Book Review: “Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen” by Kirsten Wolf

Viking age life book cover

Lately I’ve been in search of good books regarding the Vikings and the Viking Age, especially about their everyday life and most especially about viking women. From the title, this book seemed to fit the bill. I had recently read and reviewed “Everyday Life in the Viking Age” by Jacqueline Simpson which was written in the late sixties. I was eager to compare what the two authors had to say on the topic and if there were any changes.

Interestingly, Wolf’s book confirmed everything in Simpson’s book. I was delighted when the first chapter dwelt mostly on women and their role in Viking Age society. Wolf was very specific in describing domestic life, marriage, kinship, childbirth, children and old age. Next is a chapter on economic life and Wolf tells us a great deal about Viking Age trade. The section on the trading centers (emporia) was very appealing. In the chapter on intellectual life, she goes into great detail about language and writing which was very technical and little hard to understand but Wolf’s specialty is Scandinavian languages. The other sections on education, literature, science and health and medicine are fascinating.

I really liked the section on material life. Here Wolf describes Viking Age housing, domestic furnishings, men’s and women’s clothing, and food and drink. Wolf describes the different styles of visual art, i.e. Broa, Jelling, Mammen, Borre, etc. And of course there is the requisite segment on Viking Age ships and other types of boats as well as how the vikings traveled by sea and by land. This is really the heart of the book and the most enjoyable chapter.

The chapter on political life explains the social structure of society, from slaves up to the aristocracy. Wolf talks about the process of unification broken down by country, Denmark, Sweden, Norway. I especially liked the history sections of this chapter, giving short paragraphs on how the Vikings colonized different areas of the world. Wolf gives a breakdown of the law codes, warfare and weapons.

The final chapters are devoted to recreational life, religion, myths, death and burial practices. She has a brief explanation of how the Scandinavian countries were Christianized. There are many beautiful illustrations. Overall, I found the book to be enlightening and pleasurable read. I would highly recommend it. This book is one in a series by Sterling Publishing Company regarding the everyday life of ancient historical cultures, the others being Greece, Egypt and the Middle Ages.

Book Review: “A Brief History of the Vikings” by Jonathan Clements

brief history vikings

Due to testing my family DNA, I discovered my paternal ancestry is Nordic Viking. To go along with this, the History Channel began airing a series called “Vikings” which I have thoroughly enjoyed, by the way! This made me want to know more so I began by reading “A Brief History of the Vikings: The Last Pagans or the First Modern Europeans?” by Jonathan Clements.

While this is not a definitive history of the Vikings, it’s a great introduction. Clements writes with an easy style, injecting subtle humor into the stories. He begins with a short rundown of the Viking people before the great Viking Age with a chapter on the myths and legends of Scandinavia. This includes an explanation of what is known of their religious practices and those of the people in the surrounding geographic area. He then moves on to the late eighth century when some of the raids began on England, Ireland, the Highlands of Scotland and other islands. Clements also tells us about the history of Iceland and the colonies there.

There are several reasons given for the diaspora of the Scandinavian peoples during the Viking Age. Most importantly has to be trade. The Vikings were in search of trade and especially silver. This led them to the Middle East where they traded with the Muslims for vast amounts of silver. But after the mines stopped producing the metal, they had other motivations for sailing to other locales. Clements points out there were family feuds among the men that drove them to conquer others. The Vikings also went in search of more land to farm and raise livestock.

They sailed their well-constructed ships to many geographical places: England, Scotland, Ireland, northern France, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and even North America. My favorite stories are of those who came to North America and about Hrolf the Walker, also known as Rolf or Rollo, who founded the Normandy dukedom in France and was an ancestor of William the Conqueror. Being American, I was always taught that Christopher Columbus was the first person to “discover” America. Clements gives a nice rundown of the many explorers and colonizers who viewed or touched on the shores of North America. Some stayed for short periods of time and some took lumber and brought it back to Greenland and Scandinavia. And of course they encountered the “Skraelings”, or Native Americans, much to their discomfort. This was my favorite part of the book.

The pinnacle of the Viking Age according to Clements was the life of Harald Hardada (the Ruthless). He had many adventures. Whether they were true or fanciful exaggerations doesn’t really matter because it still makes for a good story. This book is a great foundation for those who want to know more about the Vikings. There are some nice photos in the book and a great appendix. There are lists of Rulers During the Viking Age along with family trees and maps. And of course, there is an excellent bibliography for those who are interesting in exploring more. I recommend this book and will keep it in my library for further reference.