A Dark History: Vikings by Martin J. Dougherty [book review]
A Dark History: Vikings is a really good introduction for grown ups interested in Vikings. It’s fairly modern and has lots of illustrations to bring the text to life. Way more informative than the stuff your kids might read, but also easily accessible compared to some of the more academic histories.
A Dark History: Vikings
What I enjoyed about it was that there was a mix of social and cultural history along with the usual timelines. It also gave me a sense of ‘Viking’ being a product of lazy thinking in the same way that ‘Celts’ are. The reality was that there were lots of people over a vast geographic area and a couple of centuries. There’s no central drive or common ethos for the entire group. Also small groups didn’t just behave in a stereotypical Viking way all the time.
This myth busting was easy to read, supported with some pretty recent archaeology and histories, and it was well illustrated with examples. There were also pictures, maps, and diagrams to summarise or typify what the text was explaining. Some of these were of the older stereotypes, but they were labelled as such, and the inaccuracies pointed out. So you wouldn’t come away with a false impression.
I was reading the book hoping to mine it for useful world building ideas for my fantasy stories set in a post Viking age. It was really useful for that. Not only because of the social and cultural bits that showed some of the core ethos that lead to raiding and trading. A Dark History: Vikings showed how the peoples thought of as Vikings evolved into a number of different nations in different parts of the world. There were the Rus, in Eastern Europe/Western Asia. Further south there was the Varangian Guard serving the Byzantine empire. In France the Normans, in England the Danes became the nobles in what we consider Anglo Saxon England. There were also Viking States in Ireland, Iceland, Greenland and the Scandinavian countries.
In fact I was left with the distinct impression that the Vikings just became British, Scandanavians and French. You could almost trace the expansion out of Northern Europe across the sea to the British Empire, and then the US hegemony. Although that’s my post hoc analysis rather than what the book suggests.
What the book does suggest is that the people of the 9th to 11th centuries were more linked by the sea than across the land. The Viking penetrations follow the coast and navigable rivers. Their boats were small enough to go quite far up the rivers, and to portage round obstacles, or onto other rivers.
Evolution of the Vikings
The nature of contact changed both contextually and over time. Initially there are individual boats either raiding weaker places, or trading with better defended locations. As raiding becomes more lucrative flotillas form. Targets harden, and the flotillas look for easy pickings. Once the flotillas become fleets then the targets start to buy them off. This organisation leads to more modern states with effective taxation to pay the Danegeld.
Overall this is a great starting point if you don’t know a lot about Vikings. It busts some myths, gives a narrative of the period and the extent to which Vikings travelled and also some social and cultural background that explains why they traveled. It also explains why they stopped being Vikings.