T. D. (Sir Thomas Downing) Kendrick was a specialist in prehistoric art, later specializing in Viking and Anglo-Saxon art. He was the Director of the
British Museum from 1950 to 1959. He wrote a number of histories, including one on the axe-age and another on the Druids. This large volume, published in 1930
is certainly comprehensive and contains a great deal of information which needs to soak in, especially if you are like me and mostly unfamiliar with the
subject. I was really excited to read this book, because the Vikings are fascinating and legendary. However, like pirates, their legend doesn't perhaps match their real history.
Though, as a people they had many strong and positive qualities, their invasions which lasted through five phases, beginning in 785 A.D. to around
1050 A.D. were brutal and ruthless. They terrorized coastal towns of Europe all along the Atlantic, and also invaded Russia. They, like the Celts were
comprised of various races from different countries, although the Celt's climactic rise in power peaked much earlier, around 500-300 B.C. Kendrick's lengthy Introduction provides an overview of what the
rest of the book will cover in more detail.
It is helpful to have an atlas handy. I love geography, but I am terrible at it—I don't remember ever having a geography course in school. It has been in my later life since I've greatly expanded my areas of interest that I've made a point to look up places throughout the world that I'm reading about. I have to say that the Scandinavian countries really are not situated where I believed they were, nor did I realize how close they are to Russia and Germany. After I read the Introduction to this book, I realized I needed to sit down with my atlas and thoroughly study the area. That helped me very much to understand the events which Kendrick has recorded in his book.
There is so much information in this book that, to cover even a smattering of it would result in a review way too lengthy. Therefore, I will simply highlight some of the areas discussed in each chapter.
After the Introduction, Part I is a discussion of The Lands of the Vikings, and Chapter I, Early Scandinavia and Denmark begins very early indeed, with the Stone Age peoples (before the discovery of metals) from 7000 B.C. to 1800 B.C.. The Maglemose or Ancylus people 6500 B.C.) were the earliest Stone Age race who came from Central Europe. The next group, the Kitchen-Midden or Ertebölle peoples, were perhaps descended from the earlier group. Kendrick discusses tools and implements, stone dwellings, and art of these people. There was another Danish culture called the Single Graves, later the Battle-Axe Culture, the former so-called because they buried their dead in individual graves rather than community graves. He also mentions migration and influence of other peoples, such as from Central Europe.
The Stone Age was followed by the Bronze Age, from about 1800 to 600 B.C., and Kendrick says this was the period in which the northern peoples segregated into cultural and ethnic groups which later became the Vikings. Of course, northern civilization was now more advanced, including their art and implements of bronze and gold and an age of prosperity for these people.
The Early Iron Age was the long period between 600 B.C. and A.D. 500, and while one may think the thriving Nordic population continued to advance, for some reason it collapsed. Though we don't know exactly why, it may have been related to climate and emigration. It is also believed that the Celts were responsible for excluding the northern peoples from trade with the lands in the south especially Greece and Italy. At the time, the Roman Empire was greatly advancing, however, in power, art and culture, and there is evidence that some trade was taking place between them and the north.
At the close of the last century before Christ, Goths, from Götaland in Sweden migrated into Germany and Russia, and were influenced by the art and culture in their new lands. They were also influenced by a people in south Russia called the Sarmatians, who later became Iranians. The bright jewelry of these Oriental people were adopted by the Goths and later Vikings. This was also the period that we find the development of the Runic alphabet as a means of writing, influenced by Latin. This migration of Gothic peoples into Germany was followed by Germans, in turn, migrating into Scandinavia, mostly western Norway.
And so, Kendrick summarizes the state of northern culture in the four ages; the Stone Age was a period of European migration into the north; the Bronze Age, a time of cultural consolidation; the early or Pre-Roman Iron age saw a decline in culture for northern peoples, and the later Roman Iron Age was a time of renaissance. But he also points out that these are generalizations, and certainly there were many peoples in the north who followed a different path. For instance, some areas in Norway basically remained in the Stone Age until the age of the Vikings. He says: "The truth is that culture-divisions are applicable only where they can be directly observed, and they must never, without strict examination, be held as automatically valid for adjacent communities."
