The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America, ca. A.D. 1000-1500

by Kirsten A. Seaver

The Black Death and the Transformation of the West

by David Herlihy
The Black Death
The Frozen Echo

These are two books on very different subjects that both challenge conventional theories behind certain catastrophic events: the Black Death and the end of the Greenland colonies.

Seaver presents compelling evidence of English and Portuguese contact with the Norse’s Eastern Greenland colony into the late-15th century, which is well after the last documented contact in 1408. For example, trade with the colony was extensive enough that the Greenlanders continued to adopt European fashion trends.

She finds it more than a coincidence that the Greenland colony came to an end just as the exploration of the North America was starting. Her theory is that enough young colonists either emigrated directly to North America or else embarked with traders or explorers that any remaining population was unsustainable. While the theory is interesting, there is as yet no evidence that this in fact happened; still, it provides a framework for further work. Many had doubts about the Vikings sagas until the site at L’Anse-aux-Meadows was discovered in 1960.

Herlishy’s book is really a short set of transcripts from a series of lectures he delivered in 1985. He argues that the Black Death didn’t emerge from “Malthusian” pressures on the population. While there were waves of famine, the population had in fact remained stable for over a hundred years prior to the onset of the epidemic. The Black Death was just the first, most explosive episode in a wave of epidemic that lasted for decades. By the time they finally subsided in the early 15th century, the population was less than a third of what it was in 1340.

Herlishy also claims that the dramatic drop in population was the impetus behind much technological and social change. With so fewer people, he claims, productivity-enhancing technology needed to be developed make up for the loses.

» Posted: Wednesday, December 29, 2004 | Permanent Link