The World of the Vikings, by Richard Hall

I sat on cushioned otter-skin:
My word was law from Ith to Emain,
And shook at Inver Amergin
The hearts of the world-troubling seamen

–Yeats, “The Madness of King Goll”

This is nearly the size of a coffee-table book, and its subject is the archeological reconstruction of the Vikings and the spread of their culture to Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, Iceland, Greenland, and . . . Vinland. They traveled to eastern Europe and Islamic lands. Hoards of dirhams, an Arab silver coin, have been unearthed from Viking settlements.

The word “viking” comes from an Old English word, wicing, a word meaning “pirate” or “piracy.” After the early eleventh century and the spread of tales such as The Battle of Maldon, the word came to mean “Scandinavian sea-raider.” The vikings early used runes, familiar to anyone who has picked up The Hobbit and perused Thror’s map; tall, skinny letters fit for carving in wood or stone.

Monasteries in Britain were targets. The book reproduces the cover of the Codex Aureus, or Golden Book, a mid-eighth-century copy of the gospels from Canterbury. Scribbled in the margins around the fantastic illumination is an inscription from the mid-ninth century that describes how the book was ransomed back from the Vikings who had purloined it. Catching on quickly, the Vikings began holding such treasures for ransom, along with abbots and other valuables.

Vikings took over Dublin in 917 and stayed for centuries. The influence of the Vikings in Britain spread from the northwest to the southeast, with London on the edge. This area of Viking influence is called the Danelaw. The art shown in the book all begins to run together–Viking, Irish, Saxon, Welsh–the intricate, whirly designs in manuscripts, bracelets, brooches, ship prows and sword hilts all speak the same language. We are all Vikings now.

How disappointing, though, to learn that there were never horned helmets, but more often little pointy caps like funnels. Still, wings were not out of the question.

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