The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings
By Lars Brownworth
266 pages, Crux Publishing Ltd., United Kingdom, 2014
“Pagans from the northern regions came… like stinging hornets and spread on all sides like fearful wolves.”
Few other groups in human history carry as notorious a reputation or had such a lasting impact as the Vikings. The fierceness that made them legendary earned them the name “sea wolves”, which Lars Brownworth expounds on in his book The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings. Anyone even remotely intrigued by Viking history will find this book an enjoyable read. It’s easily digestible and thankfully lacks a pedantic tone that frequently characterizes history books. It’s full of fascinating tidbits of information, such as the source of the name for Bluetooth technology: Harald Bluetooth (died circa 985) was a Viking king who united disparate tribes through conversion to Christianity. Many recognize his name as the technology that passes information wirelessly between phones and computers regardless of operating system or manufacturer. The two runes that make up the modern symbol for Bluetooth technology are the king’s initials. (There’s your cocktail party fun fact you’re welcome!)
The breadth of the Vikings’ influence is truly astounding. Despite their relatively short eminence of a couple hundred years, the Vikings had a lasting impact on European life. They are responsible for the founding of Dublin, Ireland. Three of the days of the week are named after Viking gods: Wednesday for Odin, Thursday for Thor, and Friday for Frey. They introduced a novel form of trial by jury to England and built innovative ships that could cross oceans or sail up fjords or rivers, which allowed them to establish a sophisticated trading network stretching from Baghdad to the coast of North America. In fact, the first European to set foot in North America was a Viking named Leif Erikson (which makes it doubly annoying that Christopher Columbus has a day named after him but I digress).
“A sword age, a wind age, a wolf age. No longer is there mercy among men.”
—Völuspá Doomsday Prophecy from Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda
The “fierceness” of the Vikings may be too glorifying, for the enduring image of them as violent and wild barbarians is not exactly misplaced. The sea wolves brutally sacked peaceful monasteries and villages throughout Europe, killing anyone who stood in their way. The punishments of the medieval era were, well, medieval.
My mom tells me we are distant descendants of Vikings. She says her maiden name, Nutt, comes from King Cnut the Great, ruler of Denmark, England, and parts of Norway from the 1010s to the 1030s. It’s doubtful we are distantly related to the Cnut the Great, because, as I learned in The Sea Wolves, all of Cnut’s children died within 10 years of his death and he left no remaining heirs. Regardless, it’s fun family lore to believe we are descendants from Vikings, a group of people at once ruthless raiders, lionhearted adventurers, and pioneering explorers who left an indelible mark on the course of human history.
Rating: 3 stars
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Photo credits: @judsongates on Instagram