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Desirable teeth: the medieval trade in Arctic and African ivory*

  • Kirsten A. Seaver (a1)

This article examines the Danish archaeologist Else Roesdahl’s hypothesis that, by the early fourteenth century, an abundance in Europe of elephant ivory from Africa caused a price drop that edged out walrus ivory, with a devastating economic impact on Norse Greenland that directly contributed to the colony’s collapse. While it seems clear that artisanal use of walrus ivory fell from the late fourteenth century onward, and that Greenland exports of walrus ivory decreased in the fourteenth century, evidence for a pre-1500 price drop for African elephant ivory in the European market is lacking. Nor can it be demonstrated that European demand for walrus tusks shrank prior to 1500. Roesdahl’s speculations about changes in the ivory trade and their effect on the Norse Greenland colony are therefore open to question as an explanation for the colony’s demise. An alternative view is proposed, namely that reduced export of Greenland walrus ivory was initiated by the Greenlanders themselves in response to political and economic changes in the Atlantic and North Sea region, at a time when codfish drew English fishermen and fish merchants ever farther west into the North Atlantic, and that the Greenlanders took part in that westward movement.

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1 Recent examples include Jette Arneborg, ‘Det europæiske landnam: Nordboerne i Grønland’, in Hans Christian Gulløv, ed., Grønlands forhistorie, København: Gyldendal, 2004, pp. 221–78 (which accepts Roesdahl’s hypothesis on pp. 277–278); and Jared Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed, New York: Viking, 2005, pp. 178–276, 436–7.

2 Inge Bødkter Enghoff, ‘Hunting, fishing and animal husbandry at the Farm Beneath the Sand, Western Greenland’, Meddelelser om Grønland: Man and Society, 28, 2003, pp. 15, 30, 91. Many of the finds made during those excavations have not yet been analysed; there will be further Danish reports on the topic.

3 See, e.g., Thomas H. McGovern, ‘The economics of extinction’, in T. M. Wrigley, M. J. Ingram, and G. Farmer, eds., Climate and history: studies in past climates and their impact on man, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 404–29; Kirsten Hastrup, ‘Sæters in Iceland, 900–1600’, Acta Borealia 6, 1, 1989, pp. 72–85.

4 See, e.g., Niels Lynnerup, ‘The Greenland Norse: a biological-anthropological study’, Meddelelser om Grønland 24, 1998, pp. 126–8.

5 Valkendorf’s expedition (which never took place) received a papal indulgence dated 17 June 1514 (Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 17, pp. 1260, 1263).

6 Roesdahl, Else, Hvalrostand, elfenben og nordboerne i Grønland, Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag, 1995; idem, ‘L’ivoire de morse et les colonies norroises du Groenland’, Proxima Thule: Revue d’Études Nordiques, 3, 1998, pp. 9–48.

7 For more on the taxonomic confusion involving northern marine species, see Kirsten A. Seaver, ‘“A very common and usuall trade”: the relationship between cartographic perceptions and fishing in the Davis Strait c.1500–1550’, British Library Journal, 22, 1, 1996, pp. 1–24, reproduced in Karen Severud Cook, ed., Images and icons of the New World: essays on American cartography, London: British Library Publications, 1996, pp. 1–26.

8 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 10, p. 30, letter to Ægidius Correnbitter in Bruges from Bishop Hákon in Bergen, 29 September 1338; Henrik Ludvigsson’s will, 8 May 1346, in Diplomatarium Suecanum, vol. 5, p. 4074.

9 Jordanes, The gothic history of Jordanes, trans. and with commentary by Charles Christopher Mierow, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1915, p. 56; Tacitus, Germania, trans. and with commentary by J. B. Rives, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999, pp. 31–3, 36–7, 40–1, 318–20; Elspeth M. Veale, The English fur trade in the later Middle Ages, Oxford: Clarendon Press,1968, pp. 62–5; Richard Ettinghausen, ‘Studies in Muslim iconography: the unicorn’, Washington, DC: Freer Gallery of Art, 1950, p. 121.

10 MacGregor, Arthur, The small finds in craft, industry and everyday life: bone, antler, ivory and horn: the technology of skeletal materials since the Roman Period, London: Croom-Helm, 1985, pp. 38–9; Danielle Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires du Moyen Age, Fribourg: Office du Livre, 1978, pp. 14–15.

11 Derek Wilson and Peter Ayerst, White gold: the story of African ivory, London: Heinemann, 1976, pp. 18–21, 23–5, 42; Mark Horton, ‘Beyond Europe: the supply of exotic raw materials into the medieval world from sub-Saharan Africa’, in Medieval Europe 1992: exchange and trade, Preprinted Papers 5 (Conference on Medieval Archaeology in Europe 21–24 September 1992 at the University of York), York, 1992, pp. 197–204.

