Book Reviews Features

The Viking Age: A Reader

viking age reader

By Danièle Cybulskie

Everybody loves Vikings. The longships, the burial treasures, the horned helmets (just kidding about the helmets), but how much do most of us actually know about them? Historians have discovered an astounding amount about the Scandinavian peoples and their cultures, but it’s hard to know where to find a good collection of source material. This is why I wanted to share with you Angus A. Somerville’s and R. Andrew McDonald’s The Viking Age: A Reader (2nd ed). This book has a huge range of primary-source material that covers everything from (the obvious) raids and settlements to the (less obvious) slow conversion to Christianity, and everyday life.

Although people tend to call them Vikings for simplicity, what we refer to as Vikings are a range of Scandinavian peoples whose raiding and exploring extends from what The Viking Age suggests is the “late eighth century” to the mid-thirteenth (pp.xvi-xvii). As Somerville and McDonald point out, if you go back to Old Norse “víking means a sea-borne raid” and is more of “a job description” (p.xvi) than an accurate term for a complex people. The authors take apart that old stereotype and build a portrait of the real people in their friendly introduction, before diving into their source texts.

Far from a boring compilation, The Viking Age brings together everything from technical descriptions by nautical explorers, to women’s stories, to origin stories, to games, to runic monuments. There are fourteen chapters in this book, and none of them are uninteresting. A few of my favourite excerpts are the vivid Vita Sancti Findani (“Life of Saint Findan”), who was an Irish captive of the Norsemen who escapes them in the Orkneys; “The Lay of Rig”, an origin story in which the offspring who represent the lower classes are named “Coarse and Clegg / Whoreson and Stinky … Stumpy, Raggedy, and Crane-Shanks”(p.19) among others; the sage “Advice for Sailors and Merchants”, much of which could easily be reused for today’s business people; and the insults thrown at a wedding feast from The Saga of Thorgils and Haflidi, which features this memorable passage:

Bellows-blasts surge
from the bench there;
a pong is wafted
by your putrid wind. (p.345)

viking age bookA Viking at the feast later says “not a single nostril wasn’t stuffed by a finger” (p.346). Yikes. I also loved another dry-humour moment in an excerpt called “The Jomsvikings Meet Their End” in which a messenger comes to announce that the enemy army has arrived:

The earl asked if he knew this for certain and Geirmund stretched out one of his arms, which was severed at the wrist. This, he said, was clear evidence that there was an army in the country. (p.349)

Yep. Those Vikings really were tough guys.

Funny bits aside, this is a really great, wide-ranging collection of translations and a solid introduction into the world of Vikings. I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone who is interested in Vikings, especially those who are creating classes or researching. Good primary source collections are hard to find, and this is definitely one of them. You know it’s a good one because Somerville and McDonald are so in love with their subject that they can’t resist an “Epilogue” which features “Advice from Odin” (because, really, that’s just awesome). I’ll leave you with one of my favourite pieces of Odin’s advice that seems epically Viking, and let you check out the rest of The Viking Age: A Reader on your own:

Cattle die,
kin die
self dies too;
a good name,
if you get one,
goes on forever. (p.484)

To learn more about the book, please visit University of Toronto Press

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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