I’m off to Kalamazoo, Michigan, tomorrow morning. I’ll be attending the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies – strictly as a spectator / social butterfly / intellectual flaneur (I’m accompanying my husband, Chris Piuma, who is a medievalist, and who’ll be giving no fewer than three papers over the course of the conference – so I’ll also be there for support).
Newfoundland offers more than a little flicker of interest to some medivalists, what with Vinland and L’anse aux Meadows and all that. And while the Viking attempt at a colony seems shortlived and ill-fated, the hold it has on our imaginations is very real and very powerful.
For one, it allows Newfoundland to claim a heritage and lineage much older than any other part of European North America. Of course, people and cultures have lived in all of the Americas for tens of thousands of years – but there is still a big conceptual wall in popular understanding between First Nations and European-founded settler-invader nations. Not only is such a claim fraught with those problems, but it’s also not really accurate in other ways: there is no Viking heritage or lineage in Newfoundland, just a Viking history, an isolated incident centuries before the Basque, the Portuguese, the French, the English, or the Irish visited and settled these shores. But this is often overlooked when one of the dominant narratives surrounding Newfoundland is its sheer age.
Newfoundland is imagined as being much ‘older’ than the territories that surround it (and thus more ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’), but it’s also imagined as being out of time in a curious way. It’s arguable that Newfoundland is the only European-derived community in North America conceived as having pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment roots, and the Viking link is very important to such imaginings. Check out that tourism ad I posted above – it’s a startling (and appealing) attempt to create a thru-line from the Vikings to a stilted version of contemporary Newfoundland (those big-eyed red-headed children clambering over rocks and meadows – rocks that, if you listen close, are actually whispering to them). The ad acknowledges that the Vikings left Newfoundland long ago (just a few years after they arrived, actually), but then it speculates that maybe they actually are still around – either as ghosts or as a some other kind of presence. The point of the narrative is clear: the Newfoundland of 1000 CE is blurred into the Newfoundland of the contemporary moment. It’s a kind of magical, ahistorical medievalism, and it’s embedded pretty deep into the Newfoundland imaginary.