Homemakers and hooligans

Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age

June 8, 2001

There is no entry for "Revisionism" in this encyclopedia, which is a shame as the Vikings and the question of their impact on the rest of Europe between 800 and 1050 are a revealing example of how attitudes - popular and academic - are affected by political, social and cultural developments and are regularly reshaped by changing fashions.

The Victorians' awe of and admiration for these fearsome warriors and rudimentary empire-builders gave way in the 20th century to disapproval: after two world wars and postcolonial conflict world-wide, what had been seen as heroic and red-blooded deeds of derring-do looked increasingly like common rape, pillage and plunder. Heroism drained away in a world increasingly exposed to close-up violence and exploitation. Furthermore, new attitudes meant that historical study focused less on the activities of kings and elites and sympathised more with ordinary people.

When archaeological activity escalated in the 1960s, offering up material evidence of Scandinavian trade, towns and rural life, of farmers, jewellery-makers and woodworkers, a distinction between Vikings (on the road) and Scandinavians (at home) was made by some, and the peaceful Scandinavian of the Viking Age took his place alongside (or in some cases, replacing) the violent hooligan of popular view.

In his preface, John Haywood points out that while advances in archaeology led to a more balanced appreciation of the Vikings, a byproduct was "a certain tendency to underplay Viking violence" in "an over-reaction to the popular view". This attempt at rehabilitation of the Vikings continues to influence current scholarship, though there are strong dissenting voices objecting that the pendulum has swung too far.

In any event, the Viking Age is a lively field of study, which may mean that it can absorb another publication for the general market. This one does not take the conventional form of a respectable coffee-table book, with lavish illustrations and intelligent overviews by various specialists. It is instead a single-author encyclopedia, with smaller, black-and-white photographs, a few maps, a date-chart, lists of kings and a small selection of further reading.

The alphabetical entries aim to cover all angles of life in the Viking Age. Entries on, for example, clothing, landownership, pottery and towns represent the domestic side of life as increasingly revealed by archae-ology. Political history and elite-level activity in the homelands and in kingdoms targeted by Viking raiders and colonists are also well represented ("Edington, battle of", "Emma of Normandy", "Erik Bloodaxe"), as well as the Scandinavians' extraordinary achievements as explorers and entrepreneurs ("Iceland", "Eskimos", "Khazars" and "Kiev").

Outside the realm of history proper, from the rich world of Old Norse literature, there are "Jomsvikings" (semi-legendary, according to the encyclopedia), "Berserkers", and "The blood eagle"; from further out still, in mythological territory, come "Elves", "Dwarves" and "Valkyries".

The entries are brief, informative and generally reliable. Although Haywood attempts to include a critical dimension where possible, entries lack the subtlety to satisfy the hardcore expert, but they will do quite nicely for general readers or students of other periods who need to identify names, fill in gaps or satisfy a particular curiosity. Anyone who wonders what fish were eaten in 10th-century Norway or how whales were caught, who cannot remember the difference between Odin and Thor or when the battle of Tettenhall took place or whose memory of the dates of the Merovingian or migration periods has momentarily deserted them, will find this a useful work of reference.

However, the deficiencies and difficulties of presenting important historical developments in brief to a non-specialist readership are shown by the inevitably simplified entries for "Kingship", "Monasticism" and "Christianity, conversion to", for example. The entry on "Sagas" gives no hint of the debate surrounding their use as historical evidence, and the omission of any account of place names and their application in the study of Scandinavian colonies abroad or landscape history at home similarly neglects active scholarly issues. The extraordinary poetic corpus likewise gets very short shrift. But for those who might mix up their Olafs or Haralds, there is help in the form of brief biographies of nine of the former and seven of the latter, as well as of many other historical and legendary figures selected from a wide range of historical and literary sources - Aud the Deep-Minded (the most famous female settler of Iceland), the Viking Ragnar (who plundered Paris and incurred the wrath of St Denis), or Havelock the Dane (hero of a medieval English romance). Fleets, fortifications, food, furniture and folklore - all (Viking-Age) life is here.

Lesley Abrams is a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford.

Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age

Author - John Haywood
ISBN - 0 500 01982 7
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £19.95
Pages - 224

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