SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
PATRICK STEVENS: Good afternoon. My name is Patrick Stevens. I'm curator of the Fiske Collections here at the Division of Rare Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. It is a pleasure to welcome all of you today to a reading by Nancy Marie Brown, author of The Far Traveler. There are a number of copies you will see around here as the afternoon progresses.
This reading is sponsored by the Division of Rare Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, home the renowned Fiske Icelandic Collection, of which I have the honor to be curator. I would like to thank all who created this event, especially Michael Good, general books manager at the Cornell Store; Ellen Marsh, Chris Phillip, and the entire library communications team; Elena Engst, director of the Division of Rare Manuscript Collections, and Connie Fennerty of the division.
Nancy Marie Brown and her husband, the writer Charles Fergus, have lived in Iceland and come to know the people, their language and lore, the land, and the environment. in 2001, Nancy published A Good Horse Has No Color-- Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse.
The Far Traveler, Voyages of a Viking Woman, depicts Guoríour Thorbjarnardottir, the medieval Icelandic heroine whose name Nancy mercifully renders as Gudrid, before a brilliant Norse background of seafaring ships, working farms, and woven wool revealed to us through sagas, technology, and archaeology.
In her research, Nancy navigated the fjords of Greenland, worked at an archaeological dig in Iceland, and learned from experimental archaeologists in Denmark how many hundred feet of thread a Viking woman could spin from 10 grams of wool.
Gisli Palsson, an Icelander who has written widely on anthropology and exploration, praised Nancy's-- and I quote here-- vivid imagination, detailed research, and above all, skillful narration in a book that-- I quote again-- convincingly reconstructs a series of spectacular events from distant times and contexts. Curtis Reviews described The Far Traveler as a marvously sneaky history of the Viking mind.
NANCY MARIE BROWN: [ICELANDIC]. Thank you. As Patrick said, my new book, The Far Traveler, tells the story of Gudrid, the far traveler, a Viking woman who crossed the North Atlantic eight times in an open boat 1,000 years ago.
To tell her story, I approached the past for two very different kinds of sources-- medieval literature and modern archeology. I've been a science writer for 25 years, but I've been interested in the Vikings a lot longer-- ever since I learned that Tolkien taught the Vikings at Oxford University. He taught saga literature. He and C.S. Lewis had a club where they translated the Icelandic sagas for fun. And when I was a graduate student, I thought that would be a really nice idea to do.
These tales of glory, love, hard times, and strife are Iceland's claim to literary fame. But the two sagas that mention Gudrid are not the best. They're very short. Their plots don't hang together. Their use of folktale motifs, such as ghosts and fortunetellers, is clumsy. To me, they read like sketches from a writer's notebook.
So to learn what the sagas weren't telling me about the lives of women in the Viking Age, I turned to science. I volunteered for five weeks on a dig in Iceland. I interviewed archaeologists and visited Viking sites in Norway, Denmark, Scotland, Greenland, and Newfoundland.
Now, when I say Vikings, you're probably thinking of those bloodthirsty berserkers who terrorized the monks of Lindisfarne in 793 and sacked Paris and London and Hamburg and Seville and a town on the Mediterranean called Luna, which they thought was Rome. Or maybe you're thinking of Leif Erikson, who discovered America in the year 1000.
Leif gets all the credit, but after he saw the New World, he never went back. It was his sister, his sister-in-law, Gudrid, who was the real explorer. So I'm going to introduce you to her by reading the beginning of The Far Traveler .
1,000 years ago, an old woman named Gudrid stood on the threshold of her house, contemplating her next voyage. Now, I stand there in her stead, looking out at a long bank of treeless mountains. A pass to the east leads up along a leaping stream into high pastures that, as I watch, are lit by a shaft of sunlight, and, as quickly, fade back to gray.
I turn away. Get back to work. I've spent the summer with a team of archaeologists, uncovering the remains of Gudrid's house with shovel and trowel. And today, in a misty cold rain, my Icelandic sweater smeared with mud, I must help rebury it.
For five long weeks, we traced the outline of this Viking long house, finding the four rooms Gudrid lived in, the doors she entered and left by, our only clues the colors and patterns in the hard, packed earth. The house, built of blocks of turf or sod laid up in a herringbone pattern, was abandoned and flattened sometime in the half century between 1050 and 1104.
The date that sticks in my mind is 1066, the end of the Viking Age. In the years since then, Gudrid's house was buried by wind blown soil and so preserved for the archaeologists to find-- eight inches below the plowed zone in the hayfield at Glaumbaer, Farm of Merry Noise, in northern Iceland.
For these scientists, laying landscape fabric on the top of the walls and piling dirt back on by the bucketful is an ordinary end-of-the-season chore-- putting the site to bed, as they say. They don't even complain about the rain. To me, it is the untimely end of a grand adventure.
