There is something about Neil Oliver that deeply divides the audience. Look at the cover of this book accompanying his BBC Series "Vikings - A History" and he looks like an extra out of "Poldark" all windswept and interesting but slightly preposterous. It's a shame since as a populariser of history Neil Oliver brings a highly energetic and engaging approach. This is completed by a Scottish burr with his enunciated vowels firing off sweeping statements and emphasised by dramatic hand movements. As an archaeologist by trade he uses real objects to tell us his story of the past and with the Vikings there is a lively tale to chronicle.
The Vikings suffer from "Kirk Douglas" syndrome. Everyone has seen the film of the same name co-starring Tony Curtis with that wretched horn call blowing every two seconds. It has created a popular image of a band of sea borne hairy marauders dedicated to a range of pagan God's, famous for rape, fire and pillage and general debauchery; all this leading to a glorious passage to Valhalla and probably more of the same. Granted the film did avoid the awful historical cliché of the wearing of horned helmets but enough mead was drunk out of horns to raise shares in Bass and it was of course pure Hollywood. Oliver's book is about separating out the myth from reality, discovering the real Vikings from their own point of view and in his words to fill a gap. As he states what is needed is "a biography of the Vikings", since the inescapable fact faces any historian of the Vikings that "with the exception of the rune stones, which anyway provide little more than names and boasts" not a word of (Viking history) ...was written by the Vikings themselves". There is of course the legends which later generations of Scandinavians constantly reinvented but as Oliver points out the earliest Icelandic sagas are a product of the 12th Century and historically unreliable. Key contemporary sources particularly in England are monastic such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which portray the Vikings as a plague to cleanse sin. This line taps into the concept of "an angry God" and figures most in the letters of the scholar Alcuin who wrote after the infamous Lindesfarne attack of 793 AD "either this is the beginning of greater tribulation, or else the sins of the inhabitants have called it upon them. Truly it has not happened by chance, but it is a sign that it was well merited by someone".
Lack of written sources plays to Oliver's strength namely the much richer archaeological record that he uses to great effect. The examination of the ancient Hjortspring boat gives a rich explanation of the later dynamics of Viking sea vessels and raiding, as does the discovery of the five wrecks in harbour at Skuldelev in Denmark. His analysis of the land shortage as a prime mover of Viking raids is well done and convincing. This, combined with the requisite levels of ambition and opportunity created an unstoppable Viking force not least after 830 AD in Britain when raids undertaken by the best and most portable fighters of their age decimate large parts of the English South. By 850 AD the Vikings were wintering on the Isle of Thanet off Kent's East Coast. Other cultural factors are examined in fascinating detail including the rhythms of winter and preparations the mind-numbing chill in Viking society. Similarly the level of Viking expansion to North Africa, Russia the Middle East and America is well told, particularly the trade in the East for silk and slaves. The book itself very much follows the narrative TV series with an almost verbatim script account of the discovery of 35 Bronze Age carvings in Faro under a sheet of thin ice which so enthused Oliver in the first TV episode or tracing him walking around modern day Istanbul and following in the Vikings footsteps. Therefore despite the wealth of detail this not an academic history. Oliver's style is often chatty and anecdotal, and it is clear that first and foremost he wants to tell a story as opposed to a provide a revisionist history. Perhaps this is good thing since solid histories of the Vikings are in ready supply not least the superb single volume by the late great Professor Gwyn Jones, a Welshmen ironically writing from a country that the Vikings did not overly trouble. As a written accompaniment to the TV series this book has real merit and high readability. If you like the feel of a book in your hand it serves its purpose well but does beg the question whether waiting for the DVD could be a more profitable avenue as that does succeed in bringing things more visually to life than the descriptive archaeology contained in these pages. It is your choice.
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