There has been much debate about what to call the people of medieval Scandinavia now known widely as ‘Vikings’. The term stems from the Old Norse vikingr, used to describe someone who went on seafaring expeditions, but this was not tied to identifying any particular cultural group, nor did it initially carry connotations of violence. No matter what we call them, they are familiar figures in the popular imagination, as raiders afforded fiery boat funerals, but how much do we really know about these Vikings, who lived centuries ago?
As Neil Price, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, shows in his substantial new history of the Vikings, the answer is rather a lot. Of course, there are still plenty of gaps in our knowledge, and some conclusions drawn from at times limited evidence cannot be certain. Yet Price uses the available body of evidence to present us with an impressively intimate portrait of the people of the Viking Age.
Combining archaeology and textual sources, The Children of Ash and Elm provides a thorough survey of virtually all things Viking. We learn, among other things, what people wore, what tools they used, where they slept, where they relieved themselves, and what they ate, where, and how. For instance, while long, pronged forks for meat were used for serving from large vessels, table forks for individuals were not known. Bioarchaeological evidence also offers insights: only 7% of males who reached adulthood were malnourished in childhood, whereas for females it was 37%, so seemingly boys were given preferential treatment when it came to diet. The book is as much about what people thought, felt, and believed as what they did, and delves into views towards subjects like spirituality and sexuality.
Elsewhere, the book gives an important account of slavery, citing poems that list the derogatory names given to enslaved people and archaeological evidence, such as collars and an engraved stone found in Scotland depicting armed raiders leading a captive on to a ship, all presenting stark testimony of the grim fate of many who encountered the Vikings.
Crucially, there is also thorough consideration of the origins of Viking expansion, when people set out over the sea in all directions. This stretches back long before the traditional starting point for the Viking Age: the raid of the monastery of Lindisfarne in northern England in AD 793. As Price stresses, understanding these origins and the years before 793 is essential to understanding what is conventionally defined as the Viking Age. Equally, there is much to explore beyond the traditional end of the Viking Age in 1066. And with Price’s engaging and in-depth account, drawn from more than 30 years of research in the field, The Children of Ash and Elm is an excellent book with which to do both.
Review by Lucia Marchini
The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, Neil Price, Alen Lane, £30, Hardback, ISBN 978-0241283981.