The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings 
by Neil Price.
Allen Lane, 599 pp., £30, August, 978 0 241 28398 1
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Over​ the last forty years, academics have tried, without much success, to superimpose the idea of the Vikings as peaceful traders on the berserkers-and-horned-helmets tradition. There is little disagreement about the events of the Viking Age or its timeline, stretching from 8 June 793 (the unexpected raid on Lindisfarne) to 25 September 1066, when King Haraldr Harðráði, ‘Hard-Counsel Harald’, died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. As Neil Price points out, all this should be seen as protohistory rather than history. The Vikings themselves couldn’t write, except for short runic inscriptions carved in wood or stone, and had no dating system beyond ‘the fourth year of King Olaf’ and so on. Royal succession was the only way to mark time. The sequence of events we refer to as the Viking Age was put together from the accounts of their many victims, from Ireland to Byzantium.

Price’s book, however, centres on ‘what made [the Vikings] tick, how they thought and felt’. How much money did they make? How much labour went into fitting out a Viking fleet? What did Vikings think happened to women when they died? (Warriors, of course, went to Valhalla.) There are clues to this last question in excavated Viking graves, but these discoveries – Price is professor of archaeology at Uppsala University – are often inscrutable. There are logistical questions too. In considering the wealth of the Vikings, it’s impossible to ignore the island of Gotland, where hundreds of hoards of silver have been found, almost one for every farm – contributing to a total of more than a million silver dirhams found in Scandinavia and the Baltic, nine times as many as have been found in their point of origin in the Muslim Near East. It’s ‘simply not credible’, Price writes, ‘that virtually all homeowners concealed their family cash in the backyard and then died before telling anyone about it’. Later accounts claim that the Vikings believed they would enjoy their buried wealth in the afterlife. The sources aren’t reliable, but it does at least explain the phenomenon.

The biggest question, of course, is what made the Vikings so successful for so long. Western Europe was dominated by warlike monarchs and aristocracies, while Muslim Spain, the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate of Baghdad were all in their different ways organised for warfare. Price suggests that we need a prehistory as well as a protohistory. Two traumatic events affected the northern world long before Lindisfarne. One was the collapse of the Roman Empire, a destabilisation that led to a kind of ‘gangster culture’ of unemployed mercenaries and roving warbands. Even worse, and better evidenced, were the volcanic eruptions of 536, 539/540 and possibly 547. The second, which originated from Ilopango in what is now El Salvador, threw around ninety cubic kilometres of dust, ash and aerosols into the atmosphere. The entire world suffered, but Scandinavia, with its short growing season and often marginal agriculture, suffered most. It’s thought as much as half the population died of starvation. At the heart of Norse mythology is the Fimbulwinter, three winters with no summers in between, which may once have been a fact.

In desperate circumstances, the poor die but the survivors expand their holdings. The famine may well have strengthened the post-Roman militarised elites who have left their traces in the giant mounds and boat-burials of Uppsala and Valsgärde, and the enormous wooden hall at Borg in Norway, which at 270 feet long is as big as a cathedral. Another hall at Uppsala had door hinges made of spears, their points facing towards the centre, so that you entered through a weapon portal: all part of ‘a dazzling material culture of killing’. But there were few ways to pay for this in the middle of the long post-Roman slump, which entailed the disruption of established markets. Raiding must have looked very attractive.

Price also notes the significance of the Vikings’ gender imbalance. Norse society was not exactly polygamous, for monogamy was normal, but it was polygynous. Rich men and royalty had wives, subsidiary wives and concubines, sometimes, according to an 11th-century treatise by Adam of Bremen, ‘in unlimited number’. An unbalanced ‘socio-sexual economyʼ was probably made worse by the habit in warlike societies of rearing baby boys more carefully than girls, leading to female infanticide by neglect. Skeleton studies in Sweden show that about 7 per cent of Viking men were malnourished as children, compared to 37 per cent of women. Elite monopolisation and differential survival rates must have created an underclass of what we would now call ‘involuntary celibates’, disaffected young men, angry, desperate and easy to recruit.

In one of several vignettes, Price imagines a younger son on the impoverished west coast of Norway, whose childhood sweetheart has a new brooch: a present from a boy who spent a successful summer raiding. What is young Orm or Gunnar going to do? Not only does he need money for the bride-price paid to her family, he needs a reputation: ‘The act of acquiring silver was as important as the silver itself.’ And if he went raiding he might in any case acquire a woman for free. DNA has shown that ‘a very large proportion – even the majority – of female settlers in Iceland were of Scottish or Irish heritage.’

