Michael J. Dougherty provides the reader with an excellent overview of Viking history and culture. Vikings: A History of the Norse People‘s accurate portrait of Viking culture and the important events of Norse history marks it as perfect for the beginner. Dougherty, who gives every mark of expertise in the Viking age, wrote this book to challenge the caricature of Vikings as bloodthirsty savages. For this purpose, half the work covers history, while the other half investigates the culture. While the historical section felt very basic–but with interesting details which made the history come alive, the cultural section held many new facts for even a saga enthusiast like myself. His sections on Norse warfare, the Icelandic legal system, ships, and exploration are among the best in the work.
Dougherty’s work succeeds to some extent in erasing the vision people might have of the Vikings as utter barbarians. He refuses to gloss over the more savage parts of their culture however: vagabonds had no protection under the law (they might even be castrated at will); Vikings preyed upon the weak–especially monks and poorly defended towns; their religion promoted bloody conflict through requiring death in battle for entrance into Valhalla; and human sacrifice was not unknown. Those of you who watched Vikings on the History Channel will remember that night where the Vikings are high on drugs and the debauchery ends with a human sacrifice. That’s basically reproduced from a historical account of a human sacrifice which was made at a Viking’s funeral. It is little wonder that Christianity vastly improved Scandinavia!
Yet, Dougherty does a thorough job extolling the virtues of Viking culture. The Vikings excelled at brave deeds, desiring glory on the battlefield above all else. Their seafaring skills and expeditions exceeded the abilities and even imagination of their contemporaries. Their desire to be remembered in story produced great literature and poetry. And their legal system worked as a precisely oiled machine, which even gave women rights they did not have in many other parts of Europe.
All these things are described in interesting detail in this work. I especially recommend it to the beginner, but people well-versed in Viking history and culture will find interesting tidbits here as well.