The very first thing Neil Price wrote when he started his Viking history, The children of the ash and the elm (Penguin), was not the account of a particularly bloody raid or daring adventure at sea. It was a list of the bread they ate, details gleaned from graves all over Sweden.
From circular wheels of dry, crisp flatbread with a central hole to “thin, soft, and pliable flatbreads made on a circular griddle, more like a kind of Nordic tortilla for stuffing with food,” at least nine distinctive types of Viking them. breads are known, he informs us, in this captivating, questioning, revealing book.
A lot of what we know about the Vikings is the Vikings through the eyes of the people whose homes they set on fire, which will give you some perspective, and maybe not very even-handed. I wanted to correct that
“You don’t think if the Vikings had snacks or crispy buns or crusty bread, but they actually had heaps of different types of bread,” Price explains, speaking to Zoom from Uppsala University. in Sweden, where he is president of archeology. “And there you are in another Viking Age, you are not in the Viking Age monastery fire, despite the fact that they are the same people. You get very close to the Vikings when you walk into their kitchens, or think about what they have for dinner, or what ends up on the other end. (On what a note, Price also evocatively writes about the excavation of a Viking latrine – how he discovered the tufts of foam used as toilet paper, the pieces of cloth that were the Viking equivalent of sanitary napkins.)
Among many superlative reviews — Dan Jones in the Sunday opening hours called The children of the ash and the elm “One of the best” of the thousands of books written on Vikings – an article in Slate, USA stood out for Price. “Critics said she fell in love with the book when it came to the paragraph on bread,” he says. “And I loved it, because these were exactly the Vikings I wanted to write about.”
From the Marvel superhero Thor, with a historic winged helmet, to the TV series “The Vikings”, popular culture can’t get enough of the ancient Norse people. Price wanted to dispel some of the common myths about them, including the name they are known by today. Víkingr in Old Norse roughly means pirate, so the majority of people living in what we call the Viking Age wouldn’t identify with it at all.
“The Vikings are one of the most stereotypical ancient cultures. There are so many reinventions and appropriations of them, and one thing that I think runs through a lot of popular Viking images is a kind of rawness, savagery, barbarism, ”Price says. “I wanted to write a book that corrects this, because they are actually extremely sophisticated people with great subtlety of mind, ideas and attitude. The only take home message I wanted to convey with this book is that the people of the Viking Age were such complicated individuals as we are.
Exploring Viking culture, art, politics and cosmology, Price examines everything from Viking personal hygiene (these weren’t the wild and neglected warriors of legend) to the toys their children played with, which have been found on many sites: miniature wooden horses, wooden boats, rag balls. “How often do we talk about Viking toys? Almost never. But there are toy guns that look exactly like adult guns, so little Viking boys and girls want the same gender as adults – they don’t just want a sharp stick.
The Viking Age is traditionally believed to begin in June 793, when Scandinavian looters attacked Lindisfarne Monastery, and end in September 1066, when the English pushed King Harald Hardrada of Norway back at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
Price takes a different approach, saying the Viking roots can be traced back to a series of cataclysmic volcanic eruptions in the 6th century, which would have lowered the temperature in Scandinavia by as much as four degrees, devastating crops. As the skies darkened, estimates of the population loss in Scandinavia rose to as high as 50%, leaving a permanent mark on the psyche of generations to come.
“Two hundred years is not a long time, especially in a culture used to remembering through repetition and stories,” Price explains. “There is this feeling that the Vikings came out of nowhere, that they just rocked on Lindisfarne beach. But not only were the Scandinavians fairly well known to the world before they began raiding, but the roots of Viking society go back centuries. At the end of the day, I think their company is really what has recovered from the various really bad things that were going on in the 500s … 200 years later, that’s what you get. “
The children of the ash and the elm does not shrink from the brutal side of the Vikings – the carnage of their raids, the central role of slavery in their life and trade, their misogyny, their warlike side which, in extremis, “manifests itself in horrors such as the ritual rape, wholesale slaughter and enslavement, and human sacrifice, ”as Price writes. But “a lot of what we know about the Vikings is the Vikings through the eyes of the people whose homes they set on fire, which will give you some perspective, and maybe not very even-handed. I wanted to fix that, ”Price says. “It’s about getting around the stereotype and giving them some weird kind of permission to be themselves – Vikings on their terms, for better or for worse. And a lot of times for the worse, frankly, this is by no means some sort of laundering on their part. It is recognizing that they were infinitely fascinating, and it is not necessarily the same as admirable. Not at all.”
Price’s parents were very interested in the story; when he was a child, the family visited museums and monuments together. He made his first excavations at 16 and studied Viking archeology at UCL, before doing his doctorate at Uppsala. Being in Scandinavia “made a lot of sense” for his field of study, and after meeting his future wife in Sweden, he ended up staying.
Price writes in his book about one of his favorite Viking objects, a pair of children’s mittens from Iceland, tied with string, which would have passed through the sleeves of a jacket. “You can see that little Viking over there, twirling his mittens in the snow,” he said. “They had the same solution as us.”
It’s a perfect example of one of my favorite parts of the book, which shows both Price’s evocative handwriting, and also the glimpse he tries to give us of a people who lived there centuries, as complicated and as different as we are: “The Viking spirit is far from us today, but sometimes just about tangible,” he writes. “When we walk in a forest at night, or watch the moon rise over a black field of hraun lava, or salute the spring in the calm and disturbing waters of a lake, we can touch its workings for a moment or two. “
We must not forget that all of the Ash and Elm Children were also, once, mere children: ten generations of little people who grew up in what we call the Viking Age – another shift in perspective away from the wild marauders of the stereotype. They’re gone, of course, but we can still roughly tell them apart in the things they used; in their graves, buried too early with their little treasures; in the places where they lived; and in later texts, poems and sagas.
We can see them at their games, playing. Gallop a wooden horse on a dirt floor in Dublin. Bounce a ball made of rags in the wooded streets of Novgorod. Watching over a little brother, squirming in a bar chair like Lund’s. Fight with carefully crafted miniature wooden swords designed to match the larger versions with the blades they weren’t meant to touch. We can see them in the rain and mist of the Faroe Islands, sailing their toy boats on the spring melt and waiting for the tide.