12 Wilson and Ayerst, White gold, pp. 26–7; Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires, pp. 12–14, 119.

13 Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires, pp. 15, 131, 173.

14 MacGregor, The small finds, pp. 38–9; Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires, pp. 14–15.

15 Ayerst and Wilson, White Gold, pp. 26–27.

16 Håkon A. Andersen, Kunsthåndverket i middelalderen: fra Trondheims skattkammer, [Trondheim], 1997, pp. 9, 12, 33, 40; Martin Blindheim, Middelalderkunst fra Norge i andre land – Norwegian medieval art abroad, [Oslo: Universitetets Oldsaksamling], 1972, pp. 9, 17.

17 Andersen, Kunsthåndverket, p. 34

18 Roesdahl, Hvalrostand, p. 31.

19 Blindheim, Middelalderkunst, p. 17.

20 Diplomatarium Islandicum, vol. 5, nos. 562, 652, 1086; vol. 6, nos. 101, 147, 159, 164, 208, 273, 467.

21 Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires, p. 15.

22 Harms, Robert W., River of wealth, river of sorrow: the central Zaire basin in the era of the slave and ivory trade, 1500–1891, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981, pp. 39–41, 48–9.

23 Crone, G. R., The Voyages of Cadamosto and other documents on western Africa in the second half of the fifteenth century, London: Hakluyt Society, 1937, pp. 46 ff.; Peter Russell, Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’: a life, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 312–13.

24 Concerning northern European artisanal use of walrus tusks during the Middle Ages, see Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires, p. 15.

25 Ettinghausen, ‘Studies’, pp. 117–31; Zygmunt Abramowitcz, ‘The expressions “fish-tooth” and “lion-fish” in Turkish and Persian’, Folia Orientalia 12, 1970, pp. 25–32.

26 Martin Waldseemüller, Carta marina navigatoria, 1516, facsimile in The British Library, Maps *920 (536); Seaver, ‘“A very common and usuall trade”’, pp. 13–14; Lars Hamre, Erkebiskop Erik Valkendorf: trekk av hans liv og virke, Oslo: [Universitetsforlaget], 1943, p. 39; Valentin Kiparsky, ‘L’Histoire du morse’, Annales Academiae Scientiarium Fennicae, series B, 73, 1952, pp. 46–8; Albrecht Dürer, Head of a walrus, British Museum Department of Print and Drawings, BM.5261–167; John Rowlands, The age of Dürer and Holbein: German drawings 1400–1550, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 102–3.

27 Olaus Magnus, Carta marina, Venice, 1539, facsimile in The British Library, Maps 184.e.1, plate B; Karl Ahlenius, Olaus Magnus och hans framställning af Nordens Geografi, Uppsala, 1895, pp. 39–44; Kirsten A. Seaver, ‘Olaus Magnus and the “Compass” on Hvitsark’, Journal of Navigation, 54, pp. 235–54. Konrad Gesner, Historia Animalium, Frankfurt-am-Main: J. Saur, 1598, vol. 4 (‘Fischbuch’).

28 Seaver, Kirsten A., Maps, myths, and men: the story of the Vinland Map, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 29.

29 E.g., Gwyn Jones, Norse Atlantic saga, 2nd edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 277.

30 Claus Andreasen, ‘Nordbosager fra Vesterbygden på Grønland’, Hikuin, 6, 1980, pp. 135–46; Ingrid Sørensen, ‘Pollenundersøgelser i møddingen på Niaqussat’, Grønland, 8, 1982, pp. 296–304; Kirsten A. Seaver, The frozen echo: Greenland and the exploration of North America ca. A.D. 1000–1500, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 21–22.

31 H. S. Møller, K. G. Jensen, A. Kuijpers, S. Aagaard-Sørensen, M.-S. Seidenkrantz, M. Prins, R. Endler, and N. Mikkelsen, ‘Late-Holocene environment and climatic changes in Ameralik Fjord, southwest Greenland: evidence from the sedimentary record’, The Holocene, 16, 5, 2006, p. 686.

32 ‘Grænlendinga tháttr’, in Gudni Jónsson, ed., Îslendinga sögur, Reykjavík: Islenzka Bókmenntafélag, 1968, vol. 1, pp. 391–411. Einar also brought a young polar bear and perhaps other gifts as well, but only walrus ivory could be depended on as a source of Church income.

33 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 395; Ólafur Halldórsson, Grænland í miðaldarítum, Reykjavík: Sögufélag, 1978, pp. 103–16, 401–5); Seaver, Frozen echo, p. 63. The first Icelandic tithing law dates from 1096 (Diplomatarium Islandicum, vol. 1, no. 22).

