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fwd: book review..."Oxford Illustrated history of the Vikings"

Poster: "Garrett, William" <WGarrett@sierrahealth.com>

[Garrett, William] 
 Peter H. Sawyer, ed.  <i>The Oxford Illustrated History of the 
Vikings</i>.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1997.  Pp. 344.  
$49.95 (hb).  ISBN 0198205260

   Reviewed by Robin Chapman Stacey
        Department of History, University of Washington

Few historical cultures have been as widely reviled as that of 
the Vikings.  Until only fairly recently, scholars tended more 
or less to accept the view of the monastic chroniclers that the 
Vikings were a new and peculiarly nasty addition to the 
European scene.  Myths like that of the famous blood eagle 
sacrifice were told and retold, confirming the image of the 
Norse as viciously pagan monk-bashers whose raids introduced a 
level of violence and destructiveness previously unknown in the 
West.  Not until the 1960's was this picture of the 
unremittingly ugly Viking seriously called into question.  A.T. 
Lucas's work on the Vikings in Ireland, for example, pointed to 
the positive cultural contributions made by the newcomers to 
Irish life; it also actively disputed the extent of the 
violence they had inflicted on churches and localities, thereby 
initiating a lively (and to my mind somewhat entertaining) 
debate on whether the Norse plunderings reported in the annals 
could be discerned to be qualitatively worse than the Irish 
plunderings described in those same sources.

But of course the main voice in favor of a more appreciative 
assessment of the Vikings was that of the eminent historian 
Peter Sawyer, whose 1962 <i>The Age of the Vikings</i> was a 
major landmark in the European Viking studies.  For many 
scholars Sawyer went too far; his assertion that "[c]urchmen 
apart, in the eyes of most men the Vikings were but a 
complication and for some a welcome one," seemed fairly radical 
at the time.  The impact of his book was substantial, however:  
many scholarly accounts now take a distinctly more nuanced 
stance on the issue of Viking violence than they once did.  It 
is the aim of Sawyer's latest book, <i>The Oxford Illustrated 
History of the Vikings</i>, to convey what he calls his "more 
balanced" picture of the Vikings to a popular audience.  The 
essays in this book, all written by prominent specialists, seek 
to acknowledge, but not to exaggerate or take out of context, 
the violence of the Viking incursions and the impact of their 
presence on the regions to which they came.  

Sawyer's is the latest volume in Oxford's lavishly illustrated 
series, and it is a worthy addition to that roster.  The book 
is organized geographically; most chapters focus on a 
particular region within which the Vikings were active.  Essays 
include "The Frankish Empire" by Janet Nelson; "The Vikings in 
England" by Simon Keynes; "Ireland, Wales, Man, and the 
Hebrides" by Donnchadh O Corrain; "The Atlantic Islands" by 
Sveinbjorn Rafnsson; "Scandinavians in European Russia" by 
Thomas Noonan; and "The Danish Empire and the End of the Viking 
Age" by Niels Lund.  Three Thematic chapters, on "Ships and 
Seamanship" by Jan Bill, "Religions Old and New" by Preben 
Meulengracht Sorensen, and "The Vikings in History and Legend" 
by Lars Lonnroth, round out the book, which both begins and 
ends with short summary chapters by Sawyer himself.  Every 
chapter contains a helpful map and a large number of 
illustrations, many of them in color.

The Contributors to this volume do a good job of making their 
"state of the art" essays accessible to the intelligent non-
specialists who are the principal audience for the series.  
Each chapter begins with a detailed survey of the political 
history of the Viking incursions in the region; more focused 
examinations of topics like cultural assimilation, settlement 
patterns and numbers, and the impact of the Vikings on economic 
or religious life, then follow.  Medievalists will certainly 
recognize some of the hoary old chestnuts of Viking 
scholarship:  how many of them were there, how destructive were 
they, how much resistance did they meet, were they farmers or 
raiders?  Thus Janet Nelson stresses the relative energy and 
success with which the Franks defended their territory and 
property; she downplays their destruction of monastic life, 
pointing out that advance warning frequently allowed monks to 
remove themselves and their valuables to safety before the 
Vikings arrived; she estimates their numbers as relatively 
small and their political cohesiveness as overrated; and she 
warns against exaggerating their impact on economic life in the 
Empire.  Simon Keynes is less decisive on the perennial 
question of settlement density within the Danelaw, offering the 
reader a series of settlement "models" from which to choose but 
endorsing no position himself.  He also stresses disunity among 
both Danish and English factions, however, and while 
acknowledging the potential for a significant impact on 
religious life, makes the interesting point that it is almost 
impossible to name individual houses actually destroyed by 

