Review of “The Children of Ash and Elm; a History of the Vikings” By Neil Price (2020)Assessment 10 out of 10

I absolutely loved this book, it is an easy read of big ideas, reflecting a life’s work of study and thought. I have set out below notes I took whilst reading it, and occasionally, in italics , my commentary, so you can either skip the notes, skip the commentary or both.

Price doesn’t say so explicitly but this is a work of “New History” relying on history, ie the documents, the old archaeology that I was never that keen on, ceramics, jewellery etc, new archaeology, DNA etc, and English style landscape history to advance a history of models.

The thinking is close to that in Greg Anderson’s “The Realness of the Past”, the need to view history from the position of the actors, in Anderson’s case Classical Athens, in Price’s the Vikings.

Price’s work properly concerned with identity provides further argument against a nationalist ever forward historiography.

Children” describes Protohistory a period between prehistory and history during which a culture or civilization has not yet developed writing, but other cultures have noted its existence in their own writings.

Beware what Price calls, “the tyranny of the written sources.”

Icelandic Sagas (stories) were first written down in the late C12, so a hundred years after the end of the Viking period

P19 Old Norse poetry could be older preserving the voices of the Viking Age. Its extremely complex structure & rhyme schemes mean that if the verses are to function at all, they need to be remembered & repeated largely intact. Poetry was highly prized Skalds professional poets.

P21 Poetic Edda primary foundation for what is known of Norse myth, gods & goddesses.

P32 The Vikings did not believe in these things any more than someone today believes in the sea. Instead they knew about them. That they were unseen didn’t make them less real

P39 There were two families of Gods, the Aesir more patriarchal & the Vanir, “who in a strange way seem to be the older”, the remnant of Bronze or early Iron Age earth based religion?

P56 The Hidden People, elves, disir, an ambiguous mix of goddess & spirit, dwarfs (no sense they were especially small), ogres & trolls, the latter beings of Ugard, the realm beyond the borders.

The Viking cosmos included 9 Pluriverses. Price thinks Norse beliefs are sui generis, not representational of Indo-Europeans generally.

P59 Men in the Viking view comprised

< hamr, their shape. Shape shifters could alter shape. Their eyes remained human. Bears or wolves were alternative forms for men, seals for women.

< hugr, the essential self

< harmingja, a person’s luck, which could leave the body & walk about

< fylgja, always female, even for a man, a  guardian & link to ancestors. Like the disir, the two often indistinguishable. The fylgja moved on at death, how is unknown. Did she wait for the next birth or could a person inherit fylga, long after birth?

P70 Roman weapons found in quantity in what is now Denmark. The Empire sold them not to its immediate neighbours, but to those beyond, helping keep the frontier in check. 

P75 Volcanic  eruptions in 536 and 539/40, the latter in what is now El Salvador, estimated to result in a dust veil with temperature falls of 2 and possibly as much as 3 or 4 degrees. Population may have fallen by 50%.  In Norway, where only 3% of the land is cultiviable, food production may have ceased altogether.  One model of culture was destroyed, the Viking Age begun with the imaging of its end.. Snorri describes Ragnarock after three years Fimbulwinter. In a culture reliant on oral tradition it would not be surprising that 200 years later the trauma was embedded in stories… the god’s knowledge of their coming doom, the constant pulse of Norse mythology.”

P83 In Central Sweden the result of isostasy the land has risen 5m since the Viking Age. Therefore rivers were navigable further inland, harbours deeper

P93 Valsgårde 15 ship burials from the Vendal (late Iron Age) period. Most impressive are the helmets each a war mask the surfaces covered with plaques decorated with Norse mythology

P94 boat groups interspersed with cremations & chamber burials many containing women interned with high status objects. Lge scale mortuary landscapes bordering Lake Mālaren sign the gateway to the Baltic 300 burial mounds > 20m in diameter. Some great boat burials swathed in birch bark tent covers with characteristic burnt decoration indicative of Sami funerary practice.

All this reminds me of an essay I wrote on the Sutton Hoo burials and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia.  I picked up the parallels with Vendal culture.  Having read Price I would address it more subtly.

