This long-awaited introduction to Viking history and society, titled The Vikings, complements companion volumes in the Peoples of the Ancient World series, such as the Babylonians, the Trojans, and the Mycenaeans.
While these investigations into long-lost, exotic civilizations are based on evidence that has long been buried and seldom perused by the layman, the challenge for authors Neil Price and Ben Raffield is clear.
Both professors of archaeology at Uppsala University in Sweden, they face the significant exposure the Viking era has received in recent years.
A crowded field
Given all the hit TV shows, millions are now familiar with Ragnarök. Due to the abundance of Viking books, speculation about Norse expeditions to North America has become a regular topic of debate.
Thanks to the exemplary work of teams like Secrets of the Ice, as well as random discoveries by metal detectorists, items are uncovered almost weekly that shed new light on Viking history, society, and culture.
No wonder Neil Price begins this 240-page book with a heartfelt apology for its delay and a sense of gratitude to his co-writer for helping him see it through.
Ben Raffield's contribution has been so significant that he shares the authorship credit. Yet, so meticulous is their work that nothing appears disjointed or stitched together.
The Vikings is divided into five main chapters, each further subdivided into bite-sized sections spanning three or four pages.
This allows readers interested in, for instance, the Vikings in Ireland, to directly turn to Chapter 5, titled "The Viking Diaspora," and page 117, labeled the "Irish Sea."
There is, of course, a detailed index, and the bibliography spans more than 30 pages. Over a page of this is dedicated to Price's own papers and publications, covering topics from the Vikings in Brittany to the city-state of Novgorod.
Raffield, too, has nearly a page of prior writing credits, making the task of distilling this vast shared knowledge into concise yet informative passages of user-friendly prose seem monumental.
They never lose sight of their objective, however, which is to offer "a concise but comprehensive introduction to the early medieval Scandinavians."
They delve into "why we now perceive them as a cosmopolitan blend of traders and warriors, craftworkers and poets, explorers and settlers," and explore "how they evolved into urbanized monarchies solidly positioned on the world stage of literate, Christian Europe."
The book delves into the diverse roles of the Vikings, from warriors and poets to settlers, and traces their rise to prominent monarchies in Christian Europe. Photo: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock
Enter the Vikings
In The Vikings, the authors minimize the agonizing over defining the era and its parameters. They quote a specialist who suggests that this period could just as aptly be termed the golden age of the pig-farmer.
The acknowledgment that history must be categorized in some manner allows them to swiftly transport the reader to the glaciers and forests of Scandinavia.
Geography receives more emphasis than in most Viking histories, though the context it offers is undeniably pertinent.
During the Viking Age, shorelines were up to five meters higher, which meant that lakes, fjords, and rivers were more expansive and natural harbors deeper.
Moreover, only five percent of the land was suitable for agriculture, surely a key factor in the Norse trawling their net wider than Scandinavia.
The Age of Migration and the two, possibly three, major volcanic eruptions around 536, which caused dust to blot out the sun's warmth and thus devastate crop yields, paved the way for the Viking era.
Interestingly, the writers point out that the market hubs, which developed once farms were repopulated and trade revived, didn't last long.
Whereas in England, where medieval communities evolved from market centers to become important towns that still exist today, places like Hedeby, Kaupang, and Birka were all abandoned by the end of the 11th century.
The authors explore pagan sacrificial rituals, familial relationships (polygyny was accepted for both men and women), language, and the local, more sophisticated method of bartering.
However, the real fascination for these eminent historians seems to be understanding how such a vast region of mainly isolated farmsteads transformed into fully-fledged, centralized states in just 300 years.
This is a subject to which the authors are particularly drawn in the final chapter, "Church and State."
It illustrates how Christianity gained a foothold in Scandinavia, delves into the lesser-explored topic of Norse interaction with Islam, and describes power struggles at the pinnacle of Viking society.
The text is enriched with nearly 20 black-and-white photographs and is complemented by five maps.
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