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Friday, 19 February 2016

Book Review: The Northmen's Fury - A History of the Viking World by Philip Parker

This year I’m using the power of the twenty-sided die to force myself to read more widely. My first role showed a 12 for ‘History, Myth and Legend’, and so I headed into Waterstone's with my Christmas gift card and had a rummage. With everything that has ever happened (and a significant quantity of things that didn’t) to choose from, it was a difficult decision. In the end I let my current obsessions choose for me, and selected Philip Parker’s history of the Viking world ‘The Northmen’s Fury’.

For a while, when I was in primary school, Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories took up the most space on my bookshelf. Those books first introduced me to the joys of reading and of history, but while I still find the past fascinating, I’m a little ashamed to admit that until I embarked on this project, I had never read a history book aimed at adults. For somebody who has not fostered the skill of reading history, The Northmen’s Fury is perhaps a difficult place to start. This is no fault of Parker’s – he writes clearly and engagingly, but he does so about a contradictory people, and across a field which is both temporally and geographically huge.

One thing that history has in common with the novel is that both concern themselves with cause and effect, but when the primary sources are as sparse and biased as they are for the Vikings, motivations can be hard to follow. While the Vikings had a writing system in the form of runes, they left little record of themselves other than a few monumental inscriptions often following a simple ‘X raised this rock in memory of Y,’ formula. One or two of these appear to corroborate information from the much later sagas, but they do little to help Parker tell the ‘story’ of Norse culture. This largely non-literary, largely pagan culture spent a significant amount of time attacking Christian neighbours who did keep fairly detailed historical records. Add to this the fact that many of their victims were monks – the very people writing those records – and it is little surprise that contemporary sources created the, barbaric picture of the Vikings that remains in many people’s minds to this day. They were, of course, sometimes capable of brutal violence, but no more so than many of their neighbours. Parker tells us of the massacre of the Danes who had settled in England, as ordered by King Aethelred, during which even the children of ‘those women who had consented to intermix with the Danes’ were ‘dashed to pieces against posts and stones’.

When the Vikings’ descendants did develop their own rich literary heritage in the form of the Icelandic sagas, Parker is careful to remind us that they were written down many years after the events described (presumably as the culmination of an oral tradition), and that many of them serve to legitimise the claims of this or that Norwegian royal house. While he acknowledges the potential unreliability of his sources, Parker does not shy away from presenting much information from them as fact – a decision which can be justified by imagining the difficulty and tedium involved in reading a book which presents every single action as something that may or may not have happened.
The difficulty in following the chain of causality is not always helped by the fact that the Vikings tended to travel widely, and Parker’s decision to divide up many of his chapters geographically (although some areas get different chapters for different periods), means that we sometimes have the same historical figure appear in different chapters without necessarily following their careers in chronological order. It should be noted however that Parkers systematic approach is useful in giving a sense of organisation to this history’s vast scope. Those readers who would like an approach which more closely examines the biographies of the period’s key players will find themselves well served by the book’s penultimate chapter: a set piece centred on the dual invasions of England in 1066 which follows lives of each of the three key players up to that point. Parker is seemingly helped here by the more detailed sources available for this period, and manages to shed new light on a period I thought I knew well. The life of Harald Hardrada is particularly interesting: he spent a number of years fighting in the Byzantine empire’s Varangian guard before taking his throne in Norway, and seemed to be the most experienced of the three generals vying for the crown of England.

I do not wish to suggest that Parker himself is responsible for the sometimes confusing nature of the book. He does a very good job of providing readers with a structured history of a people whose motivations are lost to time, and who sometimes do things which seem bizarre to the modern reader. For example, several of the kings of Viking Dublin seem to have abandoned their thrones to take up kingship of York, or vice versa, and at least one later changed his mind, returning to Dublin to oust the relative who had ruled in his place. Adding to the confusion is the fact that it sometimes seems as though almost all of the era’s major figures are called Harald or Olaf, and thus they almost all bear the patronym Olafson or Haraldson.

