Saturday 4 February 2023

Viking Nations

The long-term reader of this blog will recall, I dare say, a riff during the lockdown and its associated life-inverting activity, about the Anglo-Norman state in England and other, related, matters. This came alongside an avowal that I was not getting into early medieval wargaming, although some of my comments do seem to have provoked some Anglo-Norman wargames among my reader.

The potter through the history of the British Isles has continued, however, although perhaps a bit more on the quiet. The latest rummaging in the remainders box pulled out the following work:

Knight, D., Viking Nations: The Development of Medieval North Atlantic Identities, Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2016.

This is a thesis, it would seem, which has been ‘re-written’ for a less specialist audience, in my estimation. The scare quotes are because, well, the re-writing shows. In spade loads or bad editing, sentences which do not make sense or in which words and word sequences repeat, typographical errors, and incorrect references to figures, of which there are, inevitably in a work of archaeological anthropology, a lot.

In short, the work needs a great deal more cognitive effort from the reader than it ought to, and that is a great shame because there is an interesting work struggling to make itself heard above the din of proofreading gaffes and other infelicitous errors. I should just mention, I think, that I hope that the original thesis, which was presented to the University of Nottingham, had a lot fewer errors than this. While examiners are a little more laid back than they used to be, lack of clarity is a Ph.D. thesis sin still, I believe.

Still, more positively, the work attempts to summarise the archaeology of Viking sites across three zones of the North Atlantic. The first is the North Atlantic archipelagos of the Shetland and Faroe Islands, which have rather less in terms of archaeological work associated with them than the Hebrides and Orkney Islands. The second zone is Iceland, and the third is the Norse sites of Greenland and North America.

The idea that the Vikings, when they came into contact with Western Europe were basic, uncivilized, pagan barbarians can, I think, be reasonably discarded now. While the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are, to say the least, not positive about the Vikings, and they did disrupt and destroy much of the civilized life in the North-East of England with their initial plundering raids, they quickly started to settle and assimilate with the locals, and even, within a generation or two, became Christians.

In the islands, things were a little more complex, depending on the situation. The Vikings came to settle and farm, basically. They might have taken over indigenous sites or they may not have done, depending on whether there were any. There is also the issue of the Paper, who seem to have been the pre-existing Christian hermits and priests, presumably of what we would now call the Celtic tradition. There is not much information about as to whether the Norse and the Christians clashed, co-existed or the latter converted the former. Ultimately, of course, the Christian prevailed.

It is quite interesting that the Norse in England converted quite quickly to Christianity. Guthrum, for example, was defeated by Alfred in 878, and the latter then stood sponsor to his baptism. The Norse subsequently settled in East Anglia. The main Viking states, however, Norway and Denmark, did not convert until the Eleventh Century, and, as Knight observes, this was as much to do with the formation of the states as it was anything else.

As the military aspects of the wave of Norse invasions subsided, the trading elements increased. One of the interesting things about the book is the discussion of Norse shipping and its development from a coastal raiding and trading system of light, flexible and shallow draught boats to more capacious but deeper-keeled hulls. The main propulsion method switched also from mainly rowed through rowed with auxiliary sails to mainly sailed. These latter ships used less manpower and hence the carrying capacity was greater (as there was less need for provisioning the crew) and the voyages could be more profitable.

Fewer crew meant that the wars of plunder and conquest were over, of course. But then, in Iceland and Greenland there was a lot less to conquer. Norse farming was adapted to the relatively harsh environments encountered in the North Atlantic zones, even during the relatively benign period before the Little Ice Age. Even so, farms in Greenland struggled to maintain viability. Quite a lot, it seems, was predicated on the export of walrus tusks to Europe for ivory. The re-opening of trade routes to Africa rather put paid to this trade as elephant tusks are much better for carving, and this chipped away at the sustainability of the Greenland farms.

The most useful chapters are those relating to trade and to religion, it has to be said. They are also relatively uncluttered with typographical errors, which does make them a little easier to read. The structures of Norse farms in the archaeology discussed in the three zones are interesting but do get a little repetitive, although I still do not know why the early Norse longhouses had bowed walls and the later ones went straight. Some of the other insights from archaeology are quite interesting, such as the positioning of the longhouse on a slope, with the landowner’s bed at the highest end and the animals at the lowest. The drain ran downhill, so the lowest-status farm hands had to be careful where they stood. On the other hand, they did get the benefit of the warmth from the herd.

An interesting book but, as I said, rather a flawed one, unfortunately. I know I perpetrate my fair share, and probably more than that, in my own waffling, but a little more care and attention could have raised this one from a struggle to read to something really quite worthwhile and interesting. Proofreading is boring, I grant, but it is rather necessary.   


  1. Poor proofreading can be really annoying, as is poor writing generally. I've just been reading an Assyriological article by an Italian author. It was written in English, but I found it well-nigh unreadable. I'd rather have read it in Italian.

    1. I entirely agree. Proofreading is difficult and boring, and takes a lot longer than most writers imagine. and still some typos get through. But there is a difference between that and endless simple errors.