The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth

The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth. The author is professor of medieval history in Yale University. This book blew my mind and the reason why I like it so much is because it mostly relies on archaeological and experimental evidence. There is a lot of literature written in the form of poetry about the vikings but recent advances in archaeology made a strong and compelling picture of the viking culture.

According to both european and nordic accounts, the vikings activities consisted mostly in raiding and plunging Europe and England to steal silver, gold and other valuable goods. The vikings started to build settlements in the british isles and at some point England and Denmark had the same king.

The vikings are mostly remembered by their violent attacks, but some practices that are widely believed to be true, are in fact not based on factual evidence. For instance the ‘Eagle blood’ is only mentioned by a poet who probably misinterpreted its meaning. There is not any archeological evidence of this.

Probably one of the most distinctive signatures of the vikings are their ships. Since these were made of wood almost every ship is lost, but with the few pieces left it is still possible to reconstruct some ships or make new ones based on the original versions. This has been done and there are experimental studies of how fast and how good these ships sail even in headwinds.

Vikings knew how to travel long distances on open seas and there is no evidence they used navigation tools like Europeans did in the XV century. Vikings used earth landmarks and observations of Nature around them to find their way. They knew how far from land some birds can fly or where the preferred locations of whales are.

Using simple yet effective methods of navigation the vikings were able to reach the land that is now Canada, and they built a settlement in Newfoundland which has been carbon dated to the year 1000, this is about 500 years earlier than Columbus.

Vikings were also known by their arts and trade. Engraved stones depicting ships and warriors were used as memorials, which shows how important ships were for the vikings.

‘Fur’ was available in the forests in Russia and elsewhere and the vikings traded fox and other kinds of fur for silver, gold and silk from the Caliphate. The vikings chieftains liked to dress in silk and gold to show off their power. The most powerful chieftains used to be also the most wealthy.

Several of the written accounts explaining the vikings’ activities come from Arab travelers and merchants who were fascinated with their culture, with the aurora borealis, with the elaborate funerals that took months to prepare and other aspects of the Scandinavian peoples.

For a few hundred of years viking chieftains fought each other for power. Raids and plunders brought powerful chieftains more wealth which they had to share generously with their warriors to gain their loyalty. Progressively they built alliances with other chieftains and with the church, which helped the more powerful chieftains to consolidate administrative power. In fact the first kings were considered appointed by God. In the XI century the first true kings emerged from this struggle for power.

The vikings built settlements in Iceland eleven centuries ago and one of my favorite modern Icelandic musicians is Vikingur Olafsson, who has made modernized versions of some works of J.S. Bach. The Vikings and Bach continue fascinating people’s minds even after many centuries have passed.
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