© 2014 Lars Brownsworth
“Deliver us, Lord, from the hands of the Northmen!” While that exact prayer may be apocryphal, the sentiment certainly resounded in communities from Ireland to Cordoba to Constantinople. In two of the final centuries of the first millennium, raiders, traders, and explorers from Scandinavia ranged far and wide, ravaging the wealth of great and small and creating new states and civilizations in the mix. The Sea Wolves is a fulsome narrative history of the activities and impact of the Viking era, which sees the reader visit the first discovery of Greenland as well as the beginnings of Russia.
I’ve previously enjoyed Brownsworth’s narrative history of Eastern Rome (Lost to the West), which I discovered via his podcast on the same subject. Brownsworth visits each area of Viking activity in turn – raiding, trading, and exploring – before the final sections of the book which cover the growth of Russia as well as the creation of strong kingdoms in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway that put an end to many of the old ways. As I’m familiar with the Viking attacks in Britain and western Europe, I was most captivated here by the Swedish exploration of eastern Europe, pushing down the rivers as far south as Constantinople. Vikings who settled in Kiev — called the “Rus” — would ally and war against both the Khazars and Eastern Rome, and established the seed of Russia. Brownsworth also covers the journeys to the fringe of North America, as well as raids in southern Iberia. I was particularly fascinated to learn that Constantinople hired both Vikings and Anglo-Saxons as an elite guard, and that these soldiers left their runic marks on the classical world by scratching graffiti in landmarks like St. Sophie’s in Constantinople. Brownsworth also stresses the role of Viking women when he can, and that’s more often that one might expect. Believe me when I say his occasional female subjects are just as terrifying as the men who make a game of throwing captured babies into the air and then trying to “catch” them with spearpoints.
Despite the brutality and widespread chaos created by the Viking period, Brownsworth argues in the end that their destruction was often creative. In pushing Charlemagne’s Franks, they forced an unwieldy empire to collapse into several much-better consolidated states. They indirectly hastened the creation of a united England by destroying the other kingdoms, leaving Wessex to be foundation for a new country under the sterling leadership of men like Alfred the Great…and the not-so-sterling leadership of one of his great-grandsons, who abandoned the country to run off to Normandy. And of course, they created Russia, with much cultural infusion from Eastern Rome.
Of the few Viking books I’ve read, this is easily the most memorable, and it has me itching to read more about the Normans, Sicily, and King Alfred!