‘The Far Traveler,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

The 1,000 square-foot sail, requiring almost a million feet of thread, took two women four and a half years to make. It used the wool of more than 200 sheep, each sheep the size of a large dog and yielding two to four pounds of wool.

I resisted reading Nancy Marie Brown’s The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, because I generally avoid the whole matter of Viking women. The field is too fraught with politics. But I’ve come to trust Nancy Marie Brown, who, even when I disagree with her, seems to be a solid (and, as we see in this book, highly industrious) scholar with a fair mind. And I’m glad I read this one. It was an enjoyable and informative work. I learned stuff.

Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir is a figure of particular interest in the Icelandic sagas. Widow of Leif Eriksson’s brother Thorstein and wife of Thorfinn Karlsefni, who led the most ambitious attempt to establish a Norse colony in Vinland, she outlived three husbands and ended up becoming a nun and making a pilgrimage to Rome. Thus she was best-traveled woman in the Viking world, and possibly in the world at large. Though she seems a subsidiary character in the sagas, author Brown believes, based on saga hints and a deep understanding of Norse culture, that she played a more decisive role than has been thought.

This book would be much shorter than it is if it had not been extended – or rather enriched – by the author’s thoroughgoing efforts to enter profoundly into Gudrid’s world. In that capacity she spends time in museums and archives, travels far in Gudrid’s footsteps, and does backbreaking labor on an archaeological dig in Iceland. It makes for fascinating reading, and the reader learns a whole lot at her expense.

I enjoyed The Far Traveler, and highly recommend it. I was particularly pleased when she demolished the judgment of Jared Diamond on the Greenlanders in one of his books, and when she explained positive reasons why Christianity appealed to so many Viking women, in spite of all the “superior” rights we’re always told they enjoyed under the old religion.

A good  book, which every Viking buff ought to read.

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