The Sea Wolves
Lars Brownworth, 2014
It turns out that you can get through audiobooks at a pretty rapid clip if you drive enough and they’re not all by James Michener.
Thanks to Jane Smiley and Jared Diamond, I knew one part of the Viking story pretty well: the discovery and settlement of Greenland. I’m also reasonably conversant with the Norse exploration of North America (Helluland, Markland, Vinland). Most of the rest of this book, a pop history of the Vikings, was pretty new to me. Though the author never articulates it, I found that there was a running theme: the Vikings’ lust for plunder took them from the far reaches of the Arctic to the sands of Africa, from the western shores of Ireland to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, and even, as noted, to Canada… and everywhere they went, they were absorbed. For instance, when the Vikings first invaded England in earnest, the country was divided into seven small kingdoms, of which the Vikings conquered six—leaving only the southernmost, Wessex. Under the leadership of Alfred the Great, Wessex was able to hold out, and England was effectively split into a western Anglo‑Saxon half and an eastern Viking half known as the Danelaw. Yet a mere seventy years later, the grandchildren of the Viking settlers backed the Anglo‑Saxon king Eadred in his struggle against the new Viking ruler; a stable life as Englishmen appealed to them more than what a guy named “Eric Bloodaxe” might have to offer. Much the same is true for the Vikings who headed east and, as the “Rus’”—a name derived from the Finnish word for “Swede”—conquered the Volga region and founded what became Russia. Having crushed the Slavs, the Viking chieftain Rurik passed the crown to his son… who was half Slavic, because children have mothers. Again, it took less than a century before the representatives of the supposedly Viking dynasty were kings with names like Sviatoslav and Vladimir. These generations were in turn heavily influenced by the Byzantine Empire, which is how Russia, founded by worshippers of Odin and Thor, became Orthodox.
The picture above is from Civilization IV. One of the innovations in the middle installments of the Civilization series was the idea of “cultural power”; while crude, it was an attempt to account for the fact that, yes, a band of bloodthirsty raiders may be able to cut a swath across your civilization, but if their finest buildings are wooden hovels and you’ve got the Hagia Sophia, pretty soon they’ll be doing things your way. The Vikings had the physical power to siphon much of the known world’s silver to Scandinavia and to seize control of big chunks of Britain, Ireland, France (“Normandy” is derived from “northman”), and Russia. But their lack of cultural power is evident from the fact that the pagan berserkers who turned monasteries into slaughterhouses were soon converted to Christianity, and that the proudly independent warriors who turned the skulls of kings into drinking vessels were soon collected into the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The rest of Europe won without having to send a single ship north.