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I fell in love with Neil Price’s comprehensive new history of the Vikings, Children of Ash and Elm, when I got to the paragraph that’s just a list of bread: “There were rectangular loaves baked in a form; round loaves threaded on a thin wire; oval buns; thin, soft, and foldable flatbreads made on a circular griddle pan—rather like a sort of Nordic tortilla to be stuffed with food; thin, circular wheels of dry, crisp flatbread with a central hole so they could be hung up for storage … ” And that’s not even the end of it! Who knew how creative the Vikings could get with carbohydrates?
The bread menu is but one detail in a book that offers delight after delight. If you, like me, have loved fictional Viking stories like that History Channel show about Ragnar Lothbrok (very good) and Linnea Hartsuyker’s Golden Wolf Saga (very, very good) and have always wanted to read a fuller history informed by current scholarship but wondered where to start, this book is it. Price, an English archaeologist working at Uppsala University in Sweden, has produced a single (albeit lengthy!) volume that offers a sense of chronology and hits the major high points, while also introducing nonspecialists to the major questions that those who know a lot about Vikings still consider unresolved. Vikings, Price writes at one point, are interesting to him because of their “curiosity, creativity, the complexity and sophistication of their mental landscapes, and yes, their openness to new experiences and ideas.” This is a set of qualities also to be found in this book, which manages to be lyrical, unnerving, specific, and passionately uncertain, all at once.
Throughout this book are glorious collections of Viking facts that are technically known yet still resist our best attempts at interpretation. Cataloging the small and large variations found in graves to make a point about the way Vikings attended to the “sense of the individual” while burying people, Price lists:
The women buried wearing the skins of lynx, or laid out beneath heavy bear pelts; the swords stuck vertically in a grave; a shield over the face or by the waist; a coin, just one, that was already a century old and worn thin; a line of burials, in which every corpse clasps a smooth, white pebble in their hand; a horse led down into a grave, actually standing on the corpse, before being slaughtered; at the food of the same burial, inside the grave, a standing stone over which the body of a dog has been squashed down, ripping it apart …
It’s not just a list of finds, but of mysteries—mysteries of the kind that could prompt someone to devote their life to studying Vikings. “One could fill a book with things like this,” Price writes, voicing a fascinated curiosity that seems to drive him almost to despair.
Price diverges periodically from his tone of easy erudition to make conversational, enthusiastic asides. These can be pretty funny. There’s no evidence, Price writes, that the “berkserkers,” Viking warriors who went into trancelike hyperviolent states in battle, used drugs, “despite the fact that Wikipedia’s entry for berserkers recommends the reader also look up ‘Dutch Courage’ and, indeed, ‘Going Postal.’ ” Recounting the stories of Viking religious ceremonies recorded by the medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen in the 11th century, Price writes, “Adam also mentions that all this was accompanied by festivities so obscene ‘it is best to pass over them in silence’ (damn).” “Damn,” indeed!
Price has a talent for evoking the Vikings’ physical surroundings as they might have been—a gift for recreation that’s probably natural for an archaeologist accustomed to eking significance from the smallest bit of disturbed dirt. While dining in firelit halls, Viking warlords (textual sources tell us) wore their helmets inside; “the flickering orange flames of the hearth would have animated the covering of relief pictures on their tiny press-metal plaques,” Price writes. On the sites of many such long-gone halls, “wafer thin” rectangular golden foils, stamped with images, have been found—foils that archaeologists believe may have been “calling cards” for visitors and that would have been fixed onto the posts holding up the hall. If the “calling card” theory holds, Price writes, those sites that yield a great variety of foils may have been the halls of renowned lords, accustomed to “welcome guests from far and wide.” “In the fire’s glow, the foils, too, would have glittered, the towering roof posts appearing through the smoke as pillars of shining golden lights,” Price invites us to imagine.
Yet, although the wealthiest and most powerful Vikings trail drama and beauty down through the archaeological record, the author never forgets the grim side of all that gloriousness. Price’s pages totting up the many human hours that must have gone into the production of seafaring Vikings’ sails and clothing—pages that show how improbable it was that any Viking should ever have sailed anywhere, let alone gotten as far as they did—end where they should: where the labor was done. Enslaved women labored on sails in windowless weaving huts, and “the conditions within the sheds would have been horrendous,” Price writes. Imagine bending over cloth all day in the dim, thinking of lost home and family, Price’s prose asks us; imagine your body suffering, along with your mind: “All day, tiny floating particles of wool would gradually accumulate around the work, drawn into the lungs with every breath. By evening, the air inside the huts was probably opaque and filled with the sound of coughing.”
“Behind every Viking raid, usually visualized today as an arrow or place-name on a map, was the appalling trauma visited upon all people at the moment of enslavement, the disbelieving experience of passing from people to property in seconds,” Price writes. A text by Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a traveler from Baghdad who encountered Scandinavians on the Volga River in 922, describes the rape of enslaved women as integral to the “everyday routine” of the Vikings. “Even at the point of sale,” Price writes, “a woman was sometimes raped one last time in the presence of her purchaser.” Ahman ibn Fadlan’s text, he adds, “should be compulsory reading for anyone tempted to glorify ‘heroic’ Viking warriors.”
The Children of Ash and Elm
By Neil Price. Basic Books.
It’s a testament to Price’s efforts to thread discussion of slavery, violence, and oppression throughout the book that I don’t even really need the summing-up paragraphs he places at the beginning and the end, directly addressing whether we should “appreciate” or “like” the Vikings—whether, in short, we should allow ourselves to admire them. But this question, Price says in opening the book, needs to be considered, because “over the centuries, a great many people have eagerly pressed the Vikings into (im)moral service, and others continue to do so … any meaningful twenty-first-century engagement with the Vikings must acknowledge the often deeply problematic ways in which their memory is activated in the present.” The very concept of a “pure Nordic” bloodline, he points out, would have “baffled” the historical Vikings, engaged as they were in relentless and curious expansion. But as Price’s own details make clear, just because the Vikings were tolerant of many types of difference doesn’t mean they were kind to the powerless.
Price was one of the lead authors on the research team that confirmed by genomic analysis in 2017 that a warrior buried with utmost honors—sitting up, surrounded by weapons and horses—first unearthed in Birka, Sweden, in 1878, was female. “In a sense it does not really matter whether the person in the Birka grave was a female-bodied warrior woman or not,” Price writes. “This person may equally have been transgender, in our terms, or non-binary, or gender fluid. There are other possibilities, too, but the point is that they must all be recognized as possible Viking-Age identities while—crucially—not assuming that this must be the case.” (The italics are Price’s.) To convey such a deep sense of scholarly indeterminacy, all while dazzling the reader with cinematic detail—this is, truly, a feat.