A common theme in both of these essays and in the volume as a 
whole is the extent to which Europeans experienced the Vikings 
differently from locality to locality.  In Frankia, for 
example, taking captives for ransom was common but slaving was 
rare; in Ireland, the reverse seems to be true.  In some areas, 
like the Atlantic islands, Normandy, and Kiev, settlements 
proved permanent; in others they were not.  (It is interesting 
to note that, apart from the previously uninhabited northern 
islands, settlements that did prove permanent seem almost 
universally to have experienced rapid cultural assimilation.)  
In England and Ireland, the economic impact of the Vikings was 
significant, particularly on town life; by contrast, Nelson 
resists the idea that Vikings were responsible for economic 
expansion in Frankia, attributing it instead to what she calls 
"deeper impulses of economic growth."  So too with the vexed 
issue of Viking destructiveness:  Nelson's essay makes clear 
that there were vast differences in this respect even among 
regions of the Empire, with heartland areas vigorously defended 
by the king, but coastal regions and river mouths either left 
undefended or placed under the protection of Viking bands hired 
for the purpose.  

There are many wonderful aspects to this book:  it makes good 
use of archaeology as well as textual sources, and it embodies 
a very wide notion of the Viking world, covering everything 
from the outermost isles to principalities in Russia to 
Scandinavia itself.  The illustrations are intriguing and well 
chosen, and the reference apparatus (maps, chronology, 
bibliography and index) is helpful and up-to-date.  The chapter 
on the changing image and uses of the Vikings is extremely 
interesting and is most welcome to a volume otherwise devoted 
primarily to politics.  In these respects, the <i>Oxford 
Illustrated History of the Vikings</i> will find favor with the 
audience for which it is intended. 

However, there are some striking omissions as well--omissions 
particularly odd for a book aimed at an educated public.  Apart 
from a few paragraphs in Nelson's essay and in the chapter on 
myth, there is nothing in the book about women.  And yet many 
of the most exiting works on Vikings to emerge in the past few 
years have focused on issues of women and gender.  Moreover, 
the converse is also true:  many of the most exiting works on 
women and gender in the medieval period have been grounded in 
Old Norse texts.  That a book such as this would omit all 
mention of the works of, for example, Jenny Jochens or Carol 
Clover, much less ignore the splendid female characters of the 
sagas, is incomprehensible to me.  The same goes for the 
subject of law:  the laws are one of the glories of the prose 
literature, and William Miller's fascinating book on feud, law 
and society in Iceland opened up a window onto legal dealings 
in a violent and theoretically "egalitarian" society for many.  
Yet the book is not cited in the bibliography, and relatively 
little is said about the laws themselves.  And what is true 
about the laws is true also about the saga literature 
generally.  Apart from the chapter on myth, which to my mind is 
not the strongest in the book, and focuses in any case only on 
religion, little is made of the splendidly rich corpus of 
vernacular literature that makes Norse history and culture so 
appealing to non-specialists.  That subjects like these should 
be ignored, when a full chapter is given over to the technical 
aspects of ship-building and boat design, is an editorial 
decision difficult to comprehend. 

Gaps such as these obviously constitute sins of omission rather 
than of commission, and in general readers will find much to 
like about the book.  Scholars who take a more traditional view 
of Viking destructiveness will undoubtedly find it closer to 
the "good Viking" end of the spectrum than they would like.  
However, all of the essays are balanced and reasonable, and all 
make a strong effort to assess the Vikings in the context 
within which they actually operated.  And that, in a world in 
which Charlemagne is said to have hung 4500 Saxons in a single 
day, is a valuable exercise in itself.  

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