19 September 2020

The Children of Ash and Elm

In what now seems like a completely other world, less than a year ago I wrote blog post listing some recommended Viking reading. If I had been writing that blog post now, I would certainly have had to consider this very recent offering (it was published last month), all 599 pages of it, with the rather curious title The Children of Ash and Elm and the more prosaic subtitle A History of the Vikings. This book is by Neil Price, one of the best-known Viking specialists working today. He is professor of archaeology at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, and leader of a massive 10-year project called The Viking Phenomenon. By any account, this book, one of the outputs of that project, deserves serious attention.

I have to admit that not long ago I declined an opportunity to review the book, though this was only for practical reasons and not from any disinclination. Since then no one else has asked. So I thought I'd share some thoughts here. In fact, I rather like the freedom of writing as many (or as few) words as I like, and not having to follow the conventions of book reviews, or worry about who I was writing for, or explain the book to those who haven't read it and are wondering whether they should or not (the short answer is yes, though there's a longer and more complicated answer below). So this is not a review. Just some thoughts, mainly on those aspects of the book which particularly interest me, and which may or may not be of interest to others.

The first thing to note is that not only have I read it, but I have read it carefully and in its entirety and enjoyed doing so. You might think this goes without saying, but I can assure you that when it comes to popular or trade books about the Viking Age, this is very rarely the case for me... Too many books about the Vikings, aimed at a general audience, just say the same old things, in the same order, and in the dullest possible way. They might have their uses in providing the basics for those who know nothing, but I can rarely get past the first few pages... I assume this one is intended for a wide audience, as it is published by Allen Lane and will I guess eventually become a Penguin paperback, presumably to replace Else Roesdahl's The Vikings, which has now been around for quite a long time. So the very fact that I enjoyed reading it, and with attention, tells you a lot. However, its destiny as a popular book also makes it a bit difficult to review. How much should we expect of it? Who is it really for? We all know that it is really hard to encompass the whole of the Viking Age without making some mistakes, but how significant is that in this context? Does anyone care? I'm always being told that our first priority is to engage as well as inform the general public. But how far do we go in this process?

Well, this book is certainly very engaging. So what do I like about it? A variety of big and small things. Most important to me is how Neil's love of his subject shines through every word on these 599 pages. Here is someone who likes Vikings and the Viking Age a lot, as much as I do, almost certainly even more than I do, although probably for very different reasons. He resists the dreary tendency of some archaeologists to insist on the calling it the 'Viking period' and instead argues cogently (p. 9) for the validity of the notion of a 'discrete Viking Age'. He even admits that he is 'promoting the Vikings' worldview' (p. 26), something that sounds potentially dangerous these days. But it's not sinister, rather it is clear that his aim is deep understanding, an attempt to get inside the skin of the Vikings. Overall, I like this attitude. This is not a book for those who want battles and bling, rather I see it as an attempt to work out what motivated battles and bling (and of course much else).

Another good thing is that some of the book is about the centuries before the Viking Age, a period which is given a variety of names in different archaeological traditions (usefully tabulated on p. 66) and which is less well studied outside the circles of Scandinavian archaeology than the Viking Age itself. Very few books about the Viking Age consider this preceding period in any detail and it is illuminating to see both the continuities and the changes. In fact, you could argue that the author's idea of a 'discrete' and in many ways unified Viking Age is justified by that very contrast with the preceding period, with its multiple monikers and lack of a unifying narrative. Despite his over-fondness for Beowulf and the sixth-century 'dust veil', this focus on the pre-Viking period is still an important aspect of this book. I would also say the author is generally good on religion, even if I shudder at his adoption of the term 'religiolect' (p. 207), or when he overstates the evidence for worship of the Norse deities in England (p. 408).

I am of course very pleased that the author recognises the usefulness of the concept of 'diaspora' in understanding the Viking Age - this word is the title of the whole of chapter 13. Unlike many others, he is also alert to the fact that it is a difficult word to use and needs explanation and exploration rather than just appropriation (see especially pp. 363-5 and 555).

