03 December 2019

Some Viking Reading

Rune-stick N B644 (late 12thc.) from Bryggens Museum, Bergen. Photo Judith Jesch

It's quite common for various media and/or internet sites to put up a list of suggested book titles for people wanting to learn more about the Vikings. A recent one is this on Medievalists.net entitled 'Which Books About the Vikings Should I Read'? A couple of years ago the Guardian did 'Top Ten Books About Vikings'. I know I'm a bad person for shuddering when I looking at these lists. Well, maybe not quite shuddering, but having mixed feelings about them. The lists often include books which are not about Vikings at all, but are for example modern fiction, or fourth-hand retellings of myths and legends. Such lists often mix books aimed at different audiences without really specifying what kinds of audiences they are aimed at. And, I'm afraid to say, some of the books on those lists are just not very good. I recognise it is not easy to put such lists together - there are so many books about Vikings out there and it is impossible to read them all. It's also quite hard to judge them, precisely because some which are suitable for some audiences are not suitable for other audiences. Some books are written by experts, and some are put together by jobbing writers trying to make a living. Or people who have just discovered the Vikings and are taking you the reader on their rocky journey finding out about them. Or, some of them written by experts having an off day. Or by people who are an expert in something completely different (you'd be surprised how much of that goes on).

So my list of recommended reading might be just as unsatisfactory as those that I turn my nose up at. Nevertheless, I am going to have a go, since those other lists have inspired me to try to do better. Far be it from me to tell you what you 'should read' - the internet is already too full of people telling other people how to think or behave. But I offer my list for a very specific audience: those who genuinely want to learn about Vikings but are still relative beginners. Intelligent and interested beginners. I'm afraid this list is particularly aimed at those who are thinking of making this a fairly serious study, whether in an educational institution or not. I am going to avoid the myriad of coffee table and popular books which in my view provide entertainment rather than instruction, even though some of these are very good. But they're often a one-stop shop - people might read them (or flick through the pics) once and then never think about Vikings again. Other people read as many such books as they can get their hands on but don't really learn very much because these books often just say the same things, re-use the same images, and, in some cases, peddle the same myths. Just because a lot of books say something doesn't mean it's true. You'd be amazed how many 'serious' books by experts get a bit muddled when trying to explain the word 'Viking'.

What I'm interested in are books that help you engage with the evidence and thereby to think about the process of how we find out about the Viking Age, not just what the 'answers' might be. I'm going for the popular but not the populist. I'm mainly interested in books that have something new to say, have new ways of saying it that make us think, even if they might at some level be 'wrong'. I'm generally very much in favour of thinking. But thinking requires time and commitment, which is why I'm sticking to the more serious end of the market, though you'll see that seriousness can be found in all kinds of places! And yes, I do still, somewhat against the current tide, believe in experts. All I can promise is that, if you read some of the books below, you will be well-equipped to evaluate all the other books about Vikings out there. I have provided some comments to help you identify those you really want to read, just in case you can't get through all of them.

Another word of warning: aficionados will notice that many books that might have made it onto this list are simply not there. There are two possible reasons for this: I might not have read them (I certainly haven't read everything), or I have read them and was not impressed! And I'm not telling which. Other books, while excellent, might be missing because they just are not the kind of book I had in mind for this particular list, which is, I admit, quite personal. I have therefore also avoided books which are too obviously trying to be clever and iconoclastic, or genuinely trying to say something new but which are not well-written or well-argued - life is too short for them.

It's not that easy to find one good book that will tell you everything, or almost everything, you need to know. There's a simple reason for this, which is that Vikings and the Viking Age are complex topics that are not easily reduced even to 300 pages. Also, definitions of what constitutes the Viking Age. or what 'Vikings' really are, do differ, and rightly so. The terms cover a wide variety of people and places over quite a long period of time, and within those places and that time there is a lot of variation. Studying those people, places and times requires a serious commitment to multi-disciplinarity (no, archaeology is not always the only answer, let alone archaeological science), a knowledge of several languages, and the general ability to deal with evidence that is always fragmentary and often elusive. There are really very few geniuses out there who can do this, though quite a few make a noble effort. So what should you read as a general introduction?

Well, if you live in, or have an interest in, Britain or Ireland, you could do worse that start with Jayne Carroll, Stephen Harrison and Gareth Williams, The Vikings in Britain and Ireland (British Museum Press, 2014). What I most like about this book is that the three authors come from different disciplines: Carroll is a philologist and onomast, Harrison an archaeologist and Williams a numismatist and museum curator, so you are in good hands when they evaluate the evidence. There is indeed a good focus on evidence and what it does, or does not, tell us, with some well-chosen illustrations which go beyond the ones that usually appear in such books. It's a good place to start though obviously its coverage is geographically limited..

Having sailed around the northwest European archipelago, you'll probably want to find out more about Scandinavia, where the Vikings came from, next. It's not actually easy, especially if you don't read any Scandinavian languages. Let's hope that by 2025, when the new museum of the Viking Age opens in Oslo, there will be some decent introductions to Viking Age Scandinavia. In the meantime, Anders Winroth, The Age of the Vikings (Princeton University Press, 2014) is quite a good place to start. It takes a broad view of the Viking Age, focusing on the period as transformational for Scandinavia and largely from a Scandinavian point of view. It starts with a fictional vignette of a Scandinavian chieftain and his followers back home celebrating their successes abroad in both raiding and other activities. The core of the narrative is however closely linked to the primary sources, which it brings to life successfully, while keeping a keen critical sense and often emphasising what the sources do not reveal. The book is thematically organised (with chapters on violence, emigration, ships, trade, etc.) which means the author tends to whiz around different times and places, often without a very clear chronology (a bit surprising in a historian). It's also quite light on the important evidence of archaeology, especially excavated sites, with the historian preferring written sources even when they are post-Viking Age. But the Swedish author does love his rune-stones! In general, it does the job in an engaging way.

