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'Viking Age': everyday life examined in light of archaeological/written sources

Viking Longship
Viking Longship
This is a picture of Viking Longship made by Ningyou. Category:Viking ships

"Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen" by Kirsten Wolf

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Aiming her book at the non-specialist, author Kirsten Wolf describes everyday life in the Viking Age with respect to domestic life, economic life, intellectual life, material life, political life, recreational life and religious life.

The Viking Age is generally said to have begun with the raid at an undefended monastery Lindisfarne, off the coast of northern England that occurred in 792 CE. The end is generally looked up as the Norman invasion of England in 1066, but Wolf takes issue with that and extends it to approximately the end of the 11th century CE.

She concludes that no single etymology is agreed upon for the word “Viking.” It refers not to an ethnicity per se, but to those from Scandinavia who went marauding, raided monasteries and pillaging villages, etc. Once an individual returned home, he ceased to be a Viking. Wolf uses the term “Scandinavian” to describe those who stayed home and farmed or fished or hunted. Those who settled in new lands are generally referred to as “Norsemen.”

She also examines what is known and what can be conjectured about what these people ate, what they wore and what sorts of houses they built. Sources include not only archaeological evidence but written accounts from enemies and travelers in addition to runic inscriptions.

The book is replete with color and black-and-illustrations, photographs of modern reconstructions, as well as reproductions of pages of medieval manuscripts and Romantic era paintings and photos of jewelry.

According to the jacket blurb, author Kirsten Wolf is professor and Torger Thompson Chair of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She teaches Old Norse-Icelandic languages and literature and Scandinavian linguistics.

Reflecting the author’s expertise in languages is an extended section in the book analyzing a Proto-Norse inscription on a horn found in 18th century in Denmark and briefly describing the branching of Scandinavian languages. Like the rest of the book, this is accessible.

Because of the historical importance of those dragon-prowed vessels, Wolf also goes into some detail about how they were built. Oddly enough, they were built without saws. Long planks of wood were split with axes and planed till they fit together. This obviously took a lot of trees and a lot of work. The ships themselves, which initially were used only on rivers, became refined enough to be the swiftest ocean-going vessels in Europe and were capable of reaching modern-day Russia, North Africa, and the eastern Canadian seaboard.

Wolf writes in a utilitarian style. When quoting from sagas or works in Latin, she translates the title the first time. One gripe is that some of the pictures are too small to get a good look at the worked jewelry.

The writing never forgets the Scandinavians are humans:

As is commonly known alcohol loosens the tongue and verbal contests were common consequence of intoxication…Soon, a verbal duel or contest would be taking place that would increase in intensity as the men became more and more intoxicated. The goal was, of course, to improve verbal skills and performance without showing effects of alcohol.” p.241

The book includes an introduction, a timeline, endnotes, a glossary, a list of books suggested for further reading, and an index.

I can happily recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic.

*An earlier version of this review appeared on Epinions, a site that is no longer active.*