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Children of Ash and Elm
A History of the Vikings
By Neil Price
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A NOTE ON LANGUAGE
A GREAT DEAL OF THIS book concerns beings, places, and concepts whose names in use today ultimately derive either from the Old Norse language (actually a shorthand term for a complex array of dialects and linguistic branches from Iceland and Scandinavia, dating to the Middle Ages and earlier) or from the modern tongues of the Nordic countries. This can be a complex soundscape to navigate, and there is no simple way that it can be normalised in an English text while also doing justice to its original variety. I have opted for readability and convention over consistency, and the language has been simplified here in several ways.
Two Old Norse (and modern Icelandic) letters have been anglicised, except when quoting texts in the original and certain names: Þ/þ or thorn, as ‘th’ and pronounced as the first two letters of ‘thought’; and Ð/ð or eth, spoken more softly as in ‘breathe’ but usually rendered as ‘d’. In the same way, the Old Norse æ diphthong has been separated ‘ae’ and is pronounced approximately ‘eye’.
Norse acute accents on the vowels have mostly been retained in names: long á is pronounced ‘ow’, and thus há (high) is spoken ‘how’; é is ‘ay’, like the first letter in the alphabet; í is a long ‘ee’; ó is a higher, more defined version of the regular sound, spoken like ‘owe’ and conveying emphasis; ú is long and deep, like the vowel in ‘sure’ said with a rolling Scots accent. In Old Norse, y is also a vowel, pronounced approximately like ‘ew’ as in the colloquial expression of disgust; the accented ý stretches it out.
In place-names and personal names, the modern Scandinavian letters å, ä/æ, and ö/ø have been used where appropriate, with the slight differences between Swedish and Danish/Norwegian. These are pronounced in English approximately as follows: å like ‘oar’; ä/æ like ‘air’; ö/ø like ‘err’. The Swedish letter ö has been used for ǫ, the Old Norse o with ogonek.
Some academic works—including many of my own—use the Old Norse nominative for proper names, even when this is rendered grammatically problematic by the present-day English context. The most common example, also including some of the letters and accents mentioned above, is probably the name of the god Óðinn (pronounced ‘Owe-thinn’). With some exceptions, this and other similar cases (such as his son Þórr) are anglicised here, thus ‘Odin’ and ‘Thor’.
Quotations from Old Norse texts are mostly rendered in English without the original, although occasionally I have retained the medieval words as well, especially in verse. When properly recited in appropriate surroundings, Viking-Age poetry can taste like cold iron on the tongue, its complex rhyme schemes building upon one another like layers of frost—treacherous but beautiful. We gain something old and true in this language, even if only understood in translation, and for that reason I have included a selection here.
The gods’ footprints stretch out behind them in a meandering line, clear in the sands by the shore of the encircling ocean. Its waves crash and foam beside them, in their ears its roar. The beach is utterly unmarked by the passage of others because there are as yet no humans in this world.
It is three brothers we see walking: Odin—the most powerful and terrible of them all—and his siblings, Vili and Vé. They go by many names, which will become a common thing in their divine family of the Aesir.
Peaceful and still though it seems, everything around them has been built from blood, the earth and the heavens fashioned—literally—from the dismembered body of a murder victim. The universe as crime scene: it is an unsettling story, full of strangeness, violence, and contradictions, a tale whose truths must be felt rather than merely explained and understood. We shall explore it in time, but for now, in its aftermath, all is quiet. They are curious, these gods, always restlessly inquiring into the nature of the things they find in their shiny new creation. What is that? And this? They are also lonely, in this place that as yet lacks spirit, sense, and colour.
But now the gods are on the strand, and they have seen something by the water’s edge.
Two great stumps of driftwood have washed up with the tide, the beach otherwise empty under the immensity of the sky. Odin and his brothers approach them, turning over the trunks in the sand with effort. And it is then that they understand what is inside, as a sculptor perceives the carving within the block of raw stone, waiting to be released. The three gods work their hands into the wood, moulding, planing, shaping it along the grain. A cloud of shavings and dust. They grin at each other, swept up by the joy of making. Slowly the things inside become visible, forming under the pressure of divine fingers. Here is an arm, and there a leg, and at last, the faces.
