The best books on Vikings, their humor, and their world

Who am I?

Nancy Marie Brown is the author of seven books about Iceland and the Viking Age, including The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, and the award-winning Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths. Her books combine extremes: medieval literature and modern archaeology, myths and facts. They ask, What have we overlooked? What have we forgotten? Whose story must not be lost? A former science writer and editor at a university magazine, she lives on a farm in northern Vermont and spends part of each summer in Iceland.

I wrote...

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

What is my book about?

Brown lays to rest the hoary myth that Viking society was ruled by men and celebrates the dramatic lives of female Viking warriors. In 2017, DNA tests revealed to the collective shock of many scholars that a Viking warrior in a high-status grave in Birka, Sweden was actually a woman. The Real Valkyrie weaves together archaeology, history, and literature to imagine her life and times, showing that Viking women had more power and agency than historians have imagined.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love this book?

In the last 20 years, archaeology has overturned our understanding of the Viking world. We know now that it wasn’t dominated by white men. Instead, it was “strongly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic,” writes Neil Price in Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings (Basic Books, 2020).

The Viking world was violent to the extreme, but also strangely tolerant. Most of all, its economy was based on slavery. Vikings weren’t raiders or traders, as previous histories argue: They were slavers.

Price has been involved in many of the archaeological studies on which this book is based. He speaks from a great love and knowledge of the Vikings, even as he warns us that “Anyone who regards them in a ‘heroic’ light needs to think again.” His evidence is sound (and massive); his arguments are undeniable. If you read only one book about the Vikings, this is the one.

By Neil Price,

Why should I read it?

7 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?


'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…

The Age of the Vikings

By Anders Winroth,

Book cover of The Age of the Vikings

Why did I love this book?

Anders Winroth puts Viking violence into historical context and finds them “no worse” than their contemporaries. Emperor Charlemagne, for example, “killed and plundered on a much greater scale than the northern raiders.” Winroth makes a good argument that by focusing on whether they were primarily raiders or traders, we really don’t come to know the Vikings at all.

The Age of the Vikings is meant as a general introduction; as such, it covers a lot of familiar ground. But it’s worth the price of the book to learn the story of Estrid Sigfastsdotter, who died in the late 11th century and was buried on a farm just outside of Stockholm. Using archaeology, runic studies, and traditional historical sources, Winroth pieces together the story of this “independent and active woman.” It’s a delight to get to know her.

By Anders Winroth,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Age of the Vikings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Vikings maintain their grip on our imagination, but their image is too often distorted by myth. It is true that they pillaged, looted, and enslaved. But they also settled peacefully and traveled far from their homelands in swift and sturdy ships to explore. The Age of the Vikings tells the full story of this exciting period in history. Drawing on a wealth of written, visual, and archaeological evidence, Anders Winroth captures the innovation and pure daring of the Vikings without glossing over their destructive heritage. He not only explains the Viking attacks, but also looks at Viking endeavors in…

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

Why did I love this book?

Why do the Vikings seem so modern? Tom Shippey thinks it’s their attitude toward losers. They “knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair.” Heroes are trapped, outnumbered. Their luck runs out. “That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser,’” he writes. “The only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up.”

The Vikings showed their spirit by refusing to take death seriously. “What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death,” Shippey writes, and in Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings he shares dozens of examples.

Viking death-jokes are “often marked by Bad Sense of Humour,” Shippey admits. But they explain a lot about why this culture continues to fascinate us.

By Tom Shippey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Laughing Shall I Die as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this robust new account of the Vikings, Tom Shippey explores their mindset, and in particular their fascination with scenes of heroic death. The book recounts many of the great bravura scenes of Old Norse literature, including the Fall of the House of the Skjoldungs, the clash between the two great longships Ironbeard and Long Serpent and the death of Thormod the skald. The most exciting book on Vikings for a generation, Laughing Shall I Die presents them for what they were: not peaceful explorers and traders, but bloodthirsty warriors and marauders.

Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World

By Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir,

Book cover of Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World

Why did I love this book?

In the “traders vs. raiders” approach to Viking history, women stay home and look after the farm while the men go off on adventures. Three books published in the 1990s by Judith Jesch and Jenny Jochens brought the lives of these women out of the shadows, showing how vital their role was.

In Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World, Jóhanna Kristín Friðriksdóttir brings these early studies up to date. With her mastery of detail from the Icelandic sagas, Friðriksdóttir follows an ordinary Viking woman from birth to death. She tells stories of women who are bold and successful, others who are battered and victimized.

She hopes to introduce us, she says, “to the diverse and fascinating texts recorded in medieval Iceland, a culture able to imagine women in all kinds of roles carrying power.” Like the mythical valkyries of her title, these are “women who decided.” To learn about women’s lives in the Viking Age, Valkyrie is an excellent place to start.

By Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

LONGLISTED FOR THE 2020 CUNDILL HISTORY PRIZE Valkyries: the female supernatural beings that choose who dies and who lives on the battlefield. They protect some, but guide spears, arrows and sword blades into the bodies of others. Viking myths about valkyries attempt to elevate the banality of war - to make the pain and suffering, the lost limbs and deformities, the piles of lifeless bodies of young men, glorious and worthwhile. Rather than their death being futile, it is their destiny and good fortune, determined by divine beings. The women in these stories take full part in the power struggles…

Viking Age Iceland

By Jesse L. Byock,

Book cover of Viking Age Iceland

Why did I love this book?

Almost everything we know about the Vikings—their gods and heroes, their history and myths, their values and fears—comes from texts written down on parchment in medieval Iceland. Yet the Icelandic sagas and Eddas are biased. They explain very little about the Vikings in the east (and get wrong much of what they do describe). Their world is not the Viking World, which stretched from Constantinople to North America, but Viking Iceland.

Jesse Byock brings all this material together in Viking Age Iceland. First published in 2001, this immensely readable book is a classic that has not yet been bettered. It should be on every Viking enthusiast’s shelf.

By Jesse L. Byock,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Viking Age Iceland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Medieval Iceland was unique amongst Western Europe, with no foreign policy, no defence forces, no king, no lords, no peasants and few battles. It should have been a utopia yet its literature is dominated by brutality and killing. The reasons for this, argues Jesse Byock, lie in the underlying structures and cultural codes of the islands' social order. 'Viking Age Iceland' is an engaging, multi-disciplinary work bringing together findings in anthropology and ethnography interwoven with historical fact and masterful insights into the popular Icelandic sagas, this is a brilliant reconstruction of the inner workings of a unique and intriguing society.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Vikings, the Middle Ages, and the Norsemen?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Vikings, the Middle Ages, and the Norsemen.

Vikings Explore 96 books about Vikings
The Middle Ages Explore 362 books about the Middle Ages
The Norsemen Explore 16 books about the Norsemen

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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