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Monday, October 27, 2014

The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth

The Age of the Vikings witnessed an enormous expansion of Scandinavian settlement around the edges of Europe and into Russian Asia.

Book Review
The Age of the Vikings
by Anders Winroth
Princeton University Press
Published September 7th, 2014

  This is a slim (320 pages including footnotes, index and bibliography) that gives an overview of "The Age of the Vikings" that incorporates recent discoveries in the fields of archeology and linguistics.  In archaeological terms this means incorporating what scholars in the field have learned about the health and causes of death of long dead Vikings. In linguistic terms it means incorporating the advances in reading Scandinavian runes.  Winroths works fits within the decades long project to rehabilitate the so-called "Dark Ages" in favor of a more balanced view that takes the positives with the negatives.

 In this case, the negatives are well known.  The Vikings are typically the darkest part of the dark ages, known for their violent depredations against Europeans and residents of the British Isles alike.  At the close of the Vikings age, they had spread colonies from North America  in the West to Russia in the East, and archeological digs have long established that the Vikings played an active role in trading with the Arab Caliphate, Central Asia and the Byzantine Empire.

  In defense of the Vikings, Winroth makes the valid point that the people who wrote about the Vikings were their most frequent victims: Christian Churches and Monasteries.  Obviously, literate monks and church men had a huge axe to grind with Vikings.  Winroth points out that the Vikings were not spectacularly violent when compared to their European contemporaries, their main difference is that they attacked using stealth tactics, and that they were unafraid to plunder churches.

   The newer translations of the long undeciphered Runes demonstrate a poetic tradition that tracks with larger trends in Indo European poetics, with internal rhyme schemes and complicated structures within individual stanzas. Winroth's main theme is that The Age of The Vikings began with SScandinaviabeing outside of "Europe" and ended with it becoming an acknowledged part of Europe with similar structures in government, religion and culture.  This included adopting central Monarchs in charge of proto-national states, and of course the Christian religion.

   Winroth also debunks at least one common misunderstanding- something that was actually prominently featured in the Vikings television show on the History Channel.  The notorious "Blood Eagle" punishment, which theoretically involved punching holes in the back of the victim and drawing out their lungs as "wings," is based on a long corrected mistranslation, and never existed in reality.  Too bad this book didn't come about before the first season, they could have edited that bit out or re-written it for greater accuracy.

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