Bad Heritage: The Vikings in America, Part 3 of 3.
The chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees, Benno C. Schmidt, is the lead name on a Governance for a New Era: A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees, who joins his 21 mostly aged signatories (all but 3 of whom are men, and nearly all of whom are white) to argue that Trustees “should take a more active role in reviewing and benchmarking the work of faculty and administrators and monitoring outcomes.” Maybe he wants more of this?
Early on, the report complains that “Substantial numbers of recent college graduates lack a fundamental understanding of their history and heritage.” It’s obvious to us, I hope, that America enjoys a vastly more diverse student body than it did when most of our signatories last attended college. Tediously, we must therefore answer the call for students to know “their history and heritage” by asking whose history, whose heritage? Schmidt and his colleagues sort of answer the question by calling for more “military history” and requiring such cutting-edge, future-facing topics as “coursework on the Founders, the American Revolution, and the Constitution.” The word “heritage” appears only the once, so it’s anyone’s guess where this might fit in.
I have my suspicions though, particularly when it’s used by old white men to dictate what’s worth knowing or doing. Call me traditional.
It’s that suspicion that’s led me to write against heritage for my contribution to a conference on “Heritage in Transcultural Contexts.” It’s a suspicion founded on, for example, the use made of the Norse by The Occidental Observer, a white supremacist website (no link), whose mostly anodyne, mostly gullible, article on Norse discoveries ends like this: “Would that Europeans and their descendants in the New World — inspired by their Norse ancestors — could reclaim their courageous ways and pioneer spirit.” Exclamation point implied.
The article’s many commentators argue about the ties between modern and ancient paganism, assert a couple times that “Caucasians” were, in fact, the first inhabitants of America, and also insist that “Stories like this remind me that Whites are both fiercely independent and yet capable of collective action. I am not aware of any other ethnicity that displays these talents to this degree.” That weirdness, even the impossibility of that odd relationship in white supremacy between independence and collective obligations — the independent spirit, obligated to be white and stay white — will be, as you’ll see, the final target of September’s big heritage talk.
The post below’s illustrated with photos of some of America’s many Leif Ericson statues: thank you, Geometry During Wartime, for the collection. And please, if you’d like something shorter, and more Canadian, please enjoy Janice Liedl’s excellent conference paper, “A Canadian Viking in the Governor-General’s Court: Medievalism in Pre-war Canada,” which features, among other things, an account of a VIKING and VIQUEEN fancy dress ball of 1896, and a link to a George Johnson’s Canada’s First Boy Baby (1900), whose title naturally reminds me not of the Founding Fathers but of this.
The previous two posts are here and here.
What Geraldine Barnes called the “nineteenth-century ‘theatre’ of Vinland” began in the 1830s with the publication of Carl Christian Rafn’s Antiquitates Americanae and reached its apogee in the 1890s as a kind of counter-programming to the celebration of Columbus’s landing. The mania offered its adherents two things, a white heritage and a specifically medieval, embattled white heritage, while also, as I’ll conclude, obligating them to protect their whiteness, making them prisoners of their own concocted identity.
Few Americans during this first period of Nordic mania could go without mentioning blue eyes and blond hair, which function here as distinctive signs of ethnic particularity. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s English Traits praised the “animal vigor” of the Norse “blonde race”; Longfellow’s “Skeleton in Armor” has his Norse exile love a “blue-eyed maid,” like John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Norseman,” which speaks of the “wild, blue eye” of the Vikings; Sarah Orne Jewett’s historical survey, The Story of the Normans, often praises their “yellow hair,” and the shine of their “blue eyes,” while also blaming them for their inherent love of the sea and plunder, as they squandered the chance to a dominate an America she imagines as empty and otherwise wasted. We find a similar attentiveness to hair and eye color in George Johnson’s Canada’s First Boy Baby (a “flaxen-haired blue eyed youngster“), and in Ottilie A. Liljencrantz’s turn-of-the-century trilogy on the muscular Christianity of Nordic America, The Thrall of Leif the Lucky, The Vinland Champions, and Randvar the Songsmith: A Romance of Norumbega. Likewise in Maurice Hewlett’s Gudrid the Fair: A Tale of the Discovery of America, and, more recently, in the white supremacist furor over the casting of black-haired, brown-eyed Idris Elba as the norse God Heimdall in the film Thor, which they thought of as nothing less than “a declar[ation] of war on Norse Mythology,” and, by extension, on what was called, by one scholar of race writing in the 1920s, “the Nordic ideal.”
