Monday, April 10, 2023

STRANGER THAN FICTION: River Kings by Cat Jarmon

 Don't meet your heroes

Recent years have seen a resurgence of popular interest in Vikings - those Scandinavian seafarers who, in the early Medieval era, settled Iceland, reached North America and generally made life difficult for everyone from Ireland to Iran. From television (History's Vikings and Vikings: Valhalla series) and film (Valhalla Rising and The Northman) to video games (Assassin's Creed: Valhalla), there is arguably more high-quality, Viking-centric content than at any time since Wagner's day. 

While none of these works are historically accurate, all have moved away from Wagnerian tropes to a more anthropologically accurate portrayal of Viking-era Scandinavians. The horned helmets are, mercifully, gone; in their place, face paint, long hair that is shorn on the side and an growing sense that Scandinavian Paganism was much closer to the animism of indigenous peoples than previously assumed in normative, Eurocentric imaginings.  

But this new generation of Viking media has also dispensed with the tired old takes that framed Vikings either as "savage" agents of destruction or ahistorical avatars for modern Germanic nationalism. In its place, an understanding that Vikings were farmers and traders as well as raiders and conquerers and that they didn't really have much sense of ethnicity in the modern sense (let alone nationalism, which is a social construct of the modern era). 

Another assumption - not only in popular media, but among many scholars as well - is that different Vikings went in different directions: Norwegians and Danes to the West, Swedes to the East. Of the media mentioned above, only The Northman problematizes this assumption - with the story of Amleth starting in Norway, proceeding to the riverine expanses of present-day Russia and Ukraine and ending in Iceland. 

This dovetails with one of the key arguments made in Cat Jarmon's highly engaging historical anthropology, River Kings - that the Viking world was inherently more interconnected than previously assumed. She begins with an archeological puzzle - a carnelian bead, likely made in the Abbasid Caliphate, found in a mass grave in Repton, England. Then, silver dirhams (coins) from the Caliphate - also found nearby, matching larger caches discovered in contemporary Sweden. At the least, these findings suggest trade networks, centered on Swedish markets, that linked West to East. Then we learn that these networks also connected people. 

The people they connected, unfortunately, weren't just Vikings. One of the major findings of recent scholarship (portrayed vividly in The Northman)  is the centrality of the slave trade to Viking commerce. Viking raiders in the East targeted rural Slavs and others for capture and eventual sale to the Khazars, Arabs and Byzantine Greeks. Vikings also kept slaves themselves; these "Thralls" were treated differently and were subject to rules and social norms that don't line up neatly with popular assumptions based on the modern Atlantic or ancient Roman modes of slavery we are most familiar with. Thralls had fewer restrictions on movement, more agency and a higher chance of being freed - but make no mistake: Thralls were still considered property, were valued less highly in the event of their murder and were still, despite some legal protections, at the mercy of their owners. 

One of the primary ways a slave could be freed is through marriage, and Jarmon asserts that this was likely a key goal of Viking slave-taking. She presents DNA evidence comparing matrilineal and patrilineal descent lines in Iceland, which suggest that Iceland's population is primarily descended from Scandinavian fathers and Celtic mothers. We don't know exactly why Viking men sought out Celtic brides, but one logical possibility is that the early voyages were primarily undertaken by men, and perhaps it wasn't easy to convince Norwegian women to relocate in large numbers to the new land. 

(It's also possible that contemporary Scandinavians practiced gendered infanticide - leading to a surfeit of young men and a distorted marriage market. Indeed, this has been suggested as a broader explanation for the Viking age writ large. But there isn't really any evidence for this, either in the written or archeological record.)

Another fascinating observation is that Viking expansion followed a similar pattern in East and West: first they came as traders, then returned as raiders and finally, in the last phase, as settlers/conquerers. There is evidence both in present-day Russia and England of a Scandinavian trading presence prior to the infamous sack of the Lindisfarne monastery in 793 CE, traditionally viewed as the starting point of the Viking age. 

What's more, despite the clear bias in popular media toward the Vikings' Westward expansion, their presence along the Eastern river networks was actually significantly larger and more advanced - reflecting the fact that Byzantium and the Abbasid Caliphate were the wealthiest and most advanced societies west of the Indus. The Eastern routes, at that time, provided the most stable and lucrative source of silver - which in Viking age Scandinavia was used as currency. In fact, the upsurge of Viking activity across Western Europe may have only started in earnest after a domestic supply crisis within the Caliphate disrupted the flow of silver northward. Jarmon is careful not to fully endorse this theory, as evidence for it is pretty scarce - but it's an enticing thought and wholly logical. 

Jarmon also wades into the contentious debate over gender in the Viking world. It had long been assumed that Viking society was highly patriarchal, with men doing the trading, raiding and conquering - while women tended the home. This may, however, reflect the biases of later ages - long after Scandinavia converted to Christianity. Today there is broad agreement that women enjoyed significant rights and privileges in Viking society. But debates have raged over whether Viking women may have also been, well, Vikings. 

The sagas do suggest that women warriors did exist in Viking-age Scandinavia - but that they were comparatively rare in relation to their male counterparts. The sagas, however, were largely written down in the 12th century and are not considered accurate records of history. Archeological evidence, which Jarmon reviews, suggests that women may have taken up arms more frequently than previously assumed - not to the degree men did, but with far more frequency than in the Christian or Muslim societies Vikings frequently interacted with. The evidence - burials with arms - is not conclusive but it is highly suggestive.

To wrap up, River Kings is an excellent work of popular history - bringing the latest in archeological evidence out of scholarly journals and into the public sphere. It doesn't - and can't - answer every outstanding question about the Viking world, but it does a great job bringing it to life. Running through Jarmon's narrative is the argument that Viking expansion was a form of globalization - linking North and South, West and East - that transformed all the places and peoples it touched. Highly recommended. 


  • Highly engaging archeological history of the Viking Age
  • Brings cutting edge scholarship into the public sphere
  • Argues successfully for a reimagining of Viking expansion as a form of globalization
  • Brisk writing style - a true page-turner

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a Feather founder/administrator, since 2012