The Icelandic Sagas are my favorite works of Medieval literature, which is perhaps why last nights program The Viking Deception (about the Vinland Map) disappointed me. I expected the program to show that the map was a forgery, which it did. However, I found that the tone of the show revealed hostility to any popular acceptance that the Vikings were the first Europeans to visit the Americas. So long as the Saga of the Greenlanders, the Saga of Eirik the Red, and L’Anse aux Meadows remained obscure references, then “in 1492 … .” The scholars seemed to be too invested in discrediting the map , discussing it not as a forgery but as something that disturbed historical conventions. Even the name of the program suggests that the Vikings deceive use, not the forgers.

I think one of the problems that the program unintentionally highlighted is the difficulty accepting oral knowledge. One of the scholars (the transcript will appear here in the future) claimed that the Vikings made no maps. Her statement was a simplification, because she explained Vikings made mental maps (taking cues from the visual landscape) in order to orient themselves.

The fact that Vikings did not make maps is, however, not proof that the Vinland Map could not predate Columbus. Maps were made based on chronicles and memoirs. Gyula Papay notes that Lucas Brandis de Schas produced one of the first new mappings of the Holy Land in 1472 based on the 13th-century travels of a Dominican. Someone could have used the information in the “Vinland Sagas”, which were somewhat specific in the orientation of landmasses and provided some compelling details about geology and environment, to create a map of far-off and inhospitable places. The Saga of the Greenlanders even suggests how oral knowledge was used to plot journeys. Bjarni Herjolfsson, who (probably) sighted Newfoundland because he missed Greenland, employs knowledge that is given to him in order to understand his spatial positioning.

Bjarni then spoke: “Our journey will be thought an ill-considered one, since none of us has sailed the Greenland Sea.” …

After [many days] they saw the sun and could take their bearings. Hoisting the sail, they sailed for the rest of the day before sighting land. They speculated among themselves as to what land this would be, for Bjarni suspected that this was not Greenland. …

They [sailed close to the land], and soon saw that the land was not mountainous but did have small hills, and was covered with forests. Keeping it on their portside, they turnedtheir sail-end landwards and angled away from the shore.

They sailed again for another two days before sighting land again.

[Bjarni] said he thought this was not more likely to be Greenland than the previous land — “since there are said to be very large glaciers in Greenland.”

They soon approached the land and saw that it was flat and wooded. …

He told them to hoist the sail and they did so, turning the stern towards the shore and sailing seawards. For three days they sailed with the wind from the south-west until they saw a third land. This landhad high mountains, capped by a glacier.

They asked whether Bjarni wished to make land here, but he said he did not wish to do so — “as this land seems to me to offer nothing of use.”

Once more they turned their stern landwards and sailed out to sea with the same breeze. … They sailed for four days.

Upon seeing a fourth land they asked Bjarni whether he thought this was Greenland or not. Bjarni answered, “This land is most like what I have been told about Greenland, and we’ll head for shore here.” [Ironically, he was ridiculed for not making land and bringing back concrete evidence of the lands that he sighted.]

Vikings believed that there was land beyond Greenland, but that is not in itself compelling. They imagined that there was always land to be found somewhere out west. But their image of the world drove them to find those lands (with the assistance of demographic pressures of early colonies). Unfortunatly, the millenium of Lief Eiricksson journey were not greeted either with the same enthusiasm or criticism of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’. Joachum Kupper asks:

… why the same kind of historical event, the sudden emergence of continents hitherto unknown to Europeans, could in one case kindle the process of modernity, while in the other it remained virtually irrelevant—so irrelevant, indeed, that despite Leiv’s discovery being a generally accepted fact nowadays, Columbus alone continues to be considered as the actual discoverer.

Too often the orality of old tales is dismissed out of hand — usually with good reason, because the time between the usefulness of oral knowledge and the documentation is quite long, and too much time is allowed for new interpretations to take affect. (This can also be taken as a sign of genuinness: Genesis refers to customs and traditions that the biblical scribes could not have known about first hand — evidence that the stories came from a much earlier era.)

The time between the events of the Vinland Sagas and their documentation is short — just over two centuries. The knowledge within the sagas might still have been valid when they were written down. The sagas should always have been considered more authoritative than the Vinland Map. But the visuality of the map always made it more compelling, the orality of the sagas made them more suspicious.