Everybody who wanted a relic of Norse exploration seemed to be able to find at least one: ruins, a coin, an armored skeleton, New England place names, heard by amateur philologists as bastardized Norse instead of Algonquin or Iroquois, and especially several rune-carved rocks, in Oklahoma — including some “discovered” as late as the 1960s — and in Minnesota, all providing America with the “picturesque” “gloomy” “antiquity” Nathaniel Hawthorne argued were needed to write effective “historical romances.” In a North America whose native historical evidence was often destroyed, unrecognized, and thought of by white Americans as “prehistoric” rather than “historical,” fabricated Norse relics provided not just the grounds for historical romance, but for history proper.
Even more usefully, this was a history of failure. The Norse had come, and then, it seemed, they had gone. Or had been made to leave. White Americans could thereby imagine themselves victims, even during some of the worst periods of American white supremacy against African and Native Americas: this is a symptom of jealousy for medieval antiquity and indeed for the very suffering the whites themselves were causing. Their fantasy was that the Norse had been slaughtered by the Natives or, at best, that they had been absorbed into them, passing on with their “blood” whatever scraps of civilization they still possessed when the Europeans next arrived. Several nineteenth-century works, like a textbook used in South Carolina, dreamed up an epic of white America’s tragic past, in which a Nordic or even Irish civilization, having built its mounds, was then eradicated by an influx of Asian barbarians. Minnesota’s Kensington Runestone, the most famous of the false relics, is last witness to a massacre: “We were fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red from blood and dead. Ave Maria save from evil.” And readers of the so-called Vinland Sagas–the Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga–took particular delight in the New World death of Thorvald at the hands of the natives, as his blood sanctified the earth, calling out for and justifying revenge. Predictably, in 1902, his tomb was turned up in New Hampshire. One last, recent example is the final scene from the Danish film Valhalla Rising, where its hero, a one-eyed Norse warrior, an avatar of the one-eyed Odin, lets himself be swarmed and killed by Native Americans to save the one, blond boy. With works like this, we are made to hear that white America had always belonged, that it has always been embattled, and that its expansion into North America was nothing but the return of what had, in a historical sense, always been here.
This is all a modern fantasy. We don’t know why the Norse abandoned the Americas, nor even if they ever did, entirely. It’s clear, however, that the populations of Iceland and especially Greenland were never large enough to spare enough people to establish a permanent colony, on the unlikely chance that the Greenlanders had ever intended to found one. Given some recent archaeological finds, it’s possible that the Norse continued contact with the Americas until late in the Middle Ages. If we insist on finding a tragic end to Norse presence, we might as well use the one in the Greenlander’s Saga, whose misogyny heaps blame on the murderous woman Freydis.
Furthermore, however the Norse thought of themselves, they didn’t think of themselves as “white,” nor did they think of race, if they thought of it at all, in terms of skin color. I say this against both modern racist appropriations of the Norse and against even well-meaning modern scholarship on Norse identity, particularly the scholarship on the Norse in America. This material tends to follow a predictable tract: it attempts to determine if there was a Scandinavian or even “Eurocentric” identity, and then tends to describe the ways that the Norse thought of the Skrælings as “the Other,” with the somber critical moves that typically follow from that. At its best, I am grateful for this scholarship’s critical acuity and archival depth. At its worst, it uses phrases like “pure Norse” and “pure Celt,” takes Tacitus’s description of German homogeneity as a straightforward truth, and, astonishingly, talk about the “distinctive genes” of Celts as “produc[ing] dark features.”
All these points, good and bad, should be challenged, which will require a brief summary of some of the most common ways in which medieval racial thinking differs from that of the moderns. First, I’ll stress that the dominant medieval scientific way of thinking about race was climatic. In this thought, inherited from classical thinkers, “race” was particular not to people but to regions: people living in the torrid, southern zones had darker skin, were weak, small, and cowardly, with high-pitched voices, while people in the frozen north had lighter skin, were strong and large, and fierce, with deep voices and big appetites. The people in the middle, wherever that was, were of course ideal. Note, however, that longitudinal travelers like Marco Polo or John Mandeville tended to admire the people and cultures they met. As Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Kim M. Phillips, and Shirin Khanmohamadi have all argued, the certainty that European travelers would automatically hierarchize other peoples and cultures in favor of Europe reflects post-medieval practices of the era of discovery and worldwide colonialism rather than medieval habits of thought. Finally, it is rare to find medieval texts that promote anything like the particular features of modern beliefs about race, namely, that race is inherently biological and ineradicably transmittable. The few examples tend to be directed at Jews: one twelfth-century Pope was lambasted by his enemies for his Jewish ancestry, while what looks like modern racism seems to have had its origin in fourteenth and especially fifteenth-century Iberia, during an era of massive, violent conversion of Jews to Christianity.
