Viking Britain: A History by Thomas Williams

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Williams opens this wonderful, absorbing book with a big statement about how the Vikings are not afforded the same respect as, say, the Romans, having become almost a cartoonish stereotype, equated just about with pirates, cavemen and dinosaurs. He shares a rather ridiculous review of the British Museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition which criticised it for leaving out the gory and exciting bits, and sets out his stall, to share

the story of how the people of the British Isles came to reorient themselves in a new and interconnected world, where new technologies for travel and communication brought ideas and customs into sometimes explosive contact, but which also fostered the development of towns and trade, forged new identities and gave birth to England and Scotland as unified nations for the first time.

The author uses new research and archaeological finds, alongside long-standing and well-known ones in Britain and Europe, and sources written down as close to the events as can be found to examine the actual history of the times and the events and, particularly, the weaving together of cultures and families. It’s as much a history of the Anglo-Saxons as of the Vikings in many ways – as it has to be, with them inextricably bound together, surging back and forward across the land.

Williams writes fascinatingly of the way in which the Vikings are slotted in to a place between the past, when they encountered their enemies at barrows and ancient sites, and the future, where the writers of the 19th century studied and spoke about them and formed our current view of these people, right through to now, when so many of the sites and words we see and use hark back to these times. He uses contemporary or near-contemporary texts, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and others, to describe the events from the first raids on the East Coast to the Norman Conquest, but always meticulously comparing sources where he can, and carefully investigating theories and decisions on where, for example, battle sites can be located believably and where names and roles and places are lost in history.

After discussing in detail the way in which the modern myths of the Vikings have been created by ‘half-digested Icelandic sagas and … a good dose of romantic nationalism’ in the 19th and 20th centuries, he returns to the sources and gives us an exciting, well-thought-out and as clear as it can be in the circumstances story of the Vikings in Britain from those early raids onwards. He goes through the history of the Anglo-Saxons and is very clear on the way in which fear based in memories of the earlier battles of the Angles and Saxons with the Britons played on contemporary minds and created an atmosphere of confrontation:

The Anglo-Saxons may have thought they had escaped their past. But now their sundered kinsmen, their gods and their beliefs were rising up out of the darkness, borne on black tides from a world beyond the pale.

He examines events from different viewpoints where he can – which is fascinating. Scotland and the north get their own treatments, even though the history of Scotland in particular has got lost in the mist of time – again, it’s very clear when we just don’t know who someone was or what happened somewhere. He talks about the Danelaw and Ragnarok with equal authority and is a completely trustworthy companion through this maze of history, never putting a foot wrong. He’s not afraid to insert his own opinions, for example on the ‘wearisome and irritating’ debate on whether the Vikings were ‘raiders or traders’, turning a clear eye to exactly just what and how they might be trading (again, using contemporary primary sources). I really liked it when he bewailed the fact that the Manx lawspeaker declaims the year’s laws in Manx Gaelic and English (‘But not, alas, in Old Norse’). He sees Ragnarok as a production of a melancholic culture feeling the old world slipping away,       in a beautiful passage that marries history, literary appreciation and emotion in one paragraph.

One curious and I thought very well-done feature is short pieces of creative writing or translation, gleaned from the sources and stitched together and giving vivid life to sometimes distant mind-sets and events. Some might say there’s no place for fiction in a non-fiction book, but such passages are clearly marked, their sources, where they exist, are clearly indicated, and they give a depth and breadth to the book that really enhances it. It feels like a bit of a risk but one that, I think, comes off. I also loved the little references to popular culture that Williams weaves in, which raised a real smile on occasion.

It goes without saying that, even though the author states in the introduction that he’s not aiming to produce an academic or definitive work, this book is meticulously footnoted and referenced, with a good map at the beginning and 66 pages of back matter, including a timeline, full and entertaining notes, primary sources, a basic list of further reading (with a URL for the full bibliography) and a good index. There are line drawings in the text and two sets of colour plates. It bridges the gap between popular and academic flawlessly, in my opinion.

Liz Dexter is a bit obsessed with Old Norse and modern Icelandic and has a bit of a thing about the Vikings. Unfortunately, this means she can’t say anything modern to Icelanders in actual Iceland, but knows a few interesting words. She blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Thomas Williams, Viking Britain: A History (William Collins, 2018). 978-0008171957, 410 pp., ill., paperback.

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