The Medieval Review 15.03.09

Williams, Gareth, Peter Pentz, and Matthias Wemhoff. Vikings: Life and Legend. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014. Pp. 288. $35.00 (paperback). ISBN: 9780801479427 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Oren Falk
Cornell University

"Vikings: Life and Legend," a major exhibition mounted through a collaboration of the national museums in Denmark, Germany, and the United Kingdom, was the first notable European showcase of its kind in over twenty years. Displayed first in Copenhagen in 2013, it then migrated to London, finally traveling to close in Berlin in early 2015. Although the exhibition itself has not made it across the Atlantic--perhaps one may still hope that it will--American fans of the vikings can now take some solace in the US publication of the companion book by the same name, over two hundred large-format pages packed full of both textual and pictorial Norse goodness.

About as big as your laptop (and twice as heavy), Vikings: Life and Legend is clearly designed and priced to appeal to a broad audience. The writing is clear, authoritative, and unassuming. The visuals--as befits a publication ancillary to a museum display--are copious and often eye-opening; the book reproduces nearly 60% of the show's exhibits. Endnote references to satisfy the experts have been kept to an unobtrusive minimum, but are generally informative and apt. As a physical artifact, too, this is a remarkably well put-together tome: cover flaps make it sturdier than an ordinary paperback, the stitching is robust enough to support its weight, typos are vanishingly rare (I spotted only a handful, such as berserkir treated as singular [91], or a misspelling of Polish King Bołeslaw I's byname 'Chrobry' [the Brave] [133]), and even the index is unusually good at anticipating readers'--or at any rate, this reader's--interests (though some seemingly self-evident categories are missing: 'gender,' e.g., 'slaves' or 'slavery' as distinct from 'slave trade,' and--under 'coins'--'pecking'; cf. 175 and 179, 177, and 54-7, respectively).

It's hard not to think of an obvious comparison to Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, edited by William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward in 2000 and still in print: a similarly formatted and priced book, which accompanied a cognate exhibition at the Smithsonian. Both books even sport matching, vacuous prefaces by female heads of state, more or less: First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000, Her Majesty Queen Margrethe of Denmark in 2014. (More disturbing, in my view, is Vikings: Life and Legend's sponsor's foreword by a Chief Executive of BP; then again, if Norse archaeology is perceived as possessing the kind of cachet needed to greenwash the petroleum giant's public image, perhaps all is not yet lost.) Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga is less up-to-date, sloppier in its production values, and more American-centric, with over half its length devoted to the Norse Atlantic colonies and Vínland but hardly a mention of Rūs. Still, in its 432 pages, it covers more ground than Vikings: Life and Legend, and offers richer if less systematic orientation for the novice (as well as more ravishing photography: contrast, e.g., Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga's dramatic long-shot of one knörr replica under sail [280], with Vikings: Life and Legend's iPhone-quality photo of another [208]). Also, as a stand-alone book rather than an exhibition spin-off, it holds out a promise of greater versatility in the classroom. (See further my review of Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga in Envoi 9:1 [2000]: 21-33.)

The centerpiece of the "Vikings: Life and Legend" exhibition--and, accordingly, the most celebrated object in Vikings: Life and Legend--was and is the immense Roskilde 6 longship, discovered underwater in 1997 and painstakingly preserved between 2009 and 2012. Only about a quarter of the hull has survived--the rest has been reconstructed as a ghostly outline in steel--but even this suffices to hint at the workmanship, expense, and magnificence that this 37-meter long warship (no more than 4 meters wide at its beam and less than 1 meter in draft) must have embodied. The focus on Roskilde 6 at times shades into fetish, artificially linking abstract themes and unrelated topics to the great wreck (e.g., 17), but in the closing chapter on "Ships & the Vikings" by Peter Pentz, Curator of Danish Prehistory at the National Museum in Copenhagen and one of Vikings: Life and Legend's co-editors, this iconic find forms a fitting capstone. Pentz helpfully guides the reader on a journey from the Nydam Boat to the undifferentiated ships of the early Viking Age and then on to the specialized merchantmen and "rapid attack weapon[s]" (212) of the tenth and eleventh centuries, culminating in such majestic vessels as Roskilde 6 (and even mightier warships yet to be discovered, if Snorri Sturluson is to be believed [231]). Viking ships, he insists, were more than just "a means of transport" (204); he finds proof in the metaphoric centrality of the ship shape (for everything from longhouses through brooches to burial markers), in the impact of ships on place names (even quite a ways inland), in their magical and ritual applications, and, perhaps most tellingly, in the creation of early administrative parishes based on royal ship levies (220). Pentz's chapter, like most in the book, concludes with two extensive sidebars (by Jan Bill and Kristiane Strætkvern), here dealing specifically with Roskilde 6. These complement the chapter more organically than do most other sidebars, and Strætkvern's overview of the salvage and conservation process is especially satisfying in its geek appeal (234-237).

Gareth Williams, Curator of Early Medieval Coins at the British Museum and another of the book's editors, authored the introduction (dealing with such necessary preliminaries as terminology, periodization, and primary sources), as well as a lengthy chapter on "Warfare & Military Expansion." His narrative of the vikings' exploits--the gradual expansion from DIY raids to full-scale invasions and the concomitant evolution from segmentary chiefdoms to Scandinavian kingdoms--is fairly standard; refreshingly, Williams puts uncommon emphasis on viking activities in the east, from Bulgaria to Azerbaijan. He has an eye for the pragmatic, linking, for instance, the evolving architecture of ships with changes in viking strategy and tactics (92-96), and reminding his readers repeatedly that the vikings were by and large neither better equipped nor better trained than their adversaries, nor indeed invincible (95, 97, 106). Williams' main forte is in his treatment of material culture, from the gear and accoutrements of the individual warrior--lavishly illustrated--to the Danish ring-forts, the levy system (leiðangr), and the gradual standardization of personal arms and horse tackle, all of which arguably evince what he unfortunately describes in terms of "national warfare" (27, 101; cf. 19, 150-4 for discussion of the same topics without recourse to anachronistic labels, and 184 for a reminder of the fragility of consolidated government in this era). Elsewhere, anachronism serves Williams well in bringing his point across, as when he compares imitation Ulfberht swords to cheap Rolex or Louis Vuitton knock-offs (104).

Williams also co-wrote with Sunhild Kleingärtner (of the Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum in Bremerhaven) the opening chapter, "Contacts & Exchange." They lay out the topography, climate, and demographics of both the Norse homelands and the astonishingly wide range of peoples and places with whom the Norse came in contact, directly or via intermediaries: "Baltic amber," for example, which accounts for more than 90% of the global supply, "is known from places as far apart as Ireland, Central Asia and the Far East" (51; see also 72). A map with which the book opens (12-13) is particularly revealing in this regard: with Scandinavia at the center (rather than off in an upper corner, as in most modern projections), it superimposes radiating circles that show Kiev to have been about as far from (say) Oslo Fjord as Iceland, Baghdad about the same distance as L'Anse aux Meadows, and Africa no farther than Svalbard. Williams and Kleingärtner also discuss the variety in modes of exchange between Norsemen and those who met them, placing special emphasis on the fluidity between what we might call raiding and trading: slavery, as they point out, is an especially striking case in point, with the human goods acquired by force in one locale then selling as commodities down the (sometimes literal) river (50-1). Place names (among them Slavonic ones in present-day Denmark, 64), strontium isotope analysis, and hoards of coins from far and wide (including over 100,000 Islamic dirhams recovered in Scandinavia [54]) further demonstrate the mobility of people, objects, and cultural markers throughout the Norse world.

