• Margo De Weerdt

The Children of Ash & Elm: A History of the Vikings, Neil Price

Updated: May 25, 2021

For all the people who are *slightly* obsessed with history and archaeology, yes, I am one of those, this is a wonderful book about the Viking Age Scandinavia, and the Viking diaspora around Europe and North America.

Neil Price is an English archaeologist who specialises in Viking Age Scandinavia and the archaeology of shamanism, plus he is a professor in the department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University in Sweden.

In this book he dives into the Viking Age, but gives a much wider view than what is traditionally know as ‘the start of the Viking Age,’ the attack by Scandinavian raiders on the Lindisfarne monastery on June 793. No dear reader, it gets so much more interesting when he zooms out and traces the changes and shifts in Scandinavian societies centuries before that, based on the latest archeologic discoveries. He takes you through the workings of their political system, economy, how they lived and the changes that took place before anybody got on a ship with the idea ‘Let us go on a raid!’

Furthermore he takes you on a journey throughout Europe, Eurasia and even beyond, eventually from Iceland to Greenland and North America. He follows the Viking diaspora in all its forms, brings all its influences into view. If you had the idea that everybody stayed on their ‘little island/land’ without ever meeting the rest of Europe, think again. Migration streams are nothing new. The migrations of the Scandinavians in that period defined a lot of communities and regions in Europe, some changes that are still visible today. For example, there is a reason the region ‘Normandy’ in France is called that: Once upon a time is was called ‘Neustria’ but when the region was granted to the Scandinavians by the Frankish king, it would be known as ‘Nordmannia,’ ‘the land of the Northman,’ today known as Normandy.

He dismantles the myth of the barbarian stereotype of ‘a Viking,’ and saying that also the fact that ‘The Viking’ did not exist. It is all far more complex. (It usually is in every aspect of life, in the past and present.)

One the most interesting chapters for me, were the ones where he takes us into the Norse mind. Into their spirit world, their world view, how they viewed ‘identity’ and gender. He tries to find how the Vikings saw themselves. It gives a very surprising perspective. Absolutely fascinating! One example is the notion of what we call ‘the soul,’ the Vikings had a ‘fourfold division of being.’ In other words: a person had four ways of ‘being,’ not just ‘one soul’ as a Christian might have seen it at that time. I will not go into too much detail; it is explained far better in the book.

Also, worth mentioning: The barbarian stereotype is dismantled, but the image that comes forward is also not one of a lovely, sweet natured culture… Mind you, there are many, many, many ritual sacrifices, the slave trade is BIG business, and, in a way, you can state that they first introduced ‘sex trafficking’ with their slaves. I say this so that you do not romanticize this culture.

The author does an excellent job at explaining all the aspects, based on facts, that let you see their world and how they would have experienced it. At the same time, he points out the elements that we cannot known and that we in our time can only guess at, until we may have new evidence in the future.