Beorn Ironsides Barrow. Near Mälaren. Source: Wikipedia

REVIEW: Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings

In the unlikely event you only read one history book in 2020, the new book by Neil Price on The History of the Vikings should be it.

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings
By Neil price
New York, Basic Books 2020

In 2014, distinguished archaeologist Neil Price was appointed to the chair of Archaeology at the University of Uppsala; arguably one of the oldest academic chairs established at a university (1662). A year after, Price was awarded a prestigious ten-year grant from the Swedish Research Council to establish and head a new centre for excellence for the study of the Viking Age (c. 750-1050). More precisely, the idea was to set up a group of interdisciplinary scholars exploring the origins of the Viking Phenomenon given the remarkable new results archaeology has provided in the last 20 years. More specifically, the questions raised are: Who were these Viking raiders? Why did they embark on their expeditions of pillage? In what kind of societies did they live? And how were they transformed from pirates to great conquering armies? On the way to answer these questions subtly, the project has focussed on the Boat Grave Culture and the Viking Economy.

Mid-term in the grant, the first general book derived from the project has now been published, a comprehensive introduction to the history of the Viking Age, Children of Ash and Elm.

There are hundreds of books introducing the general reader to the Viking Age; as there are numerous excellent books by both Neil Price and other archaeologists and historians providing us with fine introductions. So what, may we ask, is so special about this new book?

The answer is not that it provides us with an up-to-date introduction to the latest archaeological research on for instance the Salme ship-burials from c. 750 and the boat-grave culture; or the “micel here” (the Great Army) and its campaigns in England c. 865-878; nor the gender bender of the people as it has been uncovered in graves such as that of the “Birka Female Warrior”; or the raiding, slaving and trading economy and how its preconditions – wool, slaves, sails, boats and tar – were brought about. Or the transition from the early piratical culture to its later phases, the diaspora, the settling and the conquering. All this and much more are presented to us and with meticulous care.

On the contrary, what makes the book extraordinarily significant, is the disciplined framework of its composition, which tells us the history of the Vikings from a historical-anthropological point of view.

How is this wrought? Neil price offers us a story, which takes its departure in the myths and the minds of the Vikings, and how they thought about the world, their worldview. In this, he unabashedly explores the poetry, the myths, and the sagas as these stories were handed down to us by the Icelanders. Always on the lookout for archaeological evidence, which may function as an illustration thereof, we effortlessly get a sense of a world intricately bound up in itself. Some literary scholars of the post-modern school of Toronto may be livid when they consider the use of such texts written down in the 12th and 13th century to shed light on a past, which was forged in the aftermath of the ecological crisis in the 6th century. Never mind, we must say. Today, we recognise again that any society has such founding myths, many of which may be older than a millennium (think about the Quran and modern Islamic societies). Of course, the Vikings had such myths.

Thus, we are guided by Neil Price to take seriously that Vikings were not just pirates, warriors, petty kings or tradespeople. Rather, they were people living inside a world characterised by a particular world view, life form and economy. In short: a culture.

What we get here, then, in this day and time, is the rare beast of a true “cultural history” written by a scholar who not only masters the reading of the texts, understands the new archaeological scientific methods, and is well-versed in the broader history of the period; but who is also not afraid to tell us in plain English what a Viking fart in York smelled like after having been hidden in the underground a 1000 years.

To spell it out: Neil Price starts with a rounded story of Midgard – both above and here on earth. From there, he moves on to establish the facts of the Viking Phenomenon, to end up with an outline of the economic system, the shift from chieftains to kingdoms, and the extraordinary diaspora, which the Vikings set in motion. It is a rounded history told from the point of view of where any history should begin, namely the culture and worldview; that which makes us as a people act in one way and not another. Ordering the material in this manner, this book may teach any historian how to write a readable historical narrative.

Also, the book is extraordinarily well-written, readable and great fun. Go for it…

Karen Schousboe

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Beorn Ironsides Barrow. Near Mälaren. Source: Wikipedia