Monday, May 1, 2023

Review of The Wolf Age: The Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Battle for the North Sea Empire by Tore Skeie

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Book Club Event = Book List (12/09/2023)

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“Sweyn’s armies were led by highly specialized and goal-oriented men, who knew exactly what they wanted and how they were going to get it.  They acted in accordance with the age-old logic of pre-modern warfare, as practised by ancient kings and Roman emperors before them; they gave their enemies a simple ultimatum.  The Anglo-Saxons could submit, giving the Danes what they wanted, and they would be treated well.  Or they could fight, and risk the consequences of defeat.  These consequences might involve losing everything – estates, towns, property, provisions, livestock and churches, the lives of one’s family members, or ultimately one’s own life.  Æthelred was a strong king, but he was unable to prevent local leaders and the heads of villages from striking deals with and paying tribute to the Danes without his permission in order to save their properties and their lives.  His authority within his own realm was therefore slowly undermined.” – Tore Skeie, A Regime Facing Ruin, Page 52-53

“In the Middle Ages, no army could support itself over an extended period of time with the provisions the men brought with them, and living off the enemy’s land was a natural and necessary part of the art of waging war.  Right from the start the campaign in which Olaf Haraldsson and his men participate therefore took the form of a constant hunt for the huge amounts of food required to keep the many thousands of men well fed and strong, week after week.  In addition to the food the warriors needed to survive during the campaign, the stores that would feed the army through the coming winter also had to be stolen, robbed or extorted from the Anglo-Saxon peasants.” – Tore Skeie, Fire And Smoke, Page 105

“But before long, Sweyn stopped his plundering and burning – it soon proved unnecessary, because he encountered hardly any resistance along his way.  England’s inhabitants were afraid, exhausted by war, and deeply disappointed in their leaders.  In the summer of 1013, town after town opened its gates without a fight, and the population surrendered.  In the regions through which Sweyn led his army, he called the local ealdormen to him.  These prominent men led the area’s nobility and free peasants in collective submission ceremonies, in which everyone hailed their new king.” – Tore Skeie, Hvíti Kristr, Page 173



Viking culture revered conflict, with many depending on conflict for income and power.  Under Sweyn Forkbeard’s leadership, rather than fight amongst themselves, they were directed into conquering Anglo-Saxons kingdoms.  The Anglo-Saxons kingdoms were not yet unified into England, therefore could not readily combine their military might into a common defense.  The Vikings came to plunder in waves, with opportunistic attacks.  Then the Vikings established themselves in the region, with systematic plundering.  Æthelred was a prominent Anglo-Saxon king, who grew up during this era of escalating violence. 

Over time, the Anglo-Saxon defenders and Vikings grew to know each other’s strategies.  The conflict appeared to have to no end.  With no clear superior force.  Even when it appeared that one group would dominate the land, a critical event conspired to make the outcome uncertain again.  This was an era that depended on personal alliances rather than a common state identity.  Valuable Viking and Anglo-Saxon leaders sided with their previous enemies, only to switch back again when the opportunity arose. 

The conflict was eventually resolved by Cnut, a son of Sweyn Forkbeard.  Cnut became king of a unified England.  Denmark and Normandy also came into Cnut’s empire.  A large, but fragile empire that was once again divided when Cnut died.  Throughout the conflict, there was more than just physical confrontations.  There was also a cultural exchange, in which the Vikings were being Christianized. 


What Is The Source For This Era’s History?

Reykholt was a secular center of learning.  A region for scholarly study, power disputes, and financial center.  Snorri was a historical collector, along with priests.   It was Snorri’s work that forms most Dane history and pre-Christian Scandinavian mythological histories.  The work relies on assumptions and analysis to form complete narratives, which are meant to entertain, educate, and support the Nordic people.  These stories were compiled during the 13th century. 

Those who practiced the Norse religious either did not write down the faith’s claims, or what was written did not survive the journey through time.  The practices of the faith, were written down by Christian and Muslim observers.  The religion was written in the 13th century in poem form called Edda.  Norse culture was passed down through memorized poems.  Poems that were used as building blocks for their written form.  The Eddas were a depersonalized account written down by a curious people, because those who wrote them down were already Christianized. 

Monks also compiled many historical events in history, during an era when most people were illiterate. They recorded political events, conflicts, and made their own analysis.  Their compiled work is known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.


How Did Faith Influence Politics?

