15.06.06, Winroth, The Age of the Vikings

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Michael Gelting

The Medieval Review 15.06.06

Winroth, Anders. The Age of the Vikings. Princeton:Princeton University Press, 2014. pp. 304. ISBN: 9780691149851 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Michael Gelting
Danish National Archives/University of Aberdeen
mhg@sa.dk

Having made his mark initially as an historian of medieval canon law with his book The Making of Gratian's Decretum (Cambridge, 2007), the Swedish-born Yale professor of history Anders Winroth appears by now to have turned definitely to the history of the "vikings." Following hard upon his The Conversion of Scandinavia (New Haven, 2012), the present book aims to present a broader view of the development of Nordic societies within the traditional chronological framework assigned to the Viking Age, from the Norse raid on Lindisfarne in 793 to the defeat and death of the Norwegian king Harald "Hardruler" at Stamford Bridge in 1066. Like its predecessor, it is written in a lively and very readable style, evidently aimed at a wider readership than medieval scholars, even though it is fairly copiously annotated.

The basic structure of the book may also be said to be traditional, since it begins with a chapter on the Nordic attacks on the surrounding countries, followed by a chapter on Nordic emigration and settlement abroad, proceeding from that to a discussion of the ships that were crucial to the mobility of the Nordic fighting men, and from there to trade. Then follow discussions of the political structures of the Nordic countries and their transformations from the ninth through the eleventh century, of daily life in rural Scandinavia, and finally of Old Norse religion and of immaterial culture, in particular poetry. The novelty of the book does not appear from its overall design, but rather from the perspectives that Winroth applies to its individual parts.

One of these perspectives is that the author, in so far as the sources allow, gives equal weight to the predominantly Swedish expansion into the vast space of present-day Russia in comparison to the much more well-documented attacks upon Western Europe. No less important is his emphasis upon the similarities between the Nordic warriors and their European counterparts in their ways of waging war, exacting tribute, and seizing plunder, with due reference to the late Timothy Reuter's seminal article on the topic. [1] In fact, even while emphasising the advantages which the "vikings" derived from their refined shipbuilding techniques, Winroth consistently questions the usual perception of the Nordic warriors as having been particularly terrible and efficient fighters. In his view, the Norsemen's major advantage was the element of surprise that they owed to their swift ships; in open battle, they would suffer defeat more often than not.

Obviously, the book invites comparison with the author's previous book on the conversion of Scandinavia. The two books share the characteristics of readability and broad outlook; yet they are also quite different. The Conversion of Scandinavia was a remarkably single-minded effort at deploying the economy of gift-giving, tribute and plunder upon which Nordic warlords based their power as the explanation of practically everything that happened during the Viking Age, including conversion. In the book under review here, the ambition of writing a comprehensive survey of the period has made Winroth tone down this interpretation. It is expressed most clearly in the chapter "From Chieftains to Kings" (especially 134-143), as might be expected, but it does not pervade the entire interpretation. No doubt that makes the book more balanced; yet it also blurs what this reviewer finds to have been the most important contribution of The Conversion of Scandinavia: its tying together in a causal nexus of the Norsemen's raiding abroad and the growth of royal power at home in the Nordic countries.

In this connection, the reader is left to wonder about how Winroth's interpretation relates to that of the late Georges Duby in his remarkable book The Early Growth of the European Economy (1978; French original, 1973). In that book, Duby built his interpretation of the early medieval European economy around precisely the mechanisms of gift-giving, tribute and plunder underpinning the power of kings and warlords. Winroth's interpretation of Viking Age Nordic societies seems almost like an echo of Duby's views; yet in neither of Winroth's books on the topic is Duby's work cited more than perfunctorily. Greater attention to Duby's work might have allowed Winroth to add further nuances to his analysis of the end of the Viking Age in the book's epilogue. To be sure, Winroth does address the obvious explanatory factors: the strengthening of the defences of Western Europe made raiding ever more hazardous, and the growth of royal power in the Nordic kingdoms reduced the military aristocracy's freedom to launch plundering expeditions on their own. Winroth also addresses the growth of domestic exploitation in the shape of various forms of taxation. Yet he fails to include what was probably the most important change in the nature of domestic exploitation, in Western Europe as well as at least in parts of the Nordic countries: the shift from a predominantly pastoral to a predominantly agricultural economy, and the attendant growth of manorial structures with tenant farms.

