03.01.28, Christiansen, Norsemen in the Viking Age

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Margaret Clunies Ross

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.028


Christiansen, Eric. The Norsemen in the Viking Age. Series: The Peoples of Europe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002. Pp. xiv, 378. ISBN: 0-631-21677-4.

Reviewed by:
Margaret Clunies Ross
University of Sydney

This book is one in the series The Peoples of Europe, in which there are volumes on a wide range of peoples, from the Huns to the Mongols to the English. The general objective of the series is to present 'a fresh and absorbing account of a group's culture, society and usually turbulent history...drawing upon a wide range of archaeological and historical evidence'. The present volume is a little different from the others so far published, in that the author selects a specific period in the history of 'The Norsemen', namely 'The Viking Age', which is defined here as 'the years between 750 and 1050 regardless of any unifying principle or theme' (8).

The reader of this review, and of the book itself, at once catches the rather defiant, iconoclastic tone of the author, Eric Christiansen, known as a meticulous and scholarly editor of medieval Danish chronicles and author of other historical studies. As he says, his presentation of Nordic peoples in viking times (he uses the lower case throughout, after first grumbling that he has to use the overworked term 'viking' at all) is 'less firmly framed than usual' (8) and aims to question established and not-so-established ideas and theories on a range of subjects to do with the people called Vikings (or Norsemen), including their geographical, social, political, economic and cultural characteristics.

Christiansen is very knowledgeable about a range of topics, and his ability to reveal error and pretension behind various theories is keen. Topic after topic, scholar after scholar (including this reviewer) receives a merciless going-over at his hands, though in self-defence one has to protest at a degree of misrepresentation and/or oversimplification (cf. 21). However, it is really only those in the know, meaning scholars of the subject well-versed in the various controversies Christiansen takes on, who are in a position to pick up all his allusions and throw-away remarks. The general reader and the student, to whom this series may be directed, will have a hard time of it in many parts of this book, though they may appreciate Christiansen's somewhat waspish polemic in general terms. What would the uninitiated make of the following, for example (on the subject of early Scandinavian naming practices): 'The colonization of Iceland broke "the restrictive bonds imposed by inherited naming principles" and let settlers "give rein to their linguistic imagination" [a quotation from Fellows-Jensen 1994, a work not listed in the bibliography at the end of the book], if the names in Landnámabók are genuine. They started a new naming tradition, which seldom invoked varying combinations of hereditary name-elements, but reused full ancestral names, as when Snorri the historian got Snorri Gothi's' (45)? 'Snorri the historian' has appeared earlier in the book, but, unless the reader was familiar with Icelandic sagas, the name and title 'Snorri Gothi' would be meaningless.

Eric Christiansen is very well informed about prehistoric and Viking Age history and archaeology, so the chapters on 'districts and territories', 'peoples', 'politics', 'war', 'work' and 'emigration' are the strongest and least given to abstruse allusions. They also provide the reader with some very handy references (but see below on the referencing system -- or lack of it). Some of the author's iconoclasm is well justified and many of his sceptical remarks are salutary; for example, his doubts about the archaeologists' frequent assumption that ethnic groups identified themselves (and therefore may be identified by modern researchers) by similar grave rituals, ceramics and ornamental motifs; or his calling into question the frequent assertion that the Vikings were like modern terrorists and used force and aggression in excess of that used by other early medieval (or later) groups. He is convincing also in his argument that there is insufficient evidence to identify Norse kings of the Viking Age as state builders. His general emphasis on the gradual and piecemeal development of Viking Age political systems and the economy (including the development of urban life) is most welcome.

Christiansen's scepticism about information that can be gathered from various sources and applied to the reconstruction of Viking Age Scandinavian life rightly extends to written texts, as the majority of these in their present forms date from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and sometimes even later, with the major exception of a large number of runic inscriptions and the likely exception of some poetry, though this is largely preserved in later texts. The author is well aware that the second half of the twentieth century has seen a revolution in the ways in which textual scholars treat early Norse texts, no longer regarding them, as he puts it, as 'a telephone to the vikings' (305), but in his zeal to disconnect the telephone, he tends not to engage with the complexities of these texts, which do after all exist and may throw some light on the Viking Age. His approach to the eddic poem Rígsthula typifies both his tendency to oversimplify textual issues and to pour scorn on theory, whatever its age or character. Remarking on the fact that there are no contemporary Viking Age records to inform us of how social status differentials were conceived then, Christiansen goes on to comment that 'attempts to wring workers' history out of Rigsthula...are negated by the dubiousness of the text, and by the artificiality of its social concepts. It could have been written by a social anthropologist' (191).

One of the most interesting parts of this book to those in the profession will be Appendix A, Modern Research, which is also revealing of the author's own attitudes. It is hard-hitting in its concise assessment of what has happened to the various disciplines of archaeology, history, philology and the history of religion over the last two hundred years, and useful in its analysis of the value of new approaches and technologies.

The weakest point of this book is its referencing system. It is not that Christiansen fails to give references to a wide variety of primary and secondary sources -- the book is full of dense footnotes and in-text references. The trouble is that a considerable number of them do not appear in the bibliography at the end of the book, nor in the list of abbreviated references at the beginning. And, in some cases, there is inconsistency of referencing and errors of date in references given. For the most part Christiansen uses the author-date system, but sometimes he will give a main text or footnoted reference to author, title and date or place of publication. These do not appear in his bibliography. Such things are serious flaws in any book, but particularly in one that purports to be a survey of current research on a subject. The series editors, James Campbell and Barry Cunliffe, and the Blackwell copy editor should shoulder some of the blame for this deficiency, and indeed for the many typographical errors that remain uncorrected. But in the end the author should have picked up such errors of both omission and commission. He is also quite inconsistent and sometimes plain wrong in his spellings of personal and place names, something he more or less boasts of (9), but which cannot fail to annoy the specialist and confuse the general reader.

In short, this is an interesting, often informative and provocative book, which is also eccentric and flawed; a good deal for the specialist but a bit perplexing for the general or student reader.

Article Details

Author Biography

Margaret Clunies Ross

University of Sydney