New Popular Book On The Viking Period

Anders Winroth (born in 1965) is a Swedish historian who received his PhD from Columbia in 1996 and now holds an endowed professorship in history at Yale. He has written several books on the Viking Period for lay readers, the latest one of which I've been given to review.

The main contents of The Age of the Vikings is organised into eight chapters on:

  • Raiding and warfare
  • Emigration and overseas settlement
  • Ships in reality and mythology
  • Trade
  • The development of political leadership
  • Home life in Scandinavia and the roles of women
  • Religion
  • Arts and letters

All eight are well written and interesting (though the final arts chapter consists of brief poorly linked essays, repeats points already made and gives the impression of padding). Throughout, Winborg stresses the importance to period society of the military retinue and the redistribution of plunder. If a person wants to approach the Viking Period for the first time or get a refresher on where scholarship is standing right now, then I am happy to recommend this fine book.

Myself, I was intrigued to learn that the infamous, messy and impractical “blood eagle” murder method may just be the fruit of High Medieval writers misunderstanding one of the countless references in Viking Period poetry to carrion birds munching on the slain (p. 37). There is to my knowledge no osteological evidence for it. Also interesting to me, I can't recall reading about the Spanish Moor Al-Tartushi's report on life in Hedeby before (p. 197). But that may just be because I'm not an historian.

Then again, the Viking Period is far more of an archaeological period than a historical one if you look at the shelf metres occupied by the source material. And historian Winroth slips a lot when he uses the archaeological record. He thanks three eminent historians for commenting on the manuscript (p. 253). I think he should have included an archaeologist or two. Though I have written three academic books that deal largely with the Viking Period, I would never attempt a general synthesis of the period without involving historians. I will end this brief review with an errata list that I hope will be useful if a second edition appears one day.

Winroth, A. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. Princeton University Press. 304 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-14985-1.


3. Gold foil figures belong to the Vendel Period, not the subsequent Viking Period.

7. “9.5 square meters” : this would be a pretty cramped mead hall.

24. “OnämNsdotter” → Onämsdotter

26. The modern English word “Hell” comes down from Old Norse Hel, the name of both the Norse land of the dead and it's ruling goddess. It has nothing to do with being Christian.

29, caption. All Viking Period spears had “sharpened points”, so the ones used at the Battle of Maldon were not unusual in this respect.

33, caption. Swords have grips, not handles.

39. The problem of whether berserks and wulfheodenas existed cannot be approached exclusively from the textual sources, as Winroth does. We also have to look at period imagery such as the embossed-foil scenes on Vendel Period helmets and the Lewis chessmen, biting their shields.

44. Styrstad is east of Norrköping, not west.

46. Of course the two Röriks in Holland and Russia had never heard of Rörik in Styrstad. He wasn't born yet, but would live in the 11th century as shown by the date of his rune stone.

51. Winroth thinks Jordanes made up the Scandinavian origin myth of the Goths. This is a controversial opinion, since almost all the many Germanic gentes had similar origin myths. I don't think the myths are true, but I think they are authentic 6th century beliefs.

89. “Many runestones also have images of ships, but only one * also mentions the ship in its text.” Insert “of these” at asterisk. Several runestones mention ships but have no ship imagery.

111. Birka and Sorte Muld are irrelevant in the context of 11th century rune stones.

113. The claws of furry animals decompose as easily as their hair and skin, and therefore rarely survive in the archaeological record. Their phalange bones, however, are common, and these are what Winroth seems to be referring to here.

114. “glass pearls” → glass beads (Swedicism)

135. Archaeologists have hardly found any gold or silver arm rings in graves. They were apparently recast or disposed of in hoards.

140. This Roman Period tableware is irrelevant to the Viking Period.

149. Cremation produces shrunken and cracked white bones, not ashes.

150. “trelleborgs also contained cemeteries” : The cemeteries of the trelleborgs were outside the fortifications.

168. Whatever the perforated pottery was used for, it certainly wasn't to “sieve the milk”. Viking Period milkmaids didn't drop more straw into their buckets than modern ones.

171. The longhouse dominated agricultural Scandinavia for 5,000 years, not hundreds.

171. An Iron Age longhouse has three aisles, not “three naves”.

173. Again: the longhouse dominated agricultural Scandinavia for 5,000 years, not hundreds.

173. The development of the great hall building preceded the Viking Period by several centuries: it happened in the Migration Period.

173. Pole barns are common, not unusual.

175. Single non-village farms occur in populous farming districts too, not just in isolated locations.

Plate 4. The stone ship in the image dates from the Late Bronze Age, as can be seen from the fact that its constituent standing stones touch instead of being spaced out like the ribs of a Viking ship.

Plate 10. The animal-head posts from Oseberg are depicted on the tapestry in the same burial and have something to do with sledges, not furniture.

193. The Uppåkra drinking cup with the embossed foil decoration is not a “pitcher”.

193. Like the development of the hall building, the move of sacrifices away from lakes and indoors happened in the Migration Period, not the Viking Period.

215. “Runes were used for two millennia” : From AD 150 to 1900, that is, 1.75 millennia.

217. “Proto-Germanic” (three times) : the earliest runic inscription are in Proto-Norse, a language that is attested in writing unlike its theoretical parent language Proto-Germanic.

217. Another major reason why inscriptions in the Younger Futhark are so much easier to read than those in the Elder Futkark is that the later inscriptions use word-spacing characters.

220. Dróttkvætt: the name of this verse metre means “metre of lords”, not “meter suitable for a lord's band of retainers”.

236, caption. The tale of Sigurd Fafnir's bane is not a “myth” in the cosmographical sense that scholars of religion ascribe to the word.

289. Telling the reader that the spears thrown at Maldon had “sharpened points” is redundant: it's comparable to saying that the warriors involved used “swords with blades”.

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I remember Al-Tartushi's description of Hedeby for the indelible image of Viking men in guyliner.

Thank you, Martin. Nice points, well made.

Just a note to add that ON "drótt" (as in "Dróttkvætt") signifies "household, comitatus" and is equivalent to the later "hirð". The related word "dróttinn" means "king" or "lord".

By Thor Ewing (not verified) on 23 Oct 2014 #permalink