First, a man—the first man—and then a woman. The gods stare down at them. It is Odin who moves now, exhaling into their mouths, giving them life; they cough, start to breathe, still trapped inside the wood. It is Vé who opens their eyes and ears, sets their tongues in motion, smoothes their features; wild glances, a babble of noise. It is Vili who gifts them intelligence and movement; they shake themselves free of the stumps, flakes of bark falling.
Last of all, the gods give them names, their substance transformed into sound. The man is Askr, the ash tree. The woman is Embla, the elm.
The first people in the world look around them, astonished, listening to the silence and then filling it with speech, shouts, laughter. They point at the ocean, the sky, the forest, at more and more, naming them all, laughing again. They begin to run, away from the gods watching them, off along the sand, farther and farther into their new home until they are lost to sight. Perhaps they wave to Odin and the others, perhaps not, but they will see them again.
From this couple are descended all of humankind, down through the millennia to our own time.
1. The Vikings and the Victorians, incarnate. An extraordinary drawing from 1895 by Lorenz Frølich, of the gods’ feast as related in the Old Norse poem Lokasenna, ‘Loki’s Quarrel’. The Aesir gods appear as a cross between barbarian banqueters in the Classical mould and rather prim contemporary diners, while Loki plays drunk uncle, all in a Rococo room under what seems to be a chandelier. Image: in the public domain.
The Vikings enjoy a popular recognition and interest shared by few other ancient cultures. More or less everyone has at least heard of them. Over just three centuries, from approximately 750 to 1050 CE, the peoples of Scandinavia transformed the northern world in ways that are still felt today. They changed the political and cultural map of Europe and shaped new configurations of trade, economy, settlement, and conflict that ultimately stretched from the eastern American seaboard to the Asian steppe. The Vikings are known today for a stereotype of maritime aggression—those famous longships, the plunder and pillage, the fiery drama of a ‘Viking funeral’. Beyond the clichés there is some truth in this, but the Scandinavians also exported new ideas, technologies, beliefs, and practices to the lands they discovered and the peoples they encountered. In the process they were themselves altered, developing new ways of life across a vast diaspora. The many small-scale kingdoms of their homelands would eventually become the nations of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, which are still with us, while the traditional beliefs of the North were gradually subordinated by Christianity. That initially alien faith would fundamentally change their view of the world, and the Scandinavian future.
In a literal sense, the Vikings are of course people of the past, dead and gone—but at the same time they inhabit a curiously haptic kind of prehistory, one that appears to return whatever pressure is applied to it. Many have been tempted to put their fingers on the scales of hindsight and imagined that the impulse to do so came not from themselves but through the revelation of hidden truths buried by time. Medieval monks and scholars reinvented their pagan ancestors either as nobly misguided forebears or as agents of the devil. In the manuscript illuminations of Romance literature, with a kind of Orientalist prejudice, they became Saracens, enemies of Christ depicted with turbans and scimitars. In Shakespeare’s England, the Vikings were taken up as violent catalysts in the early story of the kingdom’s greatness. Rediscovered during the Enlightenment as a sort of ‘noble savage’, the figure of the Viking was enthusiastically adopted by the nationalist Romantics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Searching for their own emerging identities, Victorian imperialists scoured Scandinavian literature looking for suitably assertive northern role models, expressing the manifest destiny of the Anglo-Saxons through their Nordic cousins. The logical end of that trajectory came a century later, when the Nazis appropriated the Vikings in pursuit of their racist fictions, elevating them as a spurious Aryan archetype; their modern successors still plague us today. Elements of the broad Pagan community now seek a spiritual alternative that draws inspiration from Viking religion, with Tolkienesque flavourings added to a cloudier Old Norse brew. All these and many more, including today’s academics and the audiences for historical drama, have taken the fragmentary material and textual remains of the Vikings and recast them in moulds of their choosing. At times it can seem that the actual people have almost disappeared under the cumulative freight they have been made to bear. One recalls Brideshead Revisited and Anthony Blanche, “Oh, la fatigue du Nord”.
2. Where it all went wrong. A recruitment poster for the SS, advertising a rally in Nazi-occupied Norway in 1943. The political appropriation of the Vikings could not be more obvious. Image: in the public domain.
