William Collins, £25
The image of Vikings as marauding barbarians is one that we have all encountered in popular culture. Indeed, even Thomas Williams, author of this absorbing new account of their interactions with Britain (and the British Museum’s Curator of Early Medieval Coins, who spearheaded their blockbuster exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend – see CA 290), concedes that his first encounter with early medieval Scandinavia came via the Hägar the Horrible comic strip.
Yet these perceptions are profoundly unhelpful, Williams writes – we are left with Central Casting stereotypes: ‘the barbarian archetype writ large and red’, which treats the Vikings as ‘hilarious historical Grand Guignol’ rather than a serious historical phenomenon like, for example, the ‘solidly respectable’ Romano-British. To focus too much on bloodshed belies the lasting impact they had on both Britain’s culture and its historical trajectory.
This is not to say that we should overcompensate by depicting the Vikings as being just like us, though, Williams argues. He is equally dismissive of revisionist attempts to waft away the undeniably violent character of the Viking Age in favour of extolling its creative and commercial achievements. A healthy dose of rebalancing and myth-busting is welcome, he suggests, but overly normalising the Vikings as a braver, stronger version of us is both inaccurate and dangerous, such impulses having been seized on by nationalist movements in 1940s Norway and Nazi Germany.
The Vikings were ‘strange to their contemporaries, and they should be strange for us too,’ he argues. ‘Theirs was a world where men with filed teeth bartered captive monks for Islamic coins, where white-faced women smeared their bodies in fat and human ash and traversed the spirit world in animal form… it is not the template for a brave new world that I, for one, would choose’.
This strange-yet-familiar tapestry is confidently woven in the pages of Williams’ book. He subtitles it ‘an exploration’, and so it feels, very much in the spirit with which you might imagine Viking voyagers setting out across the sea. Brisk of pace and fresh of tone, the text is packed with information buoyed along with a vividly atmospheric tone of phrase and a real sense of momentum. Bronze Age burial mounds on the Dorset chalk are described as being ‘like breakwaters in the surf, the mounds and their ancient dead have endured the battering tides of time’, while imaginative scenes conjured from the place-names of medieval boundary clauses plunge us deeply into ‘Dark Age’ England.
While Williams does not aim to create a definitive or comprehensive account, his writing – hung around a broadly chronological framework – crams in an impressive amount of detail with colour and flair. Each chapter rings with early medieval voices, peppered with extracts from Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Old Norse literature, while the illustrations are an attractive blend of artefact and site photos, images from manuscripts and other early medieval artwork, and some truly lovely modern artistic reconstructions of Viking settlements at Repton, Torksey, and York.
The extent of Viking settlement is explored not just through archaeology, but using place-names, the impact of Old Norse on our modern language, and the names of the people who lived in this landscape. These are fascinating, if muddy, waters, Williams acknowledges – the fact that the Domesday survey of Lincolnshire records 240 names, of which 140 are Scandinavian in origin, does not mean that by 1086 three-fifths of the local population were of Viking descent, but it does point to a deep and lasting cultural influence – as does the fact that we still find moneyers with Scandinavian names on coins from the reigns of Henry II and Richard I.
Insights into these long-lost fashions – together with lively discussions of the medieval meaning of the word ‘Viking’ (ethnic label or job description?); the dismay that Williams sees on the faces of museum visitors every time he crushes their childhood imaginings of horned helmets; and the potency of Norse mythology – are intriguing diversions which, like the digressions of the Beowulf poet, complement and enhance the main narrative. This sweeps us from the earliest chronicled appearances of Vikings on these shores, via key battles (and the difficulty of locating them in the landscape), invasion, and conquest, to Cnut, ‘the most awesome Viking of them all… who presented himself as the quintessential Anglo-Saxon king’.
It is a view as wide-ranging and ambitious as the travels of the Vikings themselves, and as strange and enjoyable as any saga.
This review was published in CA 332.