Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Anders Winroth's "The Age of the Vikings"

Were the Vikings raiders or traders? Scholars waffle on this question. Looking at the Latin chronicles from the time, Vikings were cruel, bloodthirsty, rapacious barbarians. But since the publication in 1970 of The Viking Achievement by Peter Foote and David Wilson, historians have tended to stress the brave, adventurous, clever, and artistic side of life in the North in the years between 793 and 1066.

Some say the pendulum has swung too far.

That's a point stressed by the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition held at the Danish National Museum in 2013, the British Museum in 2014, and on its way to the State Museum in Berlin in 2015. As its curators stress, "For all of the peaceful achievements of the Viking Age, some of those encounters were undoubtedly violent and this is reflected in the accounts of those they fought. The repeated focus on such attacks should warn us against too peaceful an interpretation of the Vikings." The emblem of their exhibition is a sword; the centerpiece is a warship.

Anders Winroth, in his new book The Age of the Vikings, has a slightly different take on the question. As he states in his introduction, "I argue that their violence, seen in broad historical context, was no worse than that of others in a savage time, when heroes like Charlemagne (d. 814) killed and plundered on a much greater scale than the northern raiders."

He makes a good argument that by focusing on one side or the other--raiders or traders--we really don't know the Vikings at all.

Winroth's The Age of the Vikings is meant as a general introduction; as such, it covers a lot of familiar ground. But one section very new and exciting to me was 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."

Estrid's "influence and wealth are still discernible in the Swedish landscape through the many runic inscriptions that she created to memorialize the dead of her family," he writes. "But when we read the inscriptions, we are perhaps less fascinated by the men of the family than by Estrid herself, the matriarch, who stands out in unusually vivid colors."

Estrid outlived two husbands, three sons, and her stepson--she raised five runestones to their memory, telling us so. She ran two large farms, first as her husband's helpmeet, in charge of food, clothing, and education. "She carried the keys of the farm (one key followed her into the grave)," Winroth writes, "and she managed the storehouses."

Also in her grave were three weights, of the kind used with a Viking Age balance scale to weigh out silver. "They symbolize Estrid's responsibility for managing family affairs," Winroth says. "As the men around her died, Estrid took on an even more central role in the family, managing farms and thralls, running the family business, making the important decisions."

Estrid's grave was discovered in the 1990s through an accident of road building. Studying her skeleton, archaeologists learned she died in her 60s--a great age for that time. She was a tall, slim woman "with gracious features," Winroth says.

Estrid was rich, but still her family suffered from sickness and hunger. Her first-born son died at about age 10; a skeleton identified as his shows signs of malnourishment in his first five years, along with a severe ear infection. Estrid herself had once broken her arm, though it healed well. Both she and the tall man buried beside her (probably her second husband) had terrible problems with their teeth.

And she was Christian. Born in about 1010 or 1020, Estrid may have been given her somewhat unusual name in honor of the Swedish queen, Estrid, who came from northern Germany. Winroth speculates that Queen Estrid may even have been the child's godmother. Scandinavian  kings, he writes, "used Christianity and especially the relationship-creating ceremony of baptism to create and confirm alliances with the great men and women of their kingdoms," a theory he develops further in his earlier book, The Conversion of Scandinavia.

But the most exciting detail of Estrid's story is that she, too, was a far-traveler. The runestone she raised to her first husband, Östen, tells us that he died on the way home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Though the runes do not say so, Estrid probably went with him. In a famous record of 11th-century Scandinavian travelers who stopped at the monastery of Reichenau, on the border of Germany and Switzerland, are the names "Östen, Estrid." The name preceding these two is Sven; Estrid had a son named Sven. And in Estrid's grave was a small wooden box locked with a key. It contained two coins, one of which came from Switzerland.

The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth was published in 2014 by Princeton University Press. Read about another exceptional Viking woman in my book, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt 2007; Mariner 2009). Join me again next Wednesday at for more adventures in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you would like to go to Iceland with me next summer, check out the tours at

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Fridrik Erlings's Boy on the Edge

Some books stay in my mind long after I've finished them. Some books stay in my soul. Fridrik Erlings's Boy on the Edge is one of these.

Written for young adults and translated by the author himself from Icelandic, Boy on the Edge is the story of big, ugly Henry, with his club foot and his stutter and his fear of reading aloud, son of an abused, alcoholic mother who is little more than a prostitute. Sounds bleak, but it's not. It's one of the most uplifting books I've ever read. Henry does not find happiness; Henry earns it.

Shunted from school to school, bullied past the breaking point, Henry snaps. Tragically, the person he hurts is the only one he loves: his mother. He is sent away to a reform camp run by a half-crazy evangelical minister on an isolated sheep-and-dairy farm far out in the Icelandic countryside. Arriving, scared, silent, resentful, he has his first brief hint of a future that could be different: The minister's wife, Emily, is making pancakes.

Writes Erlings: "There was this wonderful smell he'd never smelled before, and the sound of batter being poured gently into a frying pan, where it crackled briefly in melted butter, giving off an amazing scent."

Despite the pancakes, all is not well on the farm, either. The minister is a tyrant; Emily is unfulfilled. They have different visions for their reform school--and vastly different methods. The minister preaches hellfire and damnation and locks misbehaving boys in a dark basement room, visiting only to kneel with them in prayer. Emily, instead, teaches Henry how to milk the cows, feed the sheep, and clean up the manure: He was the King of Dung, collecting the dues from his subjects, filling the wheelbarrow. … He was somebody. Who would have thought? 

Of course, the thrill of being the King of Dung wears off. But throughout the book, the peaceful rhythms of the farm, the glory of the nearby sea, the danger of the sea cliffs, the pounding of the rain, the treacherous lava field, with its ruts and cracks, the brutal butchering of the bull, the happy cavorting of the cows in the spring, the serenity of the moon in the vast night sky, and the busy-ness of the little birds play counterpoint to Henry's efforts to understand himself.

The rain showers arrived from the ocean and the snow melted into the lava. One day a green knoll of moss appeared from under the snow and the southern winds rounded up the fluffy clouds and made them gallop across the sky. 
The promise of spring laughed in a brook and whispered in the yellow grass at the swamp. It shook the ptarmigan in flight with a playful gust of wind, which made it spring into the air, brown-breasted and white-winged.

Henry tries hard to make friends with some of the other reform-school boys, only to be disappointed over and over again. Ultimately, his striving for friendship leads to disaster--as, simultaneously, the fabric of the reform-school is unraveling. Then, in a tense and brilliant ending, Erlingsson allows Henry, almost in spite of himself, to succeed, finding not only friendship, but love.

Like Halldor Laxness's Brekkukotsannall, published in English as The Fish Can Sing, Boy on the Edge uses a child's coming of age to examine the failings of society, contrasting city and country, new ways and old, and reaching a compromise in which tradition can be honored and modernity embraced. How should we live in the world? How should we love one another? The answers are in Boy on the Edge.

Boy on the Edge by Fridrik Erlings was published in the U.S. by Candlewick Press in 2014. It received a starred review as one of the best books of the year from Publisher's Weekly, which judged it "poetic and powerful." I highly recommend it.