True, we have photographs and drawings. The computers store a floor plan of Gudrid's house keyed to a GPS grid, so it can easily be found again. But a remote sensing device called ground penetrating radar had given us tantalizing images of what could be a flagstone patio outside Gudrid's front door, and the central hearth in her main hall. Those floor level features are a foot deeper than we had dug this summer, not to mention the needles, combs, spindle whorls, or spoons, glass beads, brass pins, and parts of a loom that we could expect to find forgotten on a Viking woman's floor.
There wouldn't be much to collect. Gudrid's family had not left in a hurry. And they hadn't moved far-- just a few hundred feet up the hill, to build a grander house overlooking the river plain. They would have taken all their valuables with them. But there might have been enough to let me feel I had held in my hand something Gudrid herself had dropped.
Then there was the puzzle of the horse skull, found two days ago in the middle of what should be Gudrid's weaving room. The rest of the horse might be there too, and perhaps even a human skeleton, for in Viking Iceland, a man or woman was often buried with a favorite horse. And other graves had been found just down the valley, dug into a ruined longhouse.
But the archaeologists, knowing they were out of time and money, were practical. They recorded the skull's position, and covered it right back up. I seemed to be the only one fretting that there is no money and no plan to reopen the dig next year.
But the Gudrid I imagine, standing on her threshold 1,000 years ago, watching the winds comb the woolly clouds across the flat-topped mountains, would not have been sad. She would have turned to look north, where the valley widens out to sea, and smiled. For her, a new adventure was beginning.
Despite her age-- she was soon to be a grandmother-- she was on her way across the sea to Norway, and then south to Rome. This pilgrimage was not the first or the farthest of her voyages. 20 years before, she had sailed west from Greenland off the edge of the known world. She was 19, newlywed for the second or third time, and pregnant for the first.
With her were her husband, Thorfinn Karlsefni, and three Viking crews in clinker-built boats. They were sailing to Vinland, a fabulous land that Leif Erikson, son of Greenland's founder, Erik the Red, had washed up on a few years back when he was caught in a summer storm, sailing west across the icy North Atlantic from Norway.
It was Gudrid's second attempt to get to Vinland. She meant to settle in this new world. At summer's end, the crews beached their ships on a grassy shore and built a longhouse out of turf. There, Gudrid gave birth to her son, Snorri. For three years, they explored their Vinland, or wine land. They found salmon and halibut, tall trees and lush grasslands, wine grapes, and a grain like wheat.
They saw islands full of eider ducks, bears, or foxes, mountains, and marvelous beaches, fjords with fierce currents, and wide tidal lagoons. And they met strangers whose language they could not understand, strangers who had never seen an ax or a bull, who were delighted by the taste of milk, and traded packs full of furs for thin strips of red wool cloth, strangers who fought with stone-tipped arrows, and whose numbers were overwhelming.
After three years, the Vikings abandoned their settlement. Only one of their three ships made it back to Greenland. From there, Gudrid, Karlsefni, and little Snorri sailed to Norway, where they sold their cargo of exotic goods, then turned west again, wealthy, to settle in Iceland.
They spent the first winter on Karlsefni's family farm. But his mother and Gudrid did not get along, the story goes, so the couple bought a farm nearby. They named it Glaumbaer, Farm of Merry Noise, put up a longhouse, and had a second son.
When Karlsefni died a few years later, Gudrid ran the farm and raised her sons alone. She prospered and endowed a church. And, as an old woman, stood on the doorstep for a moment or two, watching the wind hurry the clouds across the mountains, before setting off for Rome.
Most people know the Vikings explored North America 500 years before Columbus. They recognize the name Leif Erikson and his father, Erik the Red, who discovered Greenland in 985 and set up a settlement there, for which Leif was heading when he was blown off course and spied land farther west.
Fewer have heard of the voyages of Gudrid the far traveler. Yet in the 1960s, archaeologists proved part of her story true when they found a Viking settlement on the far northwestern tip of Newfoundland. After 40 years of argument and analysis, the experts conclude that this small settlement, called L'Anse aux Meadows, after a nearby village, was a base camp from which Vikings from Iceland and Greenland explored North America just after the year 1000.
Butternuts and a burle of butternut wood worked by a metal tool prove the Vikings went well into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, toward modern-day Quebec, or south to New England, where butternut trees and the wild grapes for which wine land was named naturally grow. The whorl from a spindle used for spinning yarn proves a Viking woman was with them.
Then in 2001, John Steinberg, an archaeologist from the University of California at Los Angeles, began working in Skagafjordur, the valley in northern Iceland where the stories say Gudrid finally made her home. He and his crew planned to map all the Viking age and later medieval houses in one part of the valley to see how the settlement had changed over time.
