The best books on Vikings through archaeology and research

Who am I?

I’m a retired professor of medieval literature, and taught at six universities, including Oxford and Harvard. I have published widely on Old English, Old Norse, and on my predecessor at Birmingham, Leeds, and Oxford, JRR Tolkien. I think it’s vital for academics to break out of their enclosed communities and engage with the interests of the general public – especially in areas where the public has shown keen interest, like the literature, history, and archaeology of the Vikings, all of which deserve to be taken together.


I wrote...

Book cover of Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings

What is my book about?

Its two main themes are the preoccupation, in sagas and poems, with scenes of death, death-songs, famous last stands. It’s part of a mindset, which also includes a pervasive and distinctive sense of humor – humor with a mean streak. Both themes are illustrated by scenes like the death of Ragnar Hairy-Breeks in the snake-pit, the Jomsviking’s practical joke while being beheaded, the death of Harald Hard-Counsel, fighting-mad at Stamford Bridge. Fact or fiction? Not as easy to tell as people think … The book also considers non-academic topics, like what was the take? And what was the way to beat them?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia

Tom Shippey Why did I love this book?

Many thousands of Viking graves have now been excavated, and all one can say is, the Vikings were weirder than we ever imagined. They lived in close contact with “circumpolar” people, and their graves show evidence of shamanism, sexual ambiguity, witchcraft, inexplicable rituals. Valkyries, shield-maidens, berserks, weapon-dancers, all come into consideration. Vikings will never seem the same again. 

By Neil Price,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Viking Way as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Magic, sorcery and witchcraft are among the most common themes of the great medieval Icelandic sagas and poems, the problematic yet vital sources that provide our primary textual evidence for the Viking Age that they claim to describe. Yet despite the consistency of this picture, surprisingly little archaeological or historical research has been done to explore what this may really have meant to the men and women of the time. This book examines the evidence for Old Norse sorcery, looking at its meaning and function, practice and practitioners, and the complicated constructions of gender and sexual identity with which these…


Book cover of Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings

Tom Shippey Why did I love this book?

This is another door-stopper of a book from Professor Price. It begins before the Viking Age, with the development of a “gangster culture”, probably exacerbated by the volcanic eruptions of the mid-sixth century, which may have killed off 50% of the population of Scandinavia: the “Fimbulwinter” of Norse myth. Most such histories are based on the accounts of the Vikings’ victims. This one sees the Vikings as they saw themselves. 

By Neil Price,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Children of Ash and Elm as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR 2020

'As brilliant a history of the Vikings as one could possibly hope to read' Tom Holland

The 'Viking Age' is traditionally held to begin in June 793 when Scandinavian raiders attacked the monastery of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, and to end in September 1066, when King Harald Hardrada of Norway died leading the charge against the English line at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. This book, the most wide-ranging and comprehensive assessment of the current state of our knowledge, takes a refreshingly different view. It shows that the Viking expansion began generations before the…


Book cover of Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas

Tom Shippey Why did I love this book?

Dr Barraclough not only traces Viking voyages north, south, east and west, she has followed in their footsteps. She was knighted with the penis-bone of a walrus by the Polar Bear Society of Hammarfest, saw the runestones commemorating those who “died in the east with Ingvar,” and mapped saga accounts of Newfoundland. Grisly information about Icelandic “necropants” and the Greenland hero “Corpse-Lodin.” This book has particularly beautiful color plates.

By Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Beyond the Northlands as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the dying days of the eighth century, the Vikings erupted onto the international stage with brutal raids and slaughter. The medieval Norsemen may be best remembered as monk murderers and village pillagers, but this is far from the whole story. Throughout the Middle Ages, long-ships transported hairy northern voyagers far and wide, where they not only raided but also traded, explored and settled new lands, encountered unfamiliar races, and embarked on pilgrimages
and crusades.

The Norsemen travelled to all corners of the medieval world and beyond; north to the wastelands of arctic Scandinavia, south to the politically turbulent heartlands…


Book cover of Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ivarr to A.D. 1014

Tom Shippey Why did I love this book?

This book traces, first, the career of Ívarr the Boneless as recorded in Irish and English sources, and second, the long struggle between his descendants and those of King Alfred, which dominated British and Irish history for 150 years. Dr Downham shows that, without Ívarr, neither England, Scotland, Wales nor Ireland would be the way they are. A challenge to nationalist histories, through the life of an anti-hero.

By Clare Downham,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Vikings plagued the coasts of Ireland and Britain in the 790s. By the mid-ninth century vikings had established a number of settlements in Ireland and Britain and had become heavily involved with local politics. A particularly successful viking leader named Ivarr campaigned on both sides of the Irish Sea in the 860s. His descendants dominated the major seaports of Ireland and challenged the power of kings in Britain during the later ninth and tenth centuries. This book provides a political analysis of the deeds of Ivarr's family from their first appearance in Insular records down to the year 1014. Such…


Book cover of The Vikings: Wolves of War

Tom Shippey Why did I love this book?

Dr Arnold’s book begins with the grisly cenotaph discovered at Repton, which may well be the burial-site of Ívarr the Boneless. His book combines historical, literary and archaeological sources to give a balanced and comprehensive survey of the Vikings, briefly and at an affordable price. The best book to put into a student’s hands.

By Martin Arnold,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Vikings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This concise and balanced history traces the 300-year saga of the pirates and warlords who poured out of Scandinavia between the eighth and eleventh centuries, terrorizing, conquering, and ultimately settling vast tracts of land throughout Europe. Undaunted by the might of the Arab caliphates and the Byzantine Empire, they founded Russia, originated the bloodline that came to rule France, and created a North Sea empire that included England. They also established settlements across the North Atlantic, notably in Iceland and Greenland, and their adventurous spirit and extraordinary seafaring skills led them to explore and briefly build colonies in North America.…


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Vikings, the Norsemen, and archaeology?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Vikings, the Norsemen, and archaeology.

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Archaeology Explore 116 books about archaeology