Juliet Hewish

title.none: Hudson, Viking Pirates (Juliet Hewish)

identifier.other: baj9928.0704.014 07.04.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Juliet Hewish, University College Dublin,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Hudson, Benjamin. Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty, Religion and Empire in the North Atlantic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv, 278. $70.00 (hb) 0-19-516237-4 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.04.14

Hudson, Benjamin. Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty, Religion and Empire in the North Atlantic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv, 278. $70.00 (hb) 0-19-516237-4 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Juliet Hewish
University College Dublin

The aim of this book is to chart the history of two Viking families who were active in the North Atlantic from the tenth to the twelfth century, from the rise of Olaf Cúarán (d. 981) as ruler of Dublin to the establishment of his heirs as kings of the Isles and lords of Gwynedd two centuries later. Arguing that traditional accounts of the Vikings in these regions have focussed upon them as a rather homogenous group, Hudson structures his book around two dynasties, the descendents of Olaf Cúarán and the heirs of the brothers Godfrey and Magnus Haraldsson. Although this approach results in a rather unbalanced account--the careers of the Olafssons are far more amply documented than those of their sometime rivals, the Haraldssons--it has the advantage of highlighting the evolution of these families from raiders to established rulers, the pirates and princes of the title. This is an exciting but obscure period of medieval history and Hudson has done it a great service by offering a fresh and innovative re-examination of the sparse sources that survive. For his narrative Hudson argues that we "must be prepared to leave the familiar histories in order to search for the traces of them among the stories, lists and artifacts [sic] of their neighbours" (vii). This promise is certainly fulfilled, and an exceedingly broad range of sources are consulted during the course of this work, including a spectrum of disciplines and an impressive array of languages: archaeological, historical, numismatic and literary material is covered, and Latin, English, Irish, Welsh and Norse evidence is utilised.

Viking Pirates and Christian Princes opens with a line by the tenth-century Irish poet Cinaéd ua hArtacáin in which he announces that "the Irish and Vikings are raiding...Olaf who seized the kingship of Dublin in a battle at Howth gave me a horse as the reward for my poem". The poem is a suitable starting point for this book for various reasons: it demonstrates the literary nature of many of Hudson's sources, a contemporary's easy conjunction of the Irish and Norse, and the literary patronage and wider cultural implications which accompanied the raiders' attacks. In the chapters that follow, the vicissitudes experienced by the Olafsson and Haraldsson dynasties are chronicled and a multifaceted picture painted of a group of people too often placed on the peripheries by modern and medieval historians alike. Although the difficulties posed by the disparate and patchy material in which the affairs of these dynasties are recorded surface occasionally, the international dimensions of the reigns of these Dublin kings and the importance of Ireland's relations with the Continent are clearly articulated and the significance of economic ties duly stressed. The relationship between economics and empire-building comes to the fore as the picture widens to include not only Ireland and England but also Wales, Francia and the Kingdom of the Isles, where Hudson notes new powers whose position in the twelfth century eclipses that of these dynasties, upon whom their ascendancy earlier had relied.

The wide scope of Hudson's work is to be commended, and the interdisciplinary nature of this book is exemplary. With such a remit come potential dangers, however, not least the thorny question of intended audience and the degree of background knowledge that the author can assume. For although primarily historical in its approach, there is much within these covers that would interest anyone working upon the insular cultures during this period. One cannot assume, therefore--indeed it is highly unlikely--that the readership of this book will have an intimate knowledge of the full range of sources under discussion and all the languages in which they survive, particularly if it is intended that the book will be included on undergraduate reading lists. Bearing this in mind, therefore, the relative historical value of the primary sources used might have been pointed up more explicitly, and a fuller account of the secondary sources and the scholarly debate surrounding these issues perhaps should have been provided. For on occasion, Hudson's unproblematic use of titles and terminology conceals a controversial history of scholarly debate. Why, for instance, is 'Magnus' Haraldsson so called when it has long been known that this name stems from a mistaken reading by the nineteenth-century editor of the Annals of the Four Masters, O'Donovan, and that the character concerned was actually called Maccus? In a similar vein, the fact that the reliability of the twelfth-century Cocad Gáedel re Gallaib is disputed should have been granted a more prominent position, particularly bearing in mind Hudson's heavy reliance upon this tract in the early chapters (the recent reception of the piece is mentioned briefly on page 12 of the introduction and scholarly works cited in an accompanying footnote). Similarly, some of the late literary sources from Scandinavia, such as Egils saga or the works of Snorri Sturluson, although unarguably providing colourful accounts of their protagonists, should perhaps be handled with greater circumspection than Hudson on occasion provides.

Of course, such an approach is fully admissible in a work aimed at a popular, non-specialist audience, but one assumes that since this title has been published by Oxford University Press that it is has been written for the academic world. With this in mind, it would have been good to see some of the impressive array of Latin and vernacular sources to which Hudson refers quoted directly and the original text supplied alongside his translations. This is particularly true in those instances in which the precise terminology applied might be of relevance. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the use (and overuse) of the term "Viking", the particular nuances of which are never discussed. Relatively late in proceedings it is conceded that by the eleventh century there is an "increasingly uncertain ethnic distinction between Viking and Irish" (145). Elsewhere we are left with agonisingly suggestive remarks which are never followed up, as in relation to the Battle of Tara (980), when Hudson points out that the "leader of the Isles contingent had the completely Gaelic name Conamal mac Gilla Maire with the nickname 'the Viking'" (65). A brief analysis of the contemporary use of ethnic terms, many of which are mentioned elsewhere in the narrative (as when these people are referred to as Saxons in some tenth-century Irish sources and "Northmen" in others (p. 29 and p. 215, n. 25); they are Danes according to the English accounts), would--for this reviewer at least--clarify or question the general assumption underlying this work: that there is a coherent "Viking" culture across the North Atlantic regions. At the very least, the provision of the precise terms by which these peoples were labelled, as opposed to a translation, would seem a desideratum. As it currently stands, the term "Viking" is simply a distraction from what is claimed to be a central tenet of this work: "an aspect not often acknowledged in the studies of Vikings, their social and cultural transformation under the influence of the peoples among whom they settled".

These quibbles aside, Viking Pirates and Christian Princes opens up a wide vista of sources rarely tackled as a whole and provides a welcome continuation where Smyth's Scandinavian York and Dublin left off. For scholars studying any aspect of insular culture during the so-called Second Viking Age it should provide a novel perspective and a welcome reminder of the potential of interdisciplinary and interlinguistic study, even if that potential is not always realised.