Robin Chapman Stacey

title.none: Sawyer, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Stacey)

identifier.other: baj9928.9812.005 98.12.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robin Chapman Stacey, University of Washington

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Sawyer, Peter, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. xvii, 297. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-198-20526-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.12.05

Sawyer, Peter, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. xvii, 297. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-198-20526-0.

Reviewed by:

Robin Chapman Stacey
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 The Age of the Vikings 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, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, 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 them.

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 Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings 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.