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21.06.06 Price, Children of Ash and Elm

The Medieval Review

21.06.06 Price, Children of Ash and Elm


With Children of Ash and Elm, Neil Price challenges us to approach the past not as outsiders but to see it from within. In the first chapter, Price plunges readers into a world inhabited by Vikings. This is not The Viking World of scholarly essays (edited by Stefan Brink in collaboration with Price; London: Routledge, 2008), but the strange Viking world that emerges from the black chaos of Ginnungagap. The world that Odin shaped with his brothers from the body of murdered Ymir. A world experienced through the fourfold division of hamr (body), hugr (personality), hamingja(fortune), and fylgja (protector spirit). For Price, the Viking Age is not simply a period of time we assign to make sense of the past. It was a real way of knowing and a lived way of being, learned in childhood and embodied across generations. This is not the Viking Age as we've known it.

Ash and Elm pairs with the reissue of The Viking Way (Barnsley, UK: Oxbow Books, 2020), a second and somewhat revised edition of Price's 2002 dissertation. In a manner of speaking, The Viking Way provides a natural trunk for the many branches of Ash and Elm. This is the joy of Price's work. While The Viking Way describes a way of being, Ash and Elm asks where this came from and where it was going. But this book is not self-indulging. Price is a generous scholar who devotes entire chapters to amplifying the work of colleagues. It's a wild ride.

Price divides his book into three sections further subdivided into eighteen chapters. The titles are allusive and not particularly helpful. The first section, "The Making of Midgard," is Price's most original contribution, providing a rare and compelling prehistory for the Vikings with careful attention to how this history was perceived by those who made it. Its first chapter, "The Home of Their Shapes," looks at Viking cosmography by moving from the unworldly supernatural to the very weirdly human. "Age of Winds, Age of Wolves" proposes that an environmental catastrophe--the so-called "dust veil event" caused by massive volcanic eruptions in the mid-500s--paired with rippling effects from the Roman collapse, restructuring Scandinavian societies and generating new worldviews that revolved around military elites. "The Social Network" looks at the households and material trappings of this militarized hall culture. "The Pursuit of Liberty" focuses on enslaved populations too often omitted in these discussions. "Border Crossings" synthesizes boundary-pushing work on queer identities, gendered behaviors, sex and sexuality, disability, and shapeshifting. "The Performance of Power" outlines the activities that surrounded hall culture. "Meeting the Others" returns attention to religion with a focus on practice. And "Dealing with the Dead" surveys the end results of practice in the rich funerary remains of Iron-Age Scandinavia.

The second section, "The Viking Phenomenon," gives unique prominence to the social and cultural dimensions of the Viking Age by placing them at the center of the study. "Inroads" presents the Baltic ship burials of Salme (Saaremaa), Estonia, dating to the mid-700s, as the earliest signs of Viking activity. The section helps justify Price's broad chronological and geographical framework: we cannot investigate the causes of the Viking Age by keeping a narrow focus on the first raiders' putative homelands in Norway. The chapter then takes a more conventional turn, positing the political economy, market forces, demographics, and ideologies of Scandinavia as factors that drove early Viking raiding. "Maratoria" surveys the emergence of Viking Age sea-kings. "Warriorhoods" examines the makeup of Viking armies, building especially on groundbreaking work by Ben Raffield on the warband or lið units that made up larger armies (313), and on Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson's tantalizing reassessment of the Swedish grave Bj.581 as the burial of a Viking woman warrior (328-29). "Hydrarchy" invokes Price's own earlier work to propose early-modern pirate polities as models for understanding the many-headed multiethnic armies of the Viking Age. In a revealing aside, Price reminds us: "To be a Viking in this context was a frame of mind; a belief system; a career strategy; a ritual act; of course a livelihood, if a violent and risky one; but most of all, a choice" (339). Finally, "Diaspora" builds on the foundational work of Lesley Abrams and Judith Jesch, offering a short introduction to Viking-Age activity in Russia and the North Atlantic, together with a more sustained survey of activity in Spain and the Mediterranean.