When I studied A-level Archaeology, the parts I found most interesting were the small glimpses we occasionally get into the lives of people from long ago. It is in these moments that this book is also at its best. For example, the small group of Norse Christians returning from the crusades who took shelter in the Neolithic tomb at Maeshowe on the Orkney islands, and occupied their time in carving coded runes into the walls with messages varying from boasts about the skill of the carver, to praise for Ingigerd, ‘the most beautiful of women’, and even a claim that a large pile of treasure that was removed from the tomb and buried somewhere nearby (probably an example of Viking humour – as Parker points out, the sparse, primitive grave goods we find in stone-age tombs are unlikely to have been of much interest to Norse warriors). While the style here is still very much that of a fiction book, we as readers are in the tomb with the band of crusaders while the storm rages outside.

As might be expected from a history of the Vikings (and probably of any early medieval group) the story we are told predominantly concerns the military elite, with the lives of the everyday folk fading into the background. This is understandable, as the farmers who likely made up the majority of the population had little opportunity to do much that would be worthy of record in sagas or in monks’ records. We do get more of an idea of the lives of ordinary people when Parker turns his gaze across the Atlantic to focus on the settlements of Iceland and Greenland, and the probable forays into parts of North America (interestingly, the Greenland colony, which almost certainly collected resources from the American mainland, made its last written records in 1408, and archaeological evidence suggests that the colony may have survived until the latter half of that century – only decades before Columbus’s discovery of America). In these chapters we are presented with a people who resisted any form of leadership which is too autocratic – both Iceland and the Isle of Mann have claims to the oldest running parliaments in the world – but whose isolation and infighting eventually caused them to submit to Scandinavian monarchies which would later neglect them in times of need.

As well as valuing independence, the Viking people are presented as being great technological innovators whose long-boats allowed them to strike deep inland along river courses, and whose navigational skills allowed them to build up a trading network which stretched as far as Constantinople and the Middle East. Their cultural sphere of influence stretched from Kiev and Novgorod in the east, to the shores of America in the west, but their lack of one unifying government – and their sometimes Game-of-Thrones-esque political infighting – prevents them from being considered as an empire on the scale of the Romans or the Macedonians.  

In the final chapters, Parker deals with the descendants of a small group of Vikings who settled in the  France, and went on to found dynasties across western Europe. He also discusses the 19th Century cultural interest in the Viking myth and acknowledges how parts of it were appropriated by the Third Reich (although he does not mention the ongoing rift between Neo-nazi and non-racist factions in contemporary Germanic Neopaganism), a system of government which would almost certainly have appalled those Vikings who braved the unforgiving North Atlantic in order to avoid what they saw as increasing tyranny in Scandinavia and set up communities which we would now recognise as being run along democratic lines. In this respect it’s also worth noting that the Viking societies seemed happy to trade and intermarry with people of many different cultures and religions, and in areas like Normandy and Russia they eventually became fully integrated with the surrounding people.

This is connected to one of the core things I was reminded of by this book. History is always more complex than we imagine it. In popular culture, Vikings are very much the pagan outsiders ransacking Christian Europe, and while there is an element of truth in this, it is worth remembering that they were also shrewd traders, whose politics were deeply interwoven with their neighbours, particularly in the British Isles. I was also surprised to learn that, while it took a long time for Christianity to become established in the Nordic countries (and Norway had a pagan rebellion as late as the 12th Century), there is evidence that there were Christians in Scandinavia at the very start of the Viking period, and Christians were involved in the settlements of both Iceland and Greenland. This should not be a shock, given the Viking age starts five centuries after the Roman Empire had made Christianity a dominant faction in Europe. One thing about the pop-culture Viking which does seem to be true is their preoccupation with being remembered in stories, and I’m sure the many Haralds and Olafs mentioned here would be pleased to see their names recorded a millennia after they passed into the afterlives of their chosing.

Next time I read a history books, I might opt for something with a narrower focus, but I very much enjoyed this overview of a period I have long been interested in. My next roll of the dice was an eleven, for a genre novel. I opted for The Watchers by Neil Spring. Watch this space for a review.