There are already several excellent books on the Viking Age, such as the works of Magnusson, Brønsted, Sawyer and Roesdahl, and my personal favourite for all-round factual information, Gwyn Jones’ revised History of the Vikings. Accordingly, I have tried to steer a course between the other available authorities, concentrating on the personalities of the Viking era, who made up that remarkably small handful of families and interlocking dynasties who were the prime movers of the Viking expansion. In order to accomplish this, I have included several family trees to aid the reader in appreciating the Viking Age not as the clash of armies but as a series of family dramas, complete with feuds and reunions, as descendants of local leaders in Scandinavia entwine with the kings and queens of medieval Europe. In a small way, I hope to achieve something of the sense of the sagas that preserve so much of Viking culture for us, showing the people of Scandinavia through their personal lives, or at least, as romanticized and distorted by their later descendants in Iceland. When saga claims veer far from the evidence of archaeology or other orthodox sources, I have endeavoured to strike a balance.
I have stayed clear of some of the more famous passages that can be found in the works of others. Ibn Fadlan’s infamous treatment of Rus funeral rites, human sacrifice, gang rape and all, features largely in the works of Brønsted and Jones, and need not be repeated here. Instead, I have concentrated on a passage in Ibn Fadlan that I find far more evocative of the Viking experience in the East – an account of declining trade and the desperation that can ensue. Similarly, nothing encapsulates the Vikings’ relationship with the Native Americans better than Gudrid’s heart-rending conversation with a Skraeling in her tent, which I have chosen to quote in place of the more usual tales of Vinland. With such an approach, I hope this book will provide a new perspective even for those who already familiar with other studies.
I have used some names that are anachronistic to aid ease of recognition. I refer to the great bay in southern Norway as ‘the Vik’, as the Vikings did themselves, but also make reference to its northern shores as ‘Oslo’, a town not founded until the time of Harald the Ruthless. I use the term Trondheim to describe the area that the Vikings called Nitharos or Hlaðir, preferring to use the term applied to it from the time of Olaf ‘Crowbone’ Tryggvason and only widely used long after the Viking age was over. It is easier, sometimes, to refer to ‘Estonia’ for example, than it is to refer to ‘the region of the Aesti, part of which would at some future date be known as Estonia’. It is only where the medieval distinctions were of crucial importance, such as in the separate states that made up what we now refer to as ‘Great Britain’, that I have clung to the terms as used by the people at the time.
Regarding Norse names, the available texts are a confusion of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic renderings of the originals, many with contradictory ways of romanizing elements of the futhark runic alphabet. In most cases I have dropped the diacritic marks that distinguish vowel forms for Norse speakers, and followed the editorial policy of the 1997 Complete Sagas of Icelanders for transliterating the ‘thorn’ rune and other unusual phonemes.
I have done my best to differentiate the many similar names; it is easier, both editorially and narratively, to refer to Harald Greycloak as ‘Greycloak’, and so avoid confusion with the numerous other Haralds in the text, even though he only gained the ‘Greycloak’ sobriquet relatively late in his life. In most cases, I have dropped patronymics, although I do occasionally use them in place of surnames when no nickname is readily available. In some cases where two figures share the same name, I have deliberately employed acceptable variants to differentiate them, as in the case of Olaf Crowbone and Olof (sic) Skötkonung. Norse writers rarely distinguished between the Sámi people of Lapland and the Suomi people of Finland, calling them all Finns – I have endeavoured to use the correct terminology where possible. In the case of Harald Bluetooth (Blátönn), it is now widely agreed that the colour intended was closer to ‘black’ in medieval Norse, but I have retained the more popular usage. This is not only because he is referred to as Bluetooth in other English sources, but in recognition of his newfound fame in the twenty-first century. When looking for a name for a wireless technology allowing disparate Scandinavian computers to communicate with each other, someone decided that the name of Denmark’s first kingly unifier would be nicely appropriate. It seems churlish now to change his name to the more semantically correct Blacktooth.
References to Icelandic sagas are mainly to the excellent Leif Eríkssonur five-volume Complete Sagas (CSI + volume number in my notes), or to the landmark University of Texas translation of Heimskringla by Lee Hollander. The over 200 endnotes are there for any reader who wishes to expand this necessarily ‘brief’ history into an examination of my sources.
The family trees are heavily simplified, and often show only partial counts of offspring. Vikings both pagan and Christian had many wives and concubines, and it is impossible to fully match their dynasties with the claims of the saga authors. The trees are just detailed enough to demonstrate the interconnections of the Viking Age from a Scandinavian point of view – there are even more links on the English side, but they belong in a different book.
Much about the Viking world is best understood by experiencing it first-hand. I am fortunate to have travelled from south-west Norway to the icy wastes of Lapland. Members of the Mäki-Kuutti family have been my guides and companions for wanderings in Finland and Sweden, and their support has been invaluable. Back in England, University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies proved particularly useful for its collection of rare nineteenth-century and Finno-Ugric sources on the Vikings’ interactions with their eastern neighbours. I am indebted to the SSEES, its superb Language Unit, and my long-suffering teacher Elina Rautasalo. I was also able to gain access to rare Native American, Inuit and Muslim materials, thanks to the holdings of the nearby School of Oriental and African Studies.
This book was commissioned by Nicola Chalton, who was always supportive and ready to champion my unorthodox approach with her colleagues, while my agent, Chelsey Fox of Fox and Howard, was able to channel the spirit of Freydis whenever work needed to be done with an axe. Becky Hardie of Constable & Robinson was a patient and flexible editor, who diligently made this book better than it should have been, while Roger Hudson was benignly ruthless in excising my unnecessary kennings. Edward James made many helpful comments on the manuscript, and pulled me up on several important issues of nomenclature and classification. However, I did not take his advice on every occasion, and made several decisions which may indeed turn out to be my own mistakes, certainly not his. Although this book manages to incorporate some research material published while it was still being written, this might also be a good point to mention that many of the relevant books in my collection are over 25 years old – notably a Magnusson and a Brønsted given to me as a child by Penny Clements and Stephen Jones. So they are at least partly to blame for my obsessions.
This book would not have happened at all were it not for Kati, whom I met on Saint Olaf’s day in a place called Harald’s, and who will claim endlessly not to be an inheritor of any sort of Viking tradition, despite combining all the very best traits of Aud the Deep-Minded, Gunnhild Kingsmother and Thorbjorg Shipbreast.
My grateful acknowledgement goes to Penguin Books for permission to quote from The Vinland Sagas, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, from The Vikings by Johannes Brønsted, and Byzantium: The Apogee by John Julius Norwich; and to Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a division of the Orion Publishing Group, for permission to quote from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, translated by Michael Swanton. Quotation from Orkneyinga Saga, translated by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards, published by Hogarth Press, has been granted by permission of The Random House Group Ltd. The University of Wisconsin Press acknowledges that my quotation from The Kensington Stone: A Mystery Solved by Erik Wahlgren is within the bounds of fair dealing, for which I am also grateful.