The third and final section, "New Worlds, New Nations," looks at the events of the Viking Age in a rapid survey that seems almost conventional in comparison with the preceding two sections. "The Golden Age of the Sheep Farmer" recasts the technological innovations of early Viking-Age seafaring in terms of textile production, timber harvesting, and especially labor. "Silver, Slaves, and Silk" in fact presents a regionalized catalog of Viking activity outside of Scandinavia: England, Ireland, Francia, Russia, and the distant lands of Byzantium and the ʿAbbāsid Caliphate. This chapter is valuable not only for highlighting more obscure areas of research such as Brittany and the Isle of Man but also for its sustained focus on hard-to-access research on Russia and the East. "The Experiments of Monarchy" looks at the joint rise of church and state in later Viking-Age Scandinavia, leading to imperial ambitions and a second wave of violence in the later 900s. "Lands of Fire and Vines" pushes the Viking Age to its limits in the North Atlantic. As Vikings based in Greenland completed the human circuit of the globe, linking Europe to America around the year 1000, they simultaneously pushed themselves beyond the cultural connections that had held the Viking Diaspora together. Price includes an important notice that the much-publicized satellite surveys of Newfoundland have turned up empty (492, cf. 570), though he balances this with evidence for Viking activity in the High Arctic. "The Many Ends of the Viking Age" provides a succinct survey of the frayed ends of the Viking Age, albeit little in terms of a synthetic conclusion. Perhaps the most significant contribution of this third section is its own marginalization. The old stories now appear almost as an afterthought in a rich and engaging book that puts the broader societies and their dominant ways of thinking at the center. It's a remarkable achievement.

This volume deserves much praise, but it also invites concerns. The format plays to Price's strengths as a storyteller; footnotes are omitted--by editorial policy--in favor of a lengthy reference section with bibliographic essays organized by chapter. Price uses his uninterrupted narratives to reframe our understanding of the past in challenging and sometimes controversial ways. Chapters like "Boundary Crossings" and "The Golden Age of the Sheep Farmer" bring new groups into play, while "Age of Winds, Age of Wolves" and "Hydrarchy" introduce important new models for understanding the Viking Age. But there is minimal discussion of scholarly debate, and non-specialists will rarely understand what is at stake in Price's images of the past. Specialists will find the bibliographic essays useful, but they will simultaneously miss the opportunity to trace Price's sources or examine the logic of his interpretations.

Minor errors or inconsistencies contribute to an impression that Price is sometimes haphazard with his sources. I hit dead ends, for example, when investigating the claim that Viking gods made sacrifices to others (50). The bibliographic essay points to a study of Odin's self-sacrifice (Kimberley Christine Patton's Religion of the Gods), and the primary source behind this study, the Hávamál, offers concrete answers to some of the questions Price raises. According to the Old Norse poem, Odin sacrificed himself to himself (sjálfr sjálfum mér); he was not making an offering to something behind or beyond the Asgard gods, as Price suggests. Of course, treating the Hávamál as an authentic record of Viking-Age belief demands dismissing obvious resonances between the story of Odin's self-sacrifice and the story of Christ's self-sacrifice, as Patton herself underlines. Price does not engage with these concerns.

At a larger level, I believe this to be an issue of transparency. Price immerses the reader in the world of his sources whenever possible, with the result that readers receive the least apparatus during the most vivid moments. When Price needs to engage with criticism to make his sources legible, he can make quick work of tricky texts like the Grágás laws (166) or navigate the technical aspects of sex and gender in archaeological contexts (175-78). But he treats equally problematic sources like Ibn Faḍlān's "mission report" of Vikings on the Volga as a straight reporting of events (246-51).

This is one of Price's most sustained discussions of a single Viking-Age source, and it is particularly vexing. Price uses Ibn Faḍlān's report as if it were the script of a Viking funeral, albeit seen through Muslim eyes. Price knows this text well, but he chooses not to address significant problems, such as Thorir Jonsson Hraundal's arguments that certain elements align more closely with the rituals of Turkic peoples and their neighbors than with anything seen in the Viking north (The Rus in Arabic Sources, 115-19). (Indeed, the connection Price proposes between the woman warrior of the Swedish grave Bj.581 and contemporary graves in the Caucasus suggests Turkic practices infiltrated Scandinavia! cf. 328.) Price's reference essay (543-44) vaguely directs readers to see an introductory section--but which one? Jonsson Hraundal's work is positively cited in several places, but never in direct connection to Ibn Faḍlān. In fact, Price offers no focused source critique and instead points to an essay which appears to remain unpublished ("Vikings on the Volga?"). While exception must be granted for the unforeseen interruptions of the pandemic year, this leaves the reader curiously uninformed about a source that Price describes as a "crucial account" (543).

