Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike, Vikings at War (Albright)

Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike

Vikings at War

(Casemate, 2016) 400 pp. $39.95

Vikings At War

An award-winning book when first published in Norwegian, this book is the scholarly and exhaustive English translation, and one that will likely please many who are interested in the military history of the Viking era. It is very likely that almost everyone who reads this book will learn something about the military history of the Vikings, whether concerning Viking era society in Scandinavia, Viking conquests, the Viking ways of warfare, or concerning the travels of various Viking forces throughout Europe and North America. There is much here to enjoy and appreciate, and the authors do not shortchange the reader on informative photos, maps, and drawings that help to explain the text and to provide material evidence and visual representation of the discussions in the book. These visual extras add a great deal to the reading enjoyment of the book as well as the information value, and the authors are to be praised for taking such time and effort to add these details to what could have been a very demanding text without those aids. As it is, the various visual aids help to make a complicated story with a large scope into one that can be enjoyed by a broad reading audience including both scholars and more general readers.

This book aims at a comprehensive treatment of the military history of the Viking era, and it succeeds at its task. As a whole, this book takes up nearly 400 pages of written (and graphical) material, and is divided into six sections. The first five sections take up the first half of the book and introduce the reader to Viking society and religion, the Viking art of war through an examination of their troops and military techniques, provide a detailed review of Viking fortifications, give a thorough understanding of the Viking ship, and provide an extended treatment of Viking weaponry. This discussion includes drawings, photographs, as well as a discussion of historical finds that help to support the authors’ contentions and claims.

The sixth part of the book, which takes up about half of the book itself, gives a very through discussion of the world of the Vikings, showing the Viking explorations of the islands of the West (the Shetland Islands and Isle of Man among them), Ireland, England, the Frankish Empire and France, the Iberian peninsula, the East (Russia and neighboring areas), Byzantium, and Greenland and Vinland (continental North America). It is this last section of the book’s main text that will provide the most complete narrative of Viking activities in these diverse territories for readers, and will likely give a great deal of information about how early trading and raiding became more lasting efforts at pillaging and conquest and settlement.  After this, the authors close with notes, a  bibliography, indices, a list of maps, and image credits.

The authors themselves give a straightforward presentation of the scope and aims of the book, when they comment that Vikings At War describes Viking military history between 750 and 1100AD, popularly known as the Viking Age.” (6) Likewise, the authors state that they “describe the historical developments, causes and conditions which led to the raiding expeditions, military campaigns, and conquests originating from Scandinavia during the Viking age. We present many of the most important military events and significant characters and groups. We discuss different aspects of offensive and defense warfare, weapons technology, military tradition, theory and practice.  We hope to challenge some of the established presentations of the Viking as a peaceful trader, skilled hand worker and adventurous settler, and instead present an objective and nuanced assessment of the Viking warrior.” (6) The authors succeed at these openly expressed aims, not only giving a picture of the Viking as a warrior, in contrast to less militaristic accounts that have gained currency in recent decades, but also at providing an understanding of the relationship between Viking military efforts and society as a whole. For example, a discussion of Viking fortifications also includes an examination of sea defenses including palisade barriers, sunken ship defenses, and even floating booms. The authors strive with a great deal of success in presenting not only Viking offensive techniques but also defensive ones, and show how Viking society itself was changed as a result of the militarization of the Viking Age.

Overall, this is a book that provides an informative and exciting presentation of Viking military history that ought to engage a large audience. Those who are specialists in the history of the Viking Age will find this book to be a general account but one that challenge perspectives of the Vikings as being largely peaceful in nature. These readers will likely find the authors’ detailed examination of the material evidence of Viking militarism to be of the most interest, as well as the authors’ discussion of the relationship between war and society in Scandinavian societies at the time. More general readers will likely enjoy the first half of the book but will find the second half of the book, where the authors discuss important but often forgotten Viking heroes, to be of great interest as the narrative focus of the second half of this book provides a sweeping epic story worthy of the Viking sagas themselves. The authors show themselves aware of the relevant historiography as well as the material evidence that needs to be explained, and also have a strong grasp of narrative flow. The result is an excellent history of an important historical era that is not only award-winning in its original Norwegian but also a compelling history in English translation as well. Readers from the undergraduate level and up will find much to appreciate here, whether they look at the photos of various historical finds, peruse the book’s many maps of Viking raids and invasions, or read the book’s substantial text. Those English-language readers who have a strong interest in Viking history will find a great deal of value in reading this volume and adding it to their own library.

Nathan Albright
Norwich University

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