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Dick Harrison and Kristina Svensson, Vikingaliv (Viking Lives)

Natur och Kultur,  2007. ISBN: 9789127357259

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2008:1


The Viking era, sometimes very precisely defined as having its beginning in 790 and its ending in 1066 AD, is the earliest period in Scandinavian history to achieve some sort of recognition in the popular imagination. Yet at the same time the idea of the Viking is largely a nineteenth century invention – and a very successful one at that. For this reason Harrison and Svensson set out in this book to build a bridge between our lingering preconceptions and the actual historical findings discovered through painstaking research. This is a fairly standard argument for historians to make. But what sets their book apart from many Viking studies is its detailed use of archaeology – in many cases a more reliable source of information than the Icelandic sagas, which are often written with evangelising or self-glorifying aims.

Vikingaliv attempts to explore early Nordic culture by looking at a number of known historical individuals. In addition to archaeology, its sources are runic, Icelandic and in some instances monastic. An important underlying aim of the authors is the desire to find new stories to tell. Harald Hårdråde appears in the opening chapter as the quintessential Viking warrior. To omit the warrior altogether would have been disingenuous, but the authors are clearly eager to get him out of the way and move on. Svensson chooses to highlight a number of lesser-known women such as Torborg (a völva discernible in the Islänningabok saga), Gudrid Torbjörnsdotter (the coloniser of Newfoundland), the unknown queen of the Oseberg ship burial, and Ragnfrid of Hyppinge farm in the rune-stone-rich region of Vallentuna. Ottar from Hågoland (a trader in walrus tusks and cloth) is also brought back to life, thanks to painstaking records kept by scribes at the court of King Alfred the Great. King Harald Bluetooth is analysed in relation to dubious historical claims that he was a nation-builder – dubious because there really was no comparable concept of nationhood in these times. The chapter on Torbjörn Skald (poet and rune- master) discusses the significance and origins of Viking runes, placing them in the context of Roman culture, and explaining their social significance in the Nordic world.

In Vikingaliv the authors inform the reader by inference, adding detail to the threadbare biographies of this gallery of figures, some of which are only very faintly seen. In a sense one might describe it as an imaginative rather than historical approach, except that exhaustive archaeological evidence is used to back up all assumptions. The individuals named above act as triggers for further assumptions which spread outwards like rings on water where a pebble has been thrown. The approach might also be described as "recovered history".

In the sort of space available here it is not possible to do justice to the scale and ambition of Vikingaliv. However, we can demonstrate the general scheme by reference to one of the case studies in this book, that of Ragnfrid of Hyppinge, who can be connected to three separate rune stones raised in memory of her beloved son, Björn. There is something touching about her devotion to him, still heartfelt a thousand years after the runes were cut. From the inscriptions we know that Björn was killed by Vigmund in Estonia, either directly or by treachery. We also know that Björn had previously owned a farm in neigbouring Granby. Here, Ragnfrid’s name is again mentioned in a so-called "gårdshäll" – a "farm stone" (usually a piece of rock too large to be moved). The purpose of "farm stones" was partly to establish birthright and inheritance, hence immovable blocks were chosen. At this time, it is believed women had the right to inherit, but wives only inherited their diseased children if the latter were childless. Granby would also have had its own carefully tended "farm tree", literally a representation of Yggdrasil, the heaven tree. Such trees sometimes gave rise to place names – take for instance Askim (outside Gothenburg) the root of which is probably "ash-home". The "farm stone" in Granby has a crucifix engraved alongside the runes, with each arm of the crucifix sprouting leaves – again a reference to Yggdrasil as well as the immortality of Christ, for in the twilight of paganism there was a good deal of exchange between old beliefs and Christianity.

Excavations at Hyppinge have revealed a good deal about early Scandinavian architecture, which is valuable; in English archaeology, for instance, it is more or less impossible to distinguish between a Saxon, Pictish or Danish homestead. In Sweden a rich family like Ragnhild’s would typically have had a longhouse at the heart of the estate. Hyppinge’s longhouse measured thirty-three by seven metres, by no means a remarkable size. It stood on a foundation made of 400 tons of gravel. Longhouses were first built in Scandinavia in the Stone Age. (86 large trees were cut down to construct what is assumed to be Gudrud Torbjörnsdotter’s longhouse in L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland.) Farm animals were fenced off at one end of the communal hall to avoid the spread of manure. In the Viking age there was a growing tendency to separate domestic functions. To this day Swedes "walk into the living room" but always "out into the kitchen" – possibly a linguistic reference to the fact that food tended to be prepared in a separate building.

High-born Viking men liked to emulate the diet of Valhalla – whose heroes indulged in roast boar. But in practice, the domestic boar does not make for very good eating. The pig was also an expensive animal to rear, as it provided no subsidiary benefits. Sheep produced wool (a crucial trading commodity – and spinning, a woman’s occupation, also had some ritual significance) while cows provided milk, cheese and butter. Archaeological examination of Viking kitchen waste has shown that beef was the meat most commonly consumed. In Erik the Red’s settlement on Greenland, the desire for high-status animals such as pigs in the early phase of colonisation had a detrimental effect on its viability.

There are some, in fact probably many, who will not be hugely excited by a study of this kind, even though it paints such a sparkling picture of lives long gone. But readers interested in deepening their knowledge of the lives, thoughts and spirit of early Scandi-navian women and men – as opposed to Viking raids and wars – will find an enormous amount of information in this book, which, although modest in tone, has much brilliance to recommend it.

Henning Koch


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