In Chapter II, The North Germans, Kendrick discusses the very complicated ethnic groups from Germany, especially the Goths, and all branches of them, such as the Visigoths and Ostrogoths, all migrating to different areas, some as far south as what is now the Middle East. It is the ones that traveled and settled in the Scandinavian countries that became Vikings. The Migration Period lasted from A.D. 400-800. The chapter ends with a discussion of the epic poem Beowulf.
Chapter III, The Birth of the Viking Nations, begins with a continuation of Beowulf, and the fact that some of the characters were based on real people and certainly true events, especially Swedish and Danish kings and particular battles. Most of the chapter is about battles for power, the gradual coming together of the separate ethnic groups and individual kingdoms. For instance, the Swedes and Goths united to become all Swedes. Thus, the countries began to be formed, although not as we know them today. Harald Gormsson, known as Bluetooth, is credited for founding the Danish Kingdom, but his rules extended into Norway, and even some of Sweden. It's quite complicated. Likewise, Harald Fairhair is credited for Norway, though he was a harsh and despised ruler. The three nations of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden and Denmark, were also the three Viking nations.
Chapter IV, Scandinavia in Viking Times gives more details of kings, battles and descendents for these three countries. And it becomes even more complicated. Kendrick give the chronologies according to country, so it is confusing to keep straight who are contemporaries, since each country was settled at a different period. To make things even more difficult, these guys basically had a short list of names that were used over and over and over. Harald. Olaf. Eric. Svein. OMG. Unless you are quite familiar with the history of the area, it can be quite mind-boggling. It would have been immensely helpful if Kendrick had provided some sort of visual chronology—a family tree sort of thing for each country.
Though Kendrick gives lots of dates, he doesn't point out that all of this internal tumult is taking place at the same time as the Viking invasions of other countries. That's in Part II, and the political unrest was one reason much of the population felt the need to leave. Part I covers the time period up to 1428, long after the Viking raids had ceased.
One other point Kendrick makes, repeatedly, that I found personally offensive was concerning the spread of Christianity among the "heathens" of Scandinavia, and that this new religion gave them a sense of morals which probably contributed to the end of the Viking raids. REALLY??? SERIOUSLY??? Well. I can tell you that I am a "heathen" and I have the strongest sense of morals and ethics among anyone I know, especially among people who claim to be "Christian" and behave abominably. Furthermore, the ghastly horrors that have been committed against humanity in the name of "Christ" over the past two centuries far exceed anything the Vikings did. Furthermore, I am fairly new to Norse mythology, but from what I have read, their "gods" Odin and Thor for instance did in fact have a sense of ethics, more so, perhaps than the gods of Greece and Rome. But that's just a personal opinion. Furthermore, it is more likely (and Kendrick admits this was often the case), becoming Christian was more of a political move to put Viking rulers in better standing with more powerful European rulers.
Part I, therefore has provided a good background of the development of the countries now known as Scandinavia. Part II: The Vikings Abroad, takes each country separately with which the Vikings interacted (plundered, invaded, settled, etc.). I will mention each country with a few highlighted points.
Russia and the East: Here we see the Vikings as they explore the amazing rivers in Russia, often for means of trade, but also including some attacks. Constantinople was a particular desire, because of its wealth and glory. (At the time it was part of Greece, but now it is Istanbul, and is in Turkey.) I found a quote by an Arabian, writer to be humorous.
Ibn Fadlan declared that they were the dirtiest people that God ever made and so lax in certain specified matters of personal cleanliness that he could only liken them to wild asses.
The Arab peoples were very particular about cleanliness. Michael Crichton
in his Eaters of the Dead, also narrated by an
Arab spends much time describing the filthy ways of these people!
It is also noted that for a while, the northern peoples were rulers in parts of northern Russia, but it eventually was taken over by Slavic peoples.
The South and East Baltic Coasts: This chapter refers to mostly Slavic nations along Baltic coast, such as Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, etc.. This area was relatively uneventful, and though there was some invasion, trade was, It seems, more important.
