Sawyer, Peter (ed). The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings.

NY: Oxford University Press, 1997.

If there’s one thing that bugs me, it’s the deliberate misuse of the language by people who know better. “Vikings” is widely used as if it refers to a nationality, while actually it was an occupation — that of sea-borne raider — engaged in on a usually temporary basis by men of every Scandinavian culture, plus more than a few Finns, Irishmen, and Anglo-Saxons. One really can’t talk about “Viking settlers.” By definition, when they moved in and became permanent residents and farmers, they ceased being “vikings.”

A much better term, actually, is “Northmen” — because they all did come from the northern part of Europe, more or less — and that’s what the authors of these eleven essays generally use, once you get away from the publisher’s Hollywood-influenced marketing decision on the title.

Because this really is quite a good book, a survey by a group of expert specialists of a harrowing time in European history for everyone but the Northmen themselves. For more than two centuries, from 793, when the first longships appeared at Lindisfarne to plunder the surprised monastery, until around 1030, Scandinavian raiding parties made incursions throughout England, Ireland, Francia, northern Germany, what became European Russia, and even in Iberia and North Africa. It might be a handful of ships carrying a hundred men or it might be ten times that number. (The cause of all this activity still is disputable; it almost certainly was not population pressure, as 19th-century historians generally assumed.) Gradually, the raids in some areas turned into conquest and settlement, followed by acculturation. Knut became ruler of much of England, Rolf/Rollo established Normandy in northwestern France, and the Rus became the power on the upper Volga. The Byzantine emperors acquired a bodyguard of “Varangians,” Iceland was settled from Norway, and Greenland from Iceland. What had begun as a way to get rich quick (and to demonstrate one’s warrior prowess, as well) evolved into yet another migration and partial relocation, as had been happening in Europe for several thousand years. Sawyer contributes book-end essays on the background and context of the raiders and on their legacy, while other contributors consider events in England, the Frankish empire, Russia, and out in the Atlantic. There are chapters on the Northmen’s often extraordinary skill in seamanship, their religion, and their place in romance and legend. And all of this is nicely illustrated, including two dozen color plates, with a number of explanatory maps, a lengthy chronology, and a usefully detailed bibliography.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The whole ‘Viking’ is nothing but trouble, although I personally use ‘Norse’ to cover the Scandinavian ethnic group. When I wrote about the Norse on the Volga last week I felt obliged to add a ‘viking’ tag, which I’m not proud of but oh well. Hopefully it taught people the difference!

    • Yeah — except that “Norse” implies “from Norway.” Which, as I commented, ignores the Saxons, Irish, Finns, and other guys who “went a-viking” when it seemed like a good way to put silver in the bank.

      • Which way that implication goes isn’t exactly certain – and when one wants to talk specifically about Scandinavian colonisation and acculturation, e.g. the Kievan Rus or the Normans, I find it makes a bit more sense to use ‘Norse’. ‘Northmen’ seems a little too wide to me. Then again ‘Scandinavian’ also seems to work pretty well for this sort of thing. Terminology abounds.

        ‘Viking’ itself is likely derived from the old English ‘vik’, which one can approximate to ‘thief’, so Viking is a word better suited to the phenomenon of sea raiding during the period, as you say yourself.

        (interesting asides: DNA studies in Iceland find a significant Irish contribution specifically along the female mitochondrial line, and by 1100 the ‘Varangians’ do indeed have a huge Anglo-Saxon contingent)


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