- Norse Greenland: Viking Peasants in the Arctic by Arnved Nedkvitne
Framed as a mystery, the question of why the Norse settlements in Greenland disappeared during the fifteenth century has been subject to multiple theories. The legendary settler Eiríkr rauði came to Greenland in the 980s and established the settlement Austurbyggð in its southern part. In the early fifteenth century, the young, unified kingdom of Denmark-Norway lost contact with the settlements, and new expeditions were only sent there again in the seventeenth century to re-establish contact. In 1721, the missionary Hans Egede established a colonial presence in Greenland, leading to the modern Scandinavian colonization of a country that at that time was inhabited solely by Inuit, but was occasionally visited by European whalers. With the Treaty of Kiel, Norway became a Swedish protectorate in 1814. This paved the way for full sovereignty in 1905. In 1931, Norway established a brief presence in northeastern Greenland and claimed this part of the country on authority of Eiríkr rauði's ancient settlement. This matter was laid to rest in the international court in 1933, when the territory was ceded to Denmark. To this day, Greenland remains a part of the Danish commonwealth, called Rigsfællesskabet.
It is with the history of Dano-Norwegian colonization in mind that Professor Emeritus of Medieval Norwegian History Arnved Nedkvitne's Norse Greenland: Viking Peasants in the Arctic must be understood. The book is in most aspects thoroughly researched, and Nedkvitne demonstrates an impressive ability to handle a large and diverse body of source material. His critical assessments of earlier research of Norse Greenland, not least the developments in archaeological investigations emanating from Copenhagen, are well-founded. He rightfully criticizes the tendentious Danish archaeological hegemony in Greenland and points out—what is true for any research field that exhibits insular behavior—that mistakes and wrongful assumptions are reproduced, while new ideas and methods take longer to find a foothold, if they do at all. The book's sections on church and religion, trade and shipping, and parts of the sections on political organization and subsistence food production rest on a solid research foundation and appropriate interpretation by Nedkvitne.
Where Nedkvitne's exposition deviates from convincing interpretation, however, is in the strenuous attempts to argue that Greenlandic Norse society had a Norwegian identity and that the collapse of this society resulted from ethnic conflict with Inuit. Nedkvitne frequently refers to a "politically correct" attitude among Danish and American researchers who, according to him, have downplayed evidence of conflict in support of a postcolonial perspective that favors harmonious coexistence (p. 340). [End Page 543] Norse Greenland seems to be dominated by an attitude toward the twin-state period that emphasizes oppression from Copenhagen. This comes to the fore when Nedkvitne characterizes the Norwegian King Håkon 6's queen, Margaret 1: "She lived in Denmark and her perspective was Danish" (p. 211). Historians who do not labor under the implicit assumptions that come with the legacy of the last two centuries of history writing in Scandinavia would be hard-pressed to identify exactly what constitutes the "Danish perspective" of an elite Catholic woman in medieval Northern Europe, whose mother was from Schleswig and whose grandmother was from Pomerania. Nonetheless, the inherent "Danishness" and the inherent "Norwegianness" of historical, near contemporary, and contemporary figures are invoked throughout the work. This perspective relegates the specific identity of the Greenlandic Norse and their relationship to Iceland to a marginal position.
The focus on an inherent "Norwegianness" coupled with an othering of other ethnic groups has relevance for Nedkvitne's hypothesis about the collapse of Norse society: since these were Norwegian farmers, it could hardly be changing climatic conditions that brought them down. They were too hardy and cunning for that, so it must have been conflicts with Inuit. This claim stands in stark contrast to prevailing, and continuously expanding, hypotheses that suggest that a combination of climatic conditions, declining ivory supplies, the plague, and the lack of available wood caused depopulation and collapse in the Greenlandic settlements. Nedkvitne...