34 MacGregor, The small finds, pp. 982–5.

35 Gelsinger, Bruce E., Icelandic enterprise: commerce and economy in the Middle Ages, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1981, pp. 124–5, citing The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

36 ‘Egil’s saga’, in Viðar Hreinsson, ed., The complete sagas of Icelanders, Reykjavik: Leifur Eirksson Publishing, 1997, vol. 1, pp. 50–1.

37 Janet Bately, ed., The Old English Orosius, London: Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society, 1980, pp. 14–16.

38 Helle, Knut, Bergen bys historie, Bergen: Universitetsforlaget, 1982, vol. 1, pp. 114–15.

39 Pär Hansson, ed., Novgorod–Örebro–Lübeck after 700 years, 1295–1995: seminar i Örebro 4–5 mars 1995, Örebro (Sweden): Örebro Kommuns Bildningsförval, 1995, pp. 30–1.

40 Jordanes, Gothic history, pp. 55–6; Veale, English fur trade, pp. 63–6; Lloyd, T. H., England and the German Hanse 1157–1611, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 79.

41 Helle, Bergen, pp. 317, 321–5.

42 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 19, nos. 459, 465.

43 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 3, p. 48; vol. 5, p. 48; Helle, Bergen, p. 305; Konstantin Höhlbaum, ed., Hansisches Urkundenbuch, Halle: Verein für hansische Geschichte, 1879 and 1882–86, vol. 2, pp. 117–19; vol. 3, p. xv; R. Keyser and P. A. Munch, Norges gamle Love indtil 1387, Christiania: Grøndahl, 1882–86, vol. 3, p. xv.

44 Grethe Authén Blom, Norge i union på 1300-tallet: kongedømme, politikk, administrasjon og forvaltning 1319–1380, Trondheim: Tapir, 1992, vol. 1, pp. 35, 42–43.

45 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 7, nos. 103–4.

46 Peter Andreas Munch, Pavelige nuntiers regnskabe, Christiania,1864, pp. 25, 29. See also Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 80–2.

47 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 10, no. 30, letter to Ægidius Correnbitter in Bruges from Bishop Hákon in Bergen, 29 September 1338.

48 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 5, no. 152; Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 44–90; Finnur Jónsson, ‘Grønlands gamle topografi efter kilderne: Østerbygden og Vesterbygden’, Meddelelser om Grønland, 20, 1899, p. 278; idem, ed., Det gamle Grønlands beskrivelse af Ivar Bárðarson: udgiven efter håndskrifterne, Copenhagen: Levin and Munksgaard, 1930, pp. 9, 32.

49 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 17B, p. 283; Gustav Storm, ed., Islandske Annaler indtil 1578, Oslo: Kjeldeskriftfondet, 1977 (reprint of 1888 edition), p. 229; Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 140–1.

50 For a documented overview of this development, see Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 61–112. Concerning Bishop Alf’s death, see Storm, Islandske Annaler, pp. 282, 354, 414.

51 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 3, p. 477; vol. 18, no. 33. See also Seaver, Frozen echo, p. 146.

52 Björn Thorsteinsson, ‘Henry VIII and Iceland’, Saga-Book 15, 1959, pp. 67–101, esp. pp. 68–9; Seaver, Frozen echo, p. 170.

53 E.g., Thomas McGovern, ‘Bones, buildings, and boundaries: palæoeconomic approaches to Norse Greenland’, in Christopher D. Morris and D. James Rackham, eds., Norse and later settlement and subsistence in the North Atlantic, Glasgow: University of Glasgow, Department of Archaeology, 1992, pp. 192–230, esp. pp. 195–96; Thomas McGovern and G. F. Bigelow, ‘Archaeozoology of the Norse site О17a Narssaq District, Southwest Greenland’, Acta Borealia 1, 1984, pp. 85–101, esp. pp. 96–97;

54 Poul-Erik Philbert, ‘Man er hvad man spiser’, Polarfronten, 2, 2002, pp. 12–13; Inge Bødker Enghoff, ‘Hunting, fishing and animal husbandry at The Farm Beneath the Sand, Western Greenland: an archaeozoological analysis of a Norse farm in the Western Settlement,’ Meddelelser om Grønland: Man and Society, 28, 2003, pp. 47–50. See also Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 54–60.

55 Maps of these fishing banks are found in Charles Drever, ‘Cod fishing at Greenland’, London, c.1972, typescript held in the British Library, x.313/380. See also Seaver, Maps, pp. 60–86.