They took small soil samples to gauge the richness and depth of the soil, and to look for charcoal or other signs of human activity. Where things looked interesting, they walked over the area, carrying a remote sensing device.
Surveying Glaumbaer, Steinberg and his crew found signs in the hayfield, where tradition said no houses should be, of a Viking age longhouse. A map of the walls beneath the soil, drawn by the remote sensing gadget, and two small test trenches suggested that the longhouse at Glaumbaer looked like no other known house of its time in Iceland. Its floor most resembled one found at L'Anse aux Meadows.
When I heard about the buried house at Glaumbaer in August 2002, I knew Steinberg had found the house Karlsefni had built for Gudrid when they returned from their Vinland adventure. It seemed that Gudrid really had quarreled with her mother-in-law. Plus, if the two houses were alike, Steinberg had proof that someone, Gudrid, had moved from Newfoundland to Iceland 1,000 years ago.
Steinberg was not ready then, and still isn't now, to make either of these claims. But he did let me help excavate the house. When I showed up at Glaumbaer in July 2005, awkwardly wielding my brand new Marshalltown trowel, he had a few words of warning. You're going to like archeology, he said. Five weeks won't be enough.
He was right. Archeology used to be about finding artifacts. A bronze cloak pin and a handful of ships rivets told us L'Anse aux Meadows was a Viking site. In Iceland, an inlaid cross and a silver Thor's hammer amulet found in the same 10th century grave told us the Vikings hedged their bets, while a horde of hacksilver, arm rings, and chains proved the Vikings did bring home and bury their treasure.
But in the last 10 to 20 years, modern science has made the world of the Vikings much more vivid and complex. Studies of volcanic ash and the Greenland ice cap have allowed scientists to date layers of soil in Iceland, and thus the house walls found in them, to exact years.
New ways of collecting minuscule evidence, such as pollen grains, seeds, flies, lice, and fleas, have revealed disastrous environmental changes caused by Viking farming methods. The isotopes of carbon in skeletal bone, the wear on sheep's teeth, the frequency of headless fish in garbage heaps, and the geographical distribution of seal parts have revealed what Gudrid and her peers ate, how they traded for favorite foods from farm to farm, and how they managed their sheep herds to maximize wool exports.
Tree ring studies can pinpoint when and where a Viking ship was made or patched, while sea trials of replicas reveal their speeds, their special handling qualities, and their weak points. DNA analyses can say where the settlers of Iceland, and thus Greenland and Vinland, came from, and show whether the tension between the new Christian religion and the ancient cults of Odin and Thor tore families apart.
Metal detectors and the newer remote sensing methods that use microwaves and other electromagnetic waves to see through the surface of the ground are locating not only buried turf houses, like the one at Glaumbaer. But Viking garbage pits and hay barns and boat houses and graves. By allowing experts to map out whole Viking settlements, they can reveal who was richer than whom and how power was gained or lost.
Science can now tell me what a woman like Gudrid ate and wore, what she worked at, where her place was within her society. What it can't tell me is why Gudrid was so remarkable, so utterly unlike our image of a woman of her time. Medieval women, everyone knows, did not stray far from home. But Gudrid traveled from Canada to Rome. She crossed the North Atlantic eight times. She earned the nickname the far traveler.
So I'm going to turn to some slides now. We'll need to take the lights down and turn on the slide projector. OK. The Far Traveler covers a lot of cultural history that I'm not going to talk to you about today-- how to sail a Viking ship, how to build a long house, how to weave a cloak or a sail, both of which were done only by women, what the Vikings ate, how their language affected ours, the status of women in the society, and how Christianity slowly changed their world.
What I'm going to focus on today are Gudrid and her voyages. She was born on Snaefellsnes, on the western tip of Iceland. The landscape in the west of Iceland is dominated by this great glacier Snaefellsjokull, which means "snow mountains glacier."
Beneath the glacier hides a volcano, known to the people of Gudrid's day only from a pleasant side effect. Water hot enough for washing bubbled up from the ground not far away. The farm where Gudrid was born is now marked with a statue of her. It is called Laugarbrekka, or "hot springs slope." It was claimed by Gudrid's maternal grandfather during the settlement of Iceland, which lasted from about 870 to 930 AD.
There were no indigenous people living in Iceland when the Vikings arrived, so a family could claim as much land as they could hold onto. The first ones to come claimed huge plots and set themselves up as chieftains. They gave land to anyone who agreed to fight for them. This grandfather came from Norway. But Gudrid's paternal grandfather came from Scotland. Recent DNA studies of the modern Icelandic population have shown that the men are 80% Scandinavian and 20% Celtic. But the women are 40% Scandinavian and 60% Celtic. And many of the settlers who came from the British Isles, like Gudrid's grandfather, were Christian.
