Did the Viking Age Begin Because of a Volcano?

Why did the Viking Age begin? Surely, it must be the most enticing mystery of many regarding the Vikings. They seem to appear, fully formed, in the historical record with the raid on Lindisfarne in 793. And yet much must have taken place earlier for these remote people to suddenly emerge out of Scandinavia and ransack the known world, as well as parts unknown.

This is one of the subjects renowned archaeologist Neil Price addresses in Children of Ash and Elm, recently reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. He traces the story back to the fifth and sixth centuries and the power vacuum and general instability after the end of the Western Roman Empire. This might seem intuitive, but Price goes farther and says that two volcanic eruptions in the sixth century led to winters lasting for years, dust blotting out the sun and the population of Scandinavia perhaps being halved. Due to all this, violence became common and those who wielded it most successfully created competing kingdoms. These were then exported to the outside world, with trade in iron and animal skins but also with raids and conquest.

According to this, it might seem that Ragnarök had already taken place by the time of the Vikings, the old Gods were dead and the new ones emerging in Iðavellir turned out to be just as fierce, if not more so. Dr. Price might not agree with the latter analogy but his thesis is interesting, not least for the times we find ourselves in as we in Iceland await a volcanic eruption and the world in general is starting to feel the effects of climate change. Hopefully that doesn’t mean we have to start going all Viking again.

The review by Jane Kershaw is available to read here: A reassessment of the Vikings and their world | The TLS (the-tls.co.uk)

The book is available here: The Children of Ash and Elm (penguin.co.uk)

Kings of the River, Lords of the Sea

So, it turns out that the Vikings not only traversed on the high seas but also went overland along rivers, not least in eastern Europe. These are among the conclusions in Dr Cat Jarman’s new book River Kings. Her riveting story starts with the Great Viking Army, depicted recently in popular TV shows such as The Vikings and The Last Kingdom, as they pummelled their way across eastern England. Left behind in Derbyshire during the rampage was a small orange bead. This was unearthed in 1982 and came into Dr. Jarman’s possession about ten years ago.

With the aid of the latest technology, she traces the origin of the bead through the rivers of present-day Russia and Ukraine and all the way back to Baghdad. It’s origin place seems to be across the Silk Roads in Gurajat in India. Using bioarchaeology, Jarman conclusively proves that the 9th Century world was in many ways interconnected and brought people as well as goods (many of whom were, in fact, people) from parts of Asia to Northern Europe and vice-versa, all written in an accessible and informative manner.

Dr. Jarman is currently involved with creating the eagerly anticipated new Viking museum in Oslo which is set to open in 2025. She also hosted the Real Vikings TV series on the History Channel. We can only hope than an Eastern Vikings museum will open some day. And perhaps a proper TV series is also overdue?

For more about the River Kings, see here:

River Kings by Cat Jarman review — the Vikings’ quest for the exotic east | Saturday Review | The Times

And here:

River Kings, Cat Jarman | Get History

Worst Year Ever (No, it’s not 2020)

Back in that distant golden age which was 2018, people, it seems, were still not very happy. In fact, so miserable were they that it took a team of scientist to prove that 2018 was not, in fact, the worst year ever, despite a new polio-like disease that could appear at any moment, fear of global warming and Trump still being president.

The experts unanimously agreed on the year 536 and perhaps inevitably, it was all the fault of Iceland. Apparently, a volcanic eruption in the-still uninhabited island at around that time blocked the sun from the sky for 18 months and led to widespread crop-failure and famine. If this makes the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010, which grounded all flights for a week, seem like a mere speck of dust, then the bubonic plague which that year spread from Egypt and across Europe and killed some 50 million people makes Covid look like a case of the sniffles. Also, it was uncommonly cold, worth remembering now that Iceland is going through an uncharacteristic dry spell.

Even the horrors of 2020 (I, for one have put on 10 kilos watching Netflix) can´t hold a candle to 536. Now that we are in the endgame with a mere weeks to go, this Annus Horriblis really must try harder if it is to beat the king.

And speaking of kings, Justinian the First of Byzantium, also known for building the Hagia Sophia, was at the time busy reconquering the Western Roman Empire, ruling over Italy, North Africa and Spain as well as the East. When the plague reached Constantinople in 541, it killed around 40% of the inhabitants. Had it not been for this, who knows, perhaps the Roman Empire would have been reconstituted, the Middle Ages as we know them never happened, and Varangians perhaps never become the elite forces of the Eastern Emperor?

Read more in the Time Magazine article here: https://time.com/5460027/worst-year-history/

For more detailed information, here is an interview by Ann Gibbon with Harvard Medievalist Michael McCormick: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/why-536-was-worst-year-be-alive

Finally, finally … The Varangians Are Here

Sverrir Jakobsson’s eagerly awaited tome The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire has finally arrived. Years in the making, it should bring the reader up to speed on what is now the most cutting edge field in Viking Studies, their journeys and settlements in the east.

Dr. Sverrir Jakobsson is a professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Iceland and has previously done much scholarship on Vikings, but this is his definitive study of their complete history as gleamed from the sources, including interactions with the great empires of the east, including the Abbasid Caliphate and the Eastern Roman Empire. He also supervises the Legends of the Eastern Vikings project and you can find more about him in these pages.

