*I did receive a digital version of this title from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review*
Most history books covering the Viking Age are all fairly similar in their content in that the political/military narrative takes center stage, relegating everything else to the periphery. Not so with this book. As one might tell from the subtitle, The Vikings: From Odin to Christ is a book that emphasizes the cultural and religious aspects of Viking society. While some political history by necessity is included, this is based in the broader context of the assimilation of the Vikings into the Western European fold. Another interesting push that this book successfully imparts onto the reader is just how quickly the varying Viking societies Christianized. This leads to the understanding of how much of the “barbarous” activity of the popular image of the heathen Northmen was actually carried out by Christian Vikings.
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Despite this interesting take on the Vikings, it did tend to lead some problems. First of all, sometimes dates and numerous proper names of lesser known figures (such as missionaries to the various Viking societies) would occur rather rapidly leading to rather dry listings of facts. Actual lists were employed a couple of times as an explanatory device, though these were sparing enough to not detract from the text. These dry spells also led to a couple of clunky areas of writing. This wasn’t helped out by a few other decisions regarding the primary texts. For example, the Heimskringla was often employed as a source. However, every time it was mentioned its literal English translation was also included so as to be Heimskringla (Circle of the World). When multiple primary sources and sagas are used in ever chapter, often more than once, it did become a little jarring.
Still, some of these textual problems were almost byproducts of what the book did well. Such as when the primary source was often written in both its Norse and English forms. It became quite noticeable because of the rich and extensive usage of primary source material did demonstrate points and bolster arguments. Also on the plus side, setting the entire book in the context of cultural assimilation with particular emphasis on religious conversion was quite smart. This allowed for an examination of most of the various Viking cultures that had expanded throughout Western Europe. Detailed looks were given to Normandy, Ireland, the English Danelaw, Iceland, as well as the formation of the individual states of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Also appreciated were specific examinations of often overlooked Viking societies such as Kieven Rus, the Orkneys, and the Isle of Man. The reader is able to come away with both the broad picture of Viking culture and assimilation as well as the nuances and differences between each area of Viking conversion. As an example, the Viking settling of Normandy led to an extremely quick assimilation into French culture and conversion to Christianity while the the Norse Kingdom of the Isles allowed for a syncretic blend of Christian, Gaelic, and Norse culture for a much more extended period of time. Lastly, this book does a great job at demonstrating that a conversion to Christianity did not necessarily and immediately change a society’s Viking culture and that many famous events of the Viking Age were committed by Christian Vikings. A notable example would be the Danish conquest of England by King Cnut and his father Sweyn Forkbeard.
Overall, while this book had a few odd aspects relating to the writing, the thrust of the book is a well done piece of history of looking at the Vikings through the lens of cultural assimilation and is tremendous in its breadth and detail.
4 out 5 stars.