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
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
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.
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