Vikings: A History: Neil Oliver

★★★★★

This post comes with a warning for overbubbling enthusiasm; but I just can’t help myself. I didn’t watch Neil Oliver’s BBC series on the Vikings, but when I spotted this companion volume, on the Book People’s stall during a Christmas fair at work, it was difficult to resist. The Vikings, like the Romans, are a shadowy but constant presence in British history and yet I don’t know as much about them as I would like.

I remember visiting the Jorvik Viking Centre in York during a family holiday when I was small and going on the ride there: a little car which takes you through various tableaux of Viking life, complete with authentic sounds and smells – just the kind of thing to make an impression on an imaginative child. But my idea of the Vikings has always been a mass of stereotyped images: dragon ships bristling with shields; fire, rapine and slaughter; the sacking of monasteries; and men in horned helmets with braided beards. I bought Oliver’s book hoping that he’d give me more of an idea of what the Vikings were really like.

And I can safely say that this is the best history book I’ve read for some years. It is lively and immediate: as it’s based on a television series, Oliver has had the chance to travel to the various places he describes, to visit the digs and museums, to handle some of the artefacts and to get a personal sense of the vastness of the open seas, or the technique of sailing a dragon boat. Equally importantly, however, he is that rarest of creatures: a professional archaeologist and historian who is also a born storyteller. He effortlessly conveys his passion and knowledge in an accessible way that simplifies, but doesn’t undermine, the mind-boggling complexity of European history in this period – and he writes beautifully, with the occasional turn of phrase that wouldn’t look out of place in a saga. He admits from the start that he’s been fascinated by the Vikings since he was a boy, watching Hollywood movies and reading the Thor comics, and his genuine enthusiasm permeates every aspect of this book.

Here and there he adds little stories which show how the Vikings continue to be present around us nowadays, in unexpected ways. My favourite was the tale of how Bluetooth technology – which connects different electronic devices wirelessly – is named after Harald Bluetooth (circa 930-987), the Viking chieftain who unified Denmark, thus connecting peoples who had previously lived in separate, independent groups. As if that wasn’t enough to delight me, it turns out that the Bluetooth symbol on our computers and phones is formed from the runes of Harald Bluetooth’s name. Now, if that’s not an example of making history relevant, I don’t know what is.

These little stories bring extra life to what is already a thoroughly well-written history. Oliver goes well beyond his brief in exploring where the Vikings came from, and I found his chapters on prehistoric Europe absolutely absorbing, charting how the fluctuations of different ice ages affected the climate, the growth of trees and the herd movements of mammoth, bison and aurochs; and how the Sami people of northern Scandinavia are descended from travellers who settled there before the last ice age and remained, when all other settlers retreated back south to warmer lands. As the ice receded once again, Oliver follows the progress of Stone and Bronze Age settlements in Scandinavia, using the evidence from archaeological digs, wall-paintings and the disturbingly well-preserved bodies of those buried in peat bogs (often ritual sacrifices, it seems) to build up a compelling picture of what it might actually have been like to live in Europe at this date. Even as he comes towards the age of the ‘real’ Vikings, he thinks outside the box.

He doesn’t just show us the raiding parties on dragon ships (who were mostly Norwegians); he also shows us the Scandinavian settlers (predominantly Swedes) who travelled east to settle in the Baltic and the lands of the Slavs, who were called ‘Rus’ and who gave their name to the nation of Russia which would later develop around their territories. And then he thinks about how these men might have travelled southward, using rollers to move their ships overland between one river and the next, until they reached the Black Sea and even the Mediterranean; where they encountered traders from Baghdad and formed the mercantile links that exchanged furs and amber for silver coins.

They became significant enough as traders that Arabic writers travelled north to find out more about these people and their settlements. And then, of course, they beseiged Constantinople. It makes the back of my neck tingle, thinking about the Golden Horn bristling with dragon ships (ultimately unsuccessfully, in that the Vikings never managed to sack Constantinople: that was too great a challenge, even for them). And then later Oliver shows us the Vikings as explorers and settlers, moving ever further west, from Orkney and the Shetland islands, to the Faroe Islands, to Iceland, Greenland and then to Vinland, on the coast of North America.

It’s an absolutely incredible story and I had never realised the scale of it before: the people of this relatively small, northern part of Europe managed to explore virtually the entirety of the known world at this date (even Chinese silks have been found in some Scandinavian graves). It puts the Viking activity in Britain into context, as merely part of a much broader pattern of expansion and assimilation. And, for me, the most striking legacy of the book is understanding that actually that assimilation was far more important and successful for the Vikings than their blood-and-fire raids. Take the Rus in eastern Europe, for example, or (more pertinently for Britain) the descendants of the Viking chieftain Rollo, the Northmen or Normans who invaded Britain in 1066. It’s rather odd to think that, after all our struggles against the Vikings, they managed to conquer us after all.

The book isn’t too heavily weighted with quotations and dates; instead Oliver concentrates on the evidence that allows us to reconstruct the entire culture of the Scandinavian peoples – not just lists of raids and battles. He thinks about housing, clothing, customs and food and what changes in these things might tell us about the changing way of life. He does his best to put himself in the place of the people he’s researching, whether that’s by imagining how the tenth-century Birka Girl would have spent her time scampering around the docks of her home town; spending time with the crew of a long-ship; passing the night in a Bronze-Age house; or sampling the fermented flesh of a basking shark. This last provokes a quote that I can’t help but share with you, just in case anyone is ever tempted to try it:

The overall impact of hákarl is what you might perhaps expect from eating rancid, fishy fat that has been marinaded in carpet cleaner – except hákarl is stronger and the taste lasts longer. The first wave of flavour is simply that of rotten fish, delivered in a texture like semi-soft lard. What is life-changing is the explosion of ammonia that fulls mouth, nose and throat when you begin to chew. To say it clears the tubes is the understatement of a lifetime. It is a French kiss with the living dead.

Historians: going the distance so you don’t have to… But I hope that gives you a sense of the energy and verve of Oliver’s writing. Returning to more serious matters, he prefers to look at the cultural realities of Viking life rather than their myths and legends, although he does touch on the worship of the pagan gods. He is very interesting on the later Viking conversion to Christianity, which he sees as a pragmatic political decision. By becoming Christians, he argues, they took away the excuse that neighbouring countries – such as the Holy Roman Empire – had to invade them under the guise of trying to convert them. When speaking of religion, he quotes part of the Hávamál, a strange and eerie poem which I didn’t know before but which I found haunting. Odin is the speaker:

On that tree / The depth of whose roots / No one knows / No bread sustained me / Nor goblet. / I looked down, / I gathered the runes, / Screaming I gathered them; / And from there I fell / Again.

I can’t help wondering whether this existing image in Viking folklore – the god bound to the tree – might explain why they found it relatively easy to accept Christianity, which is dominated by the strikingly similar motif of Christ on the cross. Furthermore, might the conflation in the Viking mind of Odin and Christ explain the strange iconography of Harald Bluetooth’s rune-stone at Jelling, in which Christ is shown bound by thorn-bushes…? But perhaps that’s my imagination running away with itself.

Part of the reason I’m so excited by this is that Oliver’s research throws up so many fascinating connections with other things I’ve encountered this year. For example, anyone else who’s read To Lie With Lions will understand why I felt a flash of recognition on reading about the Icelandic volcano of Hekla; and those who’ve read The Last Light of the Sun will share my interest in the part where Oliver discusses the clash of the Vikings with Alfred the Great, and the possible burial mound of Ivarr the Boneless (who nevertheless cuts a rather grander figure here than in Last Light). When he discusses Bronze Age representations of the sun in Denmark, on metal plates with incised longships and discs representing chariots, Oliver reminds me of the superb Chariot of the Sun in the Royal Academy’s Bronze exhibition, dating from the 14th century BC and found at Trundholm in Denmark. The thought of Vikings serving in the Varangian Guard in Constantinople, and scratching their names into the balustrades of Hagia Sophia, sparked off a whole volley of links with things I’ve read. This is a culture and an age which has left its legacy everywhere.

I wish there were more history books like this, which simmer with the author’s passion and knowledge and which are also incredibly well-written and thus deeply enjoyable to read. If you’re remotely interested in this period, please read this. I hope you’ll find it as absorbing as I have.

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