The best books on early Medieval England and Scandinavia

Who am I?

Ever since childhood I’ve been fascinated by the history of England, and fifteen years ago I made the decision to write a series of novels set before the Norman Conquest. Since then I’ve immersed myself in the history of that period and made numerous visits to the locations where I set my novels. I’ve been frustrated though by the enormous gaps in the historical records of that time, in particular the lack of information about the women. Because of that I am drawn to the work of authors who, like me, are attempting to resurrect and retell the lost stories of those remarkable women. 


I wrote...

The Steel Beneath the Silk

By Patricia Bracewell,

Book cover of The Steel Beneath the Silk

What is my book about?

In the year 1012 England’s Norman-born Queen Emma has been ten years wed to an aging, ruthless, haunted King Æthelred. The marriage is a bitterly unhappy one, between a queen who seeks to create her own sphere of influence within the court and a suspicious king who eyes her efforts with hostility and resentment. But royal discord shifts to grudging alliance when Cnut of Denmark, with the secret collusion of his English concubine Elgiva, invades England at the head of a massive Viking army. Amid the chaos of war, Emma must outwit a fierce enemy whose goal is conquest and outmaneuver the cunning Elgiva, who threatens all those whom Emma loves.

The books I picked & why

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The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium: An Englishman's World

By Robert Lacey, Danny Danziger,

Book cover of The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium: An Englishman's World

Why this book?

This was one of my earliest research books on early England, and it’s an entertaining introduction to a world that is somewhat familiar, yet vastly different from ours. The authors take us through a calendar year, focusing on activities and attitudes from fasting to feasting, from medicine to marriage practices, and I referred to it again and again as I wrote my novels set in 11th century England. The book is filled with historical anecdotes and intriguing historical figures, bringing that long-ago world to vivid life. My own copy is heavily adorned with yellow marker, in particular the chapter that introduces Emma of Normandy, the woman who would become the central figure of my trilogy. 


The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women

By Nancy Marie Brown,

Book cover of The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women

Why this book?

Recent genetic research on the human remains of a 10th-century Viking grave excavated in 1878 in Birka, Sweden, rocked the world of Viking studies when it determined that the warrior buried with numerous weapons and two horses was not male, but female. I loved how this author imagines what that woman’s life might have been like. She also suggests that the woman buried in the Birka grave was merely one of many female Viking warriors, offering data drawn from archaeological finds, from historical accounts, from language studies, and from the sagas to support the theory that ‘shield maids’ really did exist. I had been dubious about the possibility of female Vikings, but the arguments presented in this book are too compelling. Reading it changed my mind. Now I’m a believer.


Ice Land

By Betsy Tobin,

Book cover of Ice Land

Why this book?

In this genre-bending novel the author weaves Norse myth with a tale set in the very real world of early medieval Iceland. Her descriptions of the landscape are wondrous, and her portrayal of the lives and culture of the early settlers of Iceland ring true. I loved how she quite successfully brought the Norse gods and one particular goddess down to earth. I am not as knowledgeable about the Nordic gods and their stories as I would like to be. This novel was a terrific way to begin a journey of discovery taking me in that direction.


Hild

By Nicola Griffith,

Book cover of Hild

Why this book?

There is an immediacy and specificity in Griffith’s descriptions of 7th century Anglo-Saxon Britain that completely immersed me in that unfamiliar time and place. She uses language like a magic wand to create a world that is hard and cold and dangerous. Life is peripatetic; 'home' is a concept rather than a place; days revolve around the laborious tasks that keep a people alive; years spin through the seasons of sowing, harvesting, feasting, and warring.

All is seen through the bright mind of Hild, a historical figure and a child when the book opens. Throughout, she is canny and quick, seeing much and saying little. We would call her a prodigy; the Anglo-Saxons called her a saint. Griffith has brought her to life. I was mesmerized.


The Lost Queen, Volume 1

By Signe Pike,

Book cover of The Lost Queen, Volume 1

Why this book?

So many brilliant authors have explored the Arthurian legends that I had trouble believing that there could be more to say. Signe Pike, though, researched the earliest appearance of the legend of Merlin and traced it, surprisingly, to 6th-century Scotland where she set this tale. Merlin and his sister are given their early Celtic names, Lailoken and Languoreth and there is a Scottish/Celtic feel to the book that evokes that historical time and place. I was particularly moved by Pike’s exploration of the dilemma of the peace-weaving queen, forced to choose between loyalty to her birth family and loyalty to the family into which she married. Sadly, that was the bitter fate of many peace-weaving brides as rival tribes vied against each other for power and ultimate control.  


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Scandinavia, the Middle Ages, and vikings?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Scandinavia, the Middle Ages, and vikings.

Scandinavia Explore 15 books about Scandinavia
The Middle Ages Explore 245 books about the Middle Ages
Vikings Explore 78 books about vikings

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