In no particular order, here are our favourite books about Vikings and the Early Middle Ages that will be a great addition to your 2023 reading list. So, grab a horn of mead, sit next to a warm hearth, and enjoy!
1. The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec
In last year’s list we strayed away from Norse-inspired fiction. Instead, we battered the romantic heart with facts, figures and research. It’s all important stuff, but so is inspiration, joy and storytelling. So this is a strong contender – a yarn spun from the rich tapestry of Norse mythology. It asks “what will happen if you fall in love with Loki?” The answer comes from the perspective of Angrboda, recast from villainous mother of monsters to devoted mother, lover and friend.
2. Men of Terror by William R. Short and Reynir A Óskarson
We did a whole review on this book this year. It’s a good attempt at trying to get to the heart and head of the real Viking warriors who fought in terrible battles. It explores the culture and mindset of a far more alien and brutal life than a modern person can fathom. Does it succeed? It requires more thought and evaluation, but it’s a fantastic start.
3. Wild: Tales from Early Medieval Britain by Amy Jeffs
This book is incredible, and one of my favourite books of the year. Part fiction inspired by Early Medieval poetry, part exploration of the sources. If I were to imagine a family of Vikings or Saxons huddled around their hearth-fire at Christmas; or a monk deep in contemplation about their place in the universe, I would see them telling these stories. Wild explores our ancestors’ connection to the wild places – the forests, seas and fens – and through the analysis and reflection of the sources we get a taste of their reality.
4. Fodder & Drincan: Anglo-Saxon Culinary History by Emma Kay
Our list wouldn’t be complete without a book about food! And this one is excellent. The book offers a thorough review of the latest thinking about what Early Medieval people in britain ate: from what they grew to how they used it. While survival was the top priority in an age where famine was common, it explores the many culinary possibilities, based on literary and physical evidence that remains. It may be aimed more at the academic reader, but it’s also accessible for the person with casual interest.
5. The Hunger of the Gods (Book Two of the Bloodsworn Saga) by John Gwynne
Following up on last year’s The Shadow of the Gods the Bloodsworn saga continues in beautifully written Norse-mythology-inspired fiction. The series doesn’t as overtly reimagine actual Viking sagas, or add fantasy elements to otherwise historical fiction, but create a whole new world in stunning definition. It’s action packed, heartfelt and epic!
6. The Word Hord: Daily Life in Old English by Hana Videen
Word Hord – literally treasure of words – definitely lives up to its name. It’s a fun romp through the origins of the English language, from how multitudes of languages smushed themselves together to give us something similar, but not similar enough to really ‘get’ as modern English speakers (and readers) today. And it’s often quite amusing, and sad. We get to see this rich gamut of words that we have forgotten, or have replaced. It’s a bit like ranging through a dense forest and finding a forgotten monument, still standing tall.
7. The Wolf Age: The Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Battle for the North Sea Empire by Tore Skeie
(At last, a book about Vikings and Saxons!) This is the kind of popular history book I like. One that forges a direct, compelling narrative with an appropriate amount of drama, but with a clear sense of the evidence. Not many popular history books do this well – they are either too much story, or end up being a lightly re-edited thesis. Skeie understands this tension well, weaving between these two strands expertly. This is his first book in English, and it has me hankering to learn Norwegian to read the rest…
8. Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England by Sally Crawford
I read the first edition of this book over 10 years ago, and it was an essential read for Viking-age enthusiasts to really understand the daily life of Early Medieval people in Britain. Well there’s now a second edition, and it’s been updated with 10 years of further research and new interpretations. Besides the new material and interdisciplinary approaches, it’s also laid out better with a proper table of contents and index, so it’ll be a great reference in the living history community, for instance.
9. The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada by Don Holloway.
If we’re going to talk about Books about Vikings and Saxons, we should start with the most famous of all Vikings! This nearly landed on last year’s list. It was between this and Never Greater Slaughter for an honorable mention. Anyway, this book is another great page turner. it explores the extraordinary, and extraordinarily violent life of ‘the last Viking’ Harald Hardrada. From his exile after surviving the Battle of Stiklestad, to his exploits as a mercenary with the legendary Varangian Guard, to his accession to the throne of Norway. It’s a great tale, well told. One for the Christmas stocking!
10. Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year by Eleanor Parker
The last entry on the list is about something we all experience: time. It navigates the calendar from the perspective of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors. How they viewed the seasons, the festivals and their lives are woven into the poetry of the time. Parker brings it all to life, allowing us to connect to the minds of the people who experienced it. And that’s amongst the best kind of book for living history enthusiasts like us.
Books about Vikings and Saxons – Honorable Mention
Unearthing Hedeby, edited by Kurt Schietzel. This is not a book for casual interest. It’s a hardcore archaeology book. Actually, it’s an absolute beast – a 648 page hardback that weighs somewhere in the region of a Volkswagen polo. But, it’s a newly released English translation of the book ‘Spurensuche Haithabu.’ Which means for the first time I get to gawp at all the technical information about thousands of Viking-age objects found at hedeby in my native tongue. (I may have ‘whooped’ when it turned up last week…)
Basilisks and Beowulf: Monsters in the Anglo-Saxon World by Tim Flight. It’s been on my wishlist since last year and I still haven’t gotten around to reading it. Perhaps someone who has read it can give me a review!?