Norse and Anglo-Saxon leadership authority was legitimated by religion. They mediated between their subjects and gods, who were supposed to bless their people.

Æthelred’s predecessors took possession of reconquered English kingdoms.  They were inspired by the Roman Empire and Charlemagne, to build a single large sovereign state.  The larger state was linked by the Church, a common faith in God that unified the project together.  The clergy were effective organizers.    

A comet was an ancient and evil omen to the monks.  For the monks, a comet was a warning of impending catastrophe.  To the Christians of Western Europe at the time, their God was unpredictable and demanded absolute obedience.  Punishing those who sinned.  Many natural cycles, which included the comet, were considered to reveal God’s plans for humankind.  The clergy thought that Armageddon was imminent.  A catastrophe marking the end of days.  When the Vikings came shortly after the comet, they were deemed to be the catastrophe.

Nordic worship revolved around war, fertility, and sacrifices to a pantheon of gods.  The raven, the eagle, and the wolf were glorified in war poetry because these were mythical beasts of war.  For the Anglo-Saxons, they were grim reminders of war, but not for the Norse.  Soldiers have tended to dehumanize enemies, by comparing them with animals.  While Norse warriors dehumanized themselves, seeing themselves as bestial predators against their prey.  A religion that prophesied a Ragnarök, the destruction of their realm.

Taking prisoners and demanding ransom was a normal affair across Europe.  The Vikings were far more effective in taking captives, with increased scale.  Rich and famous individuals were sold back to relatives for large demands.  Ordinary individuals were sold into slavery. 

The Church prohibited trading Christian slaves, therefore Christian regions used slaves from non-Christian regions.  Even in fervent Christian Anglo-Saxon states, slaves were a significant portion of the population.  With more Christianized regions, there was more enforcement on the prohibition for trading Christians as slaves. 

Muslims were also not permitted to use Muslim slaves, but slaves were in great demand.  Many of the slaves were turned into eunuchs.  The biggest slave market in the known world was the Muslim kingdom of al-Andalus.  Al-Andalus was also known for its knowledge, textiles, and other products. 

Christian duties effected all aspects of community life.  Due to religious restrictions, Christians were not able to trade with others of a different faith.  Therefore, many Vikings needed to be baptized, and become Christians to trade with Christians.  Viking traders brought back with them slaves, exotic goods, knowledge, and a new faith.  The era was transitioning to a new faith, to Christianity.  

Religious aspects surrounded all Norse life as well.  Missionaries were disgruntled by how many Norse continued to practice their previous faith alongside Christianity.  Religious iconography combined the Norse and Christian themes. 

Olaf Haraldsson was a genuine believer in Christianity.  Olaf Haraldsson’s story was written when many considered Olaf Haraldsson a saint, for destroying heathen idols and spreading the Christian faith.  But, there is no actual indication that Christianization was a priority for Olaf Haraldsson.  Alternatively, Sweyn Forkbeard’s allies claimed to have conquered England with the support from Christianity, but that does not indicate piety.  Olaf Haraldsson did promote Christianity but Christianization was a larger trend in Norway and other lands.  Christianization culminated in Olaf’s era.

Kings who wanted dominance preferred Christianity over Norse religion.  Norse religion was composed of complex system with various competing deities, while in Christianity the legitimacy of power was concentrated in a single God.

To join Olaf Haraldsson, they needed to be baptized, in which Olaf Haraldsson stood as their godfather.  Being part of Christianity undermined local leaders’ power, as Olaf Haraldsson was the head of the organization.  When they took upon Christianity, they were also subject to Olaf Haraldsson.


How Was Anglo-Saxon (England) Sovereignty And Culture Structured?

Transfer of sovereignty was not certain in European kingdoms.  It was subject to complicated negotiations with various political factions vying for power.  There were no set procedures for the transfer of power.  Politics was a fragile affair.  The throne depended on a council, called a witan.  The leaders of prominent noble families.  Nobel families that were powerful groups, who were political rivals that engaged in open feuds.

Every few years, coinage was declared invalid and had to be turned into new coinage.  The people got less in exchange, for a tax was taken during the process.  Wessex king’s power was held together by controlling the coinage.  

How Was Danish (Vikings) Sovereignty And Culture Structured?

Vikings did not refer to themselves as Vikings.  Viking meant opponent, no matter the origin of the opponent.

