W B Bartlett
Amberley Publishing, £25
Review Carly Hilts
In his introduction, W B Bartlett denies he is making any attempt to write a ‘definitive history’ of the great sweep of the Viking Age. Instead, his aim is simply to explore some of the key events and figures involved. But, despite this modest framing, he has achieved a wide-ranging and very informative overview of this eventful period of history – and an interesting read, too.
This lively narrative begins in prehistoric Scandinavia, long before the first Viking voyagers set out in their ships – which establishes a useful context for what is to come – and ends on the bloody battlefields of 1066. A thought-provoking early chapter immerses us in the topography of medieval Scandinavia, considering how these landscapes may have helped define the nature and direction of Viking activities, while historical snapshots like the raid on Lindisfarne (c.789) and the Battle of Hastings are evoked in vivid detail.
The geographical scope is impressive, with one eye always on the bigger picture: as well as Anglo-Saxon England and Celtic Britain, we also visit the Christian kingdoms of continental Europe, learn about Viking graffiti at Turkey’s Hagia Sophia, and venture into Moorish Iberia, which called its Norse attackers al-majus (‘fire-worshippers’).
This account delves deeply into written sources of the period, with useful critical consideration of their contents – through these we see the Vikings through diverse eyes, from terrified clerics to a fascinated Arab ambassador (who was intrigued by a lavish funeral he witnessed, but less impressed by their personal hygiene), and also consider how interpretations of the Vikings have been coloured by Victorian romanticism and 19th-century nationalism. There is plentiful discussion of archaeological discoveries too, including the Ardnamurchan boat burial discovered in western Scotland in 2011 (see CA 280) and the Cuerdale Hoard, an astonishing cache of over 40kg of silver.
Above all, this is a useful work of reference, and a solid introduction to a subject as complex as it is fascinating. The only slightly strange note comes from a concluding discussion of whether, in the context of their violent times, the Vikings should be considered ‘evil’ – a surprising sentiment in what is otherwise a pretty even-handed overview of the period.