Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price review – Vikings on their own terms | History books


Scholars, like Vikings, can be a belligerent mob. As Neil Price notes in the opening pages of Ash and elm children, the field of Viking studies is “sometimes shaken by … quarrels,” particularly between those who specialize in textual sources and their colleagues who focus on physical evidence. While the archaeologist Price falls into the latter camp, the beauty of his book is his ability to cross disciplines. An expert synthesizer, he brings together a large part of the latest historical and archaeological research in order to shed light on the Viking world in all its chronological and geographical extent.

If the book’s merits ended here, it would still be worth reading as the last word in Viking Age history. However, Price’s goal is more ambitious: to present the Vikings in their own way, through their sense of self and their psychological relationship to the world. It is not an easy task, but he is a master in the art of entering the Nordic spirit: a previous book, The viking way, was a revolutionary study of Scandinavian paganism at the end of the Iron Age. As good as What and when of the Viking phenomenon, Price seeks to understand How? ‘Or’ What and Why.

As you might expect, this is an approach that requires subtle thinking. He observes the Vikings “as though through a prism, each turn of glass producing new people, new reflections. Each had its own identity – its self-image – and its outward projection; some of them were familiar to us, others terribly foreign ”. Such an approach has strong modern resonances: a multi-gender, multi-ethnic narrative of the era that embraces the diverse mental landscapes of human nature, telling a story of cultural transformations and influences that intersect in many directions. Yet Price is also no apologist and never shies away from the “horrific” conditions many have experienced, including horrific levels of violence, entrenched patriarchal oppression, and human slavery as the driving force that has fueled it. much of society.

Stone of Tängelgårda, Gotland, Sweden. Photograph: PHAS / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Price begins by examining the Vikings’ sense of their place in the world (“Viking”, in this context, refers to the general population rather than the sea raiders with whom the term originates). It explores how they might have understood the qualities of the person, the intricacies of gender, and the cosmos as a whole, including religious beliefs and practices. From there, he begins to trace the socio-political developments that came together to trigger the Viking phenomenon. The causes and origins of the Viking Age are still relatively obscure and poorly understood; perhaps more than any other scholar before him, Price skillfully navigates the “cross-streams of Scandinavian society” that began to converge in the closing decades of the 8th century, tracing them all the way to their source. Researching the deeper origins of the Viking Age, he skillfully links different times and places until the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

What follows in the following chapters is the progression of raids towards invasions, conquests and settlements, against the backdrop of pirate sea kings and large-scale trade networks that were opening up across the world. By the end of the book, we’ve reached Iceland, Greenland, and the North American coast, not to mention Constantinople, Russia, and the Middle East. The dangers of such a comprehensive synthesis cannot always be completely avoided; no wonder Price himself calls the task a “daunting prospect” and speaks of “snapshots and brief visits at different times and places”. Occasionally, specific source difficulties – particularly in the textual record – may be obscured and regional differences eliminated. In the later chapters there is perhaps less of the vigor and sparkle that characterizes the book as a whole, although what remains is still a solid account of the latest historical research.

Not only a leading authority on the period, Price is also a wonderful writer, alternately philosophical, witty, lyrical and poignant. He possesses both the ability of an archaeologist to interpret large amounts of scholarship and data, and the skill to translate them creatively. His vivid prose illuminates both the physical and psychological dimensions of the early Middle Ages north, while leaving room for uncertainty: the possibility of future discoveries and theories that will once again change the picture. He is also not afraid to confront the random absences and gaps in the source material (like the sound of their music), as well as the confusions and inconsistencies that arise from dealing with human nature.

Carved animal head found in a burial treasure, Oseberg, Norway.
Carved animal head found in a burial treasure, Oseberg, Norway. Photograph: Photo 12 / UIG / Getty Images

The writing buzzes with life as Price summons voices from the past. (On the stones of Gotland’s image: “This is my father, and there is his father, and the stone weathered by the stream is my great-grandfather. We have always been here, and when my time will come, I know what my story will show. ”) It includes evocative, often humorous, explorations of pagan myths. (On the god Odin: “He’ll probably sleep with your wife or, maybe, your husband.”) There are comedic asides in scholarly debates as well. (Price imagines monks leaning over the wall of a monastery and watching the looters approach, wondering, “What do you think, are they warriors, or rather militia? Pleasantly loose definitions also appear alongside scholarly rigor. (He bases his personal definition of what constitutes a “city” on his appalling sense of direction: if he could get lost in it, it’s probably a city.)

There are many wonderful little details in the book, some so tiny and precise that, as if witnessing a magic trick, the reader wonders how much archaeologists succeeded in warding them off from the earth: a 10th century Danish tomb where the body was placed in a coffin topped with a huge wax candle, which continued to burn in the dark until the oxygen was lost. Others feel more like staged clues to a murder mystery: a shipment of dead Swedish warriors, their bodies littered with game pieces, and the ‘king’ game piece inserted into one ‘s mouth. men. Still others bear witness to the remarkable coincidences and connections that make history: two fragments of silk from two women’s headdresses, one discovered in York, the other in Lincoln, which thanks to a lack of weaving can be attributed to the same Persian (or perhaps Chinese) silk ball.

Given the spotlight that Price throws on all that has been seen and unseen in the Viking world, it is fitting that he dedicates the book to “fylgjur, all. “They are the ancestral guardians of a family, inherited from generation to generation, guiding every movement of their descendants. At whatever level this dedication is interpreted, it is suspected that Price made the fylgjur very proud.

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings is published by Allen Lane (£ 30). To order a copy, go to guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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