Aug

25

Book Review, from Tom Ryan

August 25, 2007 |

 A History of the Vikings, by Gwyn Jones, is a keeper. It was originally published in 1968. This is not a history-light book that is all too common these days, but rather a comprehensive and thorough disposition on a rather complex society over the course of five or six centuries.

The book, if nothing else, dispels many of the negative stereotypes of the culture as being hell-bent on raping and pillaging everything they came into contact with (note the current movie Pathfinder). That's not to say that the Vikings did not raid their neighbors, fight wars against other cultures and take slaves. They did. But so did the Gauls, Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and the Goths, Vandals, and Celts before them.

Primarily the story of the Vikings is a story about trade; these people were first and foremost traders, and their expansion was driven by economics. Rather than raiding and relying on plunder, the Vikings set up a system of trading outposts where they traded for goods with the local populations. The Vikings had what was at the time the most sophisticated and sound monetary system in Europe. It utilized silver and gold coinage as well as precious metal and base metal beads. They had insurance contracts. They provided security and protection to shippers to protect goods from piracy.

At the pinnacle of Viking culture in the 9th and 10th centuries, the Viking trade system extended from Iceland all the way to Persia, which is why some of the most important information we have about the Viking culture comes from accounts from other cultures including Arabic and Byzantine traders. The Byzantine emperor hired the Vikings for his personal bodyguard (the Varangian Guard) and they used this position to further extend their trade network. The geographic span of this culture (Greenland to Byzantium, Portugal to the Urals) is amazing given the period and especially when you consider the state of technology at the time.

Clearly this was a risk-taking culture and it just goes to show how a bit of egalitarian politics (the Vikings although feudal, were not as hierarchical as the other tribal groups at the time), a sound monetary system, a focus on technology (Viking weaponry and ships were at the time the best in Europe by far), can create a potent cultural force.


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