Saturday, 21 November 2020

Book review: The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, Neil Price (2020)

Finishing this book the hairs stuck up on the back of my neck. I bought it in Bondi Junction while on an outing to pick up an umbrella for a friend. I also bought a kitchen scale while there, but this device at David Jones.

Price uses scholarly specificity – the agreement of thing with the word that describes it – but of a kind that a 5th century AD Viking mightn’t have understood, if we go by his reckoning of Viking religion, mythology, and psychology. In this sense, Price’s narrative is satisfyingly mysterious; the Vikings held the world to be inhabited by beings who were not human but who had an interest in the enterprise of humanity, and a specific class of person – often a woman – was in charge of communicating with this other dimension (in fact, several dimensions). 

Living in the 21st century and reading his lucid prose we can understand what he is talking about but nevertheless due to a lack of written records; unlike the Romans, the Vikings weren’t very literary. The track is shrouded in a disturbingly thick mist – suitably Gothic (though 18th century Gothic novels tend to be set in southern Europe!) – as Price struggles with linguistic barriers that might fetter comprehension. 

It helps to be acquainted with other, entirely foreign cultures but Price is not only energetic – sourcing information from an astonishing array of places – he’s also elegant. A wry sense of humour and a firm sense of justice illuminate the story he tells of raids, and state-sanctioned slavery, of gods and goblins, and international trade. Vikings not only took over in England they were also at the root of Russia’s civilisation, spreading out from their home in northern Europe even to America and the eastern Mediterranean.

An astonishingly interesting book, ‘The Children of Ash and Elm’ brings to life a way of living that appeared after the Romans withdrew in Western Europe. A lot of the scholarship needed to produce this book is very recent, demonstrating that Viking studies is a fluid space characterised by knowledge that relies not just on textual analysis and archaeology, but also such things as dendrochronology (the dating of wooden objects) and other types of science.

As Price shows, the presence of the Romans was intimately bound up with the lives of people we call Vikings, who lived in Scandinavia 1500 years ago. One reason for Vikings’ emergence on the global stage in the 7th century AD might’ve been due to the withdrawal of Rome as a stabilising force in northern Europe. Price doesn’t emphasise this point – rather pointing to environmental conditions that immediately preceded this period. 

The use of technology to ascertain the facts surrounding social conditions in Scandinavia (indeed globally) around the year 550 AD, when a large volcanic eruption filled the atmosphere with tons of effluvia, is very recent; indeed these things have only been known in the past five years or so. So, while the idea that a power vacuum resulted in the appearance of strong local rulers cannot be hard for anyone to imagine, the physical record shows that other factors were also in play leading to the rise of a powerful, militarised elite (Price labels them “nouveau riche” and “a hydrarchy”) in Scandinavia at the beginning of the Viking Era – the time when the famous raids started to be carried out.

Here we’re forced to trust the author, but there are no suggestions that might undermine his credibility. This historian’s job is to provide a translation of an entire culture that thrived and that, in decisive ways, altered not just Continental European history, but global politics (having the first parliaments). With the Vikings, who until the arrival of Christianity didn’t keep many written records, the task of the historian is a bit harder than for Southern European civilisations, though one chronicler in the Christian era fortunately took the time to write down the old stories of his people. Few such records survive. The thing that might’ve driven the chronicler to undertake his task was the enduring importance – for pagans and Christians alike – of strong community structures based on familial ties and bonds of allegiance; in other words kings. You see similar links between people in other societies at different times.

Such as those that bound the Roman aristocracy together in the republican era, or those that tied the pharaohs’ polities together. As an aside, it’s interesting to see how the use of elaborate burials containing manufactured goods, such as the Vikings made, chime in with similar practices in Asia (particularly China) and Egypt. The Vikings and the ancient Japanese also made barrows – burial mounds – to commemorate leaders, demonstrating another link but also showing how, through death, religion and politics meshed neatly together to form one, seamless, process of existence for the community. 

The early Viking chronicler might’ve thought that losing all traces of the past would be pitifully sad. As, indeed, it would’ve been. We can learn so much about ourselves from the past, but mostly we look the other way.

The title’s comforting normalcy shouldn’t be allowed to mislead readers as to how different from us the Vikings were. While Price demonstrates convincingly that piracy and the slave-trade became, for the people we call “Vikings”, a way of life, he doesn’t shy away from giving a nuanced view of their conduct, as earlier sources of information – such as Christian chroniclers – failed to do. The realities of Viking enterprise – and it was a whole-of-community business, raiding and, later, settling – meant that, despite the existence of a militaristic elite, everyone in the community (in what are now known as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland) – was involved in the animal husbandry, manufacture, and administration of the apparatus dedicated to furthering shared goals.

One welcome offshoot of this otherwise deplorable society that still animates our own lives, of course, is the democratic – or consensual (at least for free men) – system of government that obtained at different times despite the emergence of an aspirational elite that exploited available resources in order to further selfish ends. The widespread use of parliaments (which Vikings called things) meant that merit and talent were likely to prevail as qualifications for leadership (just as Roman emperors were wont to adopt likely young men to succeed them at the head of the polis). 

While echoes of Viking culture persist in Scandinavian countries the modern North is, partly due to such influences as Christianity, radically different from that which the Vikings inhabited, with its trolls, dwarves, elves, and other spirits, as well as a sometimes frightening array of gods, giants, and other beings, all of whom were very real to a Viking living in the 7th century AD.

Yet one of the things that is so original about this book – its (at least partially) successful attempt to describe religion as understood by a Viking – might be precisely the most modern aspect of their culture: its ability to anticipate, in a way that I’ve not seen an historian attempt for Mediterranean peoples, psychology and the deeper urgings of the human mind. With the benefit of hindsight the Vikings appear remarkably advanced, in comparison with their literal-minded southern coevals, the Romans, Greeks, and Arabs. Perhaps the Celts are closer to us: I’ll have to dig up a relevant book.

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