The third chapter, "Power & Aristocracy" by Anne Pedersen of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, complements Williams' discussion of martial technique well. Pedersen, too, discusses and displays axe-heads, equestrian gear, and ring-forts, but she also deals with gaming pieces, buckets and beakers used in feasting, personal jewelry and magnates' mansions as component parts in the symbolic apparatus of political privilege. The Norse aristocracy of the Viking Age emerge as cosmopolitan figures, comparable to their counterparts elsewhere in Europe and western Asia, and indeed fully integrated into the broad diplomatic landscape: elite tenth-century gifts that must have originated in Scandinavia have been found in Poland, Rügen, Bavaria, Prague, Kiev and Léon, and an eleventh-century Danish coin turned up beneath the floor of St Peter's in Rome; the Ottonians doubtless "aimed higher," as Pedersen observes, but their modes of diplomatic conduct were essentially indistinguishable from those of their northern neighbors (133; see also 154). Pedersen rightly dwells on the ways in which material objects would have served to communicate power, from the placement of the chieftain's hall at Borg in Lofoten "high in the farmland, in an impressive although not necessarily practical location" (126), through the offering of nourishment and transportation to valued guests (142, 146), to the calculated use of violence against symbols of superseded regimes (135-6; cf. 159, 200-201 for other examples of damnatio memoriae).

To my mind, the strongest chapter by far is on "Belief & Ritual," by Neil Price, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen at the time of writing (now at Uppsala). Price writes exceptionally well. He distills into a concise thirty pages many of the ideas from his 2002 book, The Viking Way, and from later publications: Norse 'religion' (the very term is a misleading anachronism) was enormously varied but some basic attitudes were widely shared, for instance an "intensely spatial" orientation (166), an amoral and non-transcendent conception of the supernatural, and a fascination with both raunchy sex and extreme violence as requisites of properly dramatic--and possibly shamanic--ritual (169, 175, 180). While advancing his own (often compelling) interpretations, Price also presents in utterly candid and very fair-minded terms the many grey areas of scholarly ignorance, uncertainty, and disagreement. Indeed, perhaps the most stimulating and appealing aspect of his discussion is his knack for extracting lucidity from what we don't (and often, can't) know, such as how the worlds that make up the Norse cosmos were imagined to relate to each other--but then, Price asks, "how many modern believers have a precise idea of the geography of their respective afterlives?" (167). He is utterly undeterred by unanswerable questions (such as who might have been the dead 'missing' from the archaeological record [177]) and provocatively happy "to consider what-might-have-been[s]," such as Islamic missionary activity among the Norse (195).

To the editors' great credit, no effort has been made to iron out explicit differences of opinion among authors in the book, especially between Pedersen and Price: for example, where she presents Valkyries as urbane mythological geishas serving drinks to warriors in Valhalla (144; cf. 79), he depicts them as demonic "spirits of war...literally personifying the essence of battle" (116), and doubts that archaeologically attested female figurines represent Valkyries at all (173; cf. their contrasting views of the Jelling monument complex [159 and 184]). Such intimations of scholarly debate help convey to readers a sense of the vibrancy of this field of research. After all, what makes the Norse so exciting (and worthy of yet another book) is not merely the latest finds to go on display. In fairness, Vikings: Life and Legend boasts a gratifying number of these: male skulls grin to exhibit the file marks of a kind of dental tattoo (interpreted as ostentatious viking machismo [80]), gold and silver glitter seductively in the tenth-century Vale of York Hoard (55, 69), and decapitated corpses mark the site of a (probable) viking debacle in a Dorset mass grave (95); only the Saarema (Estonia) boat burials unfortunately merit mention but no photos (39, 179). Still, even the most alluring finds are, in the end, nothing more than data. What whets scholarship and constricts scholars' throats in exhilaration is the ongoing struggle to construct hypotheses that will make most sense of the bewildering accumulation of these data, so often pointing in contradictory directions. If the preponderance of vehicles (ships, boats, wagons, sleds, horses) used in burials may seem to suggest a conception of the afterlife as involving a journey of some sort, for instance, then why, as Price asks, was the greatest ship burial of them all, the Oseberg cutter, moored securely in place to a boulder? "[A]pparently the intention was that it should not 'travel' anywhere at all" (182). It is not that the more we know, the less we understand; rather, the more we know, the more new questions arise to demand our attention, and the greater the spaces that open up for us to exercise our ingenuity.

Copyright (c) 2015 Oren Falk

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