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‘The Northman: The Viking Saga’ a trip through history

December 14, 2018
"The Northman: A Viking Saga AD 793-1241" is available to read at the Cabell County library.
"The Northman: A Viking Saga AD 793-1241" is available to read at the Cabell County library.

With apologies to all NFL fans out there, Vikings are a lot like Cowboys. We are far more familiar with the mythology of these folk than we are with the actuality of their existence and their historical impact. In “The Northmen: The Viking Saga, AD 793-1241,” author John Haywood sets many of the myths straight, and in doing so introduces the reader to the rich and vital contributions Vikings have made to the development of three continents: Europe, Asia, and North America.

The adventures, many well-known, of the Viking raiders off the coasts of Britain and France are well known. From the sacking of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne to the establishment of a Viking colony in France (Normandy), Haywood gives the reader a fearful insight into just how harrowing these raids were. But he also details the important and longer lasting contributions made by Vikings as settlers (the Orkney and Shetland Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and the coast of North America); as traders (the kingdom of the Rus and the Ottoman Empire); and as master mariners (pretty much everywhere they wanted to go!)

There is much to absorb in this masterly narrative, but several things struck this reader as worthy of mention. Haywood describes how important for humanity the Norse colonization of Greenland was. He has some sort of Frederick Jackson Turner moment and sees the Viking colonies in North America as the completion of the human journey: the joining of one tribal migration out of Africa with another such migration. Another trenchant observation by Haywood is how different the Viking experience was. Swedish traders and Norwegian raiders had different objectives and methods of securing these. Vikings gave us Parliaments also, through the establishing of the self-governing thing in Iceland.

Intriguingly, Haywood points out what ended the Viking era was the success they had in making gains outside of Scandinavia. Various nation states of the early modern period developed a more central approach to governance, and this included defense. This, often, led to the repulsion of Viking raids. Such measures would not have been taken by societies which were unaware of the damage such raids could occasion. Whether it was the internal nation states of Scandinavia, or the wider world in which the Vikings operated, few of these kingdoms did not develop some sort of response to Viking raids. This could come in the form of a better organized military response or the good old-fashioned payment of money to prevent further destruction, e.g. Danegeld.

“The Northmen” is not an uplifting Christmas read, I am afraid. But if you wish to impress your friends and family this season with your extensive knowledge of the five hundred years of high Viking society, this is the text for you. “The Northmen,” along with many other resources on the Vikings, is available at the Cabell County Public Library.

David Owens, Reference Librarian Cabell County Library.

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