The Best Books On Vikings

The Books I Picked & Why

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings

By Neil Price

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings

Why 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.


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The Age of the Vikings

By Anders Winroth

The Age of the Vikings

Why this book?

In The Age of the Vikings, 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.


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

By Tom Shippey

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

Why 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.


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Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World

By Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir

Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World

Why 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.


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Viking Age Iceland

By Jesse L. Byock

Viking Age Iceland

Why 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.


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