As part of a series titled The Medieval World, Judith Jesch's meticulous work, The Viking Diaspora, sits alongside some pretty niche bedfellows: Margery Kempe, The Cathars, The Formation of English Common Law.
This, then, is no standard canter through familiar touchstones but a detailed analysis of a period of history through a specific prism.
The first of six chapters is titled Vikings and their Ages, plural, and the subject matter under the writer's microscope is duly manifold.
Case studies and evidence are given their own sections, personal and place names their own tables. The work feels scientific.
From research to publication
The book's origins lie in a three-year research project for which Jesch was the Principal Investigator.
Between 2006 and 2009, the Viking Identities Network explored the "role of women in language and material culture, and the memorializing of Viking identities from pagan times to the present."
It aimed to stimulate academic and popular discussion about Norse or Viking identities in the Viking Age, looking at the lasting legacy of the Scandinavian migrations on Britain, Ireland, and their neighbors in the North Atlantic.
It was also, as far as Jesch is aware, the first to introduce the concept of a diaspora with reference to Vikings – the Irish diaspora, the Hungarian diaspora, and the Jewish diaspora are commonly heard concepts; the reasons for the spread of these peoples rooted in hunger or flight to safety.
Jesch, a Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, is very much a hands-on historian.
In her acknowledgments, she affirms, "In this era of Skype and video conferencing, I still think there is added value in physically bringing scholars together, especially in those locations where the Vikings themselves traveled and where their tracks can still be glimpsed."
Possibly through interactions with experts during her numerous study visits and conference journeys to these regions, Jesch collaborates with specialists in fields such as pollen analysis, fishing techniques, and Manx runestones.
She engages with these experts to expand her knowledge, which she then distills into a concise 200-page work.
Jesch's exploration of Thorfinn the Mighty's reign in the Orkney Islands provides a vivid glimpse into the Viking Age's geopolitical landscape and its enduring impact on Scottish heritage. Photo: Claire Pegrum / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
How far did the Vikings reach?
Many who write a Viking history first agonize over the terms "Viking" and "history," or rather the specific period they need to consider.
Jesch boldly opens The Viking Diaspora with the death of Thorfinn Sigurdsson, Viking Earl of Orkney, aka Thorfinn the Mighty, around 1064, and the lyrical obituary conceived by his court poet, Arnórr jarlaskáld.
It's the language that fascinates Jesch, sewing together a shared ancestral culture rather than the prosaic details of a Jarl's death.
The poet touches upon his own birthplace of Iceland, more than 1,000 kilometers away, while exalting a ruler whose realm included nine earldoms in Scotland, the entire Hebrides, and a substantial part of Ireland.
Thorfinn paid personal homage to the kings of Denmark and Norway and traveled to Rome to seek out the Pope.
Thorfinn fits the bill nicely if you're looking for a prime example of the Viking diaspora - a Norse speaker raised in Scotland, Ireland, and the Northern Isles.
And he is, of course, depicted by Snorri Sturluson in his Orkneyinga saga about 150 years after the Earl's dramatic passing.
And yet, if this was the end of an era, it was a long goodbye.
The Orkneys would remain part of Norway for another four centuries after Thorfinn's death, and Norse persists to this day in the form of language and culture, to name but two of the most tangible.
These linguistic and cultural influences underscore the many definitions of the term "Viking" and the parameters of their world, as covered in the first half of this book, which then looks at gender, beliefs, and identity in the second half.
- READ MORE: Women and power in the Viking Age (A primer)
Jesch's exploration of Viking Age artifacts, such as combs bearing inscriptions, reveals how linguistic, artefactual, and natural evidence collectively contribute to a deeper understanding of Norse life. Photo: The Swedish History Museum (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Studying the evidence
Jesch explains that the evidence used to outline these initial concepts falls into three categories: linguistic, artefactual, and natural.
In The Viking Diaspora, this approach is exemplified by something as simple as a comb.
Such an item might carry some form of inscription; it is undoubtedly an artifact and one that could be made from animal materials.
In the absence of recorded conversations from 1,000 years ago, place names serve as valuable indicators of the terms used and by whom.
Of course, there are also runes, the early Germanic alphabet. The era of the runes extends much longer than the commonly recognized Viking Age, spanning from approximately 150 to 1,500.
Apart from this, contemporary written sources are few - the Icelandic Sagas describe, even embellish, oral accounts of events of centuries earlier.