So, overall, this is a book which has many new and interesting things to say about Vikings and the Viking Age and already for that reason it is well worth reading. It's also a book which stimulates both thought and occasional disagreement, and I wouldn't be me if I didn't have some Thoughts about some of what Neil says.

The book is definitely the product of an archaeologist's mind, as indeed his predecessor Else Roesdahl's is. Allen Lane/Penguin still seems to belong to the class of publisher who believes only archaeologists are qualified to write about this topic. However, Neil is one of those archaeologists who is not only not embarrassed to use Old Norse texts to help understand his subject, but is also pretty knowledgeable about them. Indeed he has been supporting his archaeological interpretations with textual evidence for most of his career. This is laudable, but has some dangers. I have sometimes noticed that not only MA dissertations and PhD theses but also papers by more senior archaeologists have a tendency to use his work as a primary source to access these texts. While it is understandable that archaeologists cannot also be textual specialists, I think there is still some educating to be done here. But that is not this author's fault, rather that of those who use him in this way. This book is upfront about its use of sagas in particular, more than once urging its readers to 'read the sagas' - which can only be a good thing. I'm also totally with Neil when he notes (p. 23) that 'skeptical literary researchers' are probably too skeptical since they do not explain where all the Viking Age material in the sagas comes from, though his own justification (e.g. p. 222) is a bit thin. Let's by all means have more exchange and discussion of this topic which is sorely needed.

So I am disappointed to have to say that this book is not a particularly good advertisement for the use of sagas, or indeed any old texts, in archaeological narratives. At the most basic level, there are too many errors, often of a linguistic variety. So not only are we introduced to those weird Anglo-Norse hybrid dynasties the 'Ynglingas, Skjöldungas, and Völsungas' (p. 92) but, even more egregiously, the Saga of the Ljósvetningas (p. 160). I think our author has been reading too much Beowulf and not enough sagasConstantine Porphyrogenitos' De Administrando Imperio is, despite the title, written in Greek not Latin (p. 366). Miðjarðarhaf  is a literal translation of 'Mediterranean Sea' and nothing to do with Miðgarðr (p. 374). A few such errors are forgivable but there are a little too many for my taste. Especially because they could easily have been eradicated by asking someone who knows about these things to read through the manuscript. But despite two pages of Acknowledgements to the Great and the Good of Norse and Viking Studies (pp. 574-6), this appears not to have been done, at least not successfully. The hubris of thinking you know everything affects us all in the end...and it's those who really do know a lot who have to be particularly careful. (I'm looking at myself here, too).

Similarly, some of Neil's reading of Old Norse texts is at least debatable and sometimes just wrong. On p. 55, he conflates without notice the texts of the poem Darraðarljóð and the prose narrative of Njáls saga in which it is cited. This is a pity for the argument because many people believe the poem is a genuine Viking Age product, while the saga definitively is not, and is therefore unlikely to be a reliable guide to what the poem really means. (I've more than once heard archaeologists at conferences claim they are citing the saga when in fact they are using the poem - when making a point about textiles, for example, this is an important distinction). Individual texts are in danger of being overinterpreted. Thus, Neil says (p. 110) that  Rígsþula 'describes an elaborate high-status wedding with fine linens and much ceremony',  but there is no such thing, only a very sketchy reference in st. 38 (40 in Larrington's translation) to Erna marrying Jarl and wearing linen. On the same page, he refers to the 'impotence' of Hrútr in Njáls saga, whereas most readers would I think say this character's marital problem was too much potence. We're told that 'sagas and poems are utterly saturated in magic' (p. 221). Well, yes, there is a fair bit of magic in these texts but 'utterly saturated'? Not in my experience. 'Professional mourner' is an odd concept to link to the Eddic heroine Guðrún (p. 253) in a context in which it is clear that she is mourning her own daughter - surely a genuine tragic figure rather than a hired weeper. It all smacks a bit too much of making the evidence fit the argument.