Danish kings could not settle down into a peaceful existence after conquest.  The realm consisted of personal alliances and allegiances, through established mercenaries.  Norse society was controlled by a landowning warrior nobility.  Who desired battle.  Political power came from military resources which determined the ruling class.

Frankish and Anglo-Saxon rulers plundered their neighbors wealth, but nothing compared to the scale of the Norse.  Norse power dynamics shifted radically from Viking raids.  Viking kings power depended on movable wealth to obtain loyal warriors.  A political structure that depended on waging war, whether internally or in foreign countries.  Not only was war needed for profit, but also for maintaining power and influence.  The Viking Age had more warriors depending on war for an income than previous eras.  This is a culture where everyone was judged by their ability to wage war.  Therefore, leaders needed to find enemies for warriors to fight rather than the leader’s community, for the warriors were going to fight anyway.

For many, their livelihoods depended on war, and disapproved of Harald Bluetooth’s concentration of building and power consolidation instead of war.  Sweyn Forkbeard would not make the mistake that Sweyn’s father did.  When Sweyn Forkbeard assumed leadership after an internal Danish power struggle, Sweyn set to plunder the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the late 10th century.

The Viking society is extremely hierarchical.  The strong rule over the weak, but are themselves ruled by those stronger.  With slaves at the bottom of the hierarchy.  Norse societies were based on a slave economy, in which slaves comprised a significant portion of society.  The status of a slave was inherited, and they were sold like livestock.  Slaves were property and were meant to do anything the master asked, even if that meant death.  Physical labor was performed by male slaves, while house work and textiles were performed by female slaves.

During battles, Viking leaders were found to be on the front lines.  Norse leaders showed the courage they expected of the allies, earning their respect.  The leaders were protected by chosen and loyal warriors, who fought under a banner.  A banner that told their enemies where the Viking leader was.  Norse kings were frequently killed in battle.

The Viking communities had a strong sense of belonging and loyalty, because they lived aboard confined and intimate communities of a ship for long durations.  Community celebrations were paid by the lord.  The plunder was meant to be distributed fairly.  Betrayal was mercilessly punished.

War and the sea held reverence in Norse culture.  Viking ships were generally light and pliable, but able to handle the waves.  They were able to be rowed, which allowed them to go up rivers.  Ships made journeys relatively quicker with heavier loads than land travel over difficult terrain.  Trade was organized along sailing routes.  Warships were heavier and wider, for larger loads.  Ships were prominent in Norse Warrior culture and self-image.   


What War Strategies Were Used?

Viking armies could not survive with the provisions brought with them for extended periods of time.  What that meant was that the armies needed to use their enemy’s land for food, and was part of waging war.  Waging war required a constant search for food.  Plundering enemy’s store of food not only supplied allies forces, but also deprived the enemy of food to feed their army.

During this era, food was scarce.  Enough food for the year was rare.  Hunger was routine.  Famines occurred regularly.  Famine occurred in 1005.

The Danes used the same ancient strategy of asking the opposition an ultimatum.  They could either submit to Danish demands, in which case they would be treated well.  Alternatively, they could fight and risk adverse consequences in defeat.  There were times that the Danes were paid off, rather than fought.  A lot of wealth was used to pay them off.  Local leaders undermined Æthelred authority as they paid tribute to the Danes without permission.  Local leaders wanted to prevent the consequences if they fought with the Danes.  The Danes retreated after being paid off, but the reprieve was temporary.

European and Norse political systems depended on loyal allegiances.  And yet alliances tended to be temporary, and free upon completion of the obligations.  Everyone had to be opportunistic to survive.  Changing allegiances was culturally accepted.  A willingness for enemies to unite for a common cause, but then fight again afterwards.  Even enemies were willing to cooperate when it suited them.  Enmity did not prevent beneficial partnerships.


How To Get To Know The Opponents?

Danes had begun permanent bases for plundering England during the mid-9th century.  Bases that included whole families.  The Norse settlers established Danelaw.  Dane laws rather than English laws were upheld in that area.  Many of the Danes had become Christians, and adopted Christian local customs while also engaging in old traditions. 

During the late 10th century, Vikings kept coming back and pillaging valuables, food, and took captives.  They had become an annual occurrence.  Local defenders fought against the foreigners. During this era, Anglo-Saxon region was composed of small rival kingdoms rather than a united England.  There was no common defense against the Danes.  The kingdoms were attacked one by one, who saw their lands plundered and their people either massacred or captured into slavery.  With independent opportunistic attacks, developing into a systematic process of looting.  Looting that expanded into conquest and colonization. 

