Review: The Children of Ash and Elm

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, Neil Price. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Summary: A history based in archaeological research of the rise of the Vikings, their ways and beliefs, and their development as a trading, raiding, and invading power.

The story is that the gods, as they were creating, found two pieces of wood, out of which they fashioned the first man and first woman. The man was of Ash, the woman of Elm, and from these the people that became known to us as the “Vikings” sprang. Or so the Norse legends say.

Beginning with this story, Neil Price renders a history of the people known to us as Vikings. It is a story of a people who emerge from the fjords of Norway and the fastnesses of Sweden, from a collection of locally powerful lords of halls to invade and settle as far as Uzbekistan, Kabul, and Baghdad in the east and Iceland, Greenland, and the eastern shores of North America to the west. They contributed to the founding of Russia and their blood runs through William the Conqueror.

Price draws deeply on archaeological research to reconstruct the rise of these peoples in a time of volcanically-induced extended winter. The first part of this work traces their roots amid a Europe reconstituting itself after the fall of the Roman empire and the spread of Christianity, including to isolated monasteries in England that fell to early raids. Price uses archaeology to reconstruct their life, their beliefs (the Norse gods were a violent and promiscuous bunch) their burial customs (a most fascinating part of the book, including the boat burials, the rites and sacrifices, and what they were interred with), their social organization, including the employment of slaves, and their gender and sexuality.

The second part of the book traces the rise of the Vikings as a maritime culture from trading to raiding (“why trade for it when we can just take it.”) to their full scale invasions. What drives all of this is growing economic power and the needs to sustain and expand it. Price is unsparing in his accounts of the violence of these raids and invasions, and especially the consequences for women.

The third part of the book then builds upon this expansion to trace the extent of their dispersion throughout northern and eastern Europe, Russia, Constantinople and the trade routes to the east. We also learn of their dispersion from Scandinavian countries to Iceland and the attempts to settle in Greenland and North America (Vinland). Price traces the wars in England, the back and forth struggles of alternating Anglo-Saxon and Viking kings until the death of Knut in 1035 and the invasion of William, who as mentioned, was a Viking descendent.

In addition to this sweeping history, Price offers us a glimpse of the avalanche of data coming from archaeological work, from excavations, to artifacts, to DNA samples. We learn of the excavation of a warrior burial site that the warrior was a woman, from DNA evidence. Price offers evidence of fluidity in both gender roles and sexuality which might be explored further in terms of whether contemporary constructs are being read into the record, or whether the record bears out the existence of gender and sexual expression that parallel contemporary experience.

The work helps the reader enter into the worldview of these people, their maritime and military prowess, the sheer breadth of their advances and influences, and, in the end, their assimilation into Christendom. We see both the glories of the hall and the ugliness of their violence and some of their rites. The work offers maps that should be referenced to track the movements of the Vikings and a variety of illustrations of sites and artifacts referenced in the text. The references also offer extensive additional readings, as well as references for each chapter in the text.

All of this comes in a highly readable account, seasoned with Price’s wit from time to time. While there may be matters for continued scholarly debate in Price’s account, he offers an account that separates myth from fact in our understanding of these people–for example, there were no horned helmets but rather head pieces of armor and mail! This is a “go to” resource for those interested in the current research on the Vikings and their history and ways.

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