Vikings at War

Book reviewVikings at War

Laguna Woods, Calif.

Vikings at War by Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike (Casemate Publishers, 2019) was originally published in Norway as Vikinger i krig. Hjardar is a noted Norwegian medieval historian, Viking expert, and re-enactor. His co-author is an archeological conservator at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo and is a specialist in the study and use of Viking weapons. The authors, despite their Scandinavian heritage, make no apologies for the Vikings nor attempt to soften their image as warriors. In the beginning of the book, they state that for the “Viking, war was everywhere. It was part of the fabric of society, it was raw and brutal like all other warfare at that time.” They say they “hope to challenge some of the established presentations of the Viking as a peaceful trader, skilled land worker, and adventurous settler.” Their objective in the book is rather to present “an objective and nuanced assessment of the Viking warrior.” They deliver on that promise.

Hjarder and Vike make the point that Viking society was highly militaristic. Landless men and sometimes slaves were expected to fight when called upon by their chiefs and kings. Women, too, were an integral part of this militaristic social order and actively encouraged the men in the pursuit of both revenge and war. At the start of the Viking Age only around 1 million people lived in what is now Scandinavia. Yet they had an inordinate impact on Europe and beyond for some 300 years; because most were part of a finely honed, homegrown war machine that could strike anywhere, thanks to their command of swift, seagoing longships.

vikings at war

Vikings at War, co-authored by Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike, offers no apologies for the Vikings nor attempts to soften their raw and brutal image as warriors.

The first half of the book is devoted to describing the organization, methods, techniques, and tools of war in Viking Age Scandinavia. This section of the book looks closely at tactics and strategy, the use of forts and ships, the variety and use of weapons and defensive equipment. This detailed presentation on the art of war among the Vikings is accompanied by dozens of color photographs and illustrations. The many reconstructive drawings of forts, winter camps, ships, tactical formations, fighting techniques, and warriors in full regalia give the reader a wonderful and informed glimpse into the Viking world of war. I found their two-page, comparative chart with scale drawings of the many varieties of Viking ships particularly useful to understanding the vast array of vessels available to Scandinavians of the Viking Age. No wonder they were able to get into every nook and cranny of both Eastern and Western Europe and dominate the seas and rivers.

The second half of the book launches you on a historical travelogue of raiding and war from the 700s A.D. to the 1100s A.D. This narrative is aided by an abundance of colorful and sumptuous maps, photographs, and other illustrations. The authors take you first to the islands in the west: the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Hebrides, the Island of Man, and Iceland. You then follow the Vikings on their multiple incursions in Scotland and Ireland and the founding of the Viking trading towns of Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, and Limerick. Next, the authors turn to England, which was a major theater of Viking-initiated war for centuries. Following England, you are taken to France and then Spain. After Spain, you journey with the authors to Russia, Byzantium, and the Turkish and Arab lands. At the end of the book, your historical travelogue into the Viking world of war finally brings you to Greenland and America where the Vikings came into conflict with both the Arctic Inuit and the Indigenous tribes in North America.

After reading this book, you come away with a sense of awe as to the geographical reach of the Vikings and their impact on the world between 750 A.D. and 1100 A.D. It is amazing that such a small population would have so much influence over such a great span of the earth for so long. At the same time they were trying to get a toehold in the Americas, a contingent of Vikings were founding Russia, another group was fighting for the emperor of  Byzantium, and still another Viking war-band was serving as mercenaries for a Muslim emir in Dagestan beside the Caspian Sea.

The authors make it clear that the Vikings did not tend to leave a light footprint where they went with just a simple raid or two. Viking successes and failures, in raiding and war, significantly shaped the political and cultural trajectories of Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Spain, and Russia. It was the Viking sea kings who first created the modern nations of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. These nation builders of the north were often widely traveled people who had fought and learned politics abroad. For example, King Olav Haraldsson (later St. Olav) had spent time in England, Spain, and Russia. King Harald Sigurdsson (Hardråda [Hard Ruler]) was away for years learning about both statecraft and war in Russia and in the far lands of the Byzantine Empire.

This is a book I am happy to have in my library. I know I will consult it time and time again in the future as a key reference. Its historical maps alone make it an invaluable source on the Vikings. If you are also fascinated by the Vikings, you too will want to have this book in your own library.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a 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.