Runes are also not well-represented in this book, despite many of them being, unlike the sagas but like some poetry, contemporary texts from the Viking Age or earlier. It's disappointing when the author misses several opportunities to mention that important archaeological finds he discusses actually have runic inscriptions on them, such as some of the pre-Viking weapon deposits at Illerup (p. 70). Even more scandalously, the carved stones of the Isle of Man are mentioned for their Christian iconography beside images from Old Norse cosmology (p. 417) without any reference to their (more frequent, but perhaps less obviously exciting) runic inscriptions. Two Swedish rune-stones which Neil alleges (p. 112) provide evidence for men having two wives simultaneously are not only rather slim evidence for polygyny but could also be read in a variety of ways, even before we consider the problems of using these laconic inscriptions to write social history. And no, Ingibjörg did not have 'sex with me when I was in Stavanger' (p. 192). The medieval (not Viking Age) Bergen rune-stick N B390 M says that Ingibjörg unni mér þá er ek var í Stafangri or 'Ingibjörg loved me when I was in Stavanger'. You might argue that the verb unna is a euphemism here (though not always in runic inscriptions where it does seem to indicate romantic love). But I would argue that is interpretation which needs to be argued for, ideally with a consideration of how the word is used in other contexts. In this context, what is needed rather is just to get the translation right. Norse-speaking people are not known for euphemisms and did not shy away from the f-word when they needed it, as can be seen from several runic inscriptions including a famous one in Maeshowe (also post-Viking Age). 

Any one of these slips, individually, is not significant on its own, but there are rather a lot of them when it comes to the texts. What is more concerning is the overall pattern, of exaggeration and dramatisation, of literally sexing up things that were originally perhaps more mundane. Too much of this ends up with a slightly cartoonish view of the Vikings which both feeds into and panders to the ways they are portrayed in popular culture. Boring as I am, I would argue that the Vikings are fun enough without having to exaggerate what they were up to, they don't need all this showmanship. The end result is that the book sits very uneasily on the border between scholarship and yet another 'popular' version of the Viking Age. This is a worrying tendency in several aspects of Viking studies today, one example being the controversial Viking display at the National Museum of Denmark, though this book is not I think in that league, mercifully. And yet many people will regard this book as the 'defnitive' view of the Viking Age (as can be seen from both journalistic reviews, and consumer reviews on Amazon). Once again, the drive to 'engage' the public seems to be at the forefront of all public-facing scholarship and is in danger of overshadowing the actual scholarship.

This popularising tendency may be responsible for the author more or less ignoring certain forms of evidence which are not so easily tied into a colourful narrative (though others do manage it). So, place-names, a really important source of evidence, get very short, and sometimes inaccurate, shrift. It is simply not true that there are 'no non-Norse place-names in the Hebrides' (p. 404). I wonder if the author meant the Northern Isles in this instance, but even there this is not true. According to him, place-names provide the 'greatest evidence for the Scandinavian presence' in Normandy, 'as in several areas in the British Isles' (p. 419), but this point regarding the latter (and especially England) is not taken up elsewhere. The author could, I would suggest, also do with reading up on some of the recent (and older) discussion about the  name of Norway which I,  in agreement with others, no longer believe means the 'North Way' (p. 86). It's perfectly understandable that this is an area in which our multi-talented archaeologist author feels less confident, but I would really have liked to have seen more about this in a 599-page book which calls itself 'A History of the Vikings'.

Even in areas where he is more knowledgeable, the author is not always entirely reliable. I didn't know that ringed pins were a 'uniquely Norse invention' (p. 135) and I doubt it, but admittedly that's not my area of expertise. Snaptun (the find location of a carving beloved of my students which ostensibly shows Loki with his mouth sewn up) is not 'near the Norwegian border' (p. 136) - Denmark does not share a land border with Norway. It did in the Middle Ages, but that is still not where Snaptun is. I do wonder how we can be sure that Sámi traditions recorded in early modern times go back to the Viking Age and beyond (p. 89). This could well be true, but I'd welcome some comment on the question, especially in light of the author's semi-skepticism about the (earlier-recorded) sagas. His disappointingly brief comments on genetic research (p. 381) add nothing to what is an important and current discussion.

