The best books on early Medieval England and Scandinavia

The Books I Picked & Why

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. 


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.  


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