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Some observations on the rapid decline of the population of Greenland at
thge mid-fourteenth cenury
The colony in Greenland had, despite the harsh climate, survived for 350
years and maintained regular trading links with Norway, Bristol, Flanders
and Cologne. Early in the 1340s relationships between the settlers and the
Eskimos broke down and erupted into hostility. A priest by the name of Ivar
Baardson was called upon to accompany a fleet of volunteers who were
despatched from the Eastern to the Western Settlement to help combat the
Eskimos. He reported that on their arrival at the settlement the Eskimos
were in full control and apparently the settlers had sailed away as a group.
Another report from Bishop Oddson in Iceland claimed that the settlers had
given up the true faith and fled to settle among the Viking people of
Vinland. The desertion of the Western Settlement is apparently confirmed by
the record of ‘Peter’s Pence’ despatched to Rome from the island, which
declined dramatically after 1342. These reports reached Iceland in 1347 and
Norway one year later. It took some time before the Norwegian King Magnus
was in a position to act. There is a letter from him dated in 1354, in which
he authorises a special expedition to Greenland under the command of Sir
Paul Knutson, the former Lawspeaker, or Judge, of Gulathing:
. . . We desire to make known to you [Paul Knutson] that you are to select
men who shall go in the Knorr [the royal trading vessel] . . . from among
my bodyguard and also from the retainers of other men whom you may wish to
take on the voyage, and that Paul Knutson the commandant shall have full
authority to select such men who he thinks are best qualified to accompany
him, whether officers or men. . . .
The objective of the expedition was to bring the apostates back to
Christianity. Paul Knutson was not merely the Lawspeaker, of the largest of
the four judicial districts in Norway, but also a trusted member of the
royal council and a man of considerable wealth. Knutson was given a free
hand in choosing which men were best suited to accompany him, but it was
suggested that some of them should be drawn from the king’s bodyguard.
Membership of this body, restricted to young men of noble birth, was
regarded as the first step towards knighthood and demanded bodily fitness,
considerable skill in arms, tact, courtesy and good sense.
Only a small number of survivors of Knutson's expedition returned to Norway.
Most had perished.
Recent archaeological excavations in Greenland have established the most
likely cause for the sudden drop in population and the dissapearance of the
poeple - climatic change. Those who stayed died in their homes and their
remains showed clear aand distinct evidence of malnutrition. Those who left,
numbers unknown, probably went to Vinland.
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