While portrayals of the Vikings in the popular imagination and culture often contain a large amount of fantasy and romanticism, there’s a core of historical truth within those fanciful depictions. The Vikings were indeed fearsome warriors, intrepid explorers, proud pagans, and far-traveling merchants. During the Viking Age (roughly 793-1066 AD), these Scandinavians could be found across most of the known world, from the Middle East to the shores of northeastern North America, which they discovered 500 years before Christopher Columbus. They pillaged and plundered throughout Europe, and conquered and ruled most of England. Europeans dreaded few things more than the ever-present possibility of a Viking attack.
But most of the Norse men and women of the period were farmers, craftsmen, housewives, or slaves. Their lives consisted mainly of seemingly endless hard physical labor in a demanding climate and brutal social/political environment. They were as likely to be targets of a raid as they were to be the ones doing the raiding, and other dire misfortunes such as malnutrition and serious illnesses could strike at any moment.
The books on this list (last updated in April of 2019) will immerse you in the fascinating world of the Vikings from the comfort of your armchair, and will help you to separate fact from fiction.
The order of the books in this list runs roughly from the most newbie-friendly to the most advanced. The lower-numbered books aren’t necessarily better than the higher-numbered ones, but the lower-numbered ones are generally more accessible.
If you find this list to be helpful enough that you decide to buy one or more of the books listed here, the best way you can say “thank you” is to buy whatever you decide to buy through the Amazon links provided at the end of each book’s description. When you do, I automatically get a small commission on your purchase with no extra cost or hassle for you whatsoever.
1. The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth
For most people, Lars Brownworth’s The Sea Wolves will be the ideal introduction to the historical Vikings. It assumes no prior knowledge, and is written in a highly accessible style. That style is also richly colorful, however, and Brownworth seldom misses an opportunity to convey the information through telling an action-packed story rather than just relaying the bare facts. The book thereby becomes as entertaining as it is educational.
While The Sea Wolves includes some discussion of most aspects of Norse life, its focus is squarely on the Vikings’ tremendous accomplishments as warriors and raiders. If that theme is the one you want to read about above all else – as it is for many people – then The Sea Wolves should suit your needs particularly well. If you’re looking for more about the Scandinavians’ domestic life during the period, or the design of their ships, for example, you should probably supplement this book with another from this list that discusses such aspects in greater depth. Click here to view or buy The Sea Wolves at Amazon.
2. The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth
Another top-tier introduction to the subject is Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings. It’s a bit more scholarly than Brownworth’s book. Some readers will appreciate that and others won’t. Nevertheless, it, too, is very accessible, and assumes no prior knowledge on the reader’s part.
Winroth certainly gives the Scandinavians’ military and piratical activities their due, but most of the book is devoted to other aspects of the Viking Age: exploration of far-flung and uninhabited lands, settlements, trade, ships, navigation techniques, political institutions, farming and other domestic activities, religion, poetry and the other arts, and more.
Winroth has a real knack for illuminating a widespread phenomenon by focusing on one particularly telling case study known through archaeology and/or medieval historical reports. This serves to really bring his material to life and to humanize the Vikings in a way that very few other authors have succeeded in doing. Click here to view or buy The Age of the Vikings at Amazon.
3. The Viking World by James Graham-Campbell
James Graham-Campbell’s The Viking World covers much of the same ground as Lars Brownworth’s The Sea Wolves and Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings, presenting a well-rounded overview of the Viking Age for the general reader. It, too, is written in easy-to-understand language and is perfectly newbie-friendly.
But what really sets Graham-Campbell’s offering apart is that just about every single page contains at least one picture that accompanies the text. These range from color photos of archaeological artifacts and landscapes to maps to drawings and diagrams of Norse buildings and technology. Like Winroth’s expertly-chosen case studies, these go a long way toward bringing the Viking Age to life, but in a more directly visual way. If you’re a fan of lots and lots of pictures in your nonfiction books, this one is for you. Click here to view or buy The Viking World at Amazon.
4. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings by John Haywood
As a standalone introduction to the Norse world, John Haywood’s The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings is somewhat less in-depth than the previous (and following) books on this list. It relates much of the same content, but in a more general fashion. However, what it lacks in length and detail, it makes up for in another area: maps. Lots and lots of them.
If you’ve ever felt that other books in this field don’t include enough maps, making it hard to follow where exactly the action is taking place, then you’ve found the perfect book on the Norse for you. The maps are all in color and are filled with multicolored arrows that indicate the routes taken by raiding parties, armies, explorers, settlers, merchants, and others.
In keeping with its visual focus, Haywood’s book also includes numerous striking color photos, although not quite as many as Graham-Campbell. If you’re an especially visual person and only intend to get either Graham-Campbell or Haywood, but not both, your choice will likely come down to whether maps or other kinds of pictures are more important to you. Click here to view or buy The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings at Amazon.
