The Viking Age -- more than spoils and plunder; The Viking World, by James Graham-Campbell. New Haven and New York: Ticknor & Fields. $25.
If we think of the Vikings as flaxen-haired barbarians in horned helmets, whose chief accomplishment was prolonging the Dark Ages, we have a lot to learn from this handsome book.
Pulling together history, new research, and the latest archaeological findings, a British scholar, James Graham-Campbell, gives the most complete picture yet of the Viking Age, showing the 8th- to 11th-century Norsemen, Swedes , and Danes to have been more nearly civilized than they generally are given credit for. The book's atmospheric photographs, informative maps, and concise chapters (a few written by authorities other than Graham-Campbell) will appeal to layman and specialist alike.
Precisely why the raiders, or vikingrm , set out during the late 700s in search of land, silver, slaves, and trading partners isn't known. But the fact that they dominated Northern Europe for 300 years, using their sleek, graceful ships to venture farther and faster than anyone else, is unmistakable from the fascinating evidence assembled here.
Graham-Campbell investigates place names, language, coins, glass, and jewelry. He shows us burial-mound treasures, medieval sagas, stone inscriptions. The picture that emerges is of a magnificently mobile people. The Vikings established settlements in Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Iceland, Greenland, and islands in between. To the south, they attacked Paris and Seville, venturing as far as Moorish Africa and the Mediterranean. To the west, they sighted America in about 985 and established a shortlived settlement in what is thought to have been Newfoundland. To the east, they used water and overland routes to reach Tashkent and Baghdad.
The Vikings never wore horned helmets, however, and though Graham-Campbell admits wistfully that "it's too late to scotch the myth," he points out that the vikingrm themselves were outnumbered by their fellow Scandinavian farmers, hunters, fishermen, boatbuilders, and craftsmen, who stayed at home supplying food, ships, and weapons for the spectacular voyages, living quieter and more humane lives than we might expect.
The Scandinavians admired valor, of course, but also generosity and hospitality. There were accomplished carvers, sculptors, storytellers, and poets (skaldsm ) in their midst. They also valued loyalty and law (they coined the latter word). At home and abroad their national assemblies, or thingsm , framed laws and gave their assent to royal heirs before they could be crowned.
The Viking age came to an ironic end when the pagan conquerors were subdued by their Christian conquests. By the 11th century the converts from the worship of Odin and Thor to Christianity and had become so numerous that pagan burial practices ceased. At about the same time the voyages ended as abruptly as they had begun.
No Viking challenge was mounted against the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The Viking Age was history, and its heritage the source of a distinct but gradually waning influence down through the centuries. That influence and its roots are traced superbly in "The Viking World."