At times Winroth tends to succumb to slightly facile reasoning. Of course he is right to point out the ancient origins of the notion that Scandinavia spawned successive waves of emigration due to domestic population growth outstripping the native resources, and in its crude form the notion is indeed unwarranted. Yet it is slightly disturbing to see Winroth approving of Thomas Robert Malthus' idea that population growth would always tend to be checked by "famine, war, and disease" (51), but that in Viking Age Scandinavia that mechanism was avoided by profiting from opportunities abroad. It might be more relevant to point to the ideas of the late Ester Boserup, who argued that population pressure was the main driving force behind technological innovation and increased productivity; from such a point of view, Norse expansion in the Viking Age might perhaps rather be seen as a factor retarding the agrarian changes that occurred in their homelands from the eleventh century onwards. Social structure may have had a further retarding effect. Archaeological evidence as well as the later law-books from the twelfth and thirteenth century indicate that the core group of Viking Age societies--not in numerical terms, but in terms of being the ones enjoying the full status of free men--was the owners of fairly large and prosperous family farms, normally equipped with menial staff in the form of unfree thralls. Although considerably more numerous than the medieval nobility, this group had a privileged status, the maintaining of which required careful management of the household's resources. An important element in that management appears to have been avoiding partition of the family property, which seems to have occurred very rarely until compulsory partible inheritance was introduced in the laws from the twelfth century onwards. In the centuries after the end of the outbreaks of the Justinianic plague in the eighth century, when population numbers would have tended to increase, this would have left a substantial number of surplus sons on the larger farms, who would have few other options than joining the retinues of warlords, chieftains, and kings. [2] Winroth does acknowledge that such a phenomenon must have contributed manpower to the raiding parties and armies of the Norsemen, but he does so only in the context of life "at home on the farm" in the Nordic countries, where he comes close to discounting the "viking" raiding as a marginal phenomenon from the perspective of ordinary agrarian life and production (164-165); it is not a consideration that enters into his explanation of the raiding and settlement abroad in his first chapters, where Winroth focuses exclusively on the grasping ambitions of "power-hungry chieftains" (51). Nevertheless, Nordic settlements overseas seem to have been quite substantial, particularly in the ninth and early tenth centuries, so that the notion of a population surplus fuelling the expansion should not just be dismissed as the repetition of "an ancient cliché that has no basis in fact" as the author does (52). The problems of surplus young males would not have been less serious for having been caused by social constraints rather than by the insufficiency of productive resources.

Despite these reservations, and the occasional factual error [3], this is a very readable and up-to-date survey of the history of the Nordic countries in the so-called Viking Age. It should work very well as an introduction or textbook for students--provided their teacher takes care to explain to them that the word "viking" is not a proper name, no matter how often Winroth spells it with a capital V. It was an occupational term with connotations akin to the modern word "pirate."

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Notes:

1. Timothy Reuter, "Plunder and Tribute in the Carolingian Empire," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 35 (1985): 75-94.

2. Michael H. Gelting, "The Problem of Danish 'Feudalism': Military, Legal, and Social Change in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries," in Feudalism: New Landscapes of Debate, eds. Sverre Bagge, Michael H. Gelting and Thomas Lindkvist, The Medieval Countryside 5 (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2011), 159-184.

3. It is a bit surprising to read on page 159 that Archbishop Unni of Bremen died in Birka in 921, when the event has previously been dated correctly to 936 (110).

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