Traumatised societies, militarised elites, disaffected youths: they all help explain the Viking phenomenon. But did they think like us? Price points out that the Vikings decorated everything that had a surface, including themselves. Ibn Fadlan, the Arab traveller who met a party of the blond ‘Rus’ somewhere in Eastern Europe in the 920s – and whose horrifying account of a Viking funeral has been largely confirmed by archaeological finds – said that they were covered in what must have been tattoos. ‘Each man, from the tip of his toes to his neck, is covered in dark green lines, pictures and such like.’ No Viking skin has survived, but their teeth have. It seems there was a male fashion for filing horizontal grooves along the upper incisors, which were probably filled with coloured resin. A Viking smile must have looked very odd. But what the point of this fashion was, we don’t know.

Nor do we know what they thought about their own inner lives. Vikings recognised hamr, or ‘shape’, as more or less equivalent to ‘body’, though some people were eigi einhamr, ‘not of one shape’: they were werewolves, or worse. Hugr could correspond more or less to ‘mind’. But Vikings also seem to have thought that each of us has a hamingja, a personal ‘luck’, which can on occasion leave the body (a very bad sign). The fourth part of us is a female fylgja, a ‘follower’ or ‘fetch’, inherited from our ancestors. Price doesn’t claim to know what a ‘fetch’ does, but he writes that the belief dies hard. If you ask modern Icelanders whether they believe in elves and the huldufólk or ‘hidden people’, they will roll their eyes, but ask them about their fylgjur and you get ‘a level stare and perhaps a change of subject’.

Viking society wasn’t homogeneous. They had dealings with many different cultures and they lived in varied environments, from Danish and Swedish pasture to the sub-Arctic tundra of Norway and Iceland. In the early 11th century the best-travelled woman in the world must have been Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, whose remarkable journeys demonstrate the great distances the Vikings covered. She gave birth to a child in North America, met people of the First Nations and ate grapes in Vinland, made a pilgrimage to Rome and drank wine in Italy, and died as a nun in Iceland. Vikings lived in close contact with the Sámi people, whom they called Finns. In his earlier book, The Viking Way, Price pointed out that Norwegians and Swedes, at least, might be regarded as in some ways similar to the ‘circumpolar’ cultures which stretch from Greenland to Siberia, notably in what looks like shamanistic behaviour.

But the more we know about the Vikings, the harder it becomes to say anything certain about them. This applies in particular to the area for which we have most archaeological evidence – burial practices. The number of excavated Viking graves is in the low millions, and the only rule is that they’re all different. Men buried with weapons are common, but the occupant of a particularly well-furnished grave in Birka, who was buried seated with axe, sword, spears, bow and arrows, is now confirmed by DNA as female. Conversely men buried in women’s clothes and with feminine accessories have been found on several occasions, including one man buried with a full set of female jewellery near Andover. Women buried with iron staffs may have been völvur, sorceresses, practitioners of the seithr magic which was shameful for men to deal in. But Odin seems to have been the supreme exponent of just this kind of magic, so some scholars now write about ‘Odin the Queer’. Possibly, as in circumpolar cultures, all the workers of magic and sorcery were regarded as ‘differently gendered’. Shamans have a gender all their own.

It is hard to come to any overall conclusions about Viking belief from their burial practices. They performed cremation and inhumation, boat burial and barrow burial. In Sweden, birds’ eggs were often placed in cremated ashes. Burying someone with two horses could be a kind of tribute, but why bisect the horses and then swap the halves over? What explains the modest burial which, decades later, had a boat full of bodies placed over it, the keel exactly covering the grave, a ritual repeated with more boats and more men over the years? In Salme, off the coast of Estonia, two boats have been found which appear to contain forty Swedish raiders, buried displaying their battle wounds, clutching fish and birds and cuts of beef or pork. But why throw gaming pieces over them? One sword-carrier has a king placed in his mouth. Was it a mark of derision from the victors or of respect? What to make of ‘a line of burials in which every corpse clasps a smooth white pebble in their hand’? If the eggs in the ashes express hope for a new life, a hatching, then perhaps the white pebbles are symbolic eggs?

Price avoids such speculation, though we have no good explanations for this astonishing diversity. He is similarly dismissive of the idea that we can reconstruct a belief system from the ‘Norse myths’. Vikings had no accepted scripture, just stories. They had no accepted religion either, just what Price calls ‘religiolects’, differing from one another as dialects differ from a standard language. Archaeology offers harder facts and firmer conclusions in other areas. The silver hoards of Gotland are surprising enough, but they represent only a fraction of the Vikings’ take. It’s thought that as many as 125 million silver dirhams from the Caliphate of Baghdad, some 340 tonnes of metal, went north in the tenth century as payment for furs and slaves. The ninth-century payoffs from the Frankish Empire were much less substantial, but still amounted to around seven million silver pennies, a high proportion of the coins in circulation in impoverished Western Europe. The Vikings made off with ‘approximately 14 per cent of the entire monetary output of the Frankish Empire’, and that isn’t counting other kinds of loot, such as slaves.