What unites most of these perspectives is that they privilege the observer, looking in on the Vikings from the outside, and ignore how they themselves saw the world. This attitude has a long pedigree, and in fact dates back to the writings of the Vikings’ victims, who can hardly be expected to be unbiased. Ironically, even the people with whom the Scandinavians came into contact (often at the point of a sword) were not always entirely sure whom they were really dealing with. To take a single example from the late ninth century, after a vicious war with an entire Viking army, King Alfred of Wessex in southern England could still entertain a non-combatant Norwegian merchant at his court, asking question after question: Where did they come from? What did they do? How did they live? The king was not alone in his uncertainty and curiosity.
Those same puzzles continued to be debated for the next thousand years, accelerating in the last two centuries or so with the growth of academic enquiry and scholarship. Here again, though, the focus has largely tended to be on what the Vikings did rather than on why they did it. There is a sense in which this viewpoint is looking through the wrong end of the historical telescope, defining (and often judging) a people solely by the consequences of their actions rather than the motivations behind them.
This book takes the opposite approach, working from the inside looking out. The emphasis here is very firmly on who the Vikings really were, what made them tick, how they thought and felt. Their dramatic expansion will not be ignored, of course, but its context, its origins, are at the core of what follows.
Where better to begin, then, than with the creation itself? The tale of the gods fashioning the first humans from stumps of wood, on the shores of the world ocean, has roots that extend very deeply into Norse mythology. For all the fearful confusion about their identity among those they encountered, in the Vikings’ own minds there was never any doubt at all: they were the children of Ash, the children of Elm.
INTRODUCTION: ANCESTORS AND INHERITORS
WHAT DOES ‘VIKING’ ACTUALLY MEAN? Should it be used at all, and if so, how?
The Scandinavians of the eighth to eleventh centuries knew the word—víkingr in Old Norse when applied to a person—but they would not have recognised themselves or their times by that name. For them it would perhaps have meant something approximating to ‘pirate’, defining an occupation or an activity (and probably a relatively marginal one); it was certainly not an identity for an entire culture. Even then, the word was not necessarily negative or always associated with violence—these overtones would begin to accrete round it in the centuries after the Viking Age. Similarly, it did not refer exclusively to Scandinavians; it was also applied to Baltic raiders in general, and the word was even used in England. By the same token, the Vikings’ targets were by no means only outside Scandinavia; maritime robbery with violence rarely respects such proprieties. Even as late as the eleventh century, a Swedish runestone could commemorate a man—one Assur, son of Jarl Hákan—“who kept the Viking watch”, standing guard against incursions from the neighbours.
The exact derivation of the term is unknown, but the most widely accepted interpretation today builds on the Old Norse vík, a bay of the sea. Thus Vikings may originally have been ‘bay-people’, their ships waiting in concealment to strike at passing marine traffic. Another alternative links the term to the Víken region of south-western Norway, from which the earliest raiders were once believed to have come; this too may have some validity.
In the modern Nordic languages, vikingar or vikinger is still used only in the exact sense of seaborne raiders, while in English and other tongues it has come to serve for anyone who had, as one Cambridge scholar resignedly put it, “a nodding acquaintance with Scandinavia ‘in those days’”. There have been many attempts to get around the problem, with little success (such as the late historian who ranted for several pages about what he saw as his colleagues’ terminological carelessness, only to content himself with ‘Norsemen’—thereby excluding Swedes, Danes, and, indeed, women). Some scholars now use lowercase ‘vikings’ to mean the general populace, while reserving title case for their piratical acquaintances. In this book, big-V ‘Vikings’ is employed throughout but defined through context.
This is much more than semantic nitpicking. In speaking of a Viking Age at all, using a term that would have surprised the people supposedly labelled with it, there is a sense in which historians have created an unhelpful abstraction. Of course, the past has always been divided into conveniently manageable chunks of time, but when scholars argue about when the Viking Age ‘started’, this is not the same as debating, say, the origins of the Roman Empire, which was very far from a retrospective concept.
