Jette Arneborg on Trade

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Because the Greenland colonies date to the Medieval Period when written records became common both in Scandinavia and Iceland, these records tell a detailed story about Norse Greenland: its economy, political structure, the role of the Church, relations with Europe, and about the land and its Native inhabitants. Records on trade are especially informative, providing information on the unique products that Greenland alone could supply - walrus ivory and walrus and seal skin rope, falcons, polar bear pelts (and even the occasional live polar bear cub), eider down, narwhale ivory, falcons - as well as products like ox and sheep hides, wool, and homespun wadmal fabric. When this trade network collapsed in the fourteenth century, the Greenland colonies also collapsed.

Hvalsey Church
Hvalsey Church
These records show changes in the conduct of Greenland trade over time. According to the late 11th century Historia Norvegiae (History of Norway), profits from the Greenland trade were of much interest to the Catholic church in Nidaros (Trondheim), but the proprietors were independent merchants--Greenlanders, Icelanders, or Norwegians-who braved the seas and could trade with whomever they liked. But by the 12th century few Greenlanders owned ocean-going vessels; their few remaining boats were dedicated to walrus hunting in the Nordsetur hunting grounds.

In 1261, Greenland formally joined the Norwegian kingdom, thereby losing their ability to trade independently. This business fell to specialized trading monopolies based in the Norwegian king's trading port in Bergen, where trade goods could be stored safely under the king's protection, in return, of course, for a heavy king's tax.

Other historical records from the 14th century foreshadow the extinction of the Greenland colonies. A letter to Pope Alexander VI suggested a ship should be sent to Greenland, since, "because of the very infrequent sailings which were wont to be made to the aforesaid country due to the severe freezing of the seas, no ship is believed to have put in to land there for eighty years." This lack of interest in maintaining trade contacts with Greenland might have been spurred by the traumatic political conditions caused by the Black Death of A.D. 1348 and other plagues and famines.

Another sign of collapse comes from the Description of Greenland, a report written by Ivar Bardarson for the bishop of Bergen, describing conditions he observed sometime between A.D. 1341-60. In addition to inventorying Church property in the Eastern Settlement, he visited the Western Settlement, noting "now the Skraeling have [destroyed] the whole of the Western Settlement. There are only horses, goats, cattle, and sheep all wild, but no inhabitants, neither Christian nor Heathen." Bardarson's comment is the most explicit historical statement on the cause of the extinction of the Western Settlement, but his statement has not been confirmed.

While Bardarson's account is used to date the extinction of the Western, another historic event fixes the probable end date for the larger Eastern Settlement. A Christian wedding between Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson at the Hvalsey Church in the Eastern Settlement in A.D. 1408 was recorded in Iceland a few years later. This is the last historical word from Norse Greenland. Historians believe that it is likely the Eastern Settlement.