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No. 2091:
Hvalsøy Church

Today, an old stone church. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

What is the oldest Christian church in the Western Hemisphere? We've all seen candidates. Most of the really old ones are Spanish, of course. But I've just read the review of a book on climate change. It shows ruins of an old stone church with a caption that says, "A wedding at Hvalsey Church in 1408 provided the last historical account from the Norse settlements in Greenland." That made me curious enough to look for details were to be found.

The first Sunday after the Feast of the Holy Cross, Torstein Olavsson and Sigrid Bjørnsdatter were married by the priest Pål Halvardsson. We know a lot about the event, maybe more than we'd like to. For example, one man at the wedding had been cuckolded the year before. The community judged that the wife's lover used the Black Arts to seduce her. They burned him, and she went mad. But Torstein, an Icelandic trader, and Sigrid fared better. They went back to Iceland, where they're part of Icelandic history today.

In 1408, the settlement and its churches had been there for four centuries. The Norse had given up most of its Paganism just before they came. Liev Eiriksson's father Eirick had not been pleased with his son's embrace of Christianity. But now that was ancient history and the southwest coast of Greenland was a great patchwork of homesteads and villages. As many as five thousand Christian Norsemen hunted, fished, herded, and traded there.

Whenever it was built, the Hvalsøy Church is far older than any on the North American mainland. Foundation elements of many other houses and churches remain, but this one is more complete. All the stone churches in Greenland reflect Norwegian designs, but the stonemasonry in the Hvalsøy Church is pretty crude. 

So the documents recording Torstein's and Sigrid's wedding were the last we have. Archaeological remains make it clear that settlers were there at least another seventy years. They were probably still around when Columbus sailed off to find India. 

So why did such a large and long-established community vanish? Theories abound, of course. Maybe the Norse were driven out by native Inuits, or even hostile Europeans. Maybe the soil was depleted by overgrazing. It does seem clear that ocean trade ceased. We now know that Greenland was settled during a period of global warmth -- nothing like the one going on now, but enough to make Greenland accessible by sea, and habitable. We also know that Earth started cooling once more, before the Norse vanished. 

If cooling was the cause, the community would've become more vulnerable to the other threats as it eroded. We know that, near the end, its diet had shifted from herd animals to migratory game.

I find that all the more poignant when I think about that last record -- an autumn wedding, a happy day, a couple who lived long, but not in Greenland. Greenland had outrun her time. Happily-ever-after was no longer to be found there.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

H. Ingstad, Land Under the Pole Star. (tr. Naomi Walford) (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1966)

H. M. Jansen, A Critical Account of the Written and Archaeological Sources' Evidence Concerning the Norse Settlements in Greenland. Meddr Grønland,Vol 182, No. 4. 1972. 

G. Jones, The Norse Atlantic Saga. (London: Oxford University Press, 1964)

The book review I mention was for E. Linden's, The Winds of Change. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006). See pg. 1001 of the 19 May, 2006, Sciencemagazine.

Hvalsøy Church

Detail of the Hvalsøy Church adapted from Jansen (op. cit.). Originally given by A. Roussell, Farms and churches in Greenland, Meddr Grønland, Vol 89, No. 1. 1941.