Greenland, a written source from 1431 AD.

© Johansson Inger E, Gothenburg February 2002
All rights reserved.

It’s been a discrepancy between archaeological knowledge and written documentation re. Greenland for the last 3-400 years. Reasons for this can be many. There are two major problems involved in today’s studies as well as those of the past centuries:

* New artifacts found in Greenland and Canada are always linked either to the Icelandic Sagas or to the few documents out of several hundreds which been used in Professor’s Essays and Ph.D.’s Dissertation.

* There are only a few scholars over the centuries who have had knowledge enough to be able to read Old and Medieval Scandinavian(Norse, Danish and Swedish) and who also had time to document their findings in an edited book.

The Icelandic Sagas can be used to many things, describing the way people in Iceland wanted to present their own ”Greenland History”; presenting the thoughts that were at hand in Iceland during the Sagas writing. The inaccuracy in Landnámabók(late 12th Century) when Icelandic conditions and settling is at hand makes the value re. ”Historic facts” presented in it of less value than it would have been had the scholars who refer to them only asked themselves the most important question when a written source is used: Is the document written in time and place of the events told or not.

Over the years the discussion of what actually happened to the Greenlanders after the so called ”latest known” document a wedding between an Icelandic woman and a Greenlander took place around 1410. (Dates have been given from 1408-1411). That’s sad given the fact that we do have written sources up to 1520’s to be used telling us about events all in line of today’s known archaeologic studies which unfortunatly in their conclusion are unaware of the written sources and use to lean to Icelandic Sagas and Annals. For 1347 one often related passage in the later is:
”Þa kom di skp af Grænlandi/minna at vexti enu sma Islandz fór. Þat kom i Straum/fjord inn yttra. Þat var akkeris laust þar voru a xvij menn ok hofðu farit till Marklandz enn siðan vorðit hingat hafreka.”
Source: Jansen Henrik M, A critical account of the written and archaeological sources’ evidence concerning the Norse settlements in Greenland, Meddelelser om Grönland 182:4, 1972 with ref. to ”Islandske annaler til 1578” 1888 page 213 under 1347 AD(Skalhóltann)
Jansen’s translation from Old-Norse: ”Then a vessel, small sized, came from Greenland to Iceland. It came to Straumfjord. It had lost it’s anchor; they were 17 men and they had sailed to Markland but thereafter they were driven hither(i.e. Iceland)”

In this essay I will deal with one of the many old documents which still can be read. In reality there are several hundred documents in English, Scottish, Danish and Norse archieves only waiting to be told. Let’s not forget the Papal Diplomas, Monasteries Annals, Church Donation-books, Swedish Diplomas and documents in Lübeck, Hamburg, Lynn, Faero Island and Lynn as well.

Aar 1431. den tid Doctor Villem Spreen, og Her Hans Gremmersby først vaare her inde, da faaresætte Kong Erich dennem disse Klage paa de Norske hans Vndersaattis vegne, at det
holdis effter Norgis Rigis gammel Rettighed, Frihed, aff oc arrild Mands minde, huor imod intet kand siges, huilcken Norgis Rigis Frihed, Kong Erich oc haffuer soret at holde, da han antog hans Kongelig Krone, at icke de Engelske eller nogen Vdlendig oc Fremmede, vden Liffs oc Godsis Fortabelse, haffuer aldrig verit tilsted, eller maat løbe til Norgis Lande oc Indsler, som ere, Island, Grønland, Ferrø, Hetland, Ørckenøer, eller andre Øer,
Norgis Rige tilhørendis, til at kiøbslaa, vden til Bergen allene, som den almindelig Stappel, er aff Kiøbmend. Dette Forbunt haffue de Engelske freentlich offuertræd, nu vdi 20. Aar oc mere, Kongen, Riget, oc hans Vndersaatte sammesteds boendis, oc den handterendis Kiøbmand, icke vden stor Skade, oc som mere er, da haffuer de Engelske offuer dette Hoffmod oc forbunt, fientlig offuerfaldet mange Stæder vdi Norge, hans Vndersaatte met Roff, Brand, Ild, De haffue borttaget mange Skibe, met Fisk, oc andet Gods, visse Personer tilhørendis, mange haffue de drucknet oc omkommet Skibene tilhørde, Oc alligeuel de offte oc i mange Aar haffue giort de Norske stor skade, saa er det dog mere, end som nu optegnet er, naar det bliffuer offuerregnet, oc offuerueyet aff dennem som Skaden haffuer fanget, ………..
End of quotation.
Source Diplomatarium Norwegicum band 20, 794 from text in ”Danmarckis Rigis Krønicke” transcribed by Arrild Huitfeld, kvartutg. III 1603, 486-88 and Pholiat edition 1652, I, 761

