Thursday, October 28

Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price Review: Vikings on Their Own Terms | History books

SCollars, like Vikings, can be a belligerent crowd. As Neil Price points out in the opening pages of Children of Ash and Elm, the field of Viking studies is “occasionally convulsed by … disputes”, particularly between those who specialize in textual sources and their colleagues who focus on material evidence. While Price the archaeologist falls into the latter field, the beauty of his book is his ability to move through disciplines. An expert synthesizer, he brings together much of the latest historical and archaeological research to illuminate 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 on their own terms, through their sense of themselves and their psychological relationship to the world. This is not an easy task, but he is a master at delving into the Nordic mind: a previous book, The viking way, was a pioneering study of Scandinavian paganism in the late Iron Age. Just like him what and when of the Viking phenomenon, Price seeks to understand the how and why.

Unsurprisingly, this is an approach that demands subtle thinking. Observe the Vikings “as through a prism, each turn of the glass produces new people, new reflections. Each had its own identity, its own image, and its external projection; some were familiar to us, others hideously strange. ” Such an approach has strong modern resonances: a multi-ethnic, multi-genre account of the era that embraces diversity in the mental landscapes of human nature, telling a story of cultural transformations and influences that intersect in many directions. However, Price is not an apologist and never shies away from the “horrendous” conditions many experienced, including horrific levels of violence, entrenched patriarchal oppression, and human slavery as the driving force that propelled much of society.

Tangelgarda Stone, Gotland, Sweden.
Tängelgårda stone, 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 maritime raiders from whom the term originates). Explore how they might have understood the qualities of personality, the complexities of gender, and the cosmos as a whole, including religious beliefs and practices. From here, he begins to trace the socio-political developments that came together to trigger the Viking phenomenon. The causes and origins of the Viking era are still relatively obscure and poorly understood; Perhaps more than any other scholar before him, Price skillfully navigates the “intersecting currents in Scandinavian society” that began to converge in the last decades of the eighth century, tracing all the way back to their source. Searching for the deepest origins of the Viking era, it cleverly connects different times and places since the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

What follows in subsequent chapters is the progression from raids to invasions, conquests, and settlements, in the context of the pirate kings of the sea and the large-scale commercial networks that were opening up around the world. At the end of the book, we have reached Iceland, Greenland, and the coast of North America, not to mention Constantinople, Russia, and the Middle East. The dangers of such a comprehensive synthesis cannot always be completely avoided; Not surprisingly, Price himself calls the assignment a “daunting prospect” and speaks of “snapshots and brief visits at different times and places.” Sometimes the difficulties of specific sources, particularly in the textual record, can be overlooked and regional differences can be avoided. In the later chapters, there may be less of the vigor and brilliance that characterize the book as a whole, although what remains is a solid account of the latest historical research.

Price is not only a leading authority on the period, but he is also a wonderful writer, himself philosophical, witty, lyrical, and poignant. Possesses the ability of an archaeologist to interpret vast amounts of scholarship and data, and the ability to translate them creatively. His vivid prose illuminates the physical and psychological dimensions of the early medieval north, while at the same time leaving room for uncertainty: the possibility of future discoveries and theories that will alter the picture once again. He’s also not afraid to deal with the random gaps and gaps in the source material (like the sound of his music), and the confusions and inconsistencies that arise when dealing with human nature.

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

The writing vibrates with life as Price evokes the voices of the past. (On the stones of Gotland: “That is my father, and there is his father, and the worn stone by the stream is my great-grandfather. We have always been here, and when my time comes, I know what my story will show.” ) Includes evocative, often humorous explorations of pagan myths. (On the god Odin: “He will probably sleep with your wife or possibly your husband”). There are also comedic aside in academic debates. (Price imagines monks leaning against a monastery wall watching the assailants approach, pondering: “What do you think, are they warriors, or rather militia? ”) Along with academic rigor there are also pleasantly lax definitions. (He bases his own personal definition of what constitutes a “city” on his hideous sense of direction: if he could get lost in it, it would probably be a city.)

The book contains many wonderful little details, some so small and precise that, as if witnessing a magic trick, the reader is left wondering how archaeologists He managed to evoke them from the earth: a tomb from 10th century Denmark where the body was placed in a coffin with a huge wax candle placed on top, which continued to burn in the dark until the oxygen ran out. Others feel more like clues prepared for a murder mystery: a ship full of dead Swedish warriors, their bodies full of game pieces, and the “king” game piece inserted into the mouth of one of the men. However, others are testimony to the remarkable coincidences and connections that make up the story: two fragments of silk from two women’s hair caps, one discovered in York, the other in Lincoln, which can be traced thanks to a fault in the fabric. even the bundle. Persian (or perhaps Chinese) silk.

Given the focus that Price throws on everything that was seen and not seen in the Viking world, it is appropriate that he dedicate the book to “follow, all of them. ”These were the ancestral guardians of a family, inherited from generation to generation, who guided all the movements of their descendants. At whatever level this dedication is interpreted, one suspects that Price has made the follow very proud.

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

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