The Western Empire: This includes the countries that are now Germany and France, and the tone really shifts here, with the Vikings now referred to as "Pirates." It is not so much about kings wanting to expand their territory, but more about bands of rogues, unhappy with life at home, spending their days making much of Europe miserable. Unlike battles fought between warriors, these were scoundrels coming onshore and murdering regular citizens—men, women and children, burning the towns, and stealing whatever they could. Monasteries were a particularly favorite for plunder. And as was the case for almost all the regions they invaded, the Vikings often found little serious resistance because the countries themselves were kept busy with their own internal wars.
England: I found this chapter fascinating—I had no idea that England for a while was ruled by a Danish king! History from 834 to 1047 is discussed here, and a rough time it was, with certain areas juggling back and forth between English and Danish kings, depending on who was leader at the time and how strong they were. A large section of Eastern England called Danelaw was settled by the Danes, and ruled by their own king. Even during the period when England won back all her territory, the Danes were still allowed to govern themselves. The Vikings who invaded this country weren't only after plunder—they were serious about making it their own.
Ireland, Scotland and Man, and Wales: These three chapters continue in the same vein as England, although Wales had the least problem with Viking invasions, the worst beginning after 950, much later than in the other countries. Ireland in particular had much infighting between Danes and Norsemen (Norwegians). "Man" refers to the Isle of Man. In the end, of course, no Scandinavian rule remained in any of these island countries.
The Faroe Islands and Iceland: The tiny Faroe (or Faeroe) Islands lie between Norway and Iceland, and to the south. Sparsely populated, there was little Viking raiding going on. Inhabited by Norwegians, the disputes were mostly between rulers and religion. It is now part of Denmark, as is Iceland. It is believed that many Norwegians fled to Iceland to escape the harsh rule of Harald Fairhair. When the first settlers arrived, there was hardly any population except priests or monks. The chapter on Iceland is not about Viking invasions at all, but about the formation of the new settlement and the attempts they made to establish law and community. Even more challenging were the few attempts to convert the new Icelanders to Christianity. Ultimately it became a political move, and the people were forced to adopt the new religion. The Icelandic people are also known for their great gift in storytelling, or the creation of sagas, tales mixed with historical truths.
Greenland: This was certainly the saddest and most tragic chapter in the book, not because of violent raids, but of neglect in horrible conditions. It was founded by Eric the Red, an outlaw expelled from both Norway and Iceland, and the father of the famous Leif Ericsson. For a while the colony survived, then like Iceland, found it necessary to become part of Norway. But as in Iceland, political upheaval back home put it into Danish hands, those who didn't care what became of the Greenland population. The climate worsened and so did the political situation. Eighty years went by without a ship bringing food or supplies, and by that time, everyone had died.
America: Kendrick admits there are iffy parts to this one, but there is reason to
believe that Norsemen, actually people from Iceland and Greenland, including Leif Ericsson and his brother discovered America. They called it Wineland
because they found wild grapes there and supposedly corn. There are two sagas that relate the story of Vikings coming to America, with major discrepancies,
yet there is also much in the tales that describe the coast and American Indians. But there is no physical evidence, like artifacts that they were ever here.
We may never know.
Two other little points: Kendrick uses the word thing throughout the book but doesn't give a definition. It means assembly. The picture on the front of the Dover edition above is a detail from Thingbrekka at Thingvellir by W. G. Collingwood, 1897. It was built in Iceland as a yearly meeting place in the summer for discussion of community issues by the chosen representatives and also a family carnival-type event. Kendrick also always uses the word viking (no capital). It means "sea rover" or "Scandinavian."
This book is highly recommended reading for both scholars and people like me who are just interested. It is very well written with footnotes and sources on nearly every page, plus a lengthy index and resource section in the back. I must say I found it challenging! This material was mostly unfamiliar to me, and those Scandinavian names! OH MY! But the amazing thing is that, though I haven't retained a fraction of the detailed information Kendrick has provided, I still I have learned an immense amount of history by reading this book. I am so much smarter than I was before I read it, especially on a subject of which I knew almost nothing.
All material on this site copyright © 2015 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.