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Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Danish
About the Author
Else Roesdahl is Reader in Medieval Archaeology at the University of Arhus, Denmark and special Professor in Viking Studues at the University of Nottingham. In 1988 she was awarded the Soren Gyldendal Prize for the Danish edition of THE VIKINGS.
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An insight into the ancient Vikings will throw great light onto what we witness of Scandinavian societies today. Their pride and joy is deeply rooted in their path to Christianity and the bridges they built with the natives of many lands.
Ms Roesdahl bases her work on literary and archeological sources. Some of the work may be somewhat dated (compared to recent studies of, for example, Norse women's dress) and fairly general, but the book as a whole seems very solid. I would further recommend the following books to people to be read for further information:
A History of the Vikings by Gwyn Jones (THE leading history of the Viking age).
Reading the Past: Runes by R. I. Page (a look at how Elder and Viking-age Runic alphabets were used).
Everyday Life in the Viking Age by Jacqueline Simpson (A work with a great deal of overlap to this one)
Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H. R. E. Davidson (A look at Viking-age religion).
However, the above works are more specialized than this current work. While they provide a great deal more depth in their areas, they lack some of the bigger picture. Thus I would recommend reading this book first and then looking into the above titles.
Reviewed by James David
Author of The Coast Guard Oracle
Roesdahl took great pains to show that the classic image of the Vikings as raiders, pirates, and plunderers was one-sided, a one-dimensional view that comes to us today from contemporary clerics in Western Europe (who may have been reacting more than anything to the pagan religion of the Vikings) and in tales that were elaborated on by medieval story tellers and historians, including among the Scandinavians themselves, such as with the Icelandic saga writers. Indeed in mainland Europe at least the author felt that the impact of the Viking raids have been exaggerated, and it generally made little difference if a community was plundered by the Vikings or by some other local faction. The Vikings were also farmers, merchants, poets, artists, authors, artisans, engineers, explorers (the first Europeans to discover Iceland, Greenland, and North America), and settlers as well as warlords and mercenaries (the latter notably in Ireland and in the Byzantine Empire).
The first half of the book dealt with the culture of the Scandinavians, going into great detail about their dress, jewelry, houses, cooking, food, language, writing, personal names, their use of slaves, the role of women, the role of children, rules of conduct, their politics, land transport, ships, monetary system, fortifications, warfare, religion (both the old faith and their conversion to Christianity), their art, and poetry. I would have liked more information about their ships and I found some of these sections a little tedious at times (basically like reading long lists), but there were a number of interesting things to be gleaned from it. There were many illustrations, photographs, and maps that were helpful in the text and in two inserts; I particularly liked the photos and drawings of Viking art and of their runes.
The second half of the book dealt with the Viking expansion, discussing the reasons for the expansion and their historical role in Normandy, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Ireland, England, the Baltic region, Russia, Byzantium, the Caliphate, and their settlement of Iceland, the Faeroe Islands, Greenland, and North America (for those interested in the Greenland settlement by the way I highly recommend Jared Diamond's _Collapse_ which had excellent, gripping coverage of that, much more thorough than what I found in _The Vikings_).
I found the coverage of Viking hoards intriguing. Many hoards had coins from often quite distant regions, with coins from the Caliphate and Byzantium not uncommon. Hoards were generally not found in areas where it was more common to pay with silver and coins than with goods.
Much as has been found to be the case with classic Greek and Roman statues, many Viking items were painted. Many rune stones have been found with traces of paint on them, the usual colors being black, white and red but other colors were used including blue and green. In addition the Vikings painted shields, furniture, tent poles, and building timbers, often to emphasize decoration that had been carved in low relief.
There was a small discussion of the many loan words from Old Norse, originating from the long Viking presence on English soil (indeed from 1018 to 1042 apart from a period of five years England and Denmark were ruled jointly by one king). Everyday words such as cast, knife, take, window, egg, ill, and die come from Old Norse. Some grammatical elements, such as the plural words they, them, and their also come from the Scandinavians. Some English dialects contained a great many more loan words but they are disappearing along with the dialects.
Scandinavian poetry was often quite demanding and intricate. Scaldic poetry for instance had a complicated form, using the "heroic meter," with the lines linked in alliterating pairs, the first line of each pair with two alliterating syllables, and each line required to have internal rhyme. In addition, skaldic poetry frequently referenced stories of the gods and heroes, often by using riddles or complex and subtle references that only a knowledgeable audience would appreciate. Scaldic poetry is of course well known for the kenning, examples of which include "the sweat of the sword" (blood), "the feeder of the raven" (the warrior), or more complex ones that could only be understood with reference to their mythology.
Much has been made elsewhere about the Viking raids on Irish monasteries and Roesdahl does cover that, though the reader also learns that it wasn't just Vikings that did the raiding. The abbots of several monasteries were often the only national figures in Ireland until well into the 800s, with most of Ireland divided into tiny kingdoms struggling with complex dynastic rules. Owing to the monasteries' important economic and political importance and close ties with many secular rulers, plundering and burning down monasteries was an integral part of Irish warfare; indeed monasteries sometimes fought each other in addition to being plundered by rival kings. Further complicating things, Vikings were often employed as mercenaries in the endless wars in Ireland (the Franks on the mainland of Europe did the same thing, often setting one Viking group against another). Further, some rulers exaggerated the depredations of the Vikings to enhance their own glory (one work portrayed the Viking chieftain Turgesius as a sort of "pagan super-Viking" who among other things tried to convert Ireland to the worship of Thor, the work aiming to glorify the great Irish king Brian Boru).
Not a bad book overall, it was a useful though not especially gripping overview.