There’s few books on the Early Medieval world, and especially the ‘Vikings,’ that engage with my re-enactors brain (we’re rarely a target audience). Popular history books present the facts: what happened? when? who was involved? and why? But the ‘why’ is often focused on the political machinations of ‘great men’ and those lone characters who we tend to focus on in history. Archaeology books show the things, and where they were discovered: excellent for for reproducing artefacts, and gaining the geographic context, but they often lack a certain humanity when dealing with the people who used these objects a thousand years ago. Reading translated literature like Beowulf, The Prose Edda, The Saga of the Icelanders etc., allows us to connect with the people (or people far closer in time than us), but sometimes it’s hard to join the dots to the history and the things.
As a re-enactor, I want to give an audience an impression of the people of the past, their lives, their personalities and motives. Our performances are informed by the historical events, and the things they used, and the stories they left behind – so it’s exciting when a book comes along that examines and contextualises these three things.
Men of Terror, by William R. Short and Reynir A. Óskarson , examines the mindset of the ‘Viking’ and how the tools, the stories and points in history reflect and inform it. The authors pull in a vast wealth of sources, plus data from their own tests to build a holistic picture of early medieval Scandinavian society (and Germanic society more broadly in some cases).
The text starts from first principles, stating the scientific methodology, and working their way through the weapons found in archaeology, linking to testing from reconstructed historical martial arts, literary references, language use, and more. They never stray from the purpose of trying to work out what makes a ‘Viking’ tick.
The book asks the why and how of living in a society that seems so alien to us. The different mindset of violent actions that are seen as acceptable or not seemingly on a whim, but wrapped up in complex societal rules and laws that hardly make sense to a modern reader, but is beautifully explained in plain language in the book.
This is essential for re-enactors trying to get to the bottom of the warrior impression – it should inform why weapons are designed that way, and how they are likely to be used and why. The idea of early medieval masculinity is examined, and how it interacts with the institutions of the ages, whether they are familial ties, or loyalties owed to lords and masters, vagabonds or brigands. The latter is a lot of fun – when is it acceptable steal? (Hint: when you confront them!)
So, this is a good book, with great discussion and scholarly discipline. I can’t recommend it enough.
Nothing says Christmas like being given a glut of books to keep you occupied during the long nights of winter. Taking a lovely, pristine book, gently curling back the first page while sitting in front of the warm glow of a wood fire, snow pitter-pattering outside… Ah bliss.
Ok, not many people actually get to curl up in front of a roaring fire in their houses these days, and we barely have snow in England, but we get points for trying right? Luckily, there are many great books about Vikings and Saxons to keep us occupied, many which only came out in the last couple of years. So even without the idyllic setting, there’s still plenty to read.
In no particular order, here are our favourite current books about Vikings and the Early Middle Ages in general that will be a great addition to your 2022 reading list.
1. River Kings: The Vikings from Scandinavia to the SilkRoads by Cat Jarman. Now a Sunday Times best seller, this book manages to tread the fine line between being a well-written, easy to digest popular history book, and a book about modern archaeology. It explores the Viking world through the lens of an object found in Britain that can trace its origin across the North Sea, along the great rivers of Russia, up to the shores of the Black Sea and beyond. It forges a wonderfully detailed narrative, while supporting it with up to date thinking about trade networks, daily life and behaviour.
2. The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price. This is basically the bible on the state of ‘Viking’ stuides within popular history. It takes everything we know about the world of Early-Medieval Europe and filters the guff. It tackles all the problematic projections of modern culture that has piled on the legend of the ‘Vikings’ and distils it into a neat, enjoyable volume that even well-read history enthusiasts will find illuminating.
3. Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World by Jóhanna Karín Friðriksdóttir. Since the incredible re-examination of a grave at Birka, Sweden with the possible burial of a female warrior, the Viking-nerds of the world have cried out for a serious look at the evidence and Jóhanna has done a great job. Not since Judith Jesch’s amazing ‘Viking Women’ book back in the early 90s has a clearer picture of early-medieval women’s lives from birth to death been so clearly illustrated. It does what it says on the cover – this is one of the best books about Viking women.
4. The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England by Marc Morris. Ok, it’s not all books about Vikings. We can’t have Vikings without Anglo-Saxons! Or should we say terms like ‘Viking’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ makes things easier to understand for us, but in reality the complexity of the relationships between people, lords, kings, the church and the invading Dane means that neither of those terms actually apply to the age? Thankfully, Marc Morris sweeps aside all the inventions of our Victorian ancestors where our ideas of Englishness tend to come from, and embelishes our understanding of the period in a fantastic tome that covers the retreat of the Romans, to the era of England brought by the Norman conquest.
5. The Viking Great Army and the Making of England by Dawn M. Hadley and Julian D. Richards. There’s been a few books about the ‘making of England’ in the last few years (including the excellent ‘Never Greater Slaughter’ by Michael Livingstone which narrowly avoided this list). Perhaps it’s an identity crisis in our post-Brexit psyche or a reaction against groups that seek to co-opt Early Medieval iconography to forward their own hateful purposes. Or, hopefully, it’s just bloody good scholary publishing, like this book, that explores the formative epoch of early-English history – the invasion of the Great Heathen Army, and the fight back that, while affecting the ordinary people of the British Isles greatly, was really a dynastic struggle between powerful families.
6. DK Findout Vikings by Phillip Steele. Full disclosure, we’re in this one, including adorable pictures of our (now not so little) Viking baby! It’s a wonderfully assembled book for children full of pictures of real and reproduction objects (not all of them our ours, but the ones that are are georgiously presented!) It focuses on many different aspects of the era: daily life, religion, warfare and so on, and it’s all very accessible for 5-7 year old readers, and still relevant for older kids.
7. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Even word for word translations as well written, researched and presented as Jackson Crawford’s ‘The Poetic Edda’ are difficult for casual readers to digest. That’s where this comes in. Those same mythological stories from Norse literature are filtered through the imaginative brain of Neil Gaiman, and coerced (as they are living, breathing things, and thus must be convinced) into a beautifully realised compilation of stories. I love this book.
8. Eat like a Viking! Volume 2: A Guide to Anglo Saxon & Viking Age Food & Drink by Craig Brooks. We loved the first book by the Saxon-Forager Craig Brooks and we are so glad that he wrote a second one! Step into the culinary world of the Viking age with this new volume. Created as a book of ideas for using the ingredients that were available to our ancestors for cooking at re-enactment events (like the ones we do), it has loads of amazing recipes that are just down-right delicious for any table.
9. Thraldom: A History of Slavery in the Viking Age by Stefan Brink. A little more at the scholarly end of things, this book covers something that is often avoided when talking about Vikings, or at best, sped over: slavery. The taking of men, women and children by force, then relocating them and selling them. This book demystifies the Viking-age practice throughout Europe, which has always been somewhat ambiguous to us as modern people, as our idea of slavery comes from the horrific exploitation of African peoples and the societal implications still felt today.
10. Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England by Annie Whitehead. Well, it wasn’t just Scandinavian women who were using every opportunity afforded to them by a patriachal society to better the lives of themselves and their families. In Britain, women such as Æthelflæd and Emma of Normandy were forging incredible paths worthy of the chronicles they were mostly edited out of… This excellent book explores the lives of women who are oft forgotten and had to fight for eery scrap in the power-dynamics of early medieval Britain.