[Personal note: I apologize for my continued absence from this blog. I thought I’d be doing more blogging while I had a few weeks of winter break, but I scheduled myself a number of projects, and they’ve taken more time than I expected. And now I’m just a week away from classes again. lw]
I approached Kirsten Wolf’s book, Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen, with anticipation. For years a book with a similar job description, Jacqueline Simpson’s Everyday Life in the Viking Age, has been a standard for Viking buffs and reenactors. It’s well-researched, readable, and useful. But it’s old now, and we’ve learned a lot since Simpson wrote. We need a new book in that vein.
This book is not it.
That’s not to say it’s worthless. I’ll admit I learned some things reading it. But I’m not as sure of those things as I’d like to be, because the book contains too many “facts” that are just plain wrong.
The author states twice that the Battle of Svold took place in Norway (it took place in the Baltic). She states that Olaf Tryggvason was the great-grandson of Harald Fairhair (historians aren’t sure nowadays). She says that Olaf Tryggvason made the Greenlanders accept Christianity (no historian believes that anymore).
Most of the gross mistakes seem to be associated with King Olaf Tryggvason’s career. Perhaps the author’s reading has been deficient in that area. Prof. Wolf teaches Old Norse literary studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I hesitate to criticize a professor in a university system in which I am a student, but she seems weak on material outside her specialty. I suspect the book was a rush job, probably done under deadline.
A special weakness of this volume is the illustrations. The book is lavishly illustrated, but most of those illustrations are worse than useless, except to fill up pages. The publishers opted for copyright-free pictures whenever possible, which means we are treated to a feast of 19th Century engravings, with horned and winged helmets and classical poses. In a book which fails to even mention the Cardinal Truth — “No horned helmets!” — this is inexcusable. Newcomers to the field will come away with a bundle of misconceptions.
Jacqueline Simpson’s book was illustrated with simple and useful line drawings that depicted actual archaeological finds. But hiring artists to do that sort of thing costs money, which the publishers of Wolf’s book were apparently unwilling to spend.