REVIEWED: The Northmen


North Men by John Haywood. (History, 2016).

I don’t want to be snotty about it, but honesty demands that I say this straight out: In this book, John Haywood has managed the dubious and improbable feat of turning the story of the sprawling and dramatic, violent and complex heyday of the bold raiders we commonly call Vikings into rather dry reading.

Yes, I know–this is a work of history, not a novel. And I don’t question Haywood’s scholarship or his command of the facts (with one possible and probably minor exception I’ll mention later). The man has written several other books that deal, in part or in whole, with the fascinatingly predatory culture of the medieval Norse. But in this instance, by trying to provide a detailed, point-by-point, incident-by-incident overview of 400-plus years of history and covering multiple countries spanning thousands of miles in a single volume, he too often is reduced to the mere listing of names, places and events.

To his credit, he makes a heroic effort to present context to it all. He provides a number of valuable maps concerning the lands these adventuresome people impacted and were impacted by. Then he provides good information on how the modern perceptions of the Vikings have evolved, as well as an essay on their own worldview, based as it was on their unique mythology.

But then it’s on to the history and it’s here that, in my view, troubles with readability arise.

Faced with the multiple stories and sites, and the sheer vastness of years and the numerous characters involved, Haywood has chosen to break the book up into chapters focusing on the various regions where these extremely well-traveled folk made their presence felt. Thus he goes chronologically, country by country. This would seem a wise and even necessary way of organizing things. However, the sheer mobility that characterized the Norse creates a major continuity problem: A prominent Viking leader could (and very often did) involve himself in several different regions in the course of his career. A striking example was Harald Hardrada, who became King of Norway but also had extensive adventures that ranged all the way from the British Isles and Norse-controlled Atlantic islands like Orkney to the Viking-founded state that became Russia and even a brief career as a Varangian Guard mercenary in service to the Byzantine Emperor. Harald popped up here and there at various times and places then vanished to appear elsewhere (sometimes later in the narrative and sometimes earlier), so it was impossible for me to get an overall ‘feel’ for what he was about (beyond the overall Viking ethic of leading a bold and brave, reputation-enhancing life).

A related problem (not Haywood’s fault but inevitable) concerned the relatively few common names among the Norse. Besides Hardrada, six other Haralds (plus one Harold) appear in this volume. Just keeping the exploits of Harald Bluetooth straight from those of Harald Fairhair, or Harald Greycloak (etc., etc.) was a chore–especially when it was, say a “Danish” Harald looking to defeat a “Norwegian” Harald (which actually happened at one point). The same problem arose from the five Hakons, the eight (count ’em eight) Olafs and the trio of Halfdans.

I mentioned one factual quibble with Haywood’s history. In a brief aside, he takes what I gather is the traditional view that the rare and highly prized “Ulfberht” swords that a handful of elite Vikings used were of Frankish origin (mainly because they were embossed with this Frankish name). It brought to mind an episode of the TV science series NOVA, “The Secret of the Viking Sword.” As this program noted, the Franks were deadly enemies of the Vikings–so why would they provide the best quality swords to them (and only to them–as almost none of these distinctive weapons were found elsewhere in Europe)? Furthermore, the crucible steelmaking process that produced the superior “Ulfberht” blade was unknown in Europe at the time (having been invented by Arab metalworkers). Finally, the “Ulfberhts” were only seen/produced during the time that Viking traders had access to the middle east via the Volga River trade route (once that route closed to them, no more “Ulfberht” swords were seen). Personally, I believe the conclusion voiced in the NOVA episode: The Frankish name was probably a ruse, to throw the envious off track as to the weapons’ true origin. Vikings got the high carbon ingots to make this advanced weapon from Arab merchants then shaped them into these famously deadly blades.

But that, as I said above, is  a minor point.

In full, this book has its valuable insights in bringing together the massively complex story of the North Men in a single volume. I found it a difficult read, for the reasons mentioned above. Yet as a big-time history geek, I’m glad I encountered it.



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