Gudrid's grandfathers were not only Vikings, they were farmers. The economy of early Iceland was based on making hay, since grass is the only crop that grows reliably in Iceland's harsh climate. This is a hay field at Laugarbrekka. The tussocks, or [ICELANDIC], in the foreground are caused by frost heaving. Those that I'm standing on are the remains of a turf house.
The Vikings needed hay to feed their horses, cows, and sheep. Horses were necessary for transportation, since there are not many navigable rivers in Iceland. Cows were highly valued, because the Viking diet was based on milk and cheese. One of Gudrid's chores throughout her life would have been milking the cows and making butter and cheese, which was sometimes stored in bogs or up in the ice of the glacier. They also ate a lot of, meats pickled and sour whey.
They milked their sheep also. Sheep's milk has more vitamin C than cow's milk. But sheep were mostly prized for their wool, which not only provided the Vikings' own clothing, it was their only export product. To keep her family and servants well dressed, Gudrid would have had to clean, sort, and spin the wool of 100 sheep a year. To make the sail for a Viking ship required a million feet of thread. It took two women four and a half years to make and used the wall of more than 200 sheep. And I know this because there are two women in Copenhagen at the Center for Textile Research who did this. It was the dissertation of one of them. Keep that in mind.
Because of the sheep and the cows and the horses, by 100 years after the settlement of Iceland, erosion was becoming a problem. In the next series of photographs, you can see what grazing animals did to Iceland's landscape. Even today, the sheep eat off the grass and the wind starts working at the exposed soil. The pasture turns into sand dunes, with a few tufts of grass showing, until, in some places, all you have is sand.
This photograph is, again, Laugarbrekka, the farm where Gudrid was born. And you can see how much of it is bare gravel and sand, even though the farm has been abandoned for many years. In the year 1000, when Gudrid was about 15, her father took her to Greenland, where he hoped to begin again. Erosion may have been one of the reasons he left Iceland.
Gudrid's father was a good friend of Erik the Red, who had discovered Greenland and set up the Viking colony there in 985. So when they arrived, Erik gave them a farm. But Greenland wasn't really an improvement over Iceland. archaeologists can tell this by comparing the Viking longhouses they have found in Iceland and Greenland.
This is a reconstruction of Erik the Red's house, Eiríksstadir, in Iceland. Gudrid would have grown up in a house just like this one.
It is essentially a post and beam wood frame with thick outside walls built up from blocks of sod or turf. The inside space is divided into three rooms by wooden partitions. The central living room had a long fireplace down the center, flanked by wide, wooden benches to sleep on, and paneled walls with decorative carving.
Here's the reconstruction of Brattahlid, which is Eric's house in Greenland. These two reconstructions are based on actual excavations. Strangely, the houses archaeologists found in Iceland and in Greenland are exactly the same size. An archaeologist from Iceland's National Museum believes wood was so precious that the immigrants literally pulled up stakes and brought the posts and beams and paneling of their houses with them. He actually tried it with this replica. It was built in Iceland, then taken down and transported to Greenland.
This is Eriksfjord in Greenland. The story goes that Erik the Red gave Greenland the name he did because people would be more inclined to go there if it had a nice name. But actually, Greenland is more icy and Iceland is more green.
This fjord is about a five-mile walk from Erik the Red's homestead. I was there in May, when the lambs were being born and the fjord was still full of ice.
This is the area of Eriksfjord where Gudrid lived most of her years in that country. You can see the mouth of the glacier there on the right. And where the glacial river meets the fjord is now the site of an international airport.
The area is also where they have placed the new arboretum, trying to grow trees in Greenland. Throughout Greenland, it is very rare to see a tree taller than I am. That's true throughout much of Iceland also.
The Viking economy in Greenland was based on hay and grazing animals, just as it had been in Iceland. Eriksfjord is the only part of Greenland where sheep are still raised. And the industry is heavily subsidized by the government.
They still have a few horses for recreation. But they've given up on raising cows. There is no fresh milk in Greenland today. I talked to a farmer who had tried it, and she said the problem was that the only calves she got were male.
Erik the Red had initially built his house at the top of this hill, about where the sheep barn is now. If you've read Jared Diamond's book Collapse, you'll know that one of the theories why the Viking settlement in Greenland disappeared in the early 1400s was that the cows and sheep caused such bad erosion that the environment was destroyed. The people refused to make do with fish and seal meat, and so they starved.
I interviewed several of the same scientists that Jared Diamond did. And they believe he misinterpreted their work. Some newer studies show that the Vikings were much better land managers, and they were able to keep the same numbers of cows and sheep until they left their farms. So it's still a mystery why the colony collapsed.
This is the Lysufjord in Greenland, about six days by ship north of Eriksfjord. Lysufjord means codfish fjord. It is the only other big green patch in Greenland, and the site of what the Vikings called their Western settlement.
When Gudrid was about 17, she married Leif Erikson's brother, Thorstein, who owned part of all of a farm here. And they lived there one winter. Their farm was called Sandnes, or sandy point. A visitor remarked on its richness in 1755, tallying up its birch trees and grazing lands, beaches full of edible seaweed, reindeer, seals, salmon, seabirds, and birds' eggs. He concluded, I thought to myself that it would be good to build a farm there on either side of that river, saying, I have never eaten so many blueberries.
These mountains mark the head of the Lysufjord near Nuuk, the modern capital of Greenland. Right after Gudrid married Thorstein Erikson, they set off to find the fabulous land that his brother Leif had washed up on a few years back when he was caught in a summer storm.
Gudrid and Thorstein, too, were caught in a storm. But instead of landing in the new world, they were tossed about at sea all summer. Just before winter, they recognized these mountains and made their way to Sandnes. There, Gudrid's husband and all the crewmen died.
The next summer, Gudrid had someone ferry her and the bones back to Brattahlid, where they were buried in the church built by Erik the Red's wife, Thjodhild. This is a replica of the church. When it was excavated, the archaeologists found 12 men and a boy buried in a common grave, their bones in wild disorder except for the skulls, which were lined up facing east. These were probably the bones of Gudrid's husband and the men who died with him.
After such bad luck, it's surprising that Gudrid set off again to try to settle Vinland. But just after she remarried, she and her new husband, the Icelandic merchant, Thorfinn Karlsefni, put together an expedition of three ships, two manned by Icelanders and one, the ship Gudrid owned herself, manned by Greenlanders.
They traveled north along the coast of Greenland, past the mouth of the Lysufjord of future to Disko Island, then turned west and crossed to Baffin Island, and followed the coast of Labrador south. This is what Greenland looks like north of Nuuk.
And this is L'Anse aux Meadows. The Viking ruins here on the northwestern tip of Newfoundland were discovered in the 1960s. And archaeologists have been studying them for 40 years. They now agree that this was a base camp where the Vikings may have spent the winter after exploring further south.
There are three Viking longhouses, each of them built big enough to house a ship's crew. The artifacts prove that they were Viking houses. Iron rivets from a ship, a bronze pin, and the whorl from a spindle used for spinning yarn were all found. The spindle whorl proves that a Viking woman had been there, most likely Gudrid. Jasper strike-a-lights, used for starting fires, were found, that came from both Iceland and Greenland.
The houses here are much bigger than Erik the Red's house, either in Iceland or Greenland. Here, you had two halls built together under one roof. Each of them had an attached storeroom or sleeping room. In the 1970s, archaeologists began excavating the bogs surrounding the houses. In three different places, each in the Viking layer, they found butternuts, or white walnuts. They also found a piece of butternut wood that had been worked with a metal tool. Butternut trees have never grown in Newfoundland. The only way butternuts could have come to L'Anse aux Meadows when they did is in a Viking ship.
The butternuts are the clue to answering the question where was Vinland? Vinland means wine land. And northern Newfoundland has never been a good place for growing grapes. Gudrid and Karlsefni also supposedly found tall trees, salmon, and a large population of what they called skraelings, or native peoples. The closest place where all these things come together-- butternuts, wild grapes, tall trees, salmon, and a large population of native people-- is the mouth of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick.
This seems to be the place Gudrid and Karlsefni were living when they ran afoul of the neighbors. Gudrid had just given birth to her son Snorri. And I believe she, more than anyone else, made the decision to leave. This Viking re-enactor at L'Anse aux Meadows is wearing the kind of clothing Gudrid would have worn.
When Gudrid and Karlsefni left Finland, they sailed first to Greenland, then to Norway, where they sold their cargo of exotic goods, and returned rich to Karlsefni's family farm in Skagafjordur, here in northern Iceland. The cliffs and the sea look a lot like the other places Gudrid lived.
It's an area with good fishing and lots of seabirds. This is the famous island Drangey, where the outlaw Grettir spent his last years before he was finally killed by witchcraft. Skagafjordur is still the center of Iceland's horse breeding industry.
The whole valley had been claimed by Karlsefni's great grandfather, who had 19 sons. So Karlsefni was related to most of his neighbors. He inherited a large estate, called Reyniness, from his father. But his mother was still living. And she and Gudrid did not get along, the saga says. So Karlsefni bought another farm nearby, called Glaumbaer.
The farm of Glaumbaer is about halfway down the valley. Compared to where Gudrid lived in Greenland, it is very rich farming country, with deep soil and good hay. It is now the site of the local history museum. The turf farmhouse, which dates back to the 1700s, is one of the best preserved in the country. And the museum curator is an expert in turf building techniques. Here you see the front of the farmhouse. And here's the back, looking like a series of hobbit holes.
