TEN CONTRIBUTIONS TOWARD A READING LIST FOR THE VIKING AGE
It came to me recently that people might be interested in knowing what books on the Viking Age I value over all the others. These are books mainly on Scandinavia and on England, which are the center of my interests. Please note that in many of these cases, I list two or more books in the same category and counted them only as one book. Mea culpa. It was a way to publicize a few more worthy volumes that I recommend that people read and keep in their libraries.
I have stayed away, for the most part, from popular overviews, pure academia, lists of facts, histories of kings, historical fiction and books on reenacting philosophy. We are interested here in exploring the everyday life of the time, something between Susan M. Margeson Eyewitness Book for children, Viking, and Marianne Vedeler’s specialty academic book, Silk for Gold.
I realized as I was editing this I did not include any martial books. While I realize the thud and blunder for many Norse reenactors, I guess that it is not that important to me. I also have eleven categories and was unable to include Stephen Pollington’s Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing, but I would like to state here that any of Stephen’s books are very worthwhile!
While it would be popular to list such books as The Havamal and The King’s Mirror, various sagas and the eddas, the fact remains that these are not really products of the Viking Age. They were transmitted orally, probably changed over time and location. The sagas and other writings were not written down until two or three hundred years after the end of the Viking Age by Christian writers for Christian authors and probably contain vastly altered or even invented segments and details. Whether they started out as factual accounts or not, they no longer necessarily are. Still, the Sagas are illuminating and valuable pieces of literature, I recommend The Sagas of the Icelanders, a collection of Icelandic sagas which contain not merely new translations of the sagas but extensive appendices, notes, glossaries and illustrations that are very helpful in understanding the Viking Age. In terms of historical writings, one needs to look at Beowulf. It is considered the first English epic, though it might have originated elsewhere, It comes down to us from a written copy created in the tenth or eleventh century, so we know that this is probably what the people thought of at this time and was not being interpreted by later writers according to later viewpoints. Modern translations and editions are often abridgements or rewritings, and you need to carefully regard your volume. I recommend the recent translation by Seamus Heaney, which is available in several editions (including an audiobook so you can hear it orally in the way its original audience did and an illustrated version that gives illustrations to what is described in the verse). It manages to promote the alliterative verse of the original and still be very artistic and poetic. Reading Beowulf, especially in connection with recent discoveries such as the Staffordshire Hoard, shows that the writer was aware of what various artifacts looked like. And if one must look beyond the obvious, to the kennings and poetic allusions, that is a small thing to do and in fact helps you understand the era a little bit better.
9—IN THE OLDEN TIMES
Of earlier books, I might mention two of the first solid pieces of scholarship of the Victorian Age and early twentieth century: The Viking Age I and The Viking Age II by Paul D. Chaillu (perhaps the first book on the culture and still rewarding even if it is not uniformly up to date, featuring line drawings of artifacts) and Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age by Mary Wilhelmine Williams (from the early twentieth century, a combination of Victorian and Modern prose). Somewhat later is The Viking by Bertil Almgren, a large-format and heavily illustrated book that tells a lot about how certain things were accomplished Norse culture. Outdated in some areas, but well worth it if you are willing to check on statements; a good overview of inaccuracies may be found at Carolyn Priest-Dorman’s “Brief Critique.”
8—THE BAYEUX EMBROIDERY
We have avoided books collecting prints of artwork, though there are many, often of high quality. However, because of its content we have included this. There are many books on the Embroidery, ranging from large-format facsimile reproductions of the Embroidery to an excellent history of the Embroidery, The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story by Carola Hicks. However, my favorite is the French-published The Bayeux Tapestry Embroidering the Facts of History edited by Bouet, which has a number of interesting articles, including one on the physical items seen in the embroidery and one that shows photographs of the back of the Embroidery.
7—ILLUSTRATIONS OF ARTIFACTS
We have mostly stayed away from books with photos of artifacts, though they can be greatly helpful. We have also avoided for the most part books of line illustrations, partly because we remember Herbert Norris. However, this oop museum catalog, From Viking to Crusader, is an invaluable collection of photographs and descriptions of artifacts. Later books have larger photographs in color but not nearly as extensive and illuminating. This book should be brought back into print but probably never will be 😦
There are a number of volumes available from the York Archaeological Trust, and they are all very well written, well illustrated and highly recommended. Books are available in print editions, and many out of print are books available as free pdf downloads. My favorite, dealing with shoes, belts and scabbards is Leather and Leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York by Quita Mould, Ian Carlisle and Esther Cameron.
I have a failing for Iceland and its history. While there is an excellent book by Magnus Magnusson called Iceland Saga, I find myself returning to Viking Age Iceland by Jesse Byock, which contains much information about culture and life of that era that I find rewarding and illuminating.
4—NORSE EXCURSIONS INTO BRITAIN AND IRELAND
Katherine Holman’s The Northern Conquest is a wonderful look at the invasions and conquests of the Norse in Britain and in Ireland. It is based on much of the most recent research and discoveries, and she makes worthy statements on Norse-Englisc communication, on Norse religion and on the assimilation of the Norse into foreign cultures. Very worthwhile.
There are a number of books on everyday life in the era, usually entitled Every Life… or Daily Life… I have an acknowledged failing for volumes that speak on everyday life rather than on the lives of the posh and royal, and certainly not on lists of dates, events and war. My favorites are Daily Life of the Vikings (The Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series) by Kirsten Wolf and Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England (The Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series) by Sally Crawford. These volumes are part of an exemplary series that is miles above similar volumes such as those by Simpson and Quennell.
2—BOOKS ON CLOTHING
Two very good and recommended overviews of recent and older clothing research are Viking Age Clothing by Þor Ewing and Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, Revised and Enlarged Edition by Gale R. Owen-Crocker. It is worth noting that Owen-Crocker’s book deals not only with the Englisc but with Norse living in England as well. Both are well illustrated.
1—THE YEAR 1000
The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger is a very readable account of everyday life in England during the eleventh century, hinging on the illustrations of the Julius Work Calendar. I find myself returning to it time and again and always finding new revelations, explanations and accounts. The one book on the era that I would want on a desert island!
It should be stressed that this is not a definitive list but a very idiosyncratic, personal list. Paraphrasing Win Scott Eckert, there is no doubt that fans of the Viking Age, both in England and in Scandinavia, will take issue with this list or certainly with aspects of it. There might be other volumes that people have found equally or more valuable for them and their interests. I would love to hear from any reader who has another contribution as well as a critique for or against he books listed.