Although Winroth's book is well-illustrated, it can usefully be supplemented by the perfect picture book, Steve Ashby and Alison Leonard, Pocket Museum: Vikings (Thames and Hudson, 2018). It is literally like carrying a museum around with you, with nearly 200 artefacts pictured, with brief but useful explanatory texts. A picture book that is also educational.

Moving from there to a more specialised archaeological study, I can't resist recommending Steven P. Ashby, A Viking Way of Life (Amberley, 2014). It's a book about - wait for it- combs! And hair! The author does a great job of showing how a simple, everyday object opens up all kinds of meanings in the Viking Age. It starts with the question of how you actually make a comb. First you have to catch your animal whose antler or bone you will use as raw material. And it's not as easy as you think. From these beginnings a complex and fascinating narrative emerges. A book that everyone can relate to, even if you no longer have much hair you probably had some once! The author is not fully reliable when it comes to the literary sources, but he has a good go, and I forgive him for otherwise producing such an exciting book.

While archaeologists occasionally stumble over sagas and poetry, the literary scholars are similarly uncertain when it comes to material culture. Thus, Christopher Abram, Myths of the Pagan North: Gods of the Norsemen (Continuum, 2011) is really quite vague on the material evidence for the pre-Christian beliefs of the Vikings. But he comes into his own discussing the medieval Icelandic literary sources. I particularly liked his emphasis, and detailed analysis, of some skaldic poetry which is almost certainly genuinely from the pagan period. In particular, he moves his gaze away from the fixation with Iceland that the written sources tend to bring, and makes some controversial but stimulating suggestions about religious conflict in tenth- and eleventh-century Norway.

Beliefs, myths and religion are an important aspect of studying the Vikings, so I am also happy to recommend Carolyne Larrington, Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes (Thames and Hudson, 2017). Of all the myriad books about the myths, this one is I think most successful in keeping a balance between retelling the undeniably attractive stories and actually giving the reader a sense of the significance of and relationships between the sources. While this is a book aimed at the general public, Larrington successfully steers her mythological ship with the firm hand of the expert scholar.

While we are on the topic of literature, all study of the Vikings has to grapple with the Icelandic sagas. Scholarship has veered between believing them to be written records of Viking Age oral tradition to discounting them as literature 'because all literature is lies' (direct quote from a senior Norse specialist). Nowadays, saga scholarship often ignores the problem and prefers to study the sagas without considering if, whether, or how they might provide insights into the Viking Age. To me that is the interesting question, which is far from resolved. Since no one has resolved it, the best thing do to is first to get to know this fascinating corpus and the best way of doing that is by reading Margaret Clunies Ross, The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga (Cambridge UP, 2010). This is the best place to find out what exactly a saga is, how many types there are, and indeed every saga gets at least a mention. But there are also some really useful close readings of extracts which will help the reader develop a good idea of how sagas work. Though Clunies Ross doesn't explicitly see it this way, I also think this is the first step to an understanding of how sagas relate to the Viking Age (the short answer is, in many complicated ways, and it's never straightforward!).

A much-neglected literary topic is the afterlife of the Vikings in medieval English literature. This is expertly presented in Eleanor Parker, The Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England  (I.B. Tauris, 2018). Starting with contemporary poems like The Battle of Maldon, Parker traces how Vikings are presented in a wide range of medieval texts in English and Latin, many of them little-known, even to specialists. She sets out to complicate the narratives of historians past and present for whom the Vikings came 'not to govern but rather to destroy'. She does this by examining how literature and popular traditions told more complex stories of England’s Viking Age, demonstrating both the lasting impact and legacy of, and the regional diversity of English responses to, the people most of the texts figure as ‘Danes’. The very complexity of these divergent responses to England's  Viking past is clear, if indirect, evidence of just how important an impact the Scandinavians had.

It's not possible to study Vikings without some grasp of runes and runic inscriptions and Martin Findell, Runes (British Museum Press, 2014) is the best place to start. Admittedly, Findell has more of a soft spot for the runes of Anglo-Saxon England, rather than the far more copious Scandinavian corpus (unbelievable!). But he gives a nicely pedagogical and well-illustrated account of the significance and study of these absolutely contemporary, if occasionally rather laconic, texts.

Words, words, words. For those who are most comfortable with pictures, and for a different kind of thinking, there is nothing better than Dayanna Knight, The Viking Coloring Book (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2017). The author is a trained archaeologist and, like many an archaeologist, good at drawing. Except that she is far better than most, being a quite exceptional artist who can bring the Viking world to life in a way that goes far beyond the technical drawings of the average archaeological report, while still being as accurate as it is possible to be. Plus, colouring pictures is a very relaxing thing to do in our stressful world, and you really get inside the Viking mind while doing it.

Disclaimer: It is true that I am personally acquainted with every single author mentioned above, so there may be a wee bit of bias in my choices. But then, I wouldn't be doing my job very well if I didn't know all these great scholars and fabulous communicators, so I hope I can be forgiven. Enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the list. I know what you mean about people writing books on a subject who are actually experts in something else entirely.

    Don't even get me started on people who want recommendations for fiction novels to help them 'learn' about a historical period or events.