W.B. Barrett, Vikings – a History of the Northmen (Amberley, 2019)
(Guest Review by Dom Sore)
Books about the Vikings are many and varied, covering the minutiae of archaeological finds through to sweeping epics covering all aspects of Viking life and everything else. Where does this tome from W B Barrett fall? Towards the ‘all aspects of life’ but it isn’t an epic. Coming in at 432 pages, it is no small book, but it does purport to cover the whole of Viking history. It does this via thirteen chapters that split that history into easily digestible parts.
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There is a lot of information to cover when you talk about the Vikings, and Barrett tries to do that without bogging the reader down in too much technical detail. What you do get is a fast-paced journey through Viking life from prehistory to their “demise”. You will learn about some of the lesser known characters and the possible origins of some of the more well-known characters, looking at you Ragnar Hairy pants and Ivarr the Boneless. Speaking of Ivarr the Boneless, it seems there is a lot of evidence for his existence and the Boneless may refer to something a little more risqué than you would expect.
Where the book suffers is in providing a lot of disparate details without their connections, sometimes leaving more questions asked than answered –now and then you want that extra detail about specific instances. For example, the Viking origins of the Normans are almost skimmed over and not explored; that also happens for the circumstances surrounding the Hebridean, Shetland, and Orkney communities. This is combined with a lack of editing; there is occasional repetition and random addition of information. The prime example of this is the passage about Tryggve Olafsson, which ends with a paragraph regarding the minting of coins in Dublin likely using pillaged dies. These missing links between passages and sections are quite common.
The book is a decent primer for Vikings, and if that is all you need, this will suffice. It is easy enough to read, if somewhat repetitive, and it is somewhat Anglocentric. There are no glaring errors, but having the end of the Viking age concomitant with the death of Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in 1066 will not sit well with many. Where the book does excel is in providing a potted history of the Vikings from start to end without getting stuck or missing any major parts out.