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The violent seafaring Vikings are brought to vivid life in a rich synthesis of old and new scholarship

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings

Neil Price
Basic Books
2020
624 pp.
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Neil Price’s The Viking Way, now in its second edition, was an instant hit in the Viking studies community when it published in 2002 and rapidly became a collector’s item. Similarly, his edited volume with Stefan Brink, The Viking World (published in 2008), remains a valuable sourcebook. Price’s latest book, Children of Ash and Elm, brings together multiple themes from previous scholarship and provides a narrative overview of new scholarship—which now spans disciplines from geoscience to saga studies—to provide previously untold stories and insightful perspectives on the Viking people.

Children of Ash and Elm expands the chronological boundaries of the Viking Age to include the late Roman sixth and seventh centuries and (in places) the early Middle Ages. Price does this by placing the rise of the Vikings in the context of Scandinavia’s recovery from an unusually harsh winter in 535–536 AD, the impacts of the first plague pandemic (the Justinianic plague; 541–549 AD), and the rise in popularity of large dining halls as centers of cultural exchange during the Vendel era (550–790 AD), combining new geoscience data and paleoepidemiological observations with some well-chosen insights from Beowulf. Price also expands the usual geographic boundaries that defined the Viking era and does a fine job of connecting events in the Baltic, North Sea, Atlantic, and Mediterranean worlds to reveal how physical proximity and intercultural dynamics contributed to the Viking proclivities for alternately trading and raiding and their seemingly inconsistent practice of both building and burning urban centers.

Price is well known for making Vikings fun. Filed teeth, eye shadow, sex magic, bloody sacrifices, shamanic female sorcery, shape-changing berserkers, and warrior women are now firmly part of our view of the Vikings thanks to his efforts. This book will not disappoint if you are looking for more on any of these topics; however, Price’s Vikings remain violent and lethal, and he is clear about their central role in the slave trade. He is likewise unflinching in confronting and debunking the invocations of the Viking legacy by Nazis and white supremacists.

An ongoing challenge for Viking Age researchers is the need to integrate rich Icelandic literary records composed centuries after the Vikings with contemporary written sources, the ever-growing archives of archaeological records of sites and finds, the new perspectives derived from the analysis of ancient DNA and stable isotopes, and the opportunities for fresh reinterpretation of older scholarship. Price does an especially good job of combining different contemporary accounts (and making excellent use of Islamic sources) with art and archaeological evidence.

Price also offers fresh insights into Viking burial rituals, combining findings derived from dendrochronology, ancient DNA, and isotopic sourcing of human remains. We now know, he reveals, that one of the women buried in state in the Oseberg ship—a well-preserved Viking ship discovered in a large burial mound outside Tønsberg in Norway—was from the Caspian and that the ship mound was left half-opened so that mourners could offer an animal sacrifice before it was hurriedly nailed shut.

Price posits that Viking burial rituals represented a form of performance art. His argument is compelling and makes sense of the extreme variability that we see in excavated burials across the Viking world. His exploration of the concept of hydrarchy—the notion that one might gain power over lands by dominating the seas—and of raiding brotherhoods, drawn in part from studies of 17th- to 19th-century pirate bands, is also well developed and demonstrates the value of a wider historical view.

Its scholastic merits aside, Children of Ash and Elm is also a wonderful read, with prose that flows like poetry in places and modern analogs that inspire creative thinking. The only thing I found disappointing­­ was the editorial decision to forgo references and footnotes. While the book includes an excellent, long bibliographic essay, this does not help the reader who is interested in tracking down the science and scholarship behind the stories. That fault aside, this volume would make an excellent textbook and a splendid introduction to the world of the Vikings for any reader.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Anthropology, Hunter College, New York, NY 10065, USA, and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York, NY 10016, USA.