September 27, 2022

REVIEW: Nancy Marie Brown on Neil Price’s Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings

Neil Price, director of the Viking Phenomenon project at Uppsala University in Sweden, is somewhat of a phenomenon himself. Since his Ph.D. thesis, The Viking Way, was first published in 2002, his has been the career to watch in Viking Studies. Price takes a broad, interdisciplinary approach to the topic, working with colleagues from literature and linguistics to genomics and climate science. In my opinion, he has co-authored many of the most exciting papers on the Viking Age in the last 20 years.

If you don’t haunt Academia.edu (as I do), you’ll be happy to learn that those 20 years of scholarly work are summarized in Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings (Basic Books, 2020). If you read only one book about the Viking Age this year, this is the one.

In 600 pages, Price reframes everything you thought you knew about the Vikings, starting with why their history matters. He writes, “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.”

But don’t think he’s going to justify white supremacy. “The Viking world this book explores,” he writes,“was a strongly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic place, with all this implies in terms of population movement, interaction (in every sense of the word, including the most intimate), and the relative tolerance required. This extended far back into Northern prehistory. There was never any such thing as a ‘pure Nordic’ bloodline, and the people of the time would probably have been baffled by the very notion. … They were as individually varied as every reader of this book.”

They were also warlike, violent people who participated in “ritual rape, wholesale slaughter and enslavement, and human sacrifice,” Price says. “Anyone who regards them in a ‘heroic’ light needs to think again.”

In Children of Ash and Elm, Price proceeds to paint a picture of a fascinating people who in some ways seem like aliens, and in other ways sound just like us.

Parts of the book repeat his exploration in The Viking Way (slightly revised and republished in 2019) of the Viking mind. Vikings did not divide themselves into body and soul, as we do, but into four parts: shape, mind (including personality, temperament, and character), luck, and “a separate being that somehow dwelled inside every human” and that was always female. “How marvellous, and how utterly subversive of the male-focused stereotype,” Price notes,“that every single Viking man literally had a spirit-woman inside him.”

As here, Price repeatedly explores gender issues, noting that patriarchy “was subverted at every turn, often in ways that—fascinatingly—were built into its structures.” Rehashing the arguments that see a clear division between the roles of Viking men and women, Price argues that we must also “consider the traits that were shared across gender boundaries, in which identity was formed as much by social role as by gender or sex.” He concludes, “In many ways and for many years, Viking scholars have been naïve and simplistic about their acknowledgement and recognition of gender variation in the later Iron Age. Too often our studies have been restricted to admittedly deep explorations of the lives of women, thereby relegating half of humanity to a discrete, ghettoised entity set against a supposed masculine norm assumed by default. In addition to suppressing the obvious presence and agency of women, this also ignores the vast ocean of lives lived on different terms.”

One of these lives is that of the warrior buried in grave Bj581 in Birka, Sweden—long considered the ultimate Viking warrior burial—whom Price and his colleagues confirmed through DNA tests was female. Their papers on the Birka Warrior Woman in 2017 and 2019 have been both praised and condemned, but Price, discussing the work here, does not back down. “Taking a clear-eyed look at the archaeological data,” he writes,“it seems that there really were female warriors in the Viking Age, including at least one of command rank.” (I wholeheartedly agree: my new book, The Real Valkyrie, reimagines her life and times.)

What caused the Viking Age, this 300-year period of profound social transformation? Summarizing another outstanding interdisciplinary study, this one combining rune lore and climate science, Price finds the cause in a pair of volcanic eruptions “of almost unprecedented magnitude” between 536 and 540. The dimming of the sun behind a veil of ash led to a winter that “persisted in varying degrees for up to eighty years.” This was the Fimbulvetur, or “Mighty Winter,” of Norse myth. Up to 50 percent of Scandinavia’s people died, and the pattern of land ownership drastically changed. The newly land-rich warrior-class constructed great halls and burial mounds and began to consider themselves kings. Their way of life combined “sworn loyalty and a dazzling material culture of killing.”