It is good to bear in mind that no other contemporary peoples ranged over the then-known Eurasian and North Atlantic world to the same degree as the Scandinavians. They travelled through the territories of some forty-odd present-day countries, in documented encounters with more than fifty cultures. Some scholars have tried to claim that in this the Vikings were in no way remarkable or significant in themselves, merely the regional manifestation of Continental mobility and general trends in the reorganisation of the post-Roman economy—essentially a kind of burgeoning early medieval European Union with some particularly aggressive negotiators in the north. It is true that raiding and maritime warfare undoubtedly existed around the Baltic and the North Sea for centuries (and probably millennia) before the time of the Vikings. However, there is no doubt that the flow, scale, and range of seaborne piracy gradually but dramatically increased from the 750s onwards, culminating in the full-blown military campaigns of the ninth and tenth centuries that would shatter the political structures of western Europe. At the same time, there were parallel and intertwined movements of colonialism, trade, and exploration, especially to the east. In short, the ‘Viking Age’, hindsight construct of researchers though it undoubtedly is, has genuine validity.
There have also been other attempts to write the Vikings out of history, ironically focussing on how they have been written into it. The idea is that this piece of the past was ‘colonised’ by the future and bent out of shape to suit its needs—essentially that the Vikings were creations of later peoples’ imaginations. This makes little sense to me. Yes, nationalist Romanticism, Victorian imperialism, and their even darker European successors all certainly had an impact on how the Vikings were seen afterwards, but they actually say nothing at all about what really happened between the mid-eighth and eleventh centuries—only about how it was subsequently appropriated and sometimes weaponised (which, of course, should not be ignored).
With all this ambiguity and such a long background of sociopolitical abuse, it is therefore vital to be clear that the concept of the Viking Age has a testable, empirical reality that can be illuminated by close study. The three hundred years from about 750 CE onwards were above all else a period of social transformation so profound as to ultimately shape northern Europe for the next millennium—a process that in itself justifies the notion of a discrete Viking Age.
Synthesising all this is a daunting prospect. A narrative track, running chronologically, is necessary to understand the events of these three centuries in context, but there is no single strand to follow across the vast and varied arenas of the Viking diaspora. There have been longer books than this one written solely on Scandinavian interactions with what is now European Russia, to take just one example, and the same can be said of the rest of their world. Inevitably, something will be lost when using such a wide-angle lens. Readers seeking detailed discussion of Viking art, typologies of artefacts, ship-building methods, and much more have many well-illustrated, technical studies to choose from and can use the references at the back of this book as a point of entry. Similarly, if the Scandinavians encountered more than fifty cultures, even a thousand words on each would easily take half a book of dry description alone. While the bigger picture is always in the background as one walks with the Vikings, the most productive focus can be on simultaneities, on snapshots and brief visits in different times and places.
This approach opens up new possibilities but also acknowledges limits. In particular, the notion of Viking exceptionalism (which is not the same as difference) is problematic and, I believe, should be avoided where possible. To take an image that they would have liked, northern European folk tales often revolve around a search for someone’s secret name (the fairy story of Rumpelstiltskin is an obvious example). The Vikings have left clues to theirs, the true self hidden beneath the surface. A strong sense of the numinous place courses through Norse poetry and even runic inscriptions, created by minds in tune with their environment. The same mind-set is visible in their material culture, in every available surface—including the human body—covered in interlaced designs, writhing patterns, animals, and other images that were imbued with meaning. Their world hummed with life, but its boundaries, both internal and external, were in many senses more permeable than ours, always and constantly connected by winding paths to the realms of the gods and other powers.
However, alongside the stories that unfold throughout this book, it is important not to lose sight of the absences, the things that are not known. Some of them are details; others are fundamental. The resulting gaps can seem curiously random. It is possible to fill these blank spaces but only through informed speculation (and history is nothing if not a suppositional discipline, sometimes akin to a sort of speculative fiction of the past).
Little is understood, for example, of how the Vikings measured time. Their music and songs are a mystery; here there is a potential starting point in the few surviving instruments, with tonal qualities that can be reconstructed, but what the Vikings did with them is another matter entirely. It is unclear where women were believed to go when they died. Why was so much silver buried in the ground and never recovered? These and other questions go on and on, and have vexed scholars for centuries. Some questions are more tentative, and their answers may be unknowable. But they are still worth asking. If you truly believed—in fact, knew—that the man living up the valley could turn into a wolf under certain circumstances, what was it like to be his neighbour? What was it like to be married to him?