Eyewitness sources were written by travelers and clerics of overseas origin.
As for artefactual evidence, i.e., things discovered below ground or in the water, the body of evidence is huge and growing all the time, literally every week.
Their interpretations, therefore, are also changing, and therefore our perceptions of when certain concepts were developed or adopted, Christianity say, change with them.
While advances in DNA analysis are also changing rapidly, allowing us to establish genetic links more quickly and clearly, the development of isotope analysis brings into focus the influence of the environment on human (and animal) activity.
Radiocarbon dating of pollen remains can be used to date Viking sites and, thus, people's movements.
Much of this may not have been possible, or as possible, when the Viking Identities Networks project began in 2006.
In her exploration of the Viking settlement of Greenland, Jesch provides evidence of early agricultural practices, suggesting a Norse presence on the island as early as 985. Photo: Kim Ries Jensen / Shutterstock
Arguably, the cleric Adam of Bremen is the most notable non-Scandinavian whose contemporary writings reveal much about the lands and period under investigation.
He was also one of the first to express the concept of Scandinavia and the Viking diaspora beyond, such as Iceland, Greenland, and even Vinland, the imprecise Norse outpost somewhere in North America.
This was in the 1070s.
Jesch first outlines these lands and islands, giving descriptions of their landscapes, agricultural use, and wildlife.
She then roams further across the North Atlantic, including Vinland, in a matter-of-fact manner to outline Britain and Ireland.
Here, the influence of Scandinavians on urban development, trade, and manufacture is indisputable. Normandy, Finland, the Baltic, and Russia also fall within the immediate remit of the writer's investigation.
Jesch first considers the influence of Scandinavian migrants on uninhabited environments, the Faroes and Iceland, and relatively pristine Greenland.
Thanks to radiocarbon dating, growing archeological evidence can place their arrival in the Faroes to around 800.
Evidence of pastoral farming on the fringes of Greenland suggests an arrival date of 985, perhaps a little before.
Assessing their direct influence on the environment in previously inhabited territories, the Northern Isles, say, is far more complex.
The introduction of flax as a crop, used in fishing nets, sails, and linseed oil, points to the Norse settlers.
Fishing probably became more commercialized, as evidenced by the types of fishbone and the use of shellfish, possibly as bait.
By analyzing Viking colonization practices, the harsh adaptation to northern climates, the economic motivations behind reaching farther territories for resources like walrus ivory, and the role of place names, Jesch offers insights into the complexities of Norse expansion. Photo: Ökologix / Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)
Faces and places
Genetics is another obvious area for exploration, but the accuracy of DNA testing on archeological remains is still surprisingly imprecise.
Y-chromosomes are passed through the male line but are only found in males, while X-chromosomes are passed through the female line and are found in everyone.
Again, this means that genetic analysis frustratingly prevents us from drawing a definitive picture, but we can say with reasonable certainty the areas of England where Norwegian influence is stronger than Danish.
This genetic breakdown throws up fascinating questions in Iceland, where there is considerably more Celtic ancestry found in females.
While the accepted reasoning is that Celtic women were taken there as slaves, wives, or mistresses, Jesch ponders whether they would have spoken Celtic to their children, thus keeping their language alive as a literal mother tongue for generations.
There is also the thorny question of female infanticide, the evidence for which is patchy at best, given that most burial remains found to date belong to male rulers and prominent members of society.
When the Vikings traveled to colonize, they would have taken women of child-bearing age with them, thus providing continuity.
How Scandinavians adapted to the harsher conditions of Iceland and Greenland still needs to be clarified.
We may surmise, however, that the attraction of abundant and lucrative walrus ivory may have persuaded settlers to venture further north - the local population around the seas of Iceland died out after a few generations of human activity there.
Place names make up for the lack of written records from this time, and the writer delves into Scandinavian naming practices as they describe the natural or built environment.
Sometimes, they reflect the first impressions of the new arrivals - again, there are no chronicles for this purpose.
These musings give rise to the first case study into the etymology of "Sheep Islands" or Faroes.
Norse networks and identities, Jesch concludes, towards the end, involved small populations and fragile global connections.
The fact that she can cast her net so wide and dig her archeology trowel so deep to produce such a comprehensive study is a testament to her fascination with the subject, her perseverance, and her humility in letting a host of niche experts speak.
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