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NESP Reviews


A History of the Vikings
by Gwyn Jones
Second Edition. Oxford University Press, New York, 1984. ISBN: 0-19-285139-X

Reviewed by Nexx

      It is easy to see why Gwyn Jones's A History of the Vikings is considered a classic in its field. The late Dr. Jones covers the Scandinavian peoples and their interaction with each other and non-Nordic nations until the death of Harald Hardradi in 1066, drawing on a variety of sources in several languages. This book is a necessity for any that wish to have a single reference for much of Viking Age Scandinavia.
      Rather than begin with the largely unstinting praise I have for this book, two problems must be addressed, first. While his bibliography proves that Dr. Jones had at least a reading knowledge of a wide variety of languages, and he acknowledged the necessity of knowing at least a few of the nine languages that one finds the bulk of primary sources, he unfortunately does not concede that many of his readers will not know these languages. The text is peppered with untranslated phrases in Irish, Welsh, Old English, German, Latin and Old Norse, occasionally obscuring Dr. Jones's intent to those not familiar with those languages.
       Secondly, Dr. Jones's work has a curious arrangement. Each of his sections begins with a section on the Scandinavian way of life. Unfortunately, there are often points (such as when he speaks of the conversion of Denmark and Norway) where it would be helpful to know information he places much later in the book (such as the religious beliefs of the Norsemen, which are found in the third section). While this may seem a minor oversight, it makes understanding of why individuals were reviled or honored for certain actions difficult to those not familiar with the prevailing religion with the culture, and the lack of information is a vexing one in early sections.
       Aside from those two points, however, A History of the Vikings is an excellent work, divided into four parts and three appendices. Jones's style of writing is reminiscent of the Saga authors, with a similar flow and rhythm to the words and sentences, a fact that adds to the readability of his work. In his introduction, Dr. Jones explains the difficulties and advantages of his three sources of primary material: archaeology, numismatics, and written sources.
       Archaeology, as he explains on page 4, gives remarkable insight into the movements and home-life of the various Nordic peoples, as well as their material culture, durable arts, and religion. It is limited in that dating tends to be imprecise and that it is as open to any other source to misinterpretation. The vagaries of personal opinion can bring forth nearly any interpretation desired, given enough time and imagination. Numismatics, on the other hand, tells much about the extent of trade and who was in charge of a given country at a certain time, but it does not tell much about what happened after the coins were minted.
       Both archaeology and numismatics, therefore, serve as a check on the written word. The written word, in the form of poems, histories, sagas, and inscriptions is perhaps the most valuable source for what was perceived to be happening at the time the source was written, and comparison between multiple sources can provide clarity, or at least a more coherent confusion. These sources, however, are difficult because they must be at least double interpreted. First, the chronicler would add his own personal slant to events, favoring his own viewpoint and occasionally revealing his biases. Secondly, the translator often has to work through the labyrinthine rules for whichever language the source was first written in, and often a third person who reads the translated work and draws their own conclusions. Biases and misperceptions at any point can lead to the facts being lost.
       As Dr. Jones points out, however, these sources are still invaluable. They provide much information that would not otherwise be available, and with proper and unbiased interpretation can provide a great deal more. If nothing else, this is what serious historian must tell themselves, or risk admitting that they have little more to go on that tabloids and trash heaps.
       The first part of the book, "The Northern Peoples to AD 700" covers the initial stages of Scandinavian development. Jones covers the development of the Nordic peoples from a combination of Pre-Indo-European hunter-gatherers and Indo-European invaders. Textually and numismatically, these people left little for historians to go on, but their archaeological remnants show that these "proto-Vikings" had a great deal of influence on their descendants, especially in the realm of art and industry. Two examples of Jones's are amber working (which remained popular through the Viking period) and ship building, which showed the same raised sterns and prows of later ships. As time progressed, foreign textual accounts, such as those by Ptolemy and Tacitus become available to provide views from the outside of the Nordic peoples.
