Cat Jarman’s River Kings tells a true Viking story

Book review

Terje Birkedal
Laguna Woods, Calif.

Cat Jarman, the author of River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads (Simon & Schuster, 2022) is a British bio-archaeologist with Scandinavian roots—in Norway, to be specific. She employs osteology, paleopathology, isotope analysis, DNA analysis, and other scientific forensic techniques to delve into the mysteries of the Viking past.

In River Kings, she takes the reader on an exciting journey across half the circumference of the world, from Repton, England, to faraway Gujarat, India. What does Gujarat, north of present-day Mumbai, have to do with Vikings you may ask? More than you might think. Dr. Jarman provides the answer in her book.

Jarman’s Vikings are not the bearded, howling, knuckleheaded killers of the popular imagination but sophisticated merchant-warriors and tradesmen, including tradeswomen.

As with so many recent scholarly accounts of the Viking Age, her lively narrative counters the notion of the stupid, crazed Northmen conjured up by the prejudiced propaganda of early medieval English and French clerics.

Were they dangerous? Yes. Were they slavers? Yes. Did they pose a threat to the non-Scandinavian powers of Europe? Yes. But they were very smart, clever, and purposeful in their dealings and interactions with the non-Viking world. There was a clear method to their “madness.” They were after silver, land, slaves, and much more. And they knew how to get it.

One of the great tools in the Viking toolkit was their sleek, fast, sail-, and oar-powered ships. These high-tech vessels gave them mastery over the open seas as well as the rivers of the world.

Though their leaders were often described as “sea kings,” they were also “river kings,” as the title of Jarman’s book makes clear.

Using their shallow-draft ships, they could penetrate deep into the inlands of England, France, Ireland, and many other lands, no matter how far flung these were from their Scandinavian homelands.

There was no place they could not choose to raid or trade. I remember once visiting a tiny village on the Vézère River in the far interior of southwestern France. The village was hundreds of miles from the Atlantic Ocean, yet it had once been a target of a deadly Viking assault in the far past.

Once they had penetrated deep inland in a host country, they would often build large earthen and wood fortresses to serve as their bases, for either trading or raiding or both.

After the initial haphazard, exploratory Viking attacks of the eighth century had come to an end; forts of this kind functioned as the temporary homes of highly organized Viking armies along with their followings of trades people and family members.

Many of the leading members of these armies carried trading scales as well as swords and frequently shape-shifted from being warriors to being merchants, and back again, depending on the circumstances and perceived advantages.

Jarman introduces us to the wider world of the Vikings by following the path of a multifaceted carnelian bead found in a mass Viking grave at Repton, England, back to its point of origin thousands of miles to the east. She takes us on a journey down the Baltic Sea to Birka, a strategic Viking trading town in the lake district of Sweden.

From there, Jarman introduces the reader to the far-flung river systems of Russia and Ukraine, where cities such as Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod, and Kyiv served as nodes for both active raiding and trading by the Vikings.

Here in eastern Europe, they were known as the “Rus,” and they became the medieval founders of modern-day urban Russia and Ukraine.

Finally, the reader is taken down the Dnieper River to the Black Sea and the great city of Constantinople as well as down the more distant Volga River to the Caspian Sea, and even beyond, to far off Bagdad.

Once in the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East, the Vikings exchanged furs and slaves for thousands of Arab silver dirham coins, which, in turn, flowed back into Scandinavia and the rest of northern Europe, where they fueled both trade and war as well as state-building.

Jarman’s book is a fascinating read but not a difficult one. She writes with clarity and tells a good story—and tells it well. It gives the Vikings their proper due as the “Phoenicians of the North,” not sea-going rabble, rather sophisticated warrior-merchants who brought wealth, new ideas, and exotic goods to northern Europe in the very middle of the “Dark Ages.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.