Book reviews / History

Book Review: Viking Britain – A History

One of the things I did over one of the many lockdowns of 2020-2021 was play Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. What occurred to me while I was playing was that of the things I know about UK history, not much of it was during the viking period. I knew they were here but that’s about it and some random facts like York was called Jorvik, but not what you’d call even the basics.

So when bookstores opened again, I had a look for something that might illuminate me.

I don’t think I could have found a better book, Thomas Williams’s Viking Britain was exactly what I wanted. It had wonderful details like the different spellings in Old Norse or Old English that showed how the people from the North made an impression, not just from terrifying raids but from settling and farming. I know enough from living here where all the places are (for the most part), so it felt readily accessible even though I didn’t know my Hrothgar’s from my Æthelbald’s. Hilariously, the most familiarity was with all those people who pepper Assassin’s Creed like Ubbe and Ivar and Sigurd.

What I appreciated from a historian’s point of view is where he pointed out “we don’t really know” or where there was competing historical interpretations. As was pointed out, there’s not a lot of written evidence from the vikings, and so we have to rely on narratives from things like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. These sources are obviously biased in various ways, either through time or the fact that they were arguing a particular political perspective.

Also, like all my reading of Central Asian history, the ramifications of what was happening elsewhere was revealed. Why did vikings start raiding in the 9th century? Well on the continent we had the consolidation of power under Charlemagne, this in turn made previous raiding targets in the south a bit more dangerous. So the turn west, much to the detriment of Anglo-Saxon Britain. What was particularly devastating was how fast the vikings managed to overturn Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (some of which we know very little about like Alt Clut).

It has made me want to go do some viking tourism, even just to go see where forts and battles were pitched. I didn’t know that anglo-saxons liked to have their battles at places of some spiritual or historical significance, so some of them will also have earlier archaeological significance (like barrows). loved all the references to Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse language which was interesting and illuminating at the same time. I want to see some of the artefacts!

Anyway, it was a great book, I highly recommend it as a really accessible and interesting read.

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