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The Children of Ash and Elm Reviews

The Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price

The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings

Neil Price

3.91 out of 5

6 reviews

Category: History, Non-fiction
Imprint: Allen Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publication date: 26 May 2020
ISBN: 9780241283981

'As brilliant a history of the Vikings as one could possibly hope to read' Tom Holland

3 stars out of 5
9 Mar 2021

"Here... are the Vikings in full colour."

Viking armies, large and mobile, had a devastating impact on the places they raided; Price likens them to pirate polities. They also brought about a transformation within Scandinavian society, as the economy was reorganized towards the large-scale production of timber for ships and woollen textiles for sails: the Viking Age, writes Price, was the “Age of the sheep farmer”. Importantly, such production was supported by slave labour, with women in particular (captives of Viking raids?) working in dim, dank, sunken huts at the loom.

Here, then, are the Vikings in full colour. The lived reality may sometimes have been more monotone, but no other history of the Vikings is as vibrant or expands the scope of the Viking world to encompass not just landscapes, but mindscapes.


4 stars out of 5

"A fascinating, wide-ranging history that looks beyond the conquests and goes inside the Norse mind, summoning up the voices of the past"

Not only a leading authority on the period, Price is also a wonderful writer, by turns philosophical, witty, lyrical and poignant. He possesses both an archaeologist’s ability to interpret large quantities of scholarship and data, and the skill to translate it creatively. His vivid prose illuminates both the physical and the psychological dimensions of the early medieval north, while at the same time leaving space for uncertainty: the possibility of future discoveries and theories that will alter the picture yet again. Nor is he afraid to face up to the absences and random gaps in the source material (such as what their music sounded like), and the confusions and inconsistencies that come from dealing with human nature.

4 stars out of 5
Jay Elwes
10 Oct 2020

"The Vikings were an extraordinary people"

The Vikings were an extraordinary people, whose seamanship and commercial guile took them to all parts of the known world — and in the case of the American continent, beyond even that. They iceskated and skied, invented flat-pack construction, left glorious runic inscriptions, built some of the greatest seagoing vessels in history and shaped the map of Europe. But they were also brutal slave-traders and killers, capable of the most horrifying acts.

The powerful and unsettling message of this book is that they never went home. The Vikings stayed in the lands they subjugated. These strange, vicious people are our forebears. They are in us.

4 stars out of 5
David Aaronovitch
21 Aug 2020

"This history takes us deep into the lives — and deaths — of the Vikings"

What surprised me about The Children of Ash and Elm is the extent to which recent archaeological discovery is transforming our picture of the Vikings from the inside. Price, who has spent several decades in ancient cesspits and the remains of Norse workshops, is superbly qualified to understand the significance of what is being unearthed, analysed and dated, and conveys a sense of excitement about just how much is being learnt. What we now know beyond much dispute is that in the post-Roman era, a largely agricultural Scandinavian society was utterly disrupted by a temporary climate disaster mostly caused by a series of volcanic eruptions in Central America in the years 536-41.

4 stars out of 5
16 Aug 2020

"A revelatory history that doesn’t shy away from brutality and violence"

Although Price emphasises the sophistication of Viking society — and teases out the very right-on possibility that there were not only female warriors but transgender Vikings too — he sensibly never tries to explain away the brutality. So while he calls the Viking years “the golden age of the sheep farmer” — it took industrial quantities of wool to produce so many ship sails — he also repeats at length the Arab writer Ibn Fadlan’s account of a Viking funeral. This was a ten-day orgy of wild slaughter that ended with the mass rape and ritual murder of a slave girl who was then burnt with her master and his animals. And Price is never guilty of detached academic revisionism; instead he redraws the Viking world in all its strange and gory glory. Thousands of books have been published about the Vikings — this is one of the very best.

4 stars out of 5
16 Aug 2020

" Raiding must have looked very attractive."

A recent scholar, considering the appalling scene of gang rape and slave murder at the Rus funeral described by Ibn Fadlan, claimed that this ought to put paid to the idea that the Vikings were heroic: they were just cruel. This is naive. Heroism and cruelty are mutually exclusive only in the world of comic books. As Price’s book makes clear, they have often gone together.