Exam Question

Both the Vikings (around the year 1000) and the Spanish (from 1492) were Europeans who set foot in the New World. But a majority of the people in the New World now speak Spanish as their native language, while virtually no one speaks Old Norse. What explains the Spanish success at colonization?

This question uses language as a gauge of colonial success, but does it deserve to be? A fuller picture involving law, religion, technology, music, clothing, and other folkways might be more useful. There may, after all, be something “recessive” about some languages. As we learned in class, everywhere the Vikings settled, whether northern England, Ireland, Normandy, or Russia, saw them lose their language within a generation – often without them losing their fighting spirit! The only place this did not occur was Iceland, where there was no local population to get absorbed into. If the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was not abandoned, it is entirely possible that John Cabot, when he arrived in Newfoundland in 1497, would have been surprised to meet blonde-haired Beothuks employing Viking technology. That might indicate some colonial success. Similarly, in Latin America, Spanish may have extinguished native languages, but many native customs continued unmolested.

Be that as it may, it is manifestly apparent that the Spanish colonial enterprise was more successful than the Viking by any number of metrics. L’Anse Aux Meadows was occupied for perhaps five years, and the two small Greenland settlements were abandoned in the fifteenth century, while much of the New World was “New Spain” from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. What explains the difference?

One explanation might be simple geography. Greenland and Newfoundland, even in the medieval warm period, did not have as much to offer in terms of exploitable resources as Central America and the Caribbean. Similarly, the Aztec and Incan empires were already civilized, and all the Spanish needed to do was replace the rulers at the top to win the whole thing; the conquering had already been done for them. Such conditions did not prevail in the extreme northeast.

But differences in time are probably more significant. The five-hundred year gap between Leif Erikson and Hernán Cortés saw the advent of a number of technological and cultural changes that gave an impressive advantage to the Spanish in their colonial endeavors. The medieval silk road that flourished under the Mongols gave Europeans a taste for Asian luxury goods, and the advent of the Ottoman Empire, which impeded this traffic, impelled Europeans to find alternate routes to Asia. Various technologies borrowed from the Arabs and/or developed through Mediterranean commerce allowed Europeans to sail longer distances out of sight of land, such as lateen sails and fixed rudders (allowing ships to tack against the wind, and obviating the need for galley crews), the astrolabe (for determining latitude), the magnetic compass (for determining cardinal directions when the sun or stars are occluded), or the traverse board (for plotting distance traveled). Such technologies allowed for a transatlantic voyage, something the Vikings were not capable of. That it was the Spanish who discovered the New World is also no accident – the union of Castile and Aragon, and its 1492 defeat of Grenada, completing the reconquista, gave it an overweening sense of self-confidence. God was on their side! The fact that Portugal was establishing a route to Asia down the coast of Africa make the Spanish fearful, and willing to gamble on a trans-Oceanic route. This is another difference between 1000 and 1500 – states were simply more powerful, and in competition with each other.

But perhaps the most significant event to occur in Europe between 1000 and 1500 was the Black Death. Europeans alive in 1500 were the descendants of people who had survived the plague (and other diseases like smallpox and swine influenza). They could still die from these diseases, of course, but they had a much greater chance of surviving them than did the native Americans, whose bodies were more evolved to counter parasites than microbes. This biological weapon (coupled with other weapons like firearms and steel swords, the other points of Jared Diamond’s triad, and domesticated fauna like attack dogs and ridable horses), gave the Spanish, and eventually other Europeans, an overwhelming advantage at conquest and colonization.

From Greenland’s Icy Mountains…

From Tim Folger in Smithsonian.com, an interesting article about a new theory on the fate of Greenland’s Viking community:

Archaeologists once assumed that the Norse in Greenland were primarily farmers who did some hunting on the side. Now it seems clear that the reverse was true. They were ivory hunters first and foremost, their farms only a means to an end….

When the Norse arrived in Greenland, there were no locals to teach them how to live. “The Scandinavians had this remarkable ability to colonize these high-latitude islands,” says Andrew Dugmore. “You have to be able to hunt wild animals; you have to build up your livestock; you have to work hard to exist in these areas….This is about as far as you can push the farming system in the Northern Hemisphere.”…

For all their intrepidness, though, the Norse were far from self-sufficient, and imported grains, iron, wine and other essentials. Ivory was their currency. “Norse society in Greenland couldn’t survive without trade with Europe,” says Arneborg, “and that’s from day one.”

