Wishful Thinking

The tolerant and worryingly modern Vikings.

Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, 14th century © Bridgeman Images.

Popular histories of the Vikings have a difficult course to steer. The most reliable way to grab attention is still to invoke the familiar Viking stereotypes: violent, ruthless sea raiders, complete with their (long discredited) horned helmets. Yet scholars who devote their lives to studying the Vikings know that the real excitement may lie elsewhere, in richer, but less immediately eye-catching, aspects of their culture: in the delicate politics of medieval Scandinavia, the intricacies of Old Norse poetry, or the particulars of North Sea trade routes and the finer technical points of boat building. It is not easy to reconcile the scholar’s love of detail with the romantic, broad-brush approach that popular history seems to demand.

In this light, Neil Price’s The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings deserves credit for being very detailed indeed. Price is an experienced archaeologist, with an impressive knowledge of Viking material culture. Anyone who wants to know about boat building, iron working, sheep farming and many other aspects of Viking technology will be delighted with this book. It is full of meticulous accounts of the specifics of early medieval Scandinavian daily life, with extensive descriptions of food, clothing, tools and the layout of Viking homes and settlements.

It is in these passages that the book really comes into its own, especially when Price talks with affection of his personal memories of archaeological excavations of Viking towns and farms. Particularly memorable is the chapter on ‘Dealing with the Dead’, the longest and most vivid in the book. Here the small details are beautifully evocative, all the more so when they are mysterious and hint at beliefs now lost to us: dead men buried with crampons on their feet as if for a journey to a cold land, or interred in boats with the bodies of headless hawks in their arms.

All this is engaging and thought-provoking. This is an archaeologist’s book, with all the virtues that implies; however, it has a much less sure hand in dealing with written sources. Translations and loose paraphrases of primary sources are oddly mixed together and there are no direct citations, making it difficult to track down quotations in the long, unwieldly references section.

The book’s title is a good example of this vagueness. It is based on a brief reference in two Old Norse sources to Askr and Embla (meaning ‘Ash’ and, perhaps, ‘Elm’), two pieces of driftwood from which the gods fashioned the first human couple. From this, Price takes not only his title but a prominent claim of the book, that ‘in the Vikings’ own minds there was never any doubt at all: they were the children of Ash, the children of Elm’. This is a big claim to base on some very slight sources, with problems of interpretation which are barely glanced at; it is difficult to believe this sparsely recorded myth gives any kind of key to a unified ‘Viking mind’, however attractive the phrase might be.

As the title indicates, the book is not immune to some romanticising impulses of its own. Price is conscious, as most scholars of the Vikings are, that their history has been appropriated in modern times for very troubling purposes and he is anxious to emphasise, again and again, that we should not glamorise the Vikings. A valuable point – yet even as he lectures the reader against any temptation to romanticise Viking violence, his own descriptions of their world view are deeply romanticised. He wants to tell us that the Vikings were tolerant and liberal, open-minded in all the ways a modern audience will admire, but, while some of his claims are supported by contemporary evidence, some of it is wishful thinking. When we hear from what is supposed to be ‘the Viking mind’, it often sounds suspiciously modern, with unconvincing attempts to ventriloquise the thoughts of imaginary Vikings: a young Viking speaks of ‘walking out with Sigfrid from up the valley’ like a farmer in a Thomas Hardy novel, while another gushes about the quality of the local ale – ‘taste Ulf’s beer next door, he uses heather!’

This is a benign form of romanticism, but the effect is less harmless when the topic turns to religion. Price talks with fondness of ‘the old beliefs’ and ‘the traditional spirituality of the North’, and seems disappointed that the Vikings ever converted to tedious Christianity. He attributes to his imagined Vikings a uniform attitude of contemptuous boredom towards church rituals and buildings – even Hagia Sophia, which one might think capable of impressing the most cynical warrior. When he talks of the Vikings seeing Christianity as a religion of ‘ineffectual-looking men with silly haircuts’ and a ‘suffocating’ dependence on books, it is all more reminiscent of 21st century historical fiction than of anything found in early medieval sources.

This does a disservice to the complex and sophisticated negotiations involved in the cultural shift from Norse paganism to Christianity and – crucially – the contexts in which it was remembered by later medieval historians. Yes, Snorri Sturluson, author of the Prose Edda, was a Christian, but he did not simply ‘shoehorn pagan belief into Christian sensibilities’ (a mixture Price tellingly finds ‘queasy’). Snorri’s blend of Christianity, classical learning and pre-Christian Norse belief is not a botch job, but one of the most fascinating literary projects of the Middle Ages. Our knowledge of Norse mythology would be immensely poorer without it. The idea that converting to Christianity marred the pristine innocence of open-minded, nature-loving Viking pagans is exactly the kind of rhetoric which has enabled political appropriation; it is disappointing to see it reinforced here, however unintentionally.

It is impossible not to admire the breadth and range of this book’s discussion of Viking material culture. But when it comes to mythology and that nebulous thing, ‘the Viking mind’, there are better guides available.

The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings
Neil Price
Allen Lane 624pp £30


Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford.