Navigation and Vinland

In much the same way as Völusþá, Njåls saga and Hrafnkels saga are regarded as the outstanding works of the medieval Old Norse literary corpus, we may regard the Vinland voyages as the crowning medieval Norse achievement in the field of seamanship and navigation. […]


Nevertheless we soon become aware of different saga presentations of (purportedly) the same events or persons. Thus, when an individual saga tell us that a given person performed a given action in a given context at a given time, we should beware of immediately accepting this information as an historical fact in the usual sense of the phrase. More particularly, using the Vinland sagas as historical sources is certainly no straightforward matter. They were written down on vellum some two centuries after the events they purport to describe. Thus we may expect the original oral accounts to have undergone change as they made their way from raw reportage to written account. The extent of such changes depended on the various links in the transmission process, not least on the knowledge, common sense and judgement of the saga writers. Fortunately we are not completely at a loss when it comes to estimating the extent of these potential distortions, for we can compare different saga accounts of the same events or individuals. Studied carefully and guarding against preconceptions we find that while the sagas may not necessarily be trustworthy in matters of detail such as identities, events or voyages, they are sources which convey an illuminating general view of the Vinland voyages. For example, an account of a voyage attributed to a particular character may very well be a mixture of information deriving from more than one actual voyage undertaken by that character or by others. And the accounts as assembled may not represent the complete picture; there may have been many more voyages or expeditions than those described in the extant accounts. On the other hand, since we now know for sure from the L'Anse aux Meadows excavations that the Norsemen really did reach North America, there is no obvious reason to doubt that the general narrative of the sagas is true.[…]

Source: Þorsteinn Vilhjálmsson, "Navigation and Vinland" in Approaches to Vínland: A conference on the written and archaeological sources for the Norse settlements in the North-Atlantic region and exploration of America, Andrew Wawn and Þórunn Sigurđardóttir (Reykjavík: Sigurður Nordal Institute, 2001), 107-108.

Return to parent page