‘Age of Wolf and Wind’ by Davide Zori review

Age of Wolf and Wind: Voyages through the Viking World by Davide Zori proves that if you want to understand the Vikings, you need to rove just as far.

A Viking Age ship scene on the Lärbro Stora Hammars I picture stone, c. 8th-10th century. Gotlands Museum. Mike Ferguson (CC BY).

The Viking Age was characterised above all by movement. The geographical range of Viking voyages was vast, and those adventurous journeys are a large part of the fascination and the challenge of studying the Vikings. To follow Viking warriors and settlers on their voyages means tracking their ships not just around Scandinavia and Northern Europe, but as far as Greenland and Constantinople, from the North Atlantic to the Black Sea. They roved far and fast; historians wanting to understand them have to do the same.

Viking travellers paid little heed to cultural and linguistic borders, and the study of the Viking Age defies disciplinary ones too. Since its beginnings, Viking studies has been notable for a high level of interdisciplinarity. Our modern understanding of Viking history is the product of insights developed by scholars working across different disciplines, including archaeology, art history and linguistics, as well as historians and literary scholars working on the medieval written sources. Those sources encompass everything from the sober (but distinctly biased) contemporary accounts of Viking raids to the later sagas from Iceland and Scandinavia, which may seem too colourful to be historically accurate but can provide important glimpses into Viking attitudes and mentalities.

For any individual scholar to get to grips with information from such diverse sources is a tall order. If interdisciplinarity is the goal, there are obstacles in the way: disciplinary boundaries within institutions can force researchers into ideological straitjackets, and incompatible methodologies may result in irreconcilable conclusions drawn from the same information. Sometimes historians can be too keen to seize on archaeological evidence to illustrate their arguments, without appreciating the limitations of what it can show; on the other side, specialists in material culture have been known to be over-simplistic in analysis of written sources or short-sighted in dismissing them out of hand.

Davide Zori’s Age of Wolf and Wind tackles these challenges head-on. Zori’s aim is to put forward ‘an optimistic yet critical methodology that explores the complexities of weaving together narratives of text and material culture’. His balanced approach treats different categories of sources separately, and in depth, before discussing how they may be able to confirm, complement or challenge each other’s evidence. The result is an ambitious, highly valuable exploration of the Viking world.

The book is arranged into six detailed case studies. Four concentrate on specific regions, Britain, Denmark, Iceland and North America, exploring different phases of the Viking phenomenon: raiding and conquest, the development of state polities in Scandinavia, and the establishment of Viking colonies in the challenging landscapes of the North Atlantic. The other two chapters take a broader thematic approach, tracking changing practices in burial customs and the economic, political and social ramifications of feasting.

Some of these aspects of the Viking Age have been written about extensively in scholarly and popular history, others less so, but Zori’s thorough and methodical approach yields fresh insights even in familiar territory. His discussion balances recent discoveries with sources which have benefited from decades of scholarship, and with data emerging from newly applied scientific techniques – isotope analysis, sophisticated landscape modelling, study of ancient DNA, dendrochronology and the sampling of seeds and pollen from archaeological sites. Discussing the Viking presence in the British Isles, Zori demonstrates how such methods of scientific analysis are yielding transformative results. ‘Viking studies in Britain is likely at the beginning of a massive data revolution’, he argues. He discusses how isotope analysis of bodies in Viking cemeteries is producing surprises, such as revealing that there was a strong Eastern European contingent in some of the ‘Scandinavian’ armies who raided in Britain. Genetic studies are identifying the living legacy of Norse settlement: one study in West Lancashire, for instance, found that of people whose families had lived in the area for generations around 51 per cent had Scandinavian ancestry. Plausibly, these are descendants of Norwegian Vikings who settled in the area in the tenth century; the evidence, pointing to conflicts in Viking-ruled Dublin, can help explain why they might have been there.

Zori’s background is in archaeology, but he has a nuanced understanding of the written sources too. The sagas written about the Viking Age in medieval Iceland have a great deal to tell us about how descendants of the Vikings, some generations later, remembered and imagined the world of their forebears, but using these subtle narratives as historical evidence can be difficult. They may often be underrated, or simply ignored, by historians and archaeologists looking for reliable data. Zori is upfront about the challenges of using these sources, but his treatment of them is scrupulously careful, never claiming too much or dismissing their evidence too readily. The advantages of his approach are exemplified by the chapter dealing with the Norse presence in North America. Popular (and academic) desire to prove that the Vikings were the first Europeans to explore America has generated a huge amount of myth-making – and even outright forging of evidence – which has long confused the issue. Zori’s cautious discussion of the subject, drawing on archaeological material and stories in the sagas, which describe encounters between Viking voyagers from Greenland and indigenous peoples on the northeastern shores of North America, is fascinating.

The depth of scholarship in this book is impressive, while its illustrations open up the Viking world’s horizons: the most memorable is a figurine of the Buddha, which originated in sixth-century Pakistan and, by some long journey of trade or gifting, came to hang outside a Viking temple in Sweden. Taken together with the distinctive voices of the sagas, objects like this have extraordinary stories to tell.

  • Age of Wolf and Wind: Voyages through the Viking World
    Davide Zori
    Oxford University Press, 520pp, £25.99
    Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)

Eleanor Parker is a columnist at History Today.