We will probably never speak the Vikings’ secret name, but if we are open to their voices, to their concerns and ideas—in a word, to their minds—I believe it is possible not only to truly explore these ancient lives, but to write a new story of how we became who we are. This, then, is the Viking Age of the children of Ash and Elm: a set of vantage points from which to look out over people, place, and time, inevitably finite but also in constant motion. Of course, it is also in a sense my Viking Age, informed by more than thirty years of research but—as with the work of any professional student of the past—equally constrained by my own biases and preconceptions.
But how to get there? In practical terms, what sources of evidence can be used to get closer to the Vikings?
- "A thrilling read....The stereotype of the Viking that we know from history books and popular media is here dismantled and presented anew by Mr. Price in all its wonderful, terrifying complexity and ambiguity. By clarifying the long-reaching effects of Scandinavian influence, Children of Ash and Elm brings a dramatically altered understanding of the Viking Age to a wider international audience."—Wall Street Journal
- “Not the least of Price’s achievement is to rescue Viking history from the grasp of white supremacists who claim a specious lineage with it. He does so not by asserting any sort of moral superiority for the Vikings—theirs was a brutal society that practiced human sacrifice and slavery, as Price makes abundantly clear—but by restoring their rich and strange particularity….I’ll long remember Price’s evocation of the wafer-thin squares of gold, stamped with images of otherworldly beings, that adorned the great halls where visitors drank and fought and recited poetry. Firelight would have animated those static images. Price has done something similar here.”—Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker, The Best Books We Read in 2020
“Price, a Sweden-based archaeologist and academic, is adept at bringing this cosmopolitan and brutal world to life, interweaving many complicated strands of history with his own experience in the field along with poetic meditations on a people and time long since passed.”
—Rhian Sasseen, Paris Review (Staff Pick)
- "As Neil Price shows in his colorful, revelatory new book, we are almost always looking at the Vikings the wrong way around.... He may know more about medieval Scandinavia than anyone else alive, and he aims to show us these fascinating people as they saw themselves, not as they were perceived by those on the sharp end of their robbery.... Thousands of books have been published about the Vikings -- this is one of the very best."—Sunday Times (UK)
- “Scholarly, colourful and often remarkably funny, this is history at its very best, a richly decorated window on to a very strange world.”—The Times (UK), Best History Book of the Year
- “Not only a leading authority on the period, Price is also a wonderful writer, by turns philosophical, witty, lyrical and poignant. He possesses both an archaeologist’s ability to interpret large quantities of scholarship and data, and the skill to translate it creatively. His vivid prose illuminates both the physical and the psychological dimensions of the early medieval north, while at the same time leaving space for uncertainty: the possibility of future discoveries and theories that will alter the picture yet again…. The writing hums with life as Price summons up the voices of the past.”—Guardian
“A wonderful read, with prose that flows like poetry in places and modern analogs that inspire creative thinking....This volume would make an excellent textbook and a splendid introduction to the world of the Vikings for any reader.”
- "I fell in love with Neil Price's comprehensive new history of the Vikings.... [Price] hits major high points, while also introducing nonspecialists to the major questions that those who know a lot about Vikings still consider unresolved.... Dazzle[s] the reader with cinematic detail."—Slate
- “A profound meditation on culture, ritual and what it means to be human.”—Allegra Goodman, The Week
“Outstanding….This is as much a history of mindsets as of significant names and dates….Price constructs a very human history of the period….Yield[s] new insights into the complex nature of Viking culture.”
