Book Review: The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth

Winroth Age of the Vikings

If you’re looking for an authoritative one-volume book on the Vikings and the Viking Age for the general reader, Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings fits the bill nicely.

The book covers essentially everything that the average interested layman would want to know. While it certainly recounts the “kings and battles” stuff of which books on this and similar topics are often comprised, it thankfully goes well beyond that rather myopic perspective to give what is, considering the book’s length, a remarkably full impression of what life was actually like for the Scandinavians of the eighth to the eleventh centuries.

In its 250 pages, it offers detailed overviews of the practicalities of Viking warfare; how Scandinavians established themselves in conquered lands; their expeditions throughout the known world and discovery of North America; the vibrant trade that existed between the Scandinavians and lands as far flung as Egypt, Russia, and the Persian Gulf; how Viking ships were constructed and used; political hierarchies; farm life, including a bit of a discussion of gender roles; pre-Christian Scandinavian religion; the conversion to Christianity; the runic alphabets and their use; poetry and visual art; and how the Viking Age came to an end as Scandinavia integrated more fully with the rest of Europe. The book is organized by topic rather than chronology, but numerous discussions of chronological development during the period address that side of things, too.

One of the book’s great advantages is its writing style. Winroth’s prose is seldom dry. It has a human, conversational element to it, as if he were engaging directly with the reader. This is enhanced by the bits of narrative that pepper the text throughout, adding a flavor of historical fiction that further prevents the book from sinking into a bare recounting of facts.

No book is without its flaws, but the shortcomings of The Age of the Vikings are relatively minor. Winroth occasionally makes the odd ridiculous claim, such as his assertion that the berserkers and other inspired warriors were a literary invention of the centuries that followed the Viking Age. He barely defends this and similar contentions, probably due to limitations of space, but it evidences a lack of familiarity with key sources on Viking religion such as Neil Price’s The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron-Age Scandinavia, as well as an overweening (but fundamentally well-founded) desire to compensate for the at times too credulous and romantic conclusions of many past scholars. I personally would have liked to see him go into more depth about Viking Age religion, but that’s a rather predictable wish on my part, and space in the book is limited, after all.

For those who are hoping to find a first-rate general introduction to the Viking Age, whether out of an interest in the Vikings themselves or a desire to understand more of the context within which the pre-Christian Norse religion and myths lived, I can highly recommend Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings.

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