The walls last 50 to 100 years before they need to be replaced. But they need constant attention if the house is going to stay standing. That's why the curator is an expert on building with turf.
I spent a day with her looking at a turf ruin further down the valley. This house was still standing a few years ago, used as a sheep house. You can clearly see the same herringbone pattern of the turf blocks that were in the farmhouse from the 1700s. And we found them when we were excavating the Viking longhouse from 1,000 years ago.
This is the curator's office. Right outside the museum window, in that very flat hayfield, in 2001, archaeologist John Steinberg found a turf longhouse that dated from Gudrid's days. He was developing a new method that combines soil sampling with remote sensing, using microwaves to see beneath the soil. He let me join him in 2005, when they uncovered the tops of the walls to test the remote sensing maps.
This is the result of our five weeks of work. You can see the main house, outlined in flags. The turf walls are six feet thick. And the structure is twice the size of Erik the Red's houses. There were three smaller rooms attached, just like the houses in Newfoundland.
The house had been built just after the year 1000, and pushed down, with all the wooden pieces taken out first, sometime between 1050 and 1075. According to the sagas, Gudrid returned from Vinland in about 1010 and died after 1030, possibly as late as 1050, when she would have been 65.
I believe we found Gudrid's. John, as an archaeologist, reminds me there is no way to prove it. But Siri, the museum curator, has a compromise. The archeology has given the saga a place. Quote, whether they are true or not, the sagas have a meaning for people, she said. Icelanders have listened to them for 1,000 years. They have the soul of the people in them.
I'm going to end where I began-- with how I got interested in Vikings. Here I am, just out of graduate school, communing with the Gokstad ship in Norway. So I'll end the slides there and give you another short reading from The Far Traveler. I'll get the lights and I'll turn the machine off. Thank you.
The first time I saw a Viking ship in the water, I was struck by the desire to stow away on it. Writers, even the normally sedate, scholarly type, tend to wax effusive about Viking ships. They were unrivaled-- the best and swiftest ships of their time, the swift greyhounds of the ocean, the ultimate raiding machine, a masterpiece of beauty, the most exquisite examples of sophisticated craftsmanship, a poem carved in wood.
What temples were to the Greeks, wrote one expert, ships were to the Vikings. Said another, Plato may have denied the existence of ideal forms in this world, but Plato never saw a Viking ship. The story Gudrid the far traveler, however, begins with a shipwreck.
As the saga of the Greenlanders tells it, Leif Erikson had just spent a year in Vinland as the first Norsemen to set foot in the new world, and was heading home with a ship full of timber and wine grapes. He'd had fair winds all the way, and had just sighted the great ice cap, when one of his crewmen admonished the young captain. Going a bit close to the wind, aren't you? I'm watching my steering, said Leif, but I'm watching something else, too. Can't you see it? It was a ship, or a skari. He couldn't tell which.
The older man saw nothing until they came closer. Then, he too could see a wreck, clinging to a bit of bare rock. Leif anchored close to the reef and sent his towboat over. He rescued 15 people to add to his crew of 35, and as much of their baggage as he could fit into his already laden ship.
The wreck had been carrying house timber from Norway to the Greenland settlement. The men secured it as best they could on the rock. And the next spring, Leif sent his boat out to fetch whatever could be salvaged. By then, most of the rescued 15 had died. The only person known to have survived the journey is Gudrid.
If she had ever shared my delusions of peaceful, sunny, blue sea sailing, surrounded by a crew of handsome men, she would have lost them abruptly on the first of her eight voyages. She knew the killing force of the sea, of weeks at the mercy of winds, of fog that froze on the sails and rigging when "hands blew with cold" was not a metaphor, and no land, no shelter was in sight. She knew how fragile a Viking ship was.
Iceland was discovered when a Viking ship sailing west from Norway to the Faroe Islands was blown off course. Greenland was discovered when a Viking ship sailing west from Norway to Iceland was blown off course. Vinland was discovered when a Viking ship sailing west from Norway, or Iceland in the other saga, to Greenland was blown off course.
When the Gokstad replica, Gaia, tried to sail from Iceland to Greenland in 1991, it got blown so far off course the crew gave up and chugged along under diesel power for four days, sometimes using their own backup engine, and at other times being towed by their chase boat. When Snorri, an unpowered replica of the Skuldelev knarr, tried to sail west from Nuuk, Greenland's capital, to Vinland in 1998, adventure writer Hodding Carter and his crew waited five days until a gale blew itself out, then another day in fog waiting for the wind to return. Their westward run under an exhilarating breeze lasted 130 miles before they found themselves adrift with four holes in their stern, caused by a too heavy rudder that had pulled loose a crossbeam before it finally snapped.