These latter racial notions would have been foreign to the Norse, especially during the period the New World sagas were being developed. Here’s what’s more typical: medieval texts, Norse and otherwise, often describe peasants or slaves as dark-skinned, cowardly, stupid, and ugly. For example, the Old Norse Rígsþula gives an account of the origins of farmers, warrior earls, and slaves, the latter of which are “swarthy” [svartan], “repulsive” [fúlligt], and “sun-burnt” [sólbrunnin], while calling the earls hvita, white. This language naturalizes not ethnic but class difference, to present class, not race, as fixed, lodged in the body, and heritable. Furthermore, arguing that the Norse were “Eurocentric” assumes a homogeneous European identity, not at all discernible in the two “new world” sagas. Eric the Red’s Saga has among its Norse a German explorer, and the Greenland Saga two Scots, identified, as in common in medieval texts, through culinary and cultural differences: the German knows grapes and wine, while the Scots, wearing what the texts think of as weird Scottish clothing, are fast runners, swifter than deer. The Norse, I’ll stress, come from a heterogeneous Europe, irreducible to whiteness.
Finally, on the Skrælings, which is what these and other texts called the people the Norse encountered in Greenland and Vinland: certainly, neither saga tends to think all that highly of them, but the fact that the Norse kill five because they think they’re “outlaws” at least implicitly recognizes that the Skrælings have a culture, even if it’s assumed to be a Nordic one. And by identifying the leader as “tall and handsome [vænn]” the sagas praise this Skræling with the same language of naturalized class used to praise any martial hero. The term Skræling itself probably refers to small stature, evidence, along with medieval cartography, that the word “was a direct Old Norse translation of Pygmæi or Pygmies,” discovered in the far North, where the Norse would have expected to find them. What happens in America is therefore not comprehensible as a racial encounter, not in any modern sense, but rather a typical encounter, common in medieval travel literature, between humans and monsters that may or may not be human. Notably, in Eirik the Red’s Saga, Thorvald dies from the arrow fired by a Uniped, a one-legged humanoid common to all medieval scholarly teratology.
The problems with Viking heritage run still deeper than this, in what will have to be my final point. The central paradox of the American myth of Nordic heritage concerns the problems of freedom, agency, and obligation. The champions of the Norse promote them as at once witness to the authentic historic past of America, the people whose arrival gave the Americans the imprimatur of a medieval foundation, and also as the people who opened America to the future. We can see this double deployment of past and future in the way that the champions of the Norse talked about their politics: they emphasized how the original Icelanders – not the Irish monks who had first people the island, but the Norse who arrived some time later – had fled Norway’s royal despotism and established the Thing, parliaments in which, it was imagined, the Icelanders managed their own government in freedom. Here Americans found the true ancestor of their own supposed love of liberty. Once identified with the Thing, the politics of America could be thought of as arising from antiquity, and therefore as having an authenticating foundation, and as opening up the future, as the true inheritance of mankind, now freed from the medieval tyranny of kings.
Despite the Green- and Icelanders’ own beliefs, and indeed despite the vigorous Catholicism of Eirik the Red’s Saga (and some of its champions), written to praise the ancestors of several Icelandic Bishops, the American Norse were upheld as free of the despotism of Catholicism, the enemy of liberty, of science, and of women. To put it simply, Catholics were thought of as lacking personal agency. They were in thrall to the Pope, to unthinking ritual, and the victims and promoters of the Inquisition. Columbus had to be pushed aside, or revealed as an inquisitor, or even as someone who found the Americas only because he had first visited Iceland’s sailors and learned the truth from them. The champions of the Norse thought the Catholics anachronisms, atavistic, a bad heritage, unable to become part of the present; theirs was a past that was too weighty, while the past of the actual American natives, analogously, was one that was too insubstantial. Both cases were closed to the future, and thus closed to agency, that quality whereby the simple chain of cause-and-effect can be broken open to bring something truly new into being.
Except, however, the championing of the Norse as the authentic Americans, as white, and as under threat, loaded the Norse and their presumptive descendants with the obligations of heritage. Like any heritage site, the muddle of their emergence disappears–hence the insistence in some texts on the “pure Nordic strain” — as does their future. To be rendered “authentic,” that prison house of culture, they must be frozen in time, paradoxically figures of perfect agency without the true agency that would let them change. They have become as stolid as their champions thought the Catholics, as ahistorical and unchanging as their champions thought the Native Americans.
And with that, the “cradle of white civilization in the Americas” became its coffin.