P 95 Shift from open air communal feasting & cooking pits to hall culture, Uppsala, the High Halls

P 105 new societies that rose from the Migration Period militarist, infused with codes of honour, oath bound loyalty & obligations of violent redress expressed in a hall based elite culture, whose elevated view of itself was fuelled by a constant appetite for war

Vikings were fastidious with long combed hair. They washed

P132 Zoomorphic broaches & pendants & ones of armed weapon dancers (Odin?)

After the beginning of the raids in C8 loot was repurposed as jewellery, a reliquary repurposed as a luxury box inscribed with runes reading, “Ranveik owns this casket”

P139 Six stylistic groupings were identified from C8 to C11 which interlace “sprouted fleshy tendrils…whole buildings could be covered in carved sinewy ornamentation.”

These art-historical schemes are useful for dating objects & places absent more accurate scientific analyses, but should be studied in parallel with the human context in which they were employed. “Subject to constraints of time, tools & budget, Viking Age people decorated more or less everything possible.”

 “The Pursuit of Liberty”

An unadorned discussion of thraldom, Viking slavery “The slave could own nothing, inherit nothing, leave nothing.” When the sagas’ frequent motifs of family feuds escalated into violence, often this was in the form of killing opponents’ thralls, seen as a peculiarly personal form of property damage.

There were fjôsner, stable living thralls, who looked after & were housed with the animals in long houses.

P144 In “The List of Rig” the God Heimdall, under the name Rig, spends three nights at each house, sleeping between the couples there & in due course children are born, progenitors of the thralls, farmers & elite. Equivalent to Hindu castes?

Isotope analysis of those “sacrificed” around burials show a markedly poorer diet, including consumption of freshwater fish, indicating some were thralls.

P157 Women had conduct of the household & communal rituals officiating at sacrifices to the elves & disir. Guarding communication with other worlds was a source of power.

P172 Communication between the community & other powers was implicated in sorcery, which only women could perform. The main tool the staff held between the legs, their names synonyms for the male organ. Odin the Queer. In Siberia it is argued Shaman constitute a gender in themselves.

A spectacular burial from mid C10 at Birka surrounded by a full weapon set & two riding horses. This “ultimate Viking” was found to be a women

P180 Odin in a trance of ecstatic fervour hung from the World Tree for nine nights his body pierced by his own spear created the runes (which also means secrets).

Rune Stones, the vast majority recording the dead, were socially embedded & visible as Christian books never wished to be.

Meeting the Others

Hof= royal court places of cultic ritual, integrated into halls. Hofstađira N Iceland Ostreological analyses shows animals were dispatched by a blow to the neck producing a great arc of arterial blood.

Blŏt = sacrifice or gift

There is evidence paganism continued in Sweden in C11 when Denmark had become Christian

Adam of Bremen records the great sacrifice at Uppsala, which lasted for 9 days every 9th year 9 creatures of each kind killed. There were divine trees in which 72 male victims (9 of each) incl men &  large  beasts, including  stallions, were left to rot. Several of Odin’s names refer to him as the god of the gallows. Myths recount him waking the hanging dead & interrogating them about the future

Wooden figures of vaguely human form were set up in the marshes either idols or ? proxies for actual people, a kind of permanent sacrifice excavated from bogs in numbers some larger than humans ( ? representing gods)

Sorcery, not cults, the means by which to influence or compel the Others to do your bidding. It seems to be part of northern shamanism.

Gotland picture stones are considered memorials to the dead, many in the shape of keys to the door, ways to other worlds. Despite its central position in Baltic Trade there are no ship burials at Gotland. However a large number of picture stones show boats. Were they picture boat burials rather than boat burials themselves?

Does the complexity & cost of funeral rights constitute an introduction of the deceased to the ancestors? They resided in the household, or close to it in burial mounds, so were a more personal avenue of communication between the worlds than with the higher beings, the gods & goddesses. Not everyone becomes an ancestor, the complexity of funeral rights meant the deceased might become an ancestor.

P248 according to ibn Falan a third of chieftain’s wealth was spent on special burial clothes, a third on alcohol for the festivities, leaving only a third for his heirs

The boat form suggests a journey, but the layout of objects matches their position in the hall. Archaeology records what remains after the drama of funeral rights. The Oseberg ship burial is moored by a hawser tied to a great boulder.  High status women are buried in wagons

In folklore the family dead were invited to important fesivals amongst the living include at jul, Yuletide, the dinner preceded by a bastu, a wood fired sauna, a steam filled room prepared & then emptied for the dead to cleanse themselves.

