30 January 2015


Anders Winroth. The Age of the Vikings. Princeton University Press, 2014.

This is a little different from the type of books we normally review in Magonia, being a straightforward historical account of the Viking era, rather than a study of Norse mythology and beliefs. However, the Viking seem to have created a mythology of their own in modern popular belief.
At the moment we seem to be going through something of a counter-revolution in popular concepts of the Vikings, seeing them increasingly as peaceful settlers rather than bloodthirsty conquerors.

Winroth shows that, as in most such apparent contradictions, there is a bit of truth in both viewpoints.

For a start, the Vikings were not a tribe or race, the word is actually more of a job description. They were a distinct community of warriors, owing an allegiance to a chieftain who secured their loyalty by providing a regular supply of treasure, and beer, as the feasting in the chieftains’ halls cemented the bonds of brotherhood. The main way in which a constant supply of treasure could be guaranteed was by organising raiding parties into neighbouring, wealthier, realms. We now consider Scandinavia a stable, prosperous and democratic region, but until quite recent times it was a very poor, rural region dependent on subsistence agriculture and fishing, and like Ireland, throughout the nineteenth century its main export was people, to North America where the Scandinavian heritage is still very evident in Minnesota, Nebraska, and elsewhere.

Reports of the Vikings raids make them seem uniquely bloodthirsty, but when placed in the context of the warfare of the period they were probably not all that exceptional. But history is written by the winners, and the Viking’s history was written largely by the churchmen who were the victims of their raids. Rather than the slaughter, perhaps what outraged them most was the sacrilegious pillaging of churches and monasteries and the looting of church treasures and relics.

But Winroth points out that this had an unexpected effect on the economy of Europe, which at the time was very much dependent on barter of produce and there was a distinct shortage of coinage, limiting the possibilities for trade. The sudden release of huge amounts of silver and gold from the ecclesiastical treasuries hastened the development of an economy based on circulating currency, usually measured by the weight of precious metals.

We think of the Viking longships ploughing across the seas, sailing into the estuaries of Europe in their raids, or further to Iceland, Greenland and north America. But their exploration to the East, down the great rivers of Asia were perhaps more important, as they provided a contact with the wealth of the Islamic world. Coins from the Caliphate - the original one! - are commonplace in the ship graves of Scandinavia, along with elaborately wrought metal swords and other decorative pieces of metalware and fabrics.

The chieftain who provided the greatest range of exotic artefacts to distribute amongst his band of warriors entrenched his power against rivals. The chieftains were now beginning to centralise their power and evolving into kings, and one of their imports from the East was the exotic new religion of Christianity. As well as providing a spectacular setting for kingly celebrations it also facilitated another way of consolidating power amongst rival contenders - the dynastic marriage. The actual belief system of Christianity only gradually asserted itself, the early Scandinavian ‘Christians’ happily mixing Thor’s hammer with Christ’s cross on their runestones and funerary inscriptions. The book shows a picture of a metalsmith’s mold [above] for casting silver, which could be used interchangeably for making small mjölnir (Thor's hammer) or crosses to wear on a chain around your neck.

For a while the old Norse beliefs and Christianity contended for supremacy, again usually as a result of power play rather than religious ideology, but gradually the Viking age was drawing to a close. The empires and kingdoms of Europe were growing stronger, and trade rather than raid became the basis of the Norse economies, with the growth of a chain of trading ports around the Baltic. The centralised kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden were replacing the chieftains and their warrior bands. The early modern world was beginning to take shape.

Anders Winroth is Forst Professor of History at Yale University, and this is a detailed and scholarly work, with the full paraphernalia of notes, references and bibliography, but is very well-written and provides a most accessible and readable introduction to the Viking era, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the topic -- Jón Grímr

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