Year of the Viking

Patrick Wormald

  • The Vikings by James Graham-Campbell and D. Kidd
    British Museum, 192 pp, £8.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 7141 1352 2
  • The Viking World edited by James Graham-Campbell
    Weidenfeld, 220 pp, £11.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 906459 04 4
  • The Northern World edited by David Wilson
    Thames and Hudson, 248 pp, £15.00, February 1980, ISBN 0 500 25070 7
  • Vikings! by Magnus Magnusson
    Bodley Head, 320 pp, £10.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 370 30272 9
  • The Vikings by Johannes Bronsted
    Penguin, 347 pp, £1.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 14 020459 8
  • Viking Age Sculpture by Richard Bailey
    Collins, 288 pp, £10.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 00 216228 8
  • The Viking Age in Denmark by Klaus Randsborg
    Duckworth, 206 pp, £7.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1466 5

Few can still be unaware that 1980 in Britain is as much the Year of the Viking as of forest fires, record interest-rates and the SAS. There is, for once, no ostensible centenary reason for this, although, as a matter of fact, the year 980 did see the resumption of the Danish raids that were to culminate in Cnut’s kingship of England.

The reason, rather, is that the last twenty years have seen a major revision in the understanding of Viking activity and its impact on Europe, largely, though not entirely, through the work of archaeologists. David Wilson, Director of the British Museum, is among the most distinguished of these, and the exhibition which he and his pupils have mounted there (until 20 July) quite properly commemorates their achievement and that of their Scandinavian colleagues.

This, in turn, has prompted publishers to commission new books on the Vikings and reissue old ones. Meanwhile, the BBC, not content with giving David Wilson the chance to preview his own exhibition, and showing a typically daft Hollywood epic on The Vikings, has permitted Magnus Magnusson to concentrate his peripatetic interests on his first and greatest scholarly love, the world of his ancestors. The laudable result is that the General Reader now has a better chance to understand up-to-date academic thinking on the Vikings than on almost any other aspect of Europe’s early history.

The first four of these books have a lot more in common than the immediate circumstances of their birth. In the case of the first three this is scarcely surprising, because they involve much the same authors. David Wilson contributes forewords to both James Graham-Campbell’s volumes, and James Graham-Campbell writes for David Wilson’s, while Christine Fell is, as it were, the religious affairs correspondent for each of them. Magnus Magnusson’s ‘book of the film’ is without even a foreword by David Wilson, and is pitched at a more popular and chatty level, but otherwise shares many features with the others.

All four are concerned with what archaeology has now shown us about Viking ships, Viking towns and trade, Viking ‘home-life’ and Viking art, and rather less concerned with what other sources can tell us about Viking settlement and social organisation. All four are a good deal more interested in the evanescent Norse discovery of America than in their well-chronicled activities in France and historically decisive foundation of Normandy. All four may be described as coffee-table books, and all four sustain their publishers’ well-earned reputation for superb illustrations – though a symbolic reductio ad absurdum of modern techniques is the obliteration of much of David Wilson’s foreword to The Viking World by the sensitively photographed Beach in the Gloaming over which it is printed. None of the four is without irritating, if ultimately unimportant, historical inaccuracies: one assumes, in all charity, that it was a bemused publisher’s assistant who wrote the caption describing a scene on the eighth-century Franks Casket as the sack of Jerusalem by the Crusaders (1096). Above all, each of these books is marked by the same strongly defensive tone about the Vikings, a point to which I shall return.

Granted their general similarity, not to mention their price, readers may not wish to invest in more than one. But it is worth stressing that their choice will not be easy, because each has its own merits. The Vikings is the official exhibition catalogue, but it is much more. As well as listing the exhibits, it discusses their background in a series of thematic chapters, including a lucid introduction to Viking Art. The general quality of its illustrations is so high as almost to pre-empt the need to visit the exhibition (the temperature on the day of my visit was nearer tropical than arctic), were it not that photographs give no idea of the all-important consideration of scale. The Viking World, James Graham-Campbell’s more expansive meditation on the same themes, is further enriched by admirably clear diagrams and line-drawings, notably in Sean McGrail’s contribution on ships. This chapter supersedes all other discussions of the subject in English, and Ray Page, on letters runic and poetic, offers a remarkable example of how an expert can demonstrate the general interest of a very technical topic without sacrifice of scholarly integrity.

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