5.The Vikings by Else Roesdahl
At the other end of the spectrum is Else Roesdahl’s The Vikings. Roesdahl’s work includes its share of photos, maps, and diagrams, too, but they’re all in black and white, and serve to accentuate the text rather than to be a major focus in their own right. Instead, the strength of Roesdahl’s work lies in its sheer depth, which is quite impressive for an introductory book in this – or really any – field.
While Roesdahl’s writing style is certainly simple enough for the general reader to follow along without having to scratch his or her head, she doesn’t particularly go out of her way to make the writing entertaining. The style is more of a lighter, simpler version of conventional academic writing. Some readers will feel that this style is meatier than the more entertaining works and will appreciate the lack of “pandering.” Others will find it dry and uninviting. It’s all a matter of your personal taste.
However, if depth and detail of information is your primary concern, then Roesdahl’s book will serve as a better single-volume introduction to the Vikings than any other book out there. Click here to view or buy The Vikings at Amazon.
6. The Sagas of Icelanders
The medieval Icelandic sagas are wondrous literary works, written in a stark, matter-of-fact style that brims with unspoken implications. They were written by the descendants of the Vikings themselves, and recount the lives of particularly remarkable people from the Viking Age and earlier. Their contents are an intriguing blend of history and legend. This 740-page tome contains no less than ten of these sagas, as well as an assortment of numerous shorter tales.
The centerpiece of The Sagas of Icelanders is Egil’s Saga, which recounts the deeds of the nigh-invincible warrior-poet Egil Skallagrimsson. It’s among the best of the sagas, both in terms of its literary quality and what the attentive reader can learn from it.
The translations are all carefully selected and top-notch. This is the best introduction out there to the Icelandic sagas as a genre, and for less than $20, it’s quite a bargain. Click here to view or buy The Sagas of Icelanders at Amazon.
7. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion by Daniel McCoy
Now let’s take a look at a few books that go into some particular aspect of Norse life in a lot of depth.
The Viking Spirit was written by yours truly, so naturally I’m going to have a rather high opinion of it. But I firmly believe that it holds up very well on its own merits, and the many dozens of Amazon reviewers, who have given the book an average rating of four and a half stars, seem to agree.
The Viking Spirit is intended to be the ideal introduction to Norse mythology and religion for the total beginner. I wrote it after having spent years crafting this very site and getting tons of feedback on what my readers liked and didn’t like. It covers much of the same ground as this website does: the Vikings’ gods, goddesses, and other spiritual beings; their beliefs about the nature of reality; their religious practices; their myths; and so on. But it goes into considerably more depth than this site does, and even though it sticks to the same scholarly standard, it’s written in an even more entertaining and reader-friendly style. The book retells no less than 34 epic Norse myths, more than any other book of its kind.
If you’re at all interested in Norse mythology and/or religion, check out The Viking Spirit for yourself and see what you think. Click here to view or buy The Viking Spirit at Amazon.
8. Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen by Kirsten Wolf
As its title implies, Kirsten Wolf’s Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen focuses on the Vikings’ domestic lives, a facet of the Viking Age that, while certainly humbler than the great exploits of famous warriors and kings, played no less of a role in determining the character of the age.
In Wolf’s book, you’ll learn a great deal about virtually every aspect of Norse material and social life: farming practices, settlement patterns, clothing, jewelry, food, drink, kinship systems, gender roles, child-rearing practices, laws, political hierarchies, shipbuilding, navigation techniques, and much more. While many of the previous books on this list cover some of these topics to some degree, Wolf does so considerably more comprehensively. Click here to view or buy Viking Age at Amazon.
9. Viking Age Iceland by Jesse Byock
Aside from a few solitude-loving Irish monks, Iceland was first settled by Scandinavians during the Viking Age. They came seeking wide swaths of virgin pastures for their livestock to graze and to escape various problems in their home countries.
Early Icelandic society in some ways replicated the social and political structures of the lands from which the first settlers came, but in other ways created its own institutions that were better-adapted to the local conditions. They have aptly been called proto-democratic, but with a Norse twist.
Viking Age Icelandic society is fascinating to read about today due to its uniqueness and the fact that a striking proportion of our knowledge of Viking Age society in general comes from the proud record-keepers and storytellers among the Icelanders of subsequent generations. Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland is a stellar introduction to this captivating slice of Norse history. Click here to view or buy Viking Age Iceland at Amazon.
10. The Viking World, edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price
The previous books on this list are all written for a general audience. Stefan Brink and Neil Price’s The Viking World (not to be confused with James Graham-Campbell’s book of the same name, #3 above), however, is written by academics for an academic audience.
At 49 chapters and 674 pages, this book is about as comprehensive an overview of the Viking Age as you can fit between a single front and back cover. Each chapter of the book is a semi-standalone essay written by an expert in that particular niche, which means that each chapter presents cutting-edge research on its particular subject matter.
Quite frankly, this book will be too formidable for most readers. But for those who are looking to research the topic in serious depth, this volume is indispensable. Click here to view or buy The Viking World at Amazon.
If you’ve found this list to be helpful, you might also be interested in these other guides of mine: