Children of Ash and Elm, Neil Price’s new Vikings book, reviewed.

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I fell in love with Neil Price’s complete new Vikings story, Ash and elm children, when I got to the paragraph which is just a list of loaves: “There were rectangular loaves baked in one form; round loaves strung on a fine wire; oval buns; thin, soft and pliable flatbreads prepared on a circular hotplate, much like a kind of Nordic tortilla for stuffing with food; thin circular wheels of dry, crispy flatbread with a central hole so they can be hung up for storage… ”And it’s not even finished! Who knew how creative the Vikings could be with carbs?

The bread menu is just a detail in a book that offers delight upon delight. If you, like me, liked fictional Viking stories like this History Channel show on Ragnar Lothbrok (very good) and that of Linnea Hartsuyker Golden wolf Saga (very, very good) and always wanted to read a fuller story informed by the current stock market, but wondering where to start, is this book. Price, an English archaeologist working at Uppsala University in Sweden, has produced a unique (albeit long!) Volume Vikings still consider unresolved. The Vikings, Price writes at one point, are interesting to him because of their “curiosity, creativity, complexity and sophistication of their mental landscapes, and yes, their openness to new experiences and ideas.” It’s a set of qualities that we also find in this book, which manages to be at the same time lyrical, disconcerting, specific and passionately uncertain.

Throughout this book are glorious collections of Viking facts which are technically known still resist our best attempts at interpretation. Catalog small and large variations found in graves to take stock of how the Vikings looked after the “sense of the individual” while burying people, Price Lists:

Women buried dressed in lynx skins or lying under heavy bearskins; swords planted vertically in a grave; a shield on the face or by the waist; one piece, only one, already a hundred years old and worn; a line of graves, in which each corpse holds a white, smooth pebble in its hand; a horse lowered into a grave, actually standing on the corpse, before being slaughtered; to the food of the same burial, inside the tomb, a menhir on which the body of a dog was crushed, tearing it …

This is not just a list of finds, but of mysteries, mysteries like this that might make someone dedicate their life to studying Vikings. “You could fill a book with things like that,” Price writes, expressing a fascinated curiosity that seems to drive him almost to despair.

Price periodically departs from his easy learned tone to make conversational and enthusiastic asides. These can be quite funny. There is no evidence, writes Price, that the “berkserkers”, Viking warriors who entered hyperviolent states of trance in combat, used drugs, “despite the fact that Wikipedia’s entry for berserkers recommends the reader to also search for “Dutch Courage” and, indeed, “Go to the post office.” Recounting the stories of Viking religious ceremonies recorded by medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen at 11e century, Price writes, “Adam also mentions that all of this was accompanied by such obscene ‘they better keep quiet’ (damn) festivities.” “Shit”, indeed!

Price has a knack for evoking the physical environment of the Vikings as it might have been – a gift for recreation that is probably natural for an archaeologist accustomed to deriving meaning from even the smallest bit of disturbed land. While dining in fire-lit rooms, Viking warlords (textual sources tell us) wore their helmets inside; “The flickering orange flames of the hearth would have animated the coating of raised images on their tiny pressed metal plates,” writes Price. At the sites of many of these long-extinct rooms, “thin” rectangular gold leaves, embossed with images, have been found – leaves that archaeologists say could have been “calling cards” for them. visitors and which would have been fixed on the posts containing at the top of the corridor. If the “calling card” theory holds, Price writes, those sites that produce a wide variety of foils may have been the salons of renowned lords, accustomed to “welcoming guests from all over.” “In the glow of the fire, the leaves would also have twinkled, the towering roof poles appearing through the smoke like pillars of shining golden lights,” Price invites us to imagine.

Just because the Vikings tolerated many types of differences, didn’t mean they were kind to them. powerless.

Yet although the richest and most powerful Vikings drag drama and beauty through the archaeological records, the author never forgets the dark side of all that splendor. Price’s pages summarizing the many human hours that must have been spent producing the sails and clothing of Viking sailors – pages that show how improbable it was that a Viking ever sailed anywhere, without talk about going as far as they’ve done – end where they should: where the job was done. Women slaves worked on sails in windowless weaving huts, and “conditions in the sheds would have been appalling,” writes Price. Imagine leaning over a cloth all day in the dim light, thinking of the lost house and family, Price asks us; imagine your body in pain, as well as your mind: “All day long, tiny floating particles of wool gradually accumulated around work, sucked into the lungs with each breath. In the evening, the air inside the huts was probably opaque and filled with coughing noises.

“Behind every Viking raid, usually visualized today as an arrow or the name of a place on a map, was the appalling trauma suffered by everyone at the time of slavery, the incredulous experience to go from person to property in seconds, ”writes Price. A text by Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a traveler from Baghdad who met Scandinavians on the Volga in 922, describes the rape of female slaves as an integral part of the “daily routine” of the Vikings. “Even at the point of sale,” Price writes, “sometimes a woman has been raped one last time in the presence of her buyer. Ahman ibn Fadlan’s text, he adds, “should be required reading for anyone tempted to glorify” heroic “Viking warriors.

It’s a testament to Price’s efforts to thread the discussion of slavery, violence, and oppression throughout the book that I don’t even really need the summary paragraphs he places at the beginning and end. the end, directly addressing whether we are to ‘appreciate’ or ‘like’ the Vikings – whether, in short, we should allow ourselves to admire them. But this question, Price says as he opens the book, needs to be considered, because “over the centuries a great number of people have eagerly pressed the Vikings in (im) moral service, and others continue to do so … The century’s engagement with the Vikings must recognize the often deeply problematic ways in which their memory is activated in the present. The very concept of a “pure Nordic” lineage, he points out, would have “baffled” the historic Vikings, engaged as they were in a relentless and curious expansion. But as Price’s own details make clear, just because Vikings tolerated many types of differences didn’t mean they were kind to the helpless.

The prize was one of lead authors of the research team this confirmed by genomic analysis in 2017 that a warrior buried with the highest honors – seated, surrounded by weapons and horses – first discovered in Birka, Sweden, in 1878, was female. “In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether or not the person in Birka’s tomb is a female warrior with a female body,” Price writes. “That person could also have been transgender, in our words, or non-binary, or gender fluent. There are also other possibilities, but the point is that they must all be recognized as possible Viking-Age identities while — essentially — does not assume that it has to be. (Emphasis added by Price.) To convey such a deep sense of scholarly indeterminacy, while dazzling the reader with cinematic detail, is truly an achievement.

By Neil Price. Basic books.

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