The best medieval books about Viking Islands

Who am I?

I am a Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham and have been teaching, researching, and writing about all aspects of the Viking Age and its aftermath for many years. My particular expertise is in the poetry, sagas, and runic writings of medieval Scandinavia. To understand these, it has been important to me to follow in the footsteps of the Vikings from the Baltic to North America, to see the places they were familiar with, and to experience the traces of their culture in those places. These books tell the stories which will guide the armchair traveller on the same voyages.

I wrote...

The Viking Diaspora

By Judith Jesch,

Book cover of The Viking Diaspora

What is my book about?

The Viking Diaspora presents the early medieval migrations of people, language, and culture from mainland Scandinavia to new homes in the British Isles, the North Atlantic, the Baltic, and the East as a form of ‘diaspora’. This book is the first to explain Scandinavian expansion using this model, and presents the Viking Age in a new and exciting way for students of Vikings and medieval history.

Rather than the movements of armies, the book concentrates on the movements of people and the shared heritage and culture that connected them. The book highlights in detail significant forms of cultural contact including gender, beliefs, and identities.

The books I picked & why

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Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney

By Anonymous, Hermann Pálsson (translator), Paul Edwards (translator)

Book cover of Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney

Why this book?

From its majestic Neolithic monuments to its 21st-century potential for alternative energy solutions, Orkney has always attracted entrepreneurial immigrants. The Vikings arrived in the 9th century during their invasions and settlements of large parts of Britain and Ireland. Orkney and Shetland remained a part of the Scandinavian world until the middle of the 15th century. This 13th-century Icelandic saga tells the story of the feuds, killings, and other machinations of the Norse rulers of these archipelagoes. It’s a story of ruthless high politics, occasionally leavened with outstanding poetry, Christian devotion, and black humour.

The Faroe Islanders’ Saga

By Anonymous, George Johnston (translator),

Book cover of The Faroe Islanders’ Saga

Why this book?

North of Britain, the Vikings encountered the uninhabited Sheep Isles, or the Faroes, before they went on to discover their better-known settlement of Iceland. Connections remained close, and in the 13th century, an unknown Icelandic author wrote this swashbuckling tale of the wealthy merchants and farmers who lived in these small and craggy islands in the Viking Age, their inter-island rivalries, and their tricky relationships with the rulers of their Norwegian homeland.

The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók

By Paul Edwards (translator), Hermann Pálsson (translator),

Book cover of The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók

Why this book?

What other nation can boast that it has a written account of the first people to inhabit it? Iceland was an uninhabited, volcanic island until the arrival of Vikings from Scandinavia and elsewhere in the 870s. This book, written in the 13th century, is a catalogue of some 3000 individuals who link the settlement period to the time of writing. Of these around 400 (including 13 women) are remembered as the landnámsmenn or original ‘land-takers’ who settled, distributed, named, and cultivated this empty land. In amongst the lists and genealogies are wonderful short anecdotes about their families, feuds, and adventures in their new-found land.

The Vinland Sagas: The Icelandic Sagas about the First Documented Voyages Across the North Atlantic

By Anonymous, Gisli Sigurðsson (editor), Keneva Kunz (translator)

Book cover of The Vinland Sagas: The Icelandic Sagas about the First Documented Voyages Across the North Atlantic

Why this book?

Two islands and two texts for the price of one! These sagas tell the story of the medieval Icelanders’ settlement of Greenland, where they stayed for nearly 500 years. From there they voyaged even further westward, to what is now Newfoundland and possibly other places in North America. As well as describing voyages of shipwreck and discovery, these sagas tell fantastic tales of ghosts, disease, magic, treachery, and encounters with new landscapes and new peoples.

Guta Saga: The History of the Gotlanders

By Christine Peel (translator),

Book cover of Guta Saga: The History of the Gotlanders

Why this book?

According to this medieval tale, the Baltic island of Gotland was once so enchanted that it sank into the sea during the day and rose up again at night. From these mythical origins, this short saga, written in the special dialect of the island, tells how Gotland became populated, how some of them went east to Russia and Byzantium, how they exchanged their heathen idols for the Christian religion, and their relationship with the King of Sweden. It’s a rare literary insight into the Vikings’ eastern settlements and adventures.

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