Short summary:
King Eric[of Norway and the Norse ”skattland” the Atlantic islands, Denmark, Sweden, Pommern and ¾ of Finland] complain on behalf of his citizens to the English King’s representative Dr. William Sprever and to William Grymesby that Englishmen without permission had sailed to the Norse Islands ”Island, Grønland, Ferrø, Hetland, Ørckenøer, eller andre Øer” the last 20 years. (In English) to Iceland, Greenland, Faero Island, Shetland Island, Orkney Island and other islands during the last 20 years.
King Eric presents example of what the Englishmen have done. ”Roff, Brand, Ild, De haffue borttaget mange Skibe, met Fisk, oc andet Gods, visse Personer tilhørendis, mange haffue de drucknet oc omkommet Skibene tilhørde”. (In English) Raided, set fire stolen many ships, with fish and other cargo belonging to private persons [=Norse citizens] who have drowned or been killed when their ships were taken.
[In the unqoted text the total amount of money King Eric asks for from the English is given to ” 217348. Nobbel” – which was a large sum of money for any country to pay in the 15th Century.]

What does the text tells us?
First of all it tells, as so many other contemporary documents do that the trade between Europe and Greenland continued, at least by 1431, several ships travelled back and forth but many ships were raided by the English.

Secondly we know from the text that the Englismen raided Norse settlements. Greenland is mentioned in text. Thus we can assume that the Greenlanders still living in the Eastern Settlement wouldn’t have been to keen to show themselves to strangers arriving on for example English boats. Since the text distinctly talks about 20 years of raiding and the diploma was written 1431 we also have a plausible reason why the non-Scandinavian Europe might not have heard of the Greenlanders in official documents after 1411.
Thirdly the text tells us that the cargo sent from the Norse ”skattland” (Norse Islands who payed tax to the King of Norway) in 1431 still stood for a large part of the Norse Crown’s income. Thus we also can conclude that the English did their sailing not only for fishing the cod but also stole ships and cargo. If we look in other sources for what the Englishmen sailing to the Norse Atlantic Islands landed in England we will find that they landed furs and slaves. Slaves taken from ships they had raided.
Since the Icelanders in their documents complained that there hardly came any Norse ships to Iceland 1410-1430’s(I will return to this later), the furs still officially landed on Norse, Orkeney or Shetland ships in English harbours during the same period can’t be assumed to have been collected in Iceland on Norse ships. This means that the fur must have origin from other Norse Atlantic ”Islands”. Many of the furs came from animals not living in the Orkney, the Faero or the Shetland Islands. This means that the Norse sailors had had to collect their cargo somewhere else. For the reindeer’s skin Norway is a plausible if not the only answer to the question where. For the musk-ox we have to look at the western arctic region, possibly north of Disco Bay. On the other hand white headed eagles aren’t likely found in neither Greenland, Iceland, Faero Island nor in Norway. The Falcons origin can be discussed, the ivory still landed on Norse ships not.

In 1430’s there traffic between Norway and Norse European Islands on one side and Greenland were more common than we have been told. Still, the English raiding of Norse settlements in the Atlantic Islands and Norse ships travelling back and forth made the King of Norway lose a fortune each year.
A plausible reason why the English haven’t boasted over their raiding and attacks and why the Greenlanders no matter where they lived in the Western Hemisphere became less likely to contact arriving strangers can be found in the diploma.
There are still many details to be taken into consideration and valued. More than 150 written documents dealing with Greenland’s 15th Century History still at hand for the ones who take their time looking for them. I will return with more information later.

Inger E Johansson
© Johansson Inger E, Gothenburg February 2002.
edited in sciencegroups same month.


One Response to Greenland, a written source from 1431 AD.

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