There is also the matter of the expenditure involved in gaining the loot. Viking sails were made of greased wool and it took about fifty sheep to provide the wool for one sail. The wool had to be spun and woven: heavy, co-operative work on a great Viking loom (the ‘Song of the Valkyries’ is in the form of a work song, but the web the Valkyries are weaving from human intestines is war and death). You would be wise to have a spare sail, and the crew would need clothes and tents and cordage, all demanding more wool and grease and hemp and flax and sealskins. That would mean thirty people working for a year to fit out just one ship and its crew. The 11th-century fleets of Denmark and Norway would have required about two million sheep. As for a major warship like the one displayed at the British Museum’s Vikings exhibition in 2014, that would represent something like a year’s work for a team of eight skilled men, not counting the time taken to produce the wood and iron needed.

Price doesn’t quite describe this as a pirate economy, but he draws the parallel. In the central section of his book he offers something like a narrative history of the Viking Age, but focusing on general trends rather than single dates and events. As he sees it, the first development was ‘maritoria’, markets organised by many petty kings, especially those in geographically fragmented western Norway. These were trade centres, but were dependent on the ‘maritime military power’ exercised by leaders who bore nicknames such as ‘Cruiser’, ‘Screamer’, ‘Sails Alone’ and ‘Sails at Dusk’ (forget about ‘peaceful traders’). Even Harald Fairhair, who became a proper historical king, may have had his nickname cleaned up by later saga writers: he started off as Harald Lúfa, ‘Mophead’.

This pirate world generated what Price calls (again a term borrowed from the 17th and 18th centuries) a ‘hydrarchy’: there were no overall leaders, no pirate monarchs, and indeed no formal organisation. This made them difficult to deal with, because, as everyone soon found out, making a deal with or buying off one group of Vikings meant nothing to another. A Viking army, at least until the late stages when the kings of Denmark and Sweden (but probably not Norway) had some loose control over their subjects, was a confederation of brotherhoods bound, if at all, by temporary oaths. Gangs left and more gangs joined, depending on the opportunities available.

The ‘real catalyst’ for the big surge in Viking activity in the ninth century, Price argues, was the civil war in the Frankish Empire between the grandsons of Charlemagne. Anglo-Saxon England was already divided, and Ireland and Scotland even more so. The Vikings came in like the tide, flowing into anywhere they found a gap. In the east, the great rivers of Ukraine and Russia were like the Hudson and the St Lawrence to explorers centuries later, only these had the markets of Byzantium and Baghdad at the end.

Suchparallels remind us that the Vikings, for all their strange customs and unknowable psychology, were more like us than we might like to admit. But there was something macabre about them. Adam of Bremen describes the strange rituals at Uppsala, where men and animals were hanged in large numbers in a sacred grove as sacrifices to the gods. Something like this has been discovered at Frösö, or ‘Frey’s Island’, in Sweden: the stump of a birch tree buried under the church altar, surrounded by human and animal bones and body parts, including those of pigs and sheep, as well as six elks and five bears. Did they even hang bears from sacred trees?

Viking funerals may have been scary affairs as well, and not just for the victims. The craftsmanship of the objects found in the Oseberg boat-burial has been much admired, but the ceremony seems to have been completed in terrible haste, as if the burial party panicked. The chamber was sealed with any old pieces of wood that were handy, hammered in so fast that the wood was dented and the nails bent or broken.

Patrick Wormald once commented that Vikings rarely seemed to have suffered from madness, though there were psychopaths like Thorgeir Hávarsson, who is said in ‘The Saga of the Fosterbrothers’ to have axed down one innocent bystander just because he looked so temptingly open to the blow. They had a code of honour. In 1012 Thorkel the Tall, a famous captain, is said by Thietmar of Merseburg to have offered everything he had, except his ship, for the life of the captured Archbishop Ælfheah of Canterbury, who had refused to pay a ransom; when Ælfheah was killed anyway, pelted with bones and finished off with an axe, Thorkel changed sides and took his men off to serve Æthelred the Unready. Perhaps he thought killing a defenceless old man was ódrengiligt, not warrior-like behaviour.

A recent scholar, considering the appalling scene of gang rape and slave murder at the Rus funeral described by Ibn Fadlan, claimed that this ought to put paid to the idea that the Vikings were heroic: they were just cruel. This is naive. Heroism and cruelty are mutually exclusive only in the world of comic books. As Price’s book makes clear, they have often gone together.

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Vol. 42 No. 17 · 10 September 2020

‘There is little disagreement’ over the timeline of the Viking Age, Tom Shippey writes (LRB, 13 August). It stretches from the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 to the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. In England, maybe. But where I live the Viking Age lasted until 1266, when Norway conceded control of the Hebrides to Scotland following an impressive but less than successful expedition in 1263 by King Haakon. Viewed from Orkney and Shetland the Viking Age ended even later, after King Christian I, then in financial trouble, pledged them as dowry when his 13-year-old daughter Margaret was betrothed to James III of Scotland in 1468; they were finally ceded to the Scottish Crown in 1472.

Mary Braithwaite
Cullipool, Isle of Luing

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