A little over a year ago I reviewed Dr. Wlliam Short’s Viking Weapons and Combat on this blog, finding it excellent on all levels. Now Dr. Short has given us a quasi-sequel, a sort of reader’s companion to Icelandic saga literature. While not quite as exciting as the earlier book, it is in many ways even more informative.
The stated aim of the book is to provide modern readers with the informational context required to read with the fullest possible understanding and appreciation the body of literature known as the Icelandic family sagas. These, written down in the later medieval period after 1200, preserve and elaborate on oral poetic material from the period of the Icelandic Commonwealth – roughly 870 to 1251. Major examples include the Saga of Burnt Njal, the Laxdaela Saga, the Saga of Egil Skallagrimmson, Grettir’s Saga, and the two Vinland sagas describing the ultimately failed Icelandic attempts to establish settlement in the New World. These remain by far the most important literary sources for our understanding of the Viking Age.
As an indicator of my competence to review this book, I note that I have read all those sagas mentioned and many more. I have extensive martial-arts experience with weapons designed to emulate those of the period. Also, I am able to check many of Dr. Short’s claims about clothing, food and domestic life through my wife Cathy’s independent knowledge of the scholarly literature on these topics; she experiments with reconstructed recipes, makes and wears museum-quality replicas of Viking women’s costume and is actually no slouch with period weapons herself. See her blogs Food Through Time and Loose Threads for more. Cathy and I have both visited Iceland and are more than casually familiar with the archeological evidence bearing on the period there and in Scandinavia. I have personally seen and touched more than one of the preserved artifacts to which Dr. Short refers (notably in the Viking Ship Museums at Oslo and Roskilde).
From this background, I can certify that Dr. Short has done an excellent job of assembling and interpreting the evidence as previously known to me. But it is where he goes beyond this, of course, that I found the book most interesting. I have a few minor arguments with his reconstruction which I will return to later in this review, but I unhesitatingly recommend this book to anyone with even a shred of interest in the Viking era.
Let’s begin with the basics. Short’s account of what we know about the settlement of Iceland is faultless, weaving together archeological and literary evidence in a way that tells a coherent story while commendably not glossing over the inconsistencies in the record. His account of Viking-era shipbuilding and transport technology is clear and correct, if a bit pedestrian; readers even moderately familiar with the literature on this topic and the surviving archeological evidence will find no surprises here. The material on geography, climate, agriculture, and open-ocean navigation is all solid and well presented.
For a reader with anything like my interest in historical examples of stateless societies, Short’s explanation of the details of judicial procedure in the Commonwealth is worth the price of the book all by itself. The unique contract feudalism of the goðorð (chieftainship) system has previously been well-explored by David Friedman and other libertarians, but at a bit higher level of abstraction; in no account previous to Dr. Short’s have I seen such a nuts-and-bolts account of legal conflict resolution.
Where this book gives its greatest value is in integrating the literary evidence from the sagas with archeology and on-the-ground observation in Iceland – academic literature, with its narrow focus, often tends to miss out on the cross-disciplinary insights available in this way. For example, one of the sections I learned a good deal from is Short’s discussion of the architecture of Icelandic longhouses; he does an interesting and persuasive job of interpreting various physical features in light of saga descriptions of domestic scenes.
The few places where I might argue with Dr. Short are matters of emphasis and (perhaps inadvertent) omission. Most of these cluster round the status and social power of women in the saga age.
Dr. Short accurately and comprehensively describes what we know about the legal status of women in saga Iceland – but both I and my wife believe from our own reading that such a legalistic account somewhat (and perhaps greatly) understates the actual social power of women in that society. All the saga evidence is consistent that Viking women were not to be lightly crossed even by men to whom they were formally subordinate in law; Short reports some consequences of this (noting, for example, instances of women successfully prodding their men to restore family honor by violence, and describing the difficulties attendant on divorcing a wife) but never really explores the larger implications.
Another curious and related gap: Dr. Short reports that women were forbidden from bearing weapons under Icelandic law. Doubtless true, the law-books of the Commonwealth were not ambiguous in such matters – but what then are we to make of the fearsome Freydis of the Vinland sagas, who slaps her bare breast with a sword and is quite willing to battle the invading Skraelings herself if Viking men don’t step up to the job? More to the point, Dr. Short cannot be ignorant of that account; he falls short of the high standard of the rest of this book by failing to juxtapose it with his report of the law and at least suggest some possible reconciliations.
Elsewhere, Short’s account of domestic life illuminates by collecting the sorts of facts that tend not to be foregrounded in more academic studies. I was much interested to learn, for example, of the high status that board and table games of skill held in period. There is primary evidence that the Vikings considered this sort of skill as important and praiseworthy an attribute as physical strength!
In this and other ways, the Commonwealth Icelanders of Dr. Short’s account can seem curiously modern. Consider the dry, laconic style of the sagas; the pragmatism revealed in their architecture, shipbuilding, and tactics of warfare; religious attachments so loose that they could be and were largely severed by a single decree of the Law-Speaker in the year 1000; the egalitarianism of their society; and contemporary Adam of Bremen’s report that “they have no kings, only law”. Other than their combativeness and easily-offended sense of honor, the virtues Dr. Short points out the saga Icelanders most esteemed are a less alien list than most societies would compile for another half a millennium – self-control, moderation, truthfulness, intelligence, generosity, and fair reciprocal dealing. Pretty bourgeois for people often dismissed as barbarians!
I would have enjoyed a bit more generative theory, a bit more inquiry into why they were like that and some comparison with other cultures at similar technological levels. My own conjecture is that the key similarity with the modern West is that the saga-age Icelanders – even more than the continental Norse – were a society of small freeholders, and thus found it adaptive to cultivate egalitarian freeholder virtues along with their crops and cattle.
On this level, however, Dr. Short’s book is silent. As with the sagas themselves, it does not introspect; we learn much about how the saga Icelanders lived, fought, married, built, farmed, sailed, and sued, but are left to ourself to find the interior meaning in that narrative. Perhaps that is as well.
I think the most interesting single new thing I learned from this book may be how late Icelandic contact with the New World actually persisted. While early colonization attempts failed, Dr. Short reports that Icelanders made occasional voyages to Vinland and Markland to gather timber and other resources not readily available in Iceland. The last such voyage was recorded in 1347, only 145 years before Columbus planted his flag. And there might have been later ones unrecorded; post-Saga-age Icelanders never lost the open-ocean sailing technology that supported the original voyages.
Possibly the connection is causal; Dr. Short quotes a letter of 1477 in which Columbus actually claims to have visited Iceland himself! Did he hear of the Vinland sagas while there? Nobody knows – but since we know they survived to our own time, Icelanders must have been re-telling them in his.
To sum up, this is a book stuffed full of interesting material for anyone interested in the sagas, the Viking age, the Icelandic Commonwealth, and early contact with the New World. Highly recommended.