Then, in the 13th century, after three centuries, their world changed profoundly. First, the climate cooled because of the volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Sea ice increased, and so did ocean storms—ice cores from that period contain more salt from oceanic winds that blew over the ice sheet. Second, the market for walrus ivory collapsed, partly because Portugal and other countries started to open trade routes into sub-Saharan Africa, which brought elephant ivory to the European market. “The fashion for ivory began to wane,” says Dugmore, “and there was also the competition with elephant ivory, which was much better quality.” And finally, the Black Death devastated Europe. There is no evidence that the plague ever reached Greenland, but half the population of Norway—which was Greenland’s lifeline to the civilized world—perished.

The Norse probably could have survived any one of those calamities separately. After all, they remained in Greenland for at least a century after the climate changed, so the onset of colder conditions alone wasn’t enough to undo them. Moreover, they were still building new churches—like the one at Hvalsey—in the 14th century. But all three blows must have left them reeling. With nothing to exchange for European goods—and with fewer Europeans left—their way of life would have been impossible to maintain. The Greenland Vikings were essentially victims of globalization and a pandemic.

Read the whole thing.


An amusing observation from my friend Sasha Volokh:

We call English-speaking people “Anglophones”. But remember that Britain was settled in the 5th century not just by Angles, but also by Saxons and Jutes. Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia were Anglian kingdoms, Kent was a Jutish kingdom, and Wessex, Essex, and Sussex were the kingdoms of the western, eastern, and southern Saxons. (Those seven kingdoms together make up the so-called “Heptarchy“.)

Anyway, as you know if you’ve watched The Last Kingdom, the Vikings wiped out all the kingdoms except for Wessex in the ninth century. So if the last of the surviving Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was the kingdom of the West Saxons, maybe that means we should be…


Actually, given the termination of the names of the three southern Saxon kingdoms, native speakers of English might be called “sexophones,” and speak “Sexish” (not “Anglish”). (Although let us not denigrate the subsequent influence of Danish and Norman French on the development of our great tongue!)


  • 155-year-old mousetrap, on display in the Museum of English Rural Life, claims its latest victim.
  • The Helgo Treasure, from Viking Age Sweden, includes a bronze Irish crozier, a Coptic ladle, and a bronze Buddha from the Indian subcontinent – a testament to how much Vikings were plugged into early medieval trading networks.
  • Related: a Viking woman was buried with a ring reading “For Allah.”

Vikings in Greenland

From the Guardian:

New analysis casts doubt on theory that change in climate influenced Vikings to move to Greenland in 985, and posits it would have been relatively cold

The Vikings’ arrival and departure from Greenland was not heavily influenced by the so-called medieval warm period, according to new research that casts doubt that the climatic change was a global phenomenon.

Viking seafarers, led by Erik the Red, are understood to have expanded from Iceland to south-western Greenland around 985. The Norse population grew to about 3,000 to 5,000 settlers, harvesting walrus ivory and raising livestock. But the colonies disappeared by 1460, with the local Inuit population remaining as the only inhabitants before Europeans again arrived in the 1700s.

Previous theories have suggested that a warming climate allowed Norse people to push further north to the frigid expanses of Greenland, before leaving as temperatures dropped again. In what has become known as the medieval warm period, temperatures rose from around 950, with the generally balmier conditions lasting until 1250, before the arrival of what is known as the little ice age.

But new analysis of glaciers in Greenland shows that there was no significant change in their extent during the medieval warm period, suggesting that it remained relatively cold throughout the Viking colonisation of Greenland.

The Vikings Again

From Medievalists.net, via my friend Roman Kovalev:


Thousand-year-old crucible provides more evidence of the Vikings in Canada’s Arctic

Although it was found about fifty years ago, archaeologists have just determined that a small stone container discovered on Baffin Island in Canada’s Arctic region was actually part of metallurgical equipment used by the Vikings around the year 1000 A.D.

The findings were revealed in an article published in the journal Geoarchaeology, by archaeologist Patricia Sutherland. She and her co-authors report that scanning electron microscopy was employed to determine if metal traces were present in a small stone container (about 48 mm tall) from an archaeological site on Cape Tanfield, part of the southern coast of Baffin Island.

They found that the interior of the vessel contained fragments of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, as well as small spherules of glass which are formed when rock is heated to high temperatures. The object is a crucible for melting bronze, likely in order to cast it into small tools or ornaments. The crucible appears to have been broken while in use, suggesting that it was likely used at the locality where it was found.

The artifact was originally excavated during the 1960s and identified as the fragment of a small soapstone pot made by the local indigenous people, the Palaeo-Eskimo who occupied the area in the centuries around 1000 A.D. However among the Palaeo-Eskimo artifacts Sutherland has identified a wide range of specimens that resemble those used by Europeans of the Viking and medieval periods. These include lengths of yarn spun from the fur of local animals, whetstones bearing metal traces from tools that had been sharpened, and tally sticks of the type used for recording transactions.


More at the link.