P260 Hoarding was related to preparation for afterlife. At Gotland at least one hoard has been found on every farm.  Snorri indicates hoarded wealth was buried by a person in order to enjoy it in the afterlife.

P261 Half the battle dead were chosen by Freyja for the Folkvangr, field of the host, leaving the remainder for Valholl.

P272 Singularities in history, late C8 commencement of the Viking Age

Scandinavia pressurised by expansion of the Frankish Empire. Viking raids, jihads for paganism?  striking against undefended monastic sites which were rich with plunder. Late C8 England susceptible after inter kingdom warfare, C9 Europe with the breakup of the Frankish Empire.

Dorestad reached its zenith in 830s. Its wealth meant it was hit repeatedly. Evidence suggests contrary to the original view that Vikings followed the European coast and struck at England & Ireland from the south.

P282 Alcuin was familiar with the Norse. What was extraordinary was their turn to violence.

P301 C8 sea-kings in Norway had limited hinterlands. Their power grew whilst that of courtyard things declined leading to the disaffected Norwegians described in the Sagas.


Viking age facilitated by boat technology

P 314 Likely targets for violence beyond protective framework of Scandinavian social compact. Plunder abroad strengthened ties at home. The primary export from a militarised society was therefore violence, a social safety valve harnessed to the benefit of elites.

P315 There is little evidence land pressure or over population was the cause of Viking activity.

P111 Polygamy, bi-fruar, side wives, common as was concubinage. A man could have more than one concubine & more than one wife but not the other way around, A concubine was excluded from her family being paid the bride price. Evidence female children were not as well fed as males further added to an imbalance between males and females and a shortage of brides therefore encouraging Viking raids and the capture of sexualised slaves.

P337 From the late C8 into early C9 raids were occasional; the élites financed the boats and received “their share” of the loot leading to affluence & jealousies contributing to the internecine politics of Scandinavia.

P342 Vikings were hired by the three feuding heirs of Charlemagne as mercenaries, who then turned against their employers. Viking commanders were active political agents, stirring the civil war to effect maximum destabilisation, feeding the twin objectives of moveable wealth & moveable labour by taking captives.

862 Charles the Bald constructed fortified bridges, leaving only small openings blocked by chains & moveable barriers.

P346 Some of the English, including enemies of Wessex, welcomed & worked with the Vikings,

P352 At Repton where the “Great Army” overwintered 873/4, excavations show a D shaped enclosure, incorporating the church as a fortified gateway, with a series of clearly pagan burials around the church & a massive charnel deposit of disarticulated human bones built into the looted mausoleum. Represented are at least 264 people, nearly 20% women, many exhibited weapon trauma. Isotopic data shows the majority were from Scandinavia Covered by an earth mound with a double curb comprising deliberately smashed English sculptures & quern stones= definitely non Christian Viking burials. Postholes & pits suggest elaborate ritual, several children buried by the approaches to the mound in what appears sacrificial acts.

P351 Scandinavian deprivations from 830s to 880s have been studied discretely for England, Ireland & Frankia etc. However, “these were in large part the same forces moving, dividing & reforming”,comprising liđ, brotherhoods.

P355 Viking forces clearly multi-ethnic, Scandinavians not just from one area

P356 after the initial impulse of attacks in the 830s and 840s, once there had been a beachhead there were significant numbers of women, a folk movement. DNA Shows large numbers of Scandinavian women 30/50,000 Scandinavians moving to England in the 30 years after Danelaw was established.

P357 The groups were violent & dangerous and did not just represent any individual Scandinavian polity or power block.

P358 A consciously “alternative” lifestyle P361 either for itself or as a result of backing the wrong side in domestic conflicts.

P339 Such “Large scale mobile Viking forces weren’t “armies” or “warbands”, but continuously evolving migratory communities…. They were an end in themselves, polities in their own right”, including a levelling of hierarchy.

Metaphor with tribal movements contributing to and resulting from the end of the Roman West?


