Book Review: Northmen
The Viking Saga, AD 793-1241
by John Haywood
Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2016
Medievalist John Haywood, author of the excellent Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, fleshes out that graphics-driven outline in his superb new book Northmen: The Viking Saga, AD 793-1241, a history not only of the successive waves of Viking raids that terrorized and transformed the Western world from Newfoundland to Jerusalem but also how those raids transformed the Vikings themselves.
Haywood’s book is heavily compartmentalized – each chapter is broken up into many shorter segments, presumably for easy, unintimidating reading – and this approach, these successive quick raids into one aspect of Viking history after another, can sometimes short-change the more complex aspects of that history in favor of the more predictable blood-and-mead topic headings. This is a straightforward commercial decision, but Haywood is such a genial, engaging explainer that he makes it work on deeper levels as well, almost always managing to avoid the pitfalls of an episodic approach. The book rather improbably makes for continuously engaging reading.
The Vikings raided and traded and explored to extents most of their contemporaries would have found mind-boggling (as our author quite rightly points out, no other group of humans in the Middle Ages were as well-traveled), and Haywood covers it all in quick, confident detail. But at the heart of all his subject headings is the central experience of what it was to be a Viking, who these men were who left their farms and risked their lives on perilous seas for the chance at lucrative sack and plunder. Haywood smoothly although a bit reductively sketches the underlying wry pessimism of the Norse mind frame:
Knowing that nothing was ever forever, not even the gods or the afterlife, gave the Viking Age Norse a fatalistic outlook and an indifference to death. The Viking warrior was expected to face death with a shrug of the shoulders and some black humour to show that he had kept his presence of mind and not given in to fear. Life was not so much to lose and if it was his fate to die, there was nothing he could do about it anyway.
But most of his history illustrates that most Vikings – particularly most Viking leaders – certainly considered their lives quite a lot to lose and acted accordingly. These were for the most part canny men – ferociously violent, yes, but also sensitive to the main chance, willing to negotiate (once they got everything they wanted, of course), interested in adapting, and sometimes even, oddly, open to peace. Haywood’s account is necessarily heavy on the raiding and plundering side of things – he detours to every burning abbey and blood-spattered farmstead – but he also stresses the complexities behind many such encounters:
Full-scale battles were relatively rare in the Viking Age. Thanks to their mobility, Viking cold generally avoid fighting if they thought the odds were unfavourable to them. However, the pay-off from victory could be very high so Vikings were not shy about fighting when it suited them … Apart from loot, and a strong hand when it came to negotiating tribute payments with the vanquished, victory in battle also enhanced a Viking leader’s reputation, securing the loyalty of his warriors and attracting new ones. Conversely, the defenders were acutely aware of the awful consequences of defeat.
The Vikings and the era they epitomized of course haven’t lacked for recent histories, but Northmen is the best to appear in many seasons, involvingly written but also sharp-eyed in weighing its source material, and especially rewarding in taking a broader view of the whole Viking phenomenon, not just the battle axes and longboats but the farming colonies and trading consortiums. Readers interested in a learned and well-written overview of that phenomenon can’t do better in 2016 than this.