Viking Nations by Dayanna Knight
Book Review by Mark Ollard
The word Viking has a potent symbolism. It represents a stereotype of the dark age warrior, a byword for rape and pillage. The story goes that Charlemagne wept when he first saw Viking raiders because he knew what a menace they would become. "Protect us, oh Lord, from the wrath of the Northmen" wrote one dark age cleric, clearly summing up the fear of predation by Scandinavian raiders. It was this sturdy aggression that saw the Vikings become part of Nazi propaganda in the Second World War.
Despite this enduring reputation, there is much to admire about those hardy peoples. They were traders, farmers, and explorers, whose settlements and dealings reached as far as the Black Sea and the coast of North America. In many places their cultural influence can still be felt today. This brings us to Dr Dayanna Knights book, Viking Nations, an adaption of her thesis which examines Viking settlement in the North Atlantic. Warfare is not part of the study which is far more concerned with sociology, and considers settlement in three zones. The first is the island groups of Northern Britain, Shetland, Orkney, Faroe, and Hebrides. Secondly she considers Iceland, that most Viking colony of all. Lastly attention is drawn toward Greenland and the North American colonies.
The study draws heavily on archeology and sociological theory. Settlement patterns, trade, and religion are investigated without the need to dwell on politics and war. The contextual nature of the authors descriptions lends weight to the text, leading to a patchy yet convincing picture of Viking exploration and colonisation. Not only are each zone described and compared, their relationships are examined, for no colony survives without some external support.
In the first zone we discover the how Viking settlement was within direct sailing distance of their home territories and very much under their control. Yet the lack of wood is notable, and the scale of human consumption clearly had negative effects on natural resources. The value of wood is almost priceless and even today, people of the Faroe Islands live in houses with structures up to 900 years old. But rather than dwell on such difficulty, it's the adaption that Dr Knight focuses upon, the use of stone and turf as building material, the utilisation of structures as habitations, animal pens, or even in decline as middens or rubbish dumps.
The second zone, the Icelandic region, was apparently known to sailors before the Vikings moved in. Taking good advantage of positive climatic change in the Medieval Warm Period, agriculture was more prevalent, and surviving literary sources provide a rich description of everyday life of those who lived here before Norway took possession in the Middle Ages. Unlike the more communal first zone, evidence of social hierarchy is much stronger here. Shortages in raw materials led to an interesting recycling of iron, and perhaps more surprisingly, evidence of land clearance and native woodland, a feature noticeably lacking in the modern landscape.
The third zone is harder to describe. The problems of settlement in this region are reflected in the archeology. Agriculture was all but impossible, and a great reliance on marine resources became necessary. It comes as a surprise to learn that the settlers persisted there until conditions became too difficult in the late medieval era, at which point the region was abandoned by Viking descendants. There is much less evidence available for study, both due to the remote location, harsh climate, and the lack of social continuance. Nonetheless the permafrost has preserved perishable items lacking in other regions.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the third zone is the evidence for contact between old and new world culture. Unlike the other zones, the Vikings found a landscape inhabited by natives. In fact, some native archeology is easily mistaken for Norse imports, reflecting the necessity to make use of local resources in the most expedient way. Self sufficiency was vital with colonies so far from home, though the author does hint at the need for an exit strategy in Viking settlement, perhaps indicating the risk of dangerous local conflict.
There is however one area in which this work seems to meander helplessly. Dr Knight includes a significant number of charts that attempt to show relationships of one sort or another, with such labels as 'The Need For Human Work Diagram' or 'Generalization of Traditional Core and Peripheral Interaction'. The science behind these charts may well be genuine and even erudite, but nonetheless there's always a feeling that empirical human behaviour is being squeezed into a mathematical formula. There's little intuitive sympathy.
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Viking Nations is written in a dry academic style yet the quality of writing is often quite absorbing to read. There is a subtlety to this book in that it hints at more than it tells you, perhaps unavoidably due to the sparse evidence and the need to extrapolate from various aspects of climate, landscape, and history.
Many readers will find this work a little less than they hoped for, lacking the drama of sagas or blood soaked raids and conquests. Nonetheless, Dr Knight caters even for them, giving us a complete translation of the Graenlendinga saga in the appendices. Where this book succeeds admirably is that the reader can begin to realise the character of the Viking beyond that of pirate and warrior, a hardy, resourceful, and courageous people.