A History of the Vikings by Gwyn Jones

A History of the Vikings

 

“…the temptation is strong to offer generalizations about the viking himself, produce a ‘typical’ figure, and prop him against the museum wall with his catalogue number and descriptive label. It is a temptation to be resisted because of its limiting and misleading consequences. Harald Hardradi, who waged war from Asia Minor to Stamford Bridge for thirty-five years, was a viking; so was his father Sigurd Sow, who stayed at home and counted haystacks. Hastein, who led the Great Army of the Danes into England in the early 890’s, was a viking; so too was Ottar, who came peaceably to his lord kind Alfred’s court with walrus tusks and lessons in northern geography. The men who destroyed churches in England, Ireland, and France were vikings; so too were the woodcarvers of Osberg and the metalworkers of Mammen. The men who said ‘With law shall the land be built up and with lawlessness wasted away’ were vikings; so were the practisers and curtailers of blood-feud, the profit-makers and those who robbed them of profit, the explorers and colonizers, the shaper’s of verse-forms and makers of legend. The kings and their counselors who brought the Scandanavian countries within the boundaries of Christian Europe were vikings. In short, the viking is the aggregate of this book and recalcitrant to summary.”


Earlier this year I had a serious need to read some Viking history, thanks in no small part to the fact that the History Channel made a scripted show about vikings and it’s awesome. Having no idea where to start, I bought TD Kendrick’s A History of the Vikings from the bargain shelf at Barnes and Noble and dived in.

It was disappointing. Kendrick’s book, while thorough, is almost exclusively concerned with what the vikings did while they were in places like England and Iceland. Which is great, if you already have a base of knowledge about their daily life and their homelands, but I didn’t, so the book was frustrating for me. But I still had a viking itch to scratch, and so I decided to try again with Gwyn Jones book of the same title.

And I was glad I did – Jones’ book is everything Kendrick’s wasn’t. Jones still discusses viking campaigns to Canada and England (also the Middle East, which I can’t remember Kendrick getting into), but also gives the reader a ton of information about viking society and how it functioned. You learn about the viking social structure, their laws, their burial rites, their religion, their language – there’s even a detailed description of how they built their boats. And you get to learn exactly what a “blood eagle” is, and trust me, it’s just as cool and gross as it sounds. There are tons of photos and drawings included, so the history feels fully explored. The book goes through the lives of several important figures in viking history, as well as some other major players from the era, and gives an overview of the age of the vikings from the beginning in the 8th century, to 1066 when it officially ended.

Best of all is the writing style, which is written in the same overly-scholarly tone that Kendrick’s book was, but since Jones was writing about thirty years later, it’s more readable and fun, as you can see from this passage:

“The Moors took so many prisoners that the gallows of Seville did not suffice for them, and the city’s palm trees bore strange fruit. Report of the Emir’s victory was not entrusted to mouth and quill alone: he sent the severed heads of 200 vikings on a dumb but eloquent embassy to his allies in Tangier.”

I love that so much. People just don’t write history books that way anymore, and it’s a damn shame.

Verdict: four out of five stars

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