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.