—Literary Review (UK)
- “A comprehensive, lyrically told and personal account of the Viking Age….No other history of the Vikings is as vibrant or expands the scope of the Viking world to encompass not just landscapes, but mindscapes.”—Times Literary Supplement
- “Copious documentation and the latest archaeological findings gird a new history of the Vikings, which broadens the narrative beyond the violent warrior image. Neil Price explores what is known about Viking society and culture, and its impact on the peoples and lands that were conquered.”—Christian Science Monitor
- “Price fleshes out Viking culture, often by focusing on the material realities of their day-to-day lives....What Price attempts to do with Children of Ash and Elm is to strip away the cultural sediment that has built up around the idea of the Vikings and return us to the archaeological record itself....What we’re left with are fewer illusions and a much more interesting mystery.”—Washington Examiner
- “A wide-ranging and engaging account of the Viking Age. Never shirking from the cruelties enacted by the Vikings, Price has a knack for picking up on prosaic details to tell a bold story of a society dramatically different from our own.”—Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, History Today
- “Neil Price has spent his career excavating Viking-era artifacts and remains. Now the chair of archeology at the Swedish university at Uppsala, this English-born academic reveals a knack too few in his field share. Over 500 pages of narrative, he skillfully blends extended discussions of the recent finds at settlement and burial sites with his own anecdotes, reflections and investigations.”—Spectrum Culture
“Thorough, readable....Serves as a model for how modern science can add to historical scholarship and storytelling. The research is thoroughly documented and the book well-illustrated.”
—New York Journal of Books
“This spectacular book is more than traditional history, as many of its surprising–often strange–revelations about Viking life come not from texts, but archaeology. Price guides us through their vast world, studding his grand narrative with extraordinary details: isotopic identification of Scandinavian skeletons in Russia, silk caps from York and Lincoln probably from the same Byzantine bale, and a candle burning until the air inside a burial chamber ran out.”
—BBC Science Focus (UK), Best Books We Read in 2020
- “Children of Ash and Elm is the culmination of decades of academic writing and field research by Price. It is a broadly accessible, archaeologically informed account of one of the most deeply mythologized groups in human history.”—Russell Kirk Center
- “Capturing the full and rich nuances of the Viking Age, Neil Price's Children of Ash and Elm offers a sweeping account of the famous Scandinavian culture that stretched from North America to the Asian Steppes....Price relies on archeological and textual evidence to move past stereotypes and reveal the Vikings as never before.”—Explore the Archive, 12 Best History Books of 2020
“One of the most comprehensive treatises on the Norse to date….This book brings together a wide body of scholarship that makes the world of the Vikings all the more comprehensible.”
—The Explorers Journal
“Price brings an enthusiastic, encyclopaedic knowledge to the Viking Age....Children of Ash and Elm will reward the casual reader as well as serve the serious student looking for a better understanding of who the Vikings were, what drove them, and the effects they had on the world around them.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
“A comprehensive and highly readable history of the Vikings.”
“This book is the closest thing I have found to a time machine. It brilliantly clears the fog of the past from the Viking era. Extremely well written…if you are seeking an accessible, yet definitive and up-to-date book on the Vikings, this is the one you want.”
- "Majestic.... Children of Ash and Elm illuminates the brutal realities of Viking raids, of course, but its revelatory power comes from its focus on the culture that built and launched those ships, an industrial feat more impressive than the pillaging.... Price's stripping away of Viking cliché still leaves warriors worthy of the songs -- they're just people now, too."—Shelf Awareness
- "The breadth and thoroughness of Price's research impresses. Readers interested in Viking culture should consider this monumental history a must-read."—Publishers Weekly
- "Elegantly conceived, constantly surprising...With clarity and verve, Price examines various aspects of Viking society...An exemplary history that gives a nuanced view of a society long reduced to a few clichés."—Kirkus (starred review)
- "An immense undertaking from an expert who has studied the Vikings for almost 35 years, this is a masterful piece of work that seeks to present the historical Vikings as distinct from the caricatures of pop culture.... An engaging and engrossing read. Exhaustively researched using cross-disciplinary resources, this breathtaking, epic history will appeal to all types of readers."—Library Journal
- "As vivid as it is learned, as thrillingly cutting edge as it is deep-rooted in the distant past, this is as brilliant a history of the Vikings as one could possibly hope to read."—Tom Holland, author of Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World
- "Neil Price offers a spirited account of the Vikings from unexpected angles, and brilliantly succeeds in seeing the world from their perspective rather than from that of the people whose lands suffered from Viking raids. He shows that this was a world in which gods, spirits and humans co-existed and one in which the savagery of warfare was counter-balanced by peaceful settlement as far away as Greenland and briefly North America."—David Abulafia, professor emeritus of Mediterranean history, University of Cambridge, and author of The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans
- On Sale
- Aug 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 624 pages
- Basic Books