 Unsurprisingly, the sales of luxury goods go down, too. The walrus ivory that made Greenland so wealthy, is not in decline due to a smaller walrus population or hunting, but rather the low demand. And merchants find ivory more easily and cheaper via Russia or Africa.15

Ragnarök in the Canadian Arctic?

Around this time, the weather turns colder. The Western Settlement does not show signs of a gruesome ending. Perhaps the settlers in these fjords suffered from the increasingly harsh weather that made living there even more dangerous. Or perhaps the Black Death has an impact?16 So far no evidence has been found of diseases or illnesses in the archaeological remains that can confirm this. In the end, it might just be a case of people moving from the Western to the Eastern settlement before they perish.17 But why, then, would they leave their cattle up north?

Easternmost Norse Settlement, Greenland (Source: Flickr / David Stanley).

The last recorded sign of life in Greenland is a wedding in 1408. The last archaeological sign of life are garments indicating someone lived here by the mid-fifteenth century.18 At this time, contact and travel between Greenland and Iceland must have been almost non-existent. It seems Greenland has found its Ragnarök.

But life does not stop at all in the Canadian Arctic. Europe picks itself up again after all the devastation of the fourteenth century. In the fifteenth century, the economy grows again, but the balance of power has shifted. To the North, the Scandinavians have lost their trading monopolies to the Hanseatic League. To the East, the Byzantine Empire has been replaced by the Ottoman Empire. The Silk Road is still accessible, but Europeans try to find quicker and cheaper ways to trade with Asia. With the development of armed three masters that can cover endless oceans, they sail westwards.19

The Greenlanders hardly interact with the Hanseatic League. Perhaps they were not allowed to by the Norwegians. Or, perhaps they could not meet the high demand for fish.20 Despite their ivory trade, the Greenlanders are not able to access other markets in Europe and with their Scandinavian ancestry, they might not instinctively have turned to England for commercial advantages.

The Age of Discovery

So, the English, Portuguese and Spanish are in a competitive race to build fast ships to find new routes to Asia.21 Especially the Italian adventurers such as Columbus, Vespucci and John Cabot are PR-savvy and hired by the royal families.22

Meanwhile, the population in Europe continues to grow and the demand for food increases. Again, mainly the English, Portuguese and Spanish venture far across the Atlantic to find new fishing grounds. The armed ships and sailors are no match for the Icelanders, nor the Greenlanders. The English claim the fishing grounds near Iceland and the Portuguese take the best spots on Newfoundland. A Portuguese map dating back to the early sixteenth century suggests that Greenland was claimed by Portugal and this seems corroborated by a record of an eighteenth-century missionary’s son from Denmark who travelled to Greenland.23 Could this be true?


Very few Greenlanders of Norse descent, if any at all, live in Greenland between the fifteenth and eighteenth century. What leads to the abandonment of the Viking settlements? Is it the changing climate that leads to deteriorated living conditions? Do the skraelings indeed have a lasting impact that prevents them from moving south when the weather changes? Or, do the Greenlanders succumb to the Black Death just as the rest of Europe? Or, does the small population grow only smaller in its isolation when there is a lack of newcomers?24

Is it this complex web of all smaller and larger elements together, that trigger the abandonment of the Greenland settlements over a longer period of time? So many elements have already been brought to the table as solid possibilities for the deserted communities in Greenland. None stand out as the major, or sole reason, though.

Meanwhile, the climate is changing once more. Will this unearth and reveal more objects that will help to reconstruct what really happened to the Greenlanders?25


  1. ‘Eirik the Red’s Saga.‘ Translated by Keneva Kunz. In: The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection, Preface by Jane Smiley (London: Allan Lane Publishing, 1997), pp. 661 [pp. 653–674].  Jette Arneborg, ’The Norse settlements in Greenland.‘ In: The Viking World Edited by Stefan Brink in collaboration with Neil Price (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), pp. 592 [pp. 588–597]. There are no signs of pagan burials on Greenland. Gísli Sigurðsson, ’The North Atlantic Expansion.’ In: The Viking World Edited by Stefan Brink in collaboration with Neil Price (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), pp. 564, 567 [pp. 562–569].  ↩
  2. Kristen A. Seaver, The Last Vikings: The Epic Story of the Great Norse Voyagers. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010) pp. 80–81.  ↩
  3. Jette Arneborg (2012), pp. 593.  ↩
  4. Kristen A. Seaver (2010) pp. 92.  ↩
  5. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough (2016), pp. 99.  ↩
  6. Jess Angus McCullough, Death in a Dread Place’: Belief, Practice, and Marginality in Norse Greenland, ca. 985–1450. Thesis, University of Leicester. September 2016, p 243.  ↩
  7. The existence of cattle in the Western Settlement is confirmed by archaeoentomology. See: Eva Panagiotakopulu, Peter Skidmore & Paul Buckland, ‘Fossil insect evidence for the end of the Western Settlement in Norse Greenland.’ In: The Science of Nature Volume 94.4 (2007), pp. 305. [pp. 300–306]. DOI 10.1007/s00114–006–0199–6.  ↩
  8. That is, in the variety of scholarly resources I have been able to view so far.  ↩
  9. Heather Pringle, ‘Evidence of Viking Outpost Found in Canada.’ National Geographic. Published 19 October 2012. Last Accessed 27 October 2018.  ↩
  10. Michèle Hayeur Smith, Kevin P. Smith and Gørill Nilsen, ‘Dorset, Norse, or Thule? Technological transfers, marine mammal contamination, and AMS dating of spun yarn and textiles from the Eastern Canadian Arctic.’ In: Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 96 (2018), pp. 162–174. doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2018.06.005.  ↩
  11. Eva Panagiotakopulu, Peter Skidmore & Paul Buckland (2007), pp. 302, 304–305.
    Especially, the larger farms held cattle. See: Jette Arneborg (2012), pp. 592.  ↩
  12. Thomas Lindtkvist, ‘Feudal Influences and Tendencies.’ In: Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopaedia. Edited by P. Pulsiano and K. Wolf (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1993), pp. 187–188.  ↩
  13. Arthur Boyd Hibbert, ‘Hanseatic League.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Published 02 August 2016. Last Accessed 01 November 2018.  ↩
  14. Samuel K. Cohn JR, ‘Epidemiology of the Black Death and successive waves of plague.’ In: Medical history. Supplement 27 (2008), pp. 74–75 [pp. 74–100].
    Ingrid Spilde, ‘The Black Death came to Europe at different times.’ Science Nordic. Published 25 February, 2015. Last Accessed 01 November 2018.  ↩
  15. Bastiaan Star, James H. Barrett, Agata T. Gondek, and Sanne Boessenkool (2018), Introduction. Last Accessed 20 June 2018.  ↩
  16. Samuel K. Cohn JR, ‘Epidemiology of the Black Death and successive waves of plague.’ In: Medical history. Supplement 27 (2008), pp. 74–75 [pp. 74–100].
    Matthew Gabriele, ‘How The Black Death (Sort Of) Killed A Viking Colony And Transformed Europe.’ Forbes. Published 08 August 2018. Last Accessed 01 November 2018.  ↩
  17. This is confirmed with archaeoentomology. See: Eva Panagiotakopulu, Peter Skidmore & Paul Buckland (2007), pp. 302, 304–305.  ↩
  18. Robin Netherton, ‘The View from Hjerolfnes: Greenland’s Translation of the European Fitted Fashion.’ In: Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Volume 4. Edited by Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen–Crocker (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008) pp. 143–172.  ↩
  19. The motivations for Columbus‘ travels are complex and the subject of many studies. Where trade is concerned, some history books suggest that the Ottomans cut off the Eastern trade routes. (See for example: Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), pp. 132 and Valerie I.J. Flint, ‘Columbus.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica Last Updated 09 October 2018. Last Accessed 28 October 2018.) The nuance to this statement is that the friction in the trade can not solely be blamed on the Ottomans. Venice held a trade monopoly in the Mediterranean that they tried to keep at all costs. Furthermore, a papal decree in 1291 prevented Europeans from trading with Islamic merchants. The Ottomans on their part, tried a different approach to the Venetian power play than the Byzantines before them but continued to trade with them. They also raised high taxes on export with the ’non–believers’ in Europe. (See for example: Halil İnalcık with Donald Quataert, An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, 1300–1914. Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 197.) Effectively, it seems, the search for new trade routes was simply to avoid all the obstacles and find quick and cheaper routes.  ↩
  20. Joel Berglund, ‘The Decline of the Norse Settlements in Greenland.’ In: Arctic Anthropology, Volume 23.1–2 (1986), pp. 125 [pp. 109–135].  ↩
  21. Heather Pringle, ‘Cabot, cod and the colonists.’ In: Canada Geographic July/August 1997, pp. 32, 34 [pp. 31–39]. The Royal Canadian Geographic Society.
    Robert de Loture, History of the Great Fishery of Newfoundland. Translated by Clyde C. Taylor (Washington D.C.: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1957), pp. 5.  ↩
  22. On Columbus, see: Valerie I.J. Flint, ‘Columbus.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica Last Updated 09 October 2018. Last Accessed 28 October 2018.
    On Vespucci, see: Jessie Szalay, ‘Amerigo Vespucci: Facts, Biography & Naming of America.’ LiveScience. Published 20 September, 2017. Last Accessed 17 June 2018.
    Nicholas Crane, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet (London: Orion Books, 2010 [e–book]), Chapter 20.
    On Cabot, see: The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘John Cabot.’ Last Accessed 21 May 2018. Evan T. Jones and Margaret M. Condon, Cabot and Bristol’s Age of Discovery: The Bristol Discovery Voyages 1480–1508. (Bristol: University of Bristol, 2016), pp. 35–36.  ↩
  23. Kirsten A. Seaver, Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vínland Map. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), pp. 76.
    Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador, ‘The International Fishery of the 16th Century.’ Published in 1997. Last Accessed 06 August 2018. Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project.
    Gísli Sigurðsson (2012), pp. 567.  ↩
  24. Mario di Bacco, Lorenzo del Panta, Patrizio Frederic, Giuseppe D‘Amore and Niels Lynnerup, ’The effect of an unbalanced demographic structure on marriage and fertility patterns in isolated populations: the case of Norse settlements in Greenland.’ In: Genus volume 62.1 (2006), pp. 18 [pp. 97–1180.  ↩
  25. To finish off with a solid article by Eli Kintish, ‘Why did Greenland’s Vikings disappear?’ Science Magazine. Published 10 November 2016. Last Accessed 01 November 2018.  ↩

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