The Who, Where, When and Why of The Vikings

It is almost a thousand years since the Viking Age ended, and yet the exploits of the so-called Vikings, malevolent or otherwise, continue to figure in the popular and academic imaginations. Indeed, the ‘Nordic hoards’ might be said to hold a similar fascination – albeit with different characteristics – as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and the Romans. In a concise book written to be accessible to interested laypeople, students and academics seeking a route into current perspectives, our survey analyses Viking religion, economic life and material culture in and beyond the Scandic homelands.

Although there is a conventional Viking Age timeframe of ca. AD 800 to 1050 (the Scandinavians are usually associated with hit-and-run attacks beginning with the raid on the Abbey of Lindisfarne in AD 797), their military expeditions actually started earlier and were directed eastwards. The end date of 1050 is a movable feast, reflecting a mixture of Christianization, notable deaths, or simply convention. We explore social and economic attributes associated with Scandinavian-led population movements as warriors/marauders, traders and farmers moved beyond the Baltic coast to Constantinople, to western and southern Europe, including the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. The essentially unpopulated islands of the North Atlantic Ocean were subjected to a Norse-led diaspora with the Scandinavian settlers perhaps over-reaching themselves in Newfoundland and ultimately abandoning their Greenlandic colonies.

The book is well illustrated with maps, photographs and diagrams – many in colour – and text-boxes reproduce important and fascinating written material ascribed to Nordic chieftain Ohthere’s witness statement to King Alfred late in the 9thcentury; Arabic traveller Ibn Fadlān’s candid 10thcentury depictions of the Scandinavian Rus; and the Irish monk Dicuil’sdescription of what is generally interpreted as the Faroe Islands, indicating that the archipelago was populated before the Vikings arrived – as seemingly shown by recent archaeological discoveries.

Landscape and ruin group from Hvalsey Fjord in the Eastern Settlement, showing the church (thirteenth century) and the adjacent ruin group which may date originally from the early Norse settlement of Greenland.

 

Texts can enliven histories in a way that other sources cannot. Of course, like the later saga literature, we need to be circumspect about the veracity of such material. Other evidence suffuses contemporary Viking studies, and the opportunity is taken to foreground the enormous contribution from such areas as archaeology, place-names, genetics, and environmental science.

The Vikings have maintained a resonance up to the present day. Re-enactment groups, films, and television series keep their history alive – more sinister is their appropriation by ultra-conservative political movements. The actions of the Vikings when venturing beyond their homelands provide distant echoes of other invasions and migrations closer to our time. This book is intended to appeal to those who want an up-to-date account of the who, when, where and why of the Vikings.

by Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide (Bergen) andKevin J. Edwards (Aberdeen and Cambridge)