Reassessing Whale Use in the Medieval North Atlantic
History, Archaeology, DNA, and New Species Stories
Þriðjudaginn 22. október 2019 kl. 16.30
Marine mammals fueled life and livelihood through much of the North Atlantic Middle Ages. Their meat sustained sailors and settlers, their travels and migrations aided navigation, and their skin and bones housed, supplied, and provided for countless households. Reliance upon marine mammals across the Norse North Atlantic is documented from the early Viking Age and beyond, from Norway all the way to North America. From the settlement of Iceland through the early modern period, Norwegian and Icelandic authors documented whales in great detail in sagas, laws, and illuminations, offering cultural and economic descriptions and natural histories related to each species. As our recent study has also revealed, the bones of whales left behind on Icelandic archaeological sites offer important new evidence for the history of whale use in the medieval North Atlantic.
This lecture looks at historical, literary, and visual data on whales from the premodern North Atlantic as a valuable form of environmental proxy data. Authors and texts surveyed will include Old Norse literary, historical, and legal sources reflecting marine mammal use and division. Comparison of northern authors’ accounts of marine mammals from the tenth through the sixteenth century offers a broad look at perceptions about whales, but also a unique source of proxy data that could reflect changing whale populations and habitats. Descriptions of species, in their presence, absence, quantities, qualities or behaviors could signal an early recognition of maritime change, as salinity, currents, temperatures, and prey patterns shifted across the North Atlantic in the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. In short — whales can be seen as marine sentinels of climate change. Norse or Icelandic accounts are juxtaposed with more well-known medieval and classical authors’ descriptions of marine mammals, especially Pliny, Strabo, the Physiologus and Bestiary traditions. The lecture will conclude with a brief discussion of other transdisciplinary approaches to medieval marine mammal exploitation and premodern animal biogeographies, namely through the use of ancient DNA and other forms of molecular analysis of medieval marine mammal bones from archaeological contexts. An interdisciplinary approach to the medieval environment reveals a hitherto unappreciated depth of knowledge of marine species but also more realistic approximation of the value of marine resources in medieval economies.
Vicki Szabo received her Ph.D. in Medieval Studies at Cornell University and currently serves as an Associate Professor of History at Western Carolina University. Her research focuses on medieval environmental history, the medieval North Atlantic, and the history of whaling.
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