15.08.01, Somerville and McDonald, The Vikings and Their Age

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Daniel F. Melleno

The Medieval Review 15.08.01

Somerville, Angus A., and R. Andrew McDonald. The Vikings and Their Age. Companions to Medieval Studies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. pp. xv, 160. ISBN: 978-1-4426-0522-0 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Daniel F. Melleno
University of California, Berkeley

In The Vikings And Their Age Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald have designed a companion for their wide-ranging and useful source book, The Viking Age: A Reader. This slim volume, the first of a series of companions to Toronto Press' medieval readers, is explicitly aimed at undergraduates engaging with the Vikings for the first time.

Across five quick chapters students are introduced to the Vikings, their world, and the historiographical debates surrounding them as the authors demonstrate the often startling geographical and chronological breadth of the Viking Age. The amount of material covered is quite impressive, especially given the authors' stated intention of providing only a "brief introduction" (xiii).

Chapter One provides an overview of the Vikings in history and historiography. The subjects covered include the meaning and usefulness of the word "Viking," the litany of potential causes for the sudden (or perhaps not so sudden?) appearance of Scandinavian raiders and settlers across Northern Europe, and the ongoing historiographical debate over the nature and impact of the Vikings. In addition, this chapter sketches a brief chronology of the period, splitting the Viking Age into two further ages: a first age of "Raiding and Reconnaissance" (16) and a second age of "Conquest and Settlement" (25). While the lion's share of this chapter focuses on Viking activity in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the North Atlantic receive attention as well.

Chapter Two turns its attention to the social structures of Viking Age Scandinavia. This chapter is arranged thematically around topics such as gender, political and social rank, and religious practice. Here, as elsewhere, Iceland receives special attention, no doubt largely due to its exaggerated presence in our surviving documentary records, though the authors do actively note the ways in which Icelandic culture and practice was both rooted in and outside of the larger Norse world. The chapter closes with a discussion of Norse mythology and Christian conversion and the difficulties present in forming an accurate picture of the transforming religious mentality of Viking Age Scandinavia.

Chapter Three stands as something of an outlier, presenting short biographies of eight Viking Age personalities. Somerville and McDonald state that their goal is to "present …brief pen-portraits of individuals from the Viking Age in order to give a sense of the richness and diversity of the period" (67). To a certain extent they succeed. Alongside two figures that might be considered "typical" Viking raiders, the chapter also features two women, three kings, and two Atlantic explorers. Each portrait is engaging and the overall impact of the chapter is to nicely concretize some of the more theoretical material of Chapters One and Two. It is somewhat disappointing, then, that all of these figures come from the tenth century or later--what the authors deem the "second Viking Age." It appears that the authors chose only figures for whom Scandinavian sources were available, and while this is understandable, one can't help but wonder which individuals were left on the cutting room floor thanks to this criteria. More problematic is that for the most part the actual sources for these biographies are mentioned only in passing, which hampers the readers' ability to further explore these lives on their own. Given the goal of tying this introduction into its source book companion, the lack of explicit references to the primary sources is odd.

Chapter Four, "How Do We Know About the Vikings?" returns to the more straightforward mission of the first two chapters. While by no means an exhaustive survey of the available sources, this chapter introducing students to a wide variety of textual sources on the Vikings and to some of the trickier questions of source interpretation and text criticism that make up the daily work of any practicing historian. By focusing in on certain genres, and then further upon specific examples of those genres, the authors give their audience a sense not only the types of sources we can use to access the Viking Age but also of the potential challenges they present. The section on the Battle of Maldon, which compares the Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name to the brief record in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles, discusses not only the sources, but also the ways in which two very different accounts of the same moment can be used to flesh out our understanding of the Viking raids on England as well as the contemporary politics of the Anglo-Saxons. Beyond this, sources such as Alcuin's letter to King Athelred and Ibn Fadlan's Risala round out the "outsider" sources on the Vikings. There is a noticeable absence of some important Carolingian texts, such as Rimbert's Vita Anskarii, and Abbo of Saint-Germain's Bella Parisiacae Urbis, but given their presence in the larger sourcebook this can perhaps be forgiven.

While Chapter Four presents a variety of Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, and even Arabic sources on the Vikings, it is the Icelandic and Old Norse sources which receive the most attention. Alongside some excellent text boxes on matters such as the meter of Eddic Saga's and kennings in Old Norse poetry this section provides a brief but comprehensive catalog of the available Scandinavian sources. Reference to the on-going Skaldic Poetry Project at the University of Sydney is a particularly nice touch.

The Final Chapter continues on the heels of the document overview by providing a case study exercise on a single source, a selection from the Miracula Sancti Filiberti, which focuses on the wandering monks of Noirmoutier during the late ninth century. By framing this text criticism exercise with only a brief introduction and some study questions, Somerville and McDonald place the emphasis on the reader's own critical analysis, providing a welcome chance to engage directly with the world of the Viking Age and demonstrating clearly the pedagogical goals of the book.

Somerville and McDonald close with a concise and comprehensive afterword aimed at demonstrating the wide ranging impact of the Vikings, both culturally and politically, and clearly situated in the on-going debate about the nature of Viking behavior. I did, however, find the use of the word "terrorist" a bit questionable, given the clear ideological underpinnings that this word has in our own day and age, and the generally agreed upon (including by the authors themselves) lack of ideological goals of the Vikings themselves.

Alongside the main body of the work are a number of interesting text boxes that range from excerpts of primary sources to engaging anecdotes about the impact of the Vikings on modern day place names and legal conventions. The work closes with an excellent glossary and a chronology that is generally useful though perhaps a bit limited for certain areas. There is, for instance, only a single date for Viking Age Sweden provided. This reflects a broader absence of Sweden and the Baltic from the work as a whole, with Norway and the North Atlantic receiving pride of place, followed closely by Denmark.

Several excellent maps are present throughout, and in fact I would have appreciated more, especially in Chapter One where the authors discuss numerous sites in England, the Frankish Empire, and Eastern Europe that the average undergraduate would likely have difficulty placing on their own.

Less impressive is a series of black and white photos that overall suffer from poor contrast and thus do little to engage or illustrate the items in question. The landscape pictures are particularly problematic, but even the pictures of rune-stones might have worked better as illustrations rather than photos.

While the price point itself is a bit high, given that numerous excellent entry-level monographs are available for just about the same cost, The Vikings And Their Age fulfills its role as a companion to The Viking Age: A Reader, contextualizing the many sources and providing an accessible introduction to the major topics and historical background of the Vikings. Moreover, given its small size and the goal of adhering to its role as an introductory text, Somerville and McDonald's work does an admirable job of presenting a clear and concise overview of the topic while still maintaining a clear emphasis on the complexity of Viking studies, demonstrating how a lack of certainty and the room for debate and interpretation is what makes the study of the Vikings so very compelling not only for professional historians but also for newcomers to the field.

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