They patched the holes with tomato can lids. And Coast Guard Canada sent an ice breaker to tow them back to Nuuk. Except for the tomato can lids and the Coast Guard, it was a fair copy of Gudrid's second voyage. A year after Leif Erikson had plucked her off the wreck on the rock, she had married leaves younger brother, Thorstein. Borrowing a ship, the two picked a sturdy crew, packed up their belongings, and set off for the new world.
Thorstein, it seems, did not have as much sailing experience as Leif. He made the mistake of setting his course due west, where he knew Vinland lay. According to the saga of the Greenlanders, they were tossed about at sea all summer and couldn't tell where they were. Just before winter set in, they found themselves at the mouth of the Lysufjord near Nuuk, a distance they could have rode in six days in the Viking fishing boat I tried out on the Roskilde Fjord.
A better sailor would have known that in these high, cold oceans, the westerly winds are strongest and stormiest to the south. They diminish the farther north you sail. By sailing west, Thorstein was hazarding a gale, frequent and violent off these coasts.
Max Vinner, from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, found himself in the same situation in 1984, sailing Saga Siglar. The winds were hurricane-force, the waves 30 to 40 feet high. The knarr could not heave to. Reducing sail and turning into the wind, like a decked sailing ship, she would take on too much water. But running before the storm was also chancy. If she went too fast, the ship would surf, rising out of the water until the keel and rudder lost their grip on the waves.
Then the very worst can happen, writes Vinner. The ship can sail down. The ship can plunge sideways from a wave top down into the valley in front, and then be filled with water from the wave from which it has fallen. To slow their speed, Vinner and the Saga Siglar crew first tried to goose wing the sail, tying up the center of the broad square of wool so that only small triangles could catch the wind. That failing, they took the sail down altogether.
Under a bare pole, Saga Siglar scudded before the wind for 10 hours at an average speed of 8.4 knots, as opposed to the 7.5 average and 10.7 maximum that Gunnar Marel Eggertsson held Gaia to during what he thought was a fast two and a half day sail between the Faroe Islands and Iceland.
Saga Siglar, writes Vinner, was a beautifully safe ship. She carried her sail well, rose well to the waves, and her movements were easy. Above all, however, she was dry. Even running from the hurricane, she took on no more water than the crew could manage to pump out again. In case anyone objected that Vikings didn't have pumps, he added, a frightened man with a bailer is quicker than even the best pump.
Yet, in 1992, off the coast of Spain, this beautifully safe ship sank. Gudrid's ship did not sink. But when the wind let them go, the saga says, no one on board knew where they were. They had been blown off course. To Viking poets, the wind was the neigher, the wailer, the whistler, the coldly dressed, the roaring traveler, the squally one, the wolf of the sail, the waiverer, the never silent.
The sky was the weaver of winds. The sea was the ring of the island, the house of sands and seaweeds and skerries, land of fish, land of ice, and land of sailing wind. The best ship imaginable, owned by the god Odin, caught a fair wind whenever its sail was hoisted. It could also be folded up and kept in the god's pocket for convenience. Being blown off course was so common the Vikings had a word for it-- hafvilla, literally, bewildered by the sea, or as we might say today, at sea. I'll end there, and be happy to take questions.
I can answer any questions. Come now. Yes.
AUDIENCE: How did her first husband and all the crew die and she lived?
NANCY MARIE BROWN: Of sickness. They were staying at a settlement at Sandnes-- those pictures I showed you. And there was a sickness that winter. And probably, they had been rather overwhelmed by fatigue. We don't know why she made it. But several of the other people at the farm also died. So it was a real epidemic. And a few people lived. She and the farmer were the two that we know of.
But she was a very sturdy woman. She lasted through a number of crises where the people around her didn't. So we don't really know why she was so tough. But she was known for that. Her great grandsons-- I think she had two of them that were bishops. And they always traced their lineage back to her rather than to her husband, Thorfinn Karlsefni. And the only reason I can think of they would have done that is that she outlived him by many, many years, and was known as the grand matriarch of the family.
Anybody else? Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Why did she want to go to Rome?
NANCY MARIE BROWN: Why did she want to go to Rome? She was Christian. Her family had been Christian from the settlement. But we don't really know what that means, because there were no churches, no priests, no liturgy, no relationship to the pope, through most of the Icelandic settlement.
In the year 1000, they became Christian more or less by parliamentary decree, because the King of Norway refused to allow their ships to dock in Norway if they weren't Christian, or to allow the ships that were there to leave.
I have two suggestions for why she might have wanted to do this. First, it was an accepted way of feeding her wanderlust. It was something that women were allowed to do. It was thought to be a wonderfully good thing for an old woman to do. Old men did it too. And many of them didn't make it back. She did.