It is available on Palgrave Macmillan here in both eBook and Hardcover formats. You can even purchase individual chapters separately:


The description reads:

This book is the history of the Eastern Vikings, the Rus and the Varangians, from their earliest mentions in the narrative sources to the late medieval period, when the Eastern Vikings had become stock figures in Old Norse Romances. A comparison is made between sources emanating from different cultures, such as the Roman Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate and its successor states, the early kingdoms of the Rus and the high medieval Scandinavian kingdoms. A key element in the history of the Rus and the Varangians is the fashioning of identities and how different cultures define themselves in comparison and contrast with the other. This book offers a fresh and engaging view of these medieval sources, and a thorough reassessment of established historiographical grand narratives on Scandinavian peoples in the East.

The Next Frontier in Viking Studies

In his very interesting online talk, Dr. Neil Price of the University of Uppsala suggested that the Eastern Vikings are the next frontier in Viking studies. Whereas 20 years ago it was unproven that they had gone east of the Urals, it now seems that they went as far as Central Asia and even to western China. Dr. Price even mentioned that the Chinese character in season 4 of the Irish/Canadian TV show Vikings was not at all unpalatable.

He further said that one of the reasons why the eastern Vikings have been under researched so far was due to the Cold War. It was very hard for western scholars to be granted access to the Soviet Union and even to communicate with people there, which has led to an overemphasis on the raids, trade and settlements in the west, rather than on a Viking worldview that stretched from North America to China.

Among his other points was that the first documented Viking raid took place not in Lindisfarne in England in 793 but on the Estonian island of Saaremaa in 750. What we now call the Viking Age probably had its roots in around 500 CE, with the major shifts that occurred with the end of the Western Roman Empire.

For more information, his book Children of Ash and Elm is widely available and the Facebook page for the talk can be found here

Viking Lecture with Neil Price Online

The inimitable Neil Price will be giving an online lecture on Wednesday, October 7th, at 13.30 Co-ordinated Universal Time, which is happily also Iceland time (although for some reason the atom clock is set by Greenwich and not Reykjavik). The lecture is hosted by the Institute of Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland.

Dr. Price will base his lecture on Children of Ash and Elm: A New Look at the Vikings, which is his latest work. Price is also associated with the Legends of the Eastern Vikings program, for further information see his profile on “The Project and Its Participants” page. For residents in Iceland, the book is available in the University book store (Bóksala stúdenta), which remains open although the University library and most of the premises are closed due to Covid.

The lecture will take an hour and a half and is free of charge. If you want to join, please sign up here.

Viking Societies Were Cultural and Genetic Melting Pots

Peer-reviewed journal Nature has published an article by a team of researchers who have been mapping Viking DNA by examining the remains of 442 people from burial sites all over Europe. It probably comes as little surprise that Norwegian ancestry is found in Iceland, Greenland and Ireland, Danish in England and Swedish in Eastern Europe, Swedish DNA having been traced to the present day Baltic States, Russia and Poland. However, the study also shows that there was a considerable influx of people from southern Europe and even Asia into Scandinavia. This is in line with recent discoveries of objects from far afield found in Nordic excavations. It seems that rather than Vikings emanating from Scandinavia and setting off to conquer, all blond and blue eyed, they may have been a very mixed group, with Picts from Scotland found to have been accorded full Viking burials. The popular conception of what Vikings supposedly looked like is up for re-evaluation, but some researchers point out that as the study only looks at the Viking Age (ca. 750-1050), we don’t as yet know how far back this cultural melting pot goes. The solution would seem to be to dig deeper.

A short podcast discussing the findings with scholars from Norway and Denmark can be found here: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02659-w

The full article is available here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2688-8

Heroic or Just Cruel. What Do the Sources Say?

A review of The Children of Ash and Elm: A New History of the Vikings by Neil Price has appeared in the “Socially Distant Summer Issue” of the London Review of Books, Vol. 42 No. 16, 13 August 2020. Price is an archaeologist and professor at the University of Uppsala and is also associated with this program. His previous book is The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia.

The review is written by Tom Shippey and titled “Did they even hang bears?”, a reference to the ritual sacrifices at Uppsala which may have included larger animals than previously thought. Shippey recounts some of Price’s conclusions, such as the fact that 125 million silver dirhams are thought to have gone north from the Caliphate to Scandinavia in the 10th Century. Meanwhile, only seven million pennies did so from the Frankish Empire, which still amounted to around 14 percent of the Franks output. No one knows why so many of the coins were put into burial mounds but it can hardly have been an accident. Price suggests ritual as a possible explanation.

Even more interesting is the mystery of why the Viking Age started. Price points to a couple of factors, such as lack of central power following the collapse of the Roman Empire as well as the many volcanic eruptions of the 6th Century, which may have destroyed crops all over but hit the Nordic Countries with their limited agriculture particularly hard. More immediately, the feuds between the successors in the Frankish Empire in the 9th Century may have led to new opportunities to acquire loot.

Perhaps most interestingly, there may have been a considerable male surplus in Scandinavia in the period, as male children seem to have been better looked after and less likely to suffer from malnutrition. This may have led to raids to find funds to impress the girls back home or a chance to find and abduct entirely new girls.

Finally, Shippey finds many examples of the Vikings being alternately heroic and cruel in Price’s text, saying that the idea that they were simply one or the other belongs in the realm of comic books.