Benjamin Hudson

title.none: Arnold, Vikings (Benjamin Hudson)

identifier.other: baj9928.0801.002 08.01.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Benjamin Hudson, Professor of History,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Arnold, Martin. The Vikings: Wolves of War. Critical Issues in History, vol. 14. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007. Pp. xi, 151. $65.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 0-7425-3397-2, ISBN-13: 978-0-7425-3397-4 (hb). ISBN: $19.95 (pb) ISBN-10: 0-7425-3398-0, ISBN-13: 0-7425-3398-0 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.01.02

Arnold, Martin. The Vikings: Wolves of War. Critical Issues in History, vol. 14. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007. Pp. xi, 151. $65.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 0-7425-3397-2, ISBN-13: 978-0-7425-3397-4 (hb). ISBN: $19.95 (pb) ISBN-10: 0-7425-3398-0, ISBN-13: 0-7425-3398-0 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Benjamin Hudson
Professor of History

In The Importance of Being Ernest, Algernon remarks after playing the piano: "I don't play accurately-any one can play accurately-but I play with wonderful expression." The Vikings: Wolves of War is a book that tells its story with wonderful expression. The reader is swept along by a narrative that attempts the difficult task of giving a panoramic view of the Vikings in less than 150 pages. The author never loses sight of his main argument that the Vikings were primarily warriors and that all else was secondary.

Various aspects of Viking life and society have been examined with varying degrees of intensity during the past century. Despite the deserved attention given to trade, manufacturing and empire-building, the Vikings were, as Arnold notes, first and foremost pirates. The names "Viking" or "Northman" or "pagan," the last two far more common than the first, were synonymous with "raider." For almost five hundred years, fleets sailed from the lands of Scandinavia to the south. The first century of Viking activity was unabashedly violent, and even later the threat of aggression was always present in whatever lands they settled. Not until the thirteenth century did the last armed expedition from Scandinavia ravage round the British Isles under the command of the Norwegian King Håkon Håkonarson. A century later it was all finished and the massed forces of the trading cartel known as the Hanseatic League defeated Denmark in 1370, which led to the Peace of Straslund and the league's commercial dominance of the Baltic.

We know as much about the Vikings from their own accounts as through the hysterical memoirs of their victims. They glorified hard combat and their versions of Mr. Toad's song came complete with allusions to legends and myths in the verses composed for the drinking hall by skalds who praised their patrons as the benefactors of battle-hags and feeders of carrion crows. Scraps of those verses were preserved in writing in the Icelandic sagas composed after the descendants of the Vikings had converted to Christianity. The themes of the sagas were not exclusively about warfare, but the threat of violence is often present. Monuments with runic inscriptions found throughout the Viking lands reveal a self-confident society. Any act of open violence was acceptable, so long as it was announced; clandestine murder, on the other hand, was one of the most heinous crimes. Violence was even a part of pre-Christian Scandinavian eschatology; from the murder of the frost giant Ymir whose body was used to create heaven and earth to the destruction of the entire world at Ragnark. Little wonder that Christianity with its creed of forgiveness and forbearance should have taken so long to be established in Scandinavia.

Martin Arnold gives a summary of the military ventures of the Vikings from the New World to Byzantium in his fast moving narrative. Unlike most popular books in English, he gives equal attention to the Rus and the activities of the eastern Vikings. The reader is shown the vast sprawl of the Viking sphere of action. Their ability to adapt from the (just) sub-Arctic conditions of the eastern and western settlements in Greenland to the Mediterranean is astonishing. Equally impressive is their ability to deal with diverse peoples, from the Irish farmers of the Liffey river valley to the nomadic horsemen of the Steppes. This range of geography and populations becomes more impressive when Viking military strategy is considered. While they were quick learners in tactics, their basic raiding plan was simple: a surprise appearance, if it could be effected, and then the attack with axe or sword. Even though accounts of their ferocity were embroidered, probably with assistance from the Vikings themselves, they did not recognize the usual taboos or sanctuaries of their victims. If only a few places suffered Viking attacks, still the damage was enough to put fear into the rest of the neighborhood. The vast distances they traveled relied upon a major technological development: an improved ship design based on a raised keel combined with a clinker-built hull. This allowed them to sail the stormy deep Atlantic and then many miles up the shallow placid rivers into the interior of their victims' lands.

Arnold is interested more in ends than means, but he does touch on some curious questions. The Vikings were one of the great population movements throughout the Atlantic Ocean during the Middle Ages. How many people were involved? The debate on numbers has concentrated mainly on the raiders and essentially revolves around the question of accuracy by those whose records are used by modern scholars. Unasked are questions about proportion and cooperation. Sustainable agriculture in lands so close to the Arctic Circle was tenuous. The population of Scandinavia in the eighth century must have been sparse; even the addition of hunting and fishing could not have supported a large number of people. How was a small population able to dominate the North Atlantic militarily? They were able to intrude into lands with many more people who had much more advanced structures of defence and methods of organization. Another interesting question is how much Viking armies were composed of Scandinavians and others. How many natives collaborated with the invaders; men looking for quick wealth or a new life with a farm purloined from their neighbor? In addition, there are questions about how armies with no apparent organizational structure stayed in the field for half a generation and gathered supplies without spreading out too much to defend themselves. In other words, there was more to Viking success than a quick leap from the ship followed by a run through the village.

Martin Arnold has written a fast paced book about the Vikings that will provoke more interest among general readers than any number of ponderous and narrowly argued tomes. He tells a good story and has an instinct for picking interesting people and events. These are not hard to find, for the history of the Vikings is full of colorful characters and fascinating situations.