The Historical Value of the Vinland Sagas
—The Icelandic antiquary Torfæus, in his small works Gronlandia and Vinlandia, published in the Latin in 1705, first drew the attention of scholars to the historical element in the Vinland Sagas; and Rafn, in 1837, issued an edition in the original Icelandic, with a Latin translation. The Saga of Erik the Red is divided into two parts, the first part written either during the lifetime or shortly after the death of men who made the voyage with Leif Erikson. The Saga of Thorfinn Karlsefne was probably first recorded by his grandson, Bishop Thorlak Runolfson, born in 1085. The most recent Scandinavian, English, French, and German scholarship accepts with the older antiquaries these Vinland Sagas as historical narrative, with no scholar qualified to pronounce a critical opinion to deny this affirmation.
The Scalds and Saga-Men, Icelanders, were received as the guests and equals of kings, and they spoke in its greatest purity the Icelandic, which was at that early period the court language in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, England, and at Rouen. They preserved the traditions and events of note, and were the living books or registrars to be referred to in any case of law and property. They were men of prudence and safe counsel, and were in no danger of molestation, in those rude times, when on their journeys.
Leif Erikson and Thorfinn Karlsefne, both Icelanders, were merchants. To this class, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, belonged the noblest men, and they made all the voyages of trade and discovery. They were required to be acquainted with the laws of commerce, to speak Latin and Italian, to know the places and movements of the heavenly bodies, — they had no compass, — and to understand navigation, and arithmetical calculation. It was also demanded of them that they should be men of the strictest integrity.
When it is recalled that within sixty years after its discovery the population of Iceland numbered 50,000, principally by immigration from Norway, about 600 miles distant, it is natural that after the first detailed accounts of the discovery only a mention of the Vinland voyages should be made, as were those to Greenland ; but these voyages were always counted among the expeditions considered both “ profitable and honorable,” the latter because of the risks involved. It is also to be remembered that the Sagas were composed for the men who left their work in every corner of Europe, not as destroyers and devastators, but whose language and laws are at this moment important elements in the speech and institutions of England and America. It is to be hoped that the Icelandic literature will erelong be studied in this country as it is now at the two English universities. At the period of the discovery of the American continent, the Northmen had richer fields of enterprise than Greenland, Iceland, and Russia. Greece, Palestine, Sicily, the Coast of Africa, Southern Italy, France, the Spanish Peninsula, England, Scotland, and Ireland knew them as conquerors, and at one time or another most of these countries were ruled by the men of Scandinavia. It is not unfit, therefore, that the representation of Leif Erikson, Miss Whitney’s statue in Boston, should be that of a man of both physical and moral courage.