       In the second chapter of the first part, Jones turns towards "The Legendary History of the Swedes and the Danes", including such figures as Beowulf, the early Ynglings and the Scyldings. I found it interesting that he neglected to mention the Volsungs who, though not strictly historical, certainly formed part of the legendary landscape of the Viking Age Northman's mind.
       With the second part, Jones considers the three kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway until the end of the tenth century. Somewhat anomallously, he only now turns towards the question of what these three are grouped, despite Denmark being separated from Sweden and Norway, the difficulty of traveling between the other two, and the lack of a boundary between Finland and Sweden. Their similarities, he contends, were in language and religion. Even today, the languages of these three countries are very close; a Swedish acquaintance of mine refers to the Danish language as being "speaking Swedish with a big potato in your mouth." Furthermore, however, the three countries were converted quite late, by European standards, remaining heathen until the middle of the 10th century. The very fact that they weren't Christian united them nearly as much as a shared mythology, both in their own minds and the minds of those Christians they dealt with. From that basis, Jones summarizes the dynastic movements of the Nordic peoples, and the ascension of rulers such as Gorm the Old and Svien Forkbeard of Denmark and Olaf Tryggvason and Hakon the Good of Norway. His summary lasts nearly seventy pages of dense information, all well indexed, another point which makes this book easy on the student.
       The third part, titled "The Viking Movement Overseas" opens with a discussion of the social structure of Nordic cultures. As is usual for Indo-European cultures, there was a three-part class/caste system, of peasant, freeman, and warrior. The Scandinavian explanation for this was linked to a tale of Rig visiting three houses and getting a child on a woman at each. Each child had certain physical characteristics, though Jones earlier points out that these never became a formalized system of discrimination; just because you were small, dark, and round-skulled did not prevent you from becoming king, nor did being tall, fair of hair, and long-skulled keep you from being a peasant. It continues to describe some of the social structure and construction of villages that we know from archaeological and textual sources.
       From the background of the Scandinavian community, he moves to discuss the causes of men going a viking, the technology that got them there, and the perils they faced en route and upon arrival. The description of a longship is based on one unearthed in Gokstad, and its construction of oak is truly awe-inspiring. Various other tools, such as a bearing dials and even the span of a hand compared to the height of the sun or pole star all figured into their movements. Causes were many and varied, as they are for most human endeavors, but outlawry, the need for more agricultural land and resources, and pressure from the Holy Roman Empire all contributed to turn the Scandinavian gaze outward, towards the Franks, the English, and the Irish, as well as the Finns and Russians and, eventually, Iceland, Greenland, and the Americas. Jones deals with each of these, each in its own chapter, dealing with the reactions of the natives, the legendary context gleaned from the Sagas, and the impact that the raiders and eventual settlers had on the lands they visited.
       As noted above, the third section opens with a discussion of the pre-Christian Nordic religion, as well as art and literature, then continues with the history of the Nordic nations until 1066, with Harald Hardradi's death against the English at Stamford bridge. In the opening chapter of the third part, the varying styles found in period are discussed, as well as the history of the religion and many aspects of poetic style. Several pages are devoted to discussing the Havamal (The Sayings of the High One) as well as their curious bias against women, given the respect seen being given towards women in other Nordic sources. It is from the Havamal and similar works that we get the clearest picture of an ideal man of the North; it would have been helpful to have this section earlier, as noted above. The three appendices deal with the Nordic runes (the futhark), the Danelaw, and a ship burial in Russia; each, individually, gives insight into the workings of Nordic life but, as they are not properly part of the three kingdoms dealt with, they are well-suited to being appendices.
       This is an outstanding book. While it does have two weak points, one with regards to word choice, the second to organization, the book itself is magnificent. What illustration and pictures are included are topical and add to understanding of the text (with my American grasp of European geography, I found the map on page 61 to be invaluable), yet are not so many that they clutter the pages that are best devoted to text. This is an essential text for any interested in studying the Viking Age, and those interested in the period will sorely miss its author, Dr. Gwyn Jones.

You can check out other articles by Nexx on Nexx's web site at

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