Svend Estridsen and the Vinland Colony

I recently received an attractive coin of Svend Estridsen, which I like for the link with the North American expeditions of around a thousand years ago.

Svend Estridsen (Sveinn Ástríðarson in Old Norse) was born in England (ca. 1019), son of Ulf Jarl and Estrid Svendsdatter. Estrid was the daughter of King Sweyn (Svend) Forkbeard (son of Harald Bluetooth) and was sister to King Cnut the Great.

Adam of Bremen, the medieval chronicler, visited Svend's court and recorded accounts of Vinland he heard there in his "Descriptio Insularum Aquilonis."

"Moreover he [Svend Estridsen] spoke of an island in that ocean discovered by many, which is called Vinland, for the reason that vines grow wild there, which yield the best of wine. Moreover that grain unsown grows there abundantly, is not a fabulous fancy, but from the accounts of the Danes, we know to be a fact. Beyond this island, it is said, that there is no habitable land in that ocean, but all those regions which are beyond are filled with unsupportable ice and boundless gloom, to which Martian thus refers; 'One day's sail beyond Thile the sea is frozen.' This was essayed not long since by that very enterprising Northmen's prince, Harold, who explored the extent of the northern ocean with his ship, but was scarcely able by retreating to escape in safety from the gulf's enormous abyss, where before his eyes the vanishing bounds of earth were hidden in gloom."



A silver penny of Svend Estridsen (1047-1075). The obverse copies a Byzantine Christ figure design whereas the reverse copies  the long cross of an Aethelred II penny. 17 mm diameter. It has been suggested that the Byzantine-style design of Sven Estridsen's coinage was inspired by coins brought back by his contemporary (and sometime supporter) Harald Hardrada who had been a commander in the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperor.



L'Anse aux Meadows has for long been the only documented Viking dwelling site in North America, although a new site at the southwestern end of Newfoundland has recently been proposed as a second. I visited L'Anse aux Meadows in 2014 and enjoyed the bleak setting. A rocky coast with berry covered hillsides and boggy ground with pitcher plants and wandering moose. Dolphins, whales and seabirds in the nearby sea. The remains of the buildings are strongly reminiscent of a site in North Yorkshire I helped excavate as a teenager.



L'Anse aux Meadows Viking site; Hall F, with Great Sacred Island in the distance.



Another coin, of Otto III (983-1002), reminds me of Tyrker the German in "The Saga of the Greenlanders." Adam of Bremen, the chronicler mentioned above, was also based very close to Cologne.


Silver penny of Otto III (983-1002), showing interlaced triquetra. The reverse shows the "Cologne monogram": S COLONII A - referring to Sancta Colonia Agrippina, the Roman colony that became Cologne. 


Here is the Greenland Saga on Tyrker:
".. the news spread that a member of the crew was missing, none other than Tyrker the German. Leif was much disturbed at this, for Tyrker had lived in their household a long time and had been greatly devoted to Leif when he was a child. Leif angrily reproached his men, and made ready to start off with a search party of twelve. They had scarcely left the house when Tyrker came walking towards them, and he was received with great joy. Leif saw at once that his foster father was in high spirits. Tyrker was a short fellow, rather puny looking, with a prominent forehead and restless eyes in a smallish face; but he was handy at all sorts of craftsmanship. 
Tyrker first talked a long time in German, rolled his eyes and made faces. They did not understand a word he said. After a while he changed over and spoke Norse. "I did not go very far beyond the rest of you, and yet I have some real news for you. I found grape vines and grapes!" "Is this really true, foster father mine?" said Leif. "Certainly it is true" he answered, " for I was born where there is no lack either of vines or grapes."

My one encounter with wild grapes in the Americas was along the bayou in Houston, Texas. Wild grapes are not found in Newfoundland today, but the climate was at least locally warmer during the Medieval Warm Period (about 950-1250 CE), see Figure 1 here.




Wild American grapes. These are Vitis mustangensis along the Buffalo Bayou in Houston.











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