The Medieval Review 10.10.13

Somerville, Angus A. and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age, A Reader. Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures: XIV. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. Pp. xvii, 503. . 39.95 ISBN 9781442601482.

Reviewed by:

James Graham-Campbell
University College, London

This Reader is an excellent read, containing a total of 103 variously instructive and entertaining "readings," and is therefore a most welcome addition to the medieval bookshelf. There is, nevertheless, the important matter of how useful it may prove to be to students seeking a critical introduction to the documentary source material for the Viking Age. The publishers tell us that the editors' "introductions contextualize the readings while allowing for the sources to speak for themselves." The problem is, however, that these introductions do not provide any guidance to the student as to the authority of the translation (or the reliability of the edition on which it is based)--or any assistance with further reading (as when they indicate that there are doubts as to the veracity of the tale in question).

Warnings are given, but obviously not endlessly repeated, that the medieval Icelandic sagas are not "reliable historical sources," but throughout this volume their stories are interspersed with the evidence of (e.g.) contemporary annals. The translations range from many of Angus Somerville's own, from both Old Norse and Old English, to nineteenth-century renderings, as with The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill (242-5). Readers of the introduction to this (no. 45) need to know, and thus will be interested to learn, that the Viking leader "Turgeis," who features in this "reading," is regarded by some scholars "as a real member of the Norwegian royal house, [but by] others as nothing more than a legend." No information is, however, provided as to whom these scholars might be, or any guidance given as to where their varying views have been published.

The publishers encourage us to believe that the book's "thirteen black-and-white illustrations and one map provide visual context." The single map extends from Canada to the Caspian Sea and therefore provides nothing in the way of "context" for those who (for example) might be encountering the geography of Iceland for the first time. In fact, all thirteen illustrations are nineteenth-century engravings, including two views of the Gokstad ship (during excavation, rather than as reconstructed); they have mostly been taken from Paul du Chaillu's pair of books on The Viking Age, first published in London in 1889. It is therefore hardly surprising that the composite image of three supposedly "Viking Age swords" (192) contains only one which actually dates from the period in question (and even that is generally considered to be "Anglo-Scandinavian"). Even more ancient is the crude depiction of the runic inscription on the famous Jelling stone--and then only as it extends around two of its three sides (440); this was first published in 1856! In other words, the illustrations are merely decorations which provide little by way of accurate archaeological evidence to inform the reader.

As far as the Jelling stone is concerned, the transcription and translation is taken from Jacobsen and Moltke (1941-42), rather than Erik Moltke's more recent Runes and their Origin: Denmark and Elsewhere (1985), in which the name of King Harald's mother appears (207) as "Thorvi (Thyre)," rather than the scrambled "Thyrve" of the present volume (440). But then even "Thyrve" does not appear in this book's short "Index of Topics" (which also embraces both people and places), given that it is far too selective to do justice to its wide-ranging contents.

As runic inscriptions provide the one contemporary written source for Viking-age Scandinavia, it is worth considering in more detail their treatment in this volume. The largest selection (no. 55) comprises ten of the "Runic inscriptions from Maes Howe, Mainland, Orkney" (293-4), followed by five of those from the Isle of Man (294-5, no. 56). Confusingly, the Manx inscriptions are classified as "Late Norse," when they are in fact "Viking Age," whereas the Maeshowe runes are most certainly "Late Norse," dating from the mid-twelfth century. The source for the Maeshowe runes is cited as K. Holman's general survey of the Scandinavian Runic Inscriptions in the British Isles (1996), which has since been superseded by M.P. Barnes and R.I. Page, The Scandinavian Runic Inscriptions of Britain (2006), but in any case this ignores the fact that Michael Barnes had already published a comprehensive monograph on The Runic Inscriptions of Maeshowe, Orkney in 1994. The one other runic inscription deemed worthy of inclusion in this Reader is that on the well-known Piraeus lion (now in Venice), of which only "a conjectural transcription" is possible (302-3, no. 58). So, readers who would like to know more about what the Vikings actually wrote themselves during the Viking Age need to be directed to such works as those just mentioned, together with Sven B.F. Jansson's The Runes of Sweden (1962, revised 1987).

In any case, one might ask, what are the Maeshowe runic inscriptions doing in a book of readings about the Viking Age? In their "Introduction," the editors establish that the Viking Age ended at "some point during the eleventh century" (xv), but their liking for a good story means that we get given not only the "Late Norse" Maeshowe runes, but also accounts of several twelfth-century (and even some thirteenth-century) events, ranging from "The travels of King Sigurd, Jerusalem-Farer" (no. 93) to "The battle of Largs, 1263" (no. 102). These do, however, only concern "Late Norse" events which took place outside Scandinavia, because no attempt is made to utilise the available medieval works from this period for what might be called the "homelands" (cf. P.G. Foote and D.M. Wilson, The Viking Achievement, 1970).

I would therefore suggest that anyone wanting a critical introduction to the primary written sources for the Viking Age should still turn first to R.I. Page's, Chronicles of the Vikings: Records, Memorials and Myths (1995), which is devoted to the Vikings "from their own point of view." Readers will then be in a better position to engage with "the records of prejudiced observers"--together with those of the many other authors presented in this volume. But, taken at face-value, as A Reader, there is no doubt that The Viking Age is a most enjoyable and informative volume for dipping into.