The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth
Non-Fiction | History | Scandinavian History
Published by Princeton University Press
Released September 7, 2014
Purchase: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | Thriftbooks
Author Links: Twitter
History was always one of my favorite classes at school, and I miss a lot of the assigned readings. In between reading novels and graphic novels, I try to read several non-fiction books every month.
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I were at our local library and I was in the mood for Scandinavian history, which is a topic my boyfriend knows a good bit about from his time studying art history. I asked him to pick out a book for me, and Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings is the one he came back with.
It ended up being a great choice.
Vikings have always held people’s fascination, whether from the mysteries surrounding their culture or from the horror at how violent and barbaric they are perceived. We know shockingly little of Viking culture as the remnants of their society have faded with the passage of time.
The Age of the Vikings is a wonderfully comprehensive look at what we do know about the Vikings. Winroth talks about several aspects of Scandinavian culture in a way that is easily understandable and relatable, even to people who might be new to this area’s history. Scattered throughout the book are plenty of fascinating images of relics found from the Viking age.
Early on, Winroth tackles the history of the violence within Viking culture and brings up an interesting point: that Vikings were no more violent than other cultures of that time. One of the examples he points to is Charlemagne:
“During a single day in 782, Charlemagne ordered no fewer than 4,500 Saxons decapitated, according to the Annals. … The Vikings’ execution of 111 prisoners in 845 pales in comparison.”
One of the reasons Vikings were so feared during their time was due to their quick ships and the ability to emerge onto a village or city quickly, taking the citizens off-guard. Also, Vikings weren’t always violent, and in some cases would accept tribute in the forms of gold and other materials of value in exchange for not raiding an area. That’s not to say we should write off the terrible qualities of Vikings – after all, they practiced slavery and the violence they did commit could destroy the lives of the people in the areas that they traveled to.
I was fascinated by Winroth’s details regarding Viking burial customs, especially ship burials. Ship burials have been found a few times, with the buried ship containing not only the body of the deceased but grave goods and whatever they would need for the afterlife. The most striking burial Winroth writes about is that of two women buried in Oseberg, Norway:
“The goal of that journey [to the afterlife] was clearly visible to everyone who saw the half-finished mound: the ship was quite literally going into the black earth, into the mound.”
Another interesting bit of information in the book was that Viking raids actually stimulated the European economy of the time. Trade towns were established in places such as Dorestad, Birka, and Hedeby, and money was starting to be used in place of the older bartering system.
“However disastrous and ruinous any individual Viking raid may have been for those attacked, the overall impact of Scandinavian endeavors was, unexpectedly, to stimulate the economy of Western Europe.”
The only aspect of the book that I did not enjoy was the amount of speculation the author added to the narrative. This is to be expected, however, as so little is known about Viking culture and that naturally leads historians to try to imagine what life was like in those times. I just felt that the author may have gone too far at certain points.
Overall, this is a perfect book if you want to know more about the Vikings and Scandinavian history in general, from ancient poetry to the role of women in their society and so much more.