So, despite the stated commitment to interdisciplinarity, and a voluminous bibliography (in which I have happily discovered many items I knew nothing about), I'm not convinced that the author has fully digested everything he has read, especially in other disciplines. The saga-references in particular read a bit like someone who once read a saga some years ago and is retailing it from memory. Personally, I do not mind these errors, they are easily made and I can recognise them and filter them out. I can also tell when the narrative slips from fact to speculation and I for one enjoy speculation even when I do not fully agree with it, because it stimulates thought. A case in point is the author's new-found conviction that the Vikings were non-binary or queer, which seems a bit tacked on here and there to a narrative which otherwise still assumes a highly gendered society (my considered views on shield-maidens will, I hope, be published elsewhere soon, in the meantime you can get an idea from this recent podcast). The speculation is not always signposted though careful reading will reveal it. But I do wonder how many students and less experienced readers will look at the range of evidence cited and assume the author is equally expert in all of it. And then continue to cite him, rather than the original sources, for literary and linguistic detail... I'm almost tempted to say that you should study the Vikings for a few years before reading this book - you'll get more out of it and not be led astray. But is this the right kind of book for The Penguin Book of the Vikings? I'm already dreading some of Neil's more colourful exaggerations turning up in student essays for years to come.

Despite these disappointments, I do still really like this book. I hope it is recognised that engagement at this level of detail is a form of praise for this book - there are very few books I would take so much trouble to write about, especially in this informal way. I fantasise that I could even use this slightly uneven character of the book to train students in distinguishing between old news, new news and fake news, but it wouldn't be easy. The narrative is, I imagine, pretty seductive to those (almost everyone) who have less knowledge than Neil Price.

To end on a more positive note, the book has some insights or generalisations that are sufficiently interesting and provocative that I want to take them away and really chew over them, which is one reason I like this book. While it should not always be taken literally, the following random selection of observations shows some of the ways in which this book successfully stimulated my thought processes at least:

  • 'trickster ... nomenclature may not help in understanding [Loki] from the point of view of the Vikings themselves' (p. 46)
  • 'The mythology of the Vikings is one of only a tiny handful in all world cultures in which the divinities also practised religion' (p. 50)
  • [with reference to the Migration Period, but also relevant to the Viking Age, and here's looking at you 2020] 'Some were fleeing, and others were those they fled from. Most were looking for economic security, safety, and a quieter life while a powerful minority were trying proactively to shape a world more to their liking' (p. 68)
  • 'it is the man's gender that was limited and intensive, while the gender of women was to a degree unlimited and extensive' (p. 172)
  • 'the Rök stone ... was deeply socially embedded (and visible) in a way that the book cultures of the Continent never wished to be' (p. 195)
  • the importance of planning and preparing for Viking expeditions (p. 308)
  • the 'armies' in England were 'continuously evolving migratory communities' (p. 339) or 'armed family migrations' (p. 357)
  • 'There is little evidence of racism in Viking society' (p. 398)
  • 'the Vikings live on today primarily as tourist magnets, as the draw of heritage trails and "experiences". The Scandinavians of the Viking Age were acutely concerned with memory; they might have been happy at this.' (pp. 498-9)


  1. The comment cited below was from Betsy (https://www.blogger.com/profile/15018096552799902019) and somehow got lost as I was trying to sort out the bad links (hope I've done that now) and I couldn't restore it. Anyway, nice to hear from you again Betsy!

    "Thanks for this interesting review, and for distilling several of Price's most thought-provoking points. Enjoyed the linked podcast--good to hear your voice again. Note--some of the other links in your post take the reader to draft.blogger.com instead of the linked topic."

  2. If you were interested in this blog post you might also like to read Oren Falk's review of another book by Neil Price, the second edition (2019) of his The Viking Way: https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/tmr/article/view/31716