Finns contributed to Rus, the eastern Baltic similar to Hudson Bay, water worlds centred around the fur trade

Rus identity associated with mercantile water travel in East cf Canadian Métis

I was impressed by this metaphor less so with that between the Viking War Bands and Golden Age Pirates, Maybe it just wasn’t my period.

Rus (from Roslagen, the rowing country, a district in E central Sweden) > Finnish name for Sweden Ruotsi

P370 Viking raids & attacks led to an influx to Scandinavia of portable wealth, which is not the same as usable wealth. Vikings / Scandinavia used silver. Found in buried hoards usually in coin, but sometimes melted & recast. > 1m dirhams found in partic in Gotland. 81% of dirhams have been found in Europe, only 9% in what was the Abbasid Caliphate where they originated. Gotland hoards contain silver arm-rings = ring money wealth you could both wear & spend.

P377 Only evidence of Vikings on Madeira presence of common house mouse with a Danish genetic signature.

P380 Contrast with Danelaw, in most marginal Atlantic colonies genetic signature men Scandinavian mostly Norwegian, with Celtic women, particularly from Orkney & the Hebrides either taken as slaves or freed local captives

Golden Age of the Sheep Farmer

P386-7 Calculation of the wool & therefore sheep numbers required to equip Viking ships with sails & weather proof clothing for the crew

P 389 leading to reorganisation of the landscape into larger units by farm consolidation not “abandonment”, with large herds on heathland which expanded whilst arable land was given over to hemp & flax

P390-1 The Viking Period was a Wood Age rather than Iron Age Price doesn’t call it this. Timber management was important.

P392 Viking raids for slaves including textile workers who laboured in sunken floor weaving huts feeding the escalation in Viking raids. cf sunken floors of early AS settlements?

Urban awareness was lacking in Scandinavia. The Norse understood markets but not towns; Byzantium was known as Miklagarđr, the Great Place cf in Scandinavia, the Norse homeland Midagarđr, = Tolkein’s Middle Earth.

Even though urbanism disappeared from Britain C5-7, there remained the framework of Roman roads & towns, which there wasn’t in Scandinavia beyond the limits of Empire

Silver, Slaves & Silk

P403 Orkney objects decorated with Pictish symbols suggesting Vikings settled amongst the indigenous population rather than displacing or removing them.

P404 Hebrides, after 1,000 years of earlier Celtic occupation, no non Norse place names, suggesting a break without continuity of habitation & DNA evidence of > Scandinavian women.

P414 Irish towns developed from longphuirt. Irish social power based not on control of land, but overlordship. Vikings might therefore adopt a different approach than elsewhere, Scandinavian elites based in coastal centres could profit from redistribution of imports, including captives , allowing them to dominate maritime trade.

1002 Irish unusually united under a High King, Brian Boru, building a coalition which at Clontarf in 1014 defeated Dublin, thereafter the real power was with the Irish.

P441 Flow of silver (& silk), proxies for the slave trade. Another proxy hillfort construction in Poland against slave raiding.

The Experiments of Monarchy

P450 Link between Church & Kingship; more efficient tax collection the result of division of territory following the establishment of parishes & dioceses. Rights of king given divine sanction different from claimed descent from Odin or other gods.  Church & state were interrelated, hence the Church’s emphasis on baptism & winning over kings, however the link was subject to resistance.

P454 Hedeby had been S of the Danevirke, a free trade area? Later became part of that system.

987 Svain Forkbeard rebelled against his father, Harald Bluetooth. Harald was killed & many of his (megalomaniacal) monuments destroyed.  Power shifted from Jelland to Sjaelland where there was a pagan revival.

P458 Gotland dead being buried with pagan ritual until late C12

P463 From rune stones etc women disproportionately favoured Christianity. However women’s status within the household was demoted, usurping kinship networks which had been the key to power. Church became the only gateway to the divine.

Holy days > demand for deep water fish/ exchange of dried fish

P465 Roskilde established as replacement to Lejre in Sjaelland The same thing in Central Sweden with switch from Birka to Sigtuna. The new towns were centres of royal administration rather than trade

P498 Judging by how they signalled identity, Vikings on the Seine became Normans within only a decade of Rollo’s first grant in 911. However in Kievan Rus there was materially recognisable Scandinavian continuity into the C13.

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