A few months ago, on a trans-Atlantic flight west that seemed to take forever, I looked out of the plane window to see a landscape of snow-covered, jagged peaks of monstrous size. It was a landscape at once both heaven and hell. The whiteness of the snow was sublime, and the sheer size of the mountains was breathtaking. But at the same time, it seemed the most inhospitable bit of land on Earth. There was nowhere that looked forgiving or welcoming to settlement.
This, I discovered, was Greenland.
On July 3, 1721, Hans Egede, a Norwegian-Danish Lutheran minister, landed on Greenland’s shore. He was there on a mission: to bring the Greenlanders back to God.
Erik the Red settled the island in 985, establishing a colony of Norse from Iceland. Greenland wasn’t so inhospitable then; along the shore, forests of birch trees and grassy hills were, indeed, green. This was due to what is now referred to as the Medieval Warm Period, roughly 300 years during which temperatures in the North Atlantic region were higher than they’d been for hundreds of years previous, and hundreds of years following (until, note, the 20th century, when temperatures rose to their highest levels in at least 2,000 years).
The Norse established three major colonies along the western and southern shores of Greenland. Although other peoples had settled there from North America from time to time, there is little evidence that there was anyone else living on Greenland at the time of the Norse arrival.
The Norse set about with that favorite European pastime, deforestation. They cut down the forests of birch trees and set their livestock to eat all of the grasses on the hills.
They also successfully harvested walrus tusks, which proved a valuable commodity back in Europe. Due to frictions with the Islamic world, the elephant ivory trade was jeopardized, and walrus tusks were a good alternative.
The Church moved in in 1126, with the establishment of a diocese and the arrival of a bishop. It’s estimated that at this time, as many as 10,000 colonists were living on Greenland; not too shabby.
The Inuit began arriving and settling in Greenland by 1300, and both groups seem to have ignored each other for the most part. The Inuit tended to remain to the north of the Norse settlements.
However, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the colonists became increasingly isolated. There was less of a demand from Europe for their goods; besides, the kingdoms back home were having their own difficulties. The Greenlanders were forgotten.
This worried Egede. He was concerned that these Norse colonists had not heard about the Protestant Reformation and were still observing Roman Catholicism… or worse: that they had returned to paganism.
Egede petitioned King Frederick IV for permission and ships, and in 1721, he arrived at Greenland hopeful of bringing Protestantism to this lonely outpost.
However, there were no colonists to be found. They had vanished. After 300 years of neglect, they were gone.
Egede turned his attention to the Inuit whom he found in Greenland and successfully converted them to Christianity, eventually becoming the island’s patron saint.
But what happened to the Norse Greenlanders? Theories abound: They starved, they refused to adapt to the Inuit way of life and became obsolete in this difficult climate, they took off for Vinland, they were killed by the Inuit, they were killed by European raiders!
We do know that in the 1400s, a Little Ice Age hit Greenland, and conditions must have become terrible. At some point in the mid-1400s, the Greenlanders either died or departed.
Not too many traces of Norse Greenland life are visible today. The most famous – and best-preserved – Norse ruin is the church of Hvalsey, now little more than a pile of stones. Certainly a testament to the unforgiving territory of Greenland.
The most interesting archaeological finds to come from the island were discovered in 1921, when Poul Norland conducted a somewhat emergency excavation of a Norse churchyard at Herjolfsnes, at the southern tip of the island. The shoreline was being obliterated by erosion, and the site of the colonial port, which had once been inland enough to have a cemetery, was being lost to the sea. (Indeed, if you check out the coordinates of the village site today, you’ll see that it’s now offshore.) The wind was exposing bits of bone, wood and, most tantalizing, cloth.
Not much clothing remains from the Medieval period. Cloth material (at the time, mostly linen, silk and wool) just isn’t resilient enough to last centuries, besides which, garments tended to be worn, cut up and refashioned until barely the threads remained. What tends to be left to us is clothing of special importance: that belonging to either the richest of the richest or the holiest of the holiest. Coronation gowns and liturgical garments. Ho-hum!
The site had been examined by archaeologists before, as early as the 1840s. However, many of the artifacts these 19th-century diggers found seem to have been promptly – and easily – lost.
However, Norland was able to identify as many as 200 distinct burials within the churchyard. For 500 years, these people – men, women and children – had lain buried in the permafrost. While only the bones of their bodies remained, their wool garments had survived in relatively spectacular condition.
There were more than 30 complete gowns or tunics, 17 hoods, six woven stockings and five hats. The hoods were generously cut to cover both head and shoulders and featured that most distinctive element of Medieval headgear: the long, trailing tail known as the liripipe. The gowns were constructed of multiple gored pieces, which would have allowed them to be quite formfitting and tailored to the torso, but flaring past the waist.
Except, these garments weren’t found worn as normal clothing. Instead, curiously, they were wrapped around the remains as shrouds. The gowns, which would have been worn floor-length by women and to about the knees by men, were made of woven twill cloth. They have been dated to the first half of the 15th century. The centuries in the soil have stained the threads black and dark brown, but there’s no reason they weren’t colorful when new. Details like pocket slits and buttoned sleeves indicate a level of craftsmanship and knowledge of mainland fashions.
How could the Greenland Norse colonists, separated from Europe by so much sea and fog, have a working understanding of mainland fashion?
An interesting theory comes from historian Robin Netherton. One of the last contacts made with the colonists was in 1406 by a shipload of wealthy Icelanders. They had been to a party, but not just any party: a royal wedding in Norway. Perhaps they had all had too much mead, because on the way home they got disastrously lost and ended up, not in Reykjavik, but in Greenland. For a multitude of reasons lost to time, they stayed for four years.
Certainly, these wedding guests would have needed extra clothes. And since they had recently been among Scandinavia’s most fashionable, why shouldn’t they have told the local tailors all about these new – even French-style – fashions?
Poignantly, these somewhat stylish garments would eventually wind up literally winding up the remains of the isolated, forgotten and left-behind Norsemen. Relics of a people who eked out a rough existence in a rough, worsening land. A people for whom wood was now so scarce that only the wealthiest could afford coffins.
Netherton, Robin, “The View From Herjolfsnes: Greenland’s Translation of the European Fitted Fashion,” Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Vol. 4. Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Rochester: Boydell & Brewer, 2008. 143-171. Print.