Nor did the Viking Age begin, as most histories written in English claim, at the sack of the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793. There were Scandinavian traders and pirates in the Baltic Sea (their “Eastern Sea”), since at least the Bronze Age, trafficking in furs, silver, and slaves, and by about 750 they were recognizably Vikings. Our new understanding of the Eastern origin of the Viking Age comes from the discovery, in 2008 and 2012, of two ship burials on the Estonian island of Saaremaa. One ship contained the bodies of seven men, the other 34. DNA and isotope tests proved they came from central Sweden, and that four of them were brothers. The warriors were all unusually tall, and many of their bones recorded battle wounds. With them, archaeologists found 42 swords, some with jeweled hilts.The men wore recognizably Viking cloak pins and were buried with gaming pieces—one had a “king” piece in his mouth. Their bodies were covered with a roof made of their overlapping shields and a sail. Dogs and hunting birds were sacrificed, and food provided for the warriors’ journey to the Otherworld.

Another eye-opening set of studies Price describes are those of the ninth-century Viking camps excavated at Repton, Torksey, and near York in England. Some of this work remains, as yet, unpublished in academic journals. Through these archaeological studies, Price says, “an entirely new picture of the Viking ‘armies’ has begun to emerge”: they included women; they were “clearly multi-ethnic, not just ‘Scandinavian’”; and they were “as massive as the written sources imply,” at least in the thousands.

Much of Children of Ash and Elm describes Viking society more generally. Price brings us up-to-date on the latest archaeological and literary research into Viking feast halls and food (“A whole doctoral thesis has been written just on Viking bread,” he notes), on tools and rope (“so many kinds of rope”), and on Vikings’ clothing, our understanding of which is still very much in flux. Two tiny 3D figurines found in Denmark in the last 10 years, one of a warrior at Hårby, the other of a seated figure at Revninge, show clothing “of a type never seen before” and are hard to classify as male or female. “There is something to be learned from the fact that two finds of 5-cm figurines have shifted, indeed undermined, scholars’ presumed understanding of Viking-Age clothing,” Price notes.

The importance of cloth-making—for sails, as well as clothing—leads him to wonder who, exactly, were the spinners and weavers? If the textile arts were “women’s work,” as has long been assumed, who were these women? “The free female population did not suddenly expand exponentially in the course of the Viking Age,” he notes, leaving the obvious, if unpalatable, conclusion. The women heralded for weaving the Vikings’ sails, in recent scholarship (including my own), were not empowered by the work: They were enslaved. “As one historian has put it slaving was at the very core of Viking-ness,” Price writes.

That’s not at all the heroic image I’d like to have of the Viking Age. To think that the independent people we romanticize in our novels and TV shows were slave-holders and slave-dealers, their entire economy dependent on the suffering and forced labor of others, is repugnant. But Price’s argument is undeniable.

In Children of Ash and Elm, he devotes only one short chapter to slavery in the Viking Age, but it may be the most important. As he writes, “Any true reading of life in the Viking Age first has to come to terms with an aspect of everyday experience that probably represented the most elemental division in the societies of the time: the difference between those who were free and those who were not.”

That “coming-to-terms” isn’t easy, but we’ll be fooling ourselves about the Vikings until we do.

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AUTHOR BIO

Nancy Marie Brown’s new book, The Real Valkyrie, lays to rest the myth that Viking society was ruled by men and celebrates the dramatic life of the warrior woman buried in Birka grave Bj581.

Brown is the author of seven books about Iceland and Vikings, science and sagas. Her books combine extremes: medieval literature and modern archaeology, myths and facts. They ask, What have we overlooked? What have we forgotten? Whose history must not be lost?

A former science writer and editor at Penn State University, she lives on a farm in northern Vermont and spends part of each summer in Iceland leading history and horseback tours.

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