56 For a documented account of this complex development, see Seaver, Frozen echo, esp. ch. 9.

57 Diplomatarium Islandicum, vol. 3, nos. 597 (1409), 630–2 (1414); vol. 4, no. 376 (1424). According to Finn Magnusen, Bishop Odd Einarsson of Skálholt made verified transcripts of both the original affidavit and the two subsequent confirmations.

58 For a documented discussion of this topic, see Seaver, Frozen echo, esp. chs. 7, 8, and 9 and Appendix A and B.

59 See especially the ‘Cantino’ planisphere of 1502 and the Ruysch world map of 1507/8.

60 See, for example, Diplomatarium Islandicum, vol. 16, no. 8, and cargo lists in E. M. Carus-Wilson, The overseas trade of Bristol, London: Merlin Press, 1967, pp. 252–3. See also Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 192–5.

61 Bent Fredskild, ‘Palaeobotanical investigations of some peat bog deposits of Norse age at Quagssiarssuk, South Greenland’, Meddelelser om Grønland, 204, 5, 1978, pp. 1–41; idem, ‘Agriculture in a marginal area: south Greenland from the Norse landnam (A.D. 985) to the present (1985)’, in Hilary H. Birks, H. J. B. Birks, Peter Emil Kaland, and Dagfinn Moe, eds., The cultural landscape: past, present and future, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 381–94.

62 Ingvi Thorsteinsson, ‘The environmental effects of farming in south Greenland in the Middle Ages and the twentieth century’, in Ingi Sigurðsson and Jón Skaptason, Aspects of Arctic and sub-Arctic history: proceedings of the International Congress on the History of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic Region, Reykjavík, 18–21 June 1998, Reykjavík: University of Iceland Press, 2000, pp. 258–63.

63 Jette Arneborg, Jan Heinemeier, Niels Lynnerup, Henrik L. Nielsen, Niels Rud, and Árny E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, ‘Change of diet of the Greenland Vikings determined from stable carbon isotope analysis and 14C dating of their bones’, Radiocarbon, 41, 2, 1999, pp. 157–8; Thomas McGovern, ‘The economics of landnám: animal bone evidence from Iceland and Greenland’, Report, Conference on ‘The North Atlantic Saga’, Reykjavík, 9–11 August 1999; Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 238–48.

64 Axel Kristínsson, ‘Productivity and population in pre-industrial Iceland’, in Sigurðsson and Skaptason, Aspects, pp. 270–8.

65 J. Kisbye Møller, ‘Isaac de la Peyrère: relation du Groenlande’, Grønland, 29, 1981, pp. 168–84; Henry Lintot and John Osborn, eds., A collection of voyages and travels, 2 vols., London, 1744, vol. 2, pp. 363–406; Diplomatarium Islandicum, vol. 6, nos. 66, 67; Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 205–6, 251, and 361, n. 65; Seaver, Maps, pp. 83–4.

66 Eleanora Mary Carus-Wilson, The merchant adventurers of Bristol, Bristol: Local History Pamphlet 4, 1962, pp. 15–16.

67 See, e.g., Henry Percival Biggar, The precursors of Cartier, Ottawa: Publications of the Canadian Archives no. 5, 1911, pp. 40–59; David Beers Quinn, Alison M. Quinn, and Susan Hillier, eds., New American world: a documentary history of North America to 1612, 5 vols., New York, 1979, vol. 1, pp. 103–9, 117–21; David Beers Quinn, England and the discovery of America, 1481–1620, London: Allen & Unwin, 1974, pp. 114–15, 121; David Beers Quinn, North America from earliest discoveries to first settlements: the Norse voyages to 1612, London: Harper and Row, 1977, pp. 124–5; James A. Williamson, The Cabot voyages and Bristol discovery under Henry VII, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Hakluyt Society, 1962, pp. 235–47; Alwyn A. Ruddock, ‘The reputation of Sebastian Cabot’, Bulletin of the Institute for Historical Research, 47, 1974, p. 98; Carla Rahn Phillips, ‘The growth and composition of trade in the Iberian empires, 1450–1750’, in James D. Tracy, ed., The rise of merchant empires, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 48, n. 21; John Hatcher, Plague, population and the English economy, 1348–1530, London: Macmillan, 1977, pp. 27–30, 43, 55–8, 60–4; Paul Slack, The impact of plague in Tudor and Stuart England, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985, pp. 15–17, 56–68, 70–3 (esp. fig. 1, p. 71), 84–9, 112, 185–7; William H. McNeill, Plagues and peoples, Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1976, p. 169; Seaver, Frozen echo, ch. 9.

* Originally published as ‘Ettertraktete tenner: middelalderens handel med hvalrosstann og afrikansk elfenbein’, Historisk tidsskrift, 2, 2006, pp. 231–50. English translation and alterations by the author, by permission from Universitetsforlaget (Oslo).

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