I consider this recurring silence on textual criticism to be an open challenge to text-based scholars. Price is an accomplished archaeologist, and he opens this book with a lavish retelling of Viking mythology based on positivistic readings of medieval sagas and poems. I can think of no better way to pick a fight with text-based scholars than by citing these sources and then seeming to ignore the literature that surrounds them. In this way, Ash and Elm forces literary specialists to take seriously Price's arguments first posed in The Viking Way, which might otherwise be dismissed as the speculations of an archaeologist untrained in texts. The Viking Way used sound archaeological principles--described there as cognitive archaeology--to move from material culture to practice to belief. In Ash and Elm, Price takes these beliefs as a basis for understanding the broader phenomena of the Viking Age. This connection sits at the heart of Price's larger research project, The Viking Phenomenon, which he currently directs from Uppsala University. The Viking Phenomenon seeks to describe the origins of what Price here describes a "cultural package" exported during the Viking Age (274). The chapter "Inroads" seems to be a brief summary of this ongoing work (271-85). But Ash and Elm is a trade book marketed to general audiences. By selling these ideas to a wider public, Price guarantees that specialists will be reckoning with them for years to come, certainly in their classrooms and probably in their scholarship as well.

By combining The Viking Way with The Viking Phenomenon, Ash and Elm confounds Viking-Age ways of seeing the world with modern ways of seeing the Viking Age. Price states this as the purpose of his book: "not only...promoting the Vikings' worldview but also by emphasising that it was the same people traversing that great map of cultures and encounters" (26, italics in the original). Frederick Svanberg has argued that such wishful thinking about a largely homogenous Viking culture has been manipulated to promote modern political agendas, troubling him and others as efforts to "colonize" the past. Price dismisses this problem and bluntly asserts that the Viking Age had a "testable, empirical reality" (9). I remain unconvinced. What does a Greenlandic farmer's wife have to do with Danish thugs slinging spears in England or Rus' merchants peddling wares in Asia, other than the fact that Price calls them all Vikings? Price's decision to consistently use "big-V 'Vikings'...defined through context" leaves the burden on the reader, should she choose to think about it at all (8).

Specialist readers versed in the possibilities and problems of both post-processual and culture-historical approaches to archaeology are well-equipped to discern which "Vikings" Price is talking about--the individuals who subscribed to the Viking Way belief system in the past or the ones whom we describe as members of the Viking Phenomenon today. Trade books are, however, blunt tools for recalibrating the careful course of established research. Non-specialists both in and out of academia are likely to be lured into the impression that there was a stable and broadly held Viking worldview that defined the Viking Age. This is an argument, not a consensus, and such assertions play into nationalist and white supremacist views of the Viking Age, as Price himself admits (4).

Particularly in the field of Viking studies, it must be remembered that popular publications will be marketed to and purchased by members of extremist groups. This is a pressing problem. Since the publication of Ash and Elm, extremist appropriations of the Viking past have become increasingly apparent through the juxtaposition of Thor's hammers alongside symbols of racial hate and Holocaust denial in the US Capitol. Fortunately--and this might well be by design--it seems that extremist enthusiasts of the Vikings will take sharper issue with Ash and Elm than its scholarly critics. Current Amazon reviews, for example, fault Price for his "woke" point of view and object to his knowledge of inconvenient Viking mythology (which is encyclopedic albeit sensationalized), the gender-bending chapter on "Boundary Crossing" (which is one of his most innovative contributions), and periodic "virtue signaling" that condemns racist and Nazi views (which justly deserve condemnation).

In short, Price's book is sure to offend some and challenge all. It brings us to think about how past peoples perceived and interacted with the world as a basis for our understanding of the many worlds of the past. In the acknowledgments, Price notes particular debts to Bruce Trigger's The Children of Aataentsic (1976), which he praises for its wonderfully reader-hostile title and a commitment to an emic view of its subjects (573). Price emulates both virtues in Children of Ash and Elm, and few readers will emerge from this book unchanged.