Neil S. Price’s Children of Ash and Elm is a breezy popular history of the Vikings that nevertheless brings real scholarly rigor to the subject—Price is an archaeologist who’s been working on Viking stuff for decades now, and while he’s openly and unabashedly writing for a casual audience, he’s not afraid to talk about the limits of our knowledge, or to talk about how we know the things we do know.
The book starts out in the pre-Viking Scandinavian North, trying to explain what things were like before the Vikings became the Vikings, and what changed to kick off their Viking ways. It follows them in a unified way through both their Eastern and Western exploits, spending a lot of time with the Rus and all the way down to Constantinople, as well as in England and beyond to Iceland, Greenland, and North America. And then it talks about the end of the era and their legacies. While doing all this, it focuses a lot (for obvious, author-related reasons) on their material culture and what we know about e.g. their funerary practices and where we’ve found remnants of towns and ships and whatever else; but it also does talk about the written material we have, and outlines the cultural and intellectual world of the Vikings even as it puts question marks on a lot of it as being potentially later inventions or unrepresentative.
Because this is a popular history, it’s also not afraid to just come out and admit that it’s talking about contemporary-relevant things; one of the big room-elephants that the book addresses is the (neo-)Nazi fascination with Vikings, and the way that Viking history has been repurposed to support their wacky evil bullshit. As well, the book is very inclusive in its concerns, talking about class and gender in Viking societies in all their complexity. And while Price has made a career studying the Vikings, he’s also clear-eyed about the ways in which they were pretty shitty at times, and isn’t going to try to romanticize them or defend the indefensible.
Overall, this is just a really solid book that comes in at the sweet spot of not talking down to an audience, while also being aware that its audience is not sitting in a classroom and has chosen to read this book instead of any of the many other things they could be doing with their free time. Recommended.