The other is a tentative hypothesis. But given the way the Icelandic family system worked, when her son Snorri came of age and married, Gudrid was supposed to turn the running of the household over to her daughter-in-law. Now, she would have been something like 40, 45. And the girl would have been in her 20s.
From what I know of Gudrid, having lived with her for a while, she wasn't ready to hand over the keys. They also owned more property in the area. So a way for a single woman to hold on to her property was to give it to the church. And so all we know about her is that she went on this pilgrimage, and when she came back, by the time she came back, her son had built a church on the property. And that is recorded in Icelandic church history, as well as in the sagas. And she settled down there as a holy woman and lived on the farm for the rest of her life.
And we know that Snorri and the rest of the family also farmed at Reyniness, which was quite a large estate. So my theory is that she was at Glaumbaer and he was at Reyniness, but we have no way of saying that. But it solves both her independence problem and the economic problem. So I like it as a theory. Anybody else? Yeah.
AUDIENCE: What do you make of the story in the saga of Greenlanders that Bjarni Herjolfsson saw Vinland first before Leif Erikson? Is there any other chronicle evidence?
NANCY MARIE BROWN: No. No, you have two sagas that-- it's like he said, she said. There's no way to add anything to the two to give it more power. I have my suspicions about Leif Erikson, because one of the things that people who have been studying these sagas for a while, particularly the Vinland sagas, point out is that some of the characters are fictional and some of them aren't. And one of the best ways to tell is did they have descendants?
And Leif doesn't really have descendants. Leif doesn't marry. We don't really know what was going on there. So I don't think Leif has a better claim to it than Bjarni did. But Leif did go. He either saw it first or he saw it second. And according to the saga, he was the first one to actually stand on the ground. So he gets rights of being the discoverer.
I would prefer to give Gudrid and Karlsefni the rights of having discovered America, because they tried to live there, and they actually explored quite a lot of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. We don't really know where Leif went. But I think we ought to remember Bjarni's name as well.
Chances are-- I mean, it was so easy to get blown off course back then-- a number of people probably saw North America and they just didn't mention it. They didn't know what it was.
AUDIENCE: What year was Snorri born?
NANCY MARIE BROWN: It's very hard to pin down actual years. I tried to do it by collating a lot of the sagas. So if they left in about the year, between 1000 and 1005, he was supposed to have been born either the first winter or the third winter. We have two different versions of that too. But I thought he was born something like 1003 or 1005. It's hard to get it down to an exact year. But he's always in the lineages too. They trace themselves back to him and to his mother. So we know he was real. The second son is a little bit harder to pin down. Anybody else?
AUDIENCE: I heard an interesting story that a Viking man could have as much property he could walk in a day. You could only own that much property. But a woman could only own as much property as she could walk if she brought a cow with her.
NANCY MARIE BROWN: There are a couple things like that, yeah. I'm not sure that they've actually gotten it that simple, because there's another one of how much you can carry fire around in a day. And the question is, are you riding around with a torch in your hand on a horse? Or are you actually setting fire to the property and burning off the scrub? And they find charcoal underneath almost all of the Viking houses at that time.
But there was a sense that men were allowed to claim more land than women. If you look at it at the other way, though, it was quite remarkable that women were allowed to claim land in their own name and to give it out to other people, to their supporters. There's a famous settler, Unn the Deep-Minded, who is said to have brought 25 men with her from Scotland and parceled out an entire valley to her people, and performed all the functions of a chieftain. But this was before the parliament was started. So we don't really know what those functions were.
AUDIENCE: What was her name? I'm sorry.
NANCY MARIE BROWN: Unn-- Unn the Deep-Minded, also Audr-- U, N, N, R is the easier way. She's in Laxdaela saga, and in another one-- is it Eyrbyggja, I think. Yeah. But she's the other iconic Viking woman. I talk about her quite a lot in the book, in one chapter too, because one of the people on her ship is a child that was Gudrid's grandfather. So there's a direct connection there between the two of them. Anybody else? Good. Thank you very much.
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Nancy Marie Brown, author of the newly published, "The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman" appeared in Kroch Library Nov. 20 to read from and sign copies of her book. The reading was sponsored by Cornell University Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, home to the renowned Fiske Icelandic Collection.
In 'The Far Traveler,' Brown employs her remarkable narrative skill to reconstruct the life of the Icelandic Gudrid (Gurur orbjarnardttir), who gave birth to the first known European child in North America 1000 years ago and later, widowed, went on pilgrimage to Rome before retiring to a contemplative life in northern Iceland. The book also weaves archaeology, economics, ecology and saga literature into an engaging tapestry of the Norse world in which women, no less than men, could be important and sometimes unusual characters.