Æthelred’s people were terrorized by the Viking raids, but also by Æthelred’s own brutality.  There were many subjects under Æthelred’s rule that had Norse roots due to many Norse settlers.  But these Danish descendants aroused mistrust and suspicion.  When rumor spread of a Danish conspiracy to assassinate Æthelred, Æthelred ordered all Danish men killed.  Æthelred had a complex and contradictory personality.  Æthelred was indecisive, quick-tempered, yielding and hesitant, despotic, easily influenced.

Æthelred and the various kings and leaders recognized that they were under existential threat, which they had planned to quickly equip an army, and build a fleet to combat the Danes.  A large fleet was assembled and prepared for the Danish invasion.  But after an internal struggle among the Anglo-Saxon leaders, the fleet was scattered.  That meant the Danes were able to land, without major opposition.

After years of warfare between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons, they grew to understand each other’s tactics too well.  They did not want to battle in open conflict.  While the Danes kept moving along the waterways attacking unexpecting places that could not quickly get defenders, while the Anglo-Saxons kept protecting their populations and trying to limit Dane movement. 


How Did The Tide Of War Turn?

The battle at Ringmere turned the tide of war.  The Anglo-Saxon’s lost the battle.  After the loss, there was no more military might to prevent the Danish army from moving freely along the region.  Æthelred held crisis meetings, but raising another army was impossible.  It was no longer possible to get organized resistance. 

The Vikings proceeded to ravage the Anglo-Saxon lands.  Their ravaging was so effective, that they had a problem with obtaining provisions, as there was nothing left to steal.  By 1010, Æthelred could no longer defend the kingdom.  Negotiators promised the Danes more tribute than ever before.  Therefore, the Danes stopped plundering. 

Vikings seemed to be winning, until alliances changed.  During 1012, Thorkell the Tall, one of the Danes fiercest leader, joined Æthelred side.  Thorkell the Tall was well known and feared by the Anglo-Saxons.  Switching loyalties was common during that era.  Loyalty was seen as virtue, while also dynamically volatile given the political and military situations.


How Was Normandy Involved?

Franks used organized cavalry, thereby giving the Vikings a preference to fight in England than France.  The English fought on foot.

Kingdom of the Franks was divided into territories of feuding princes.  The princes were meant to follow the king, but in practice did as they pleased.  They plundered each other’s lands, and beating their peasants to death.

The Duke of Normandy collaborated with the Christians and the Danes.  This caused Frankish neighbors to think of Normandy with suspicion, and enrage the Anglo-Saxons.  Duke’s enemies claimed that the Duke was collaborating with the Duke’s own kind, for the Duke was Norse descent.  The Duke was a descendant of a Viking who plundered the Frankish land, but under a negotiation, the land was grated to the Viking.  In Normandy, the cultures and people mixed. 

During the tentative peace, Richard the Duke of Normandy asked for Viking aid in Frankish conflicts.  Olaf Haraldsson group responded, and facilitated a favorable outcome for Normandy.  This damaged Normandy’s reputation even further, for this meant that Normandy was immune to attack as Normandy could get help from the Vikings.  The Duke did not appreciate the contempt, therefore appointed a writer for Normandy’s history, to legitimize the authority and remove doubt.


How Did The War Continue Between Anglo-Saxon And Vikings?

After 20 years of battle, Sweyn Forkbeard changed strategy into conquest of the kingdom rather than tribute.  Sweyn Forkbeard wanted to become King of England.  In part, Sweyn Forkbeard needed to change policy because of the changing alliances of Thorkell the Tall and others.

Sweyn Forkbeard and Sweyn’s child Cnut were welcomed into the England, in which Sweyn Forkbeard made the claim to become England’s King.  Sweyn Forkbeard was considered a scourge to the English, but claimed that Sweyn Forkbeard would be able to provide what Æthelred could not, peace.  Soon after, Sweyn Forkbeard stopped plundering, as it became unnecessary.  For various reason such as fear, exhausted by war, or disapproval of their leaders, various towns surrendered without a fight.  With submission ceremonies in which they hailed Sweyn Forkbeard as their new King. Even London, which had withstood many attempts at being conquered, surrendered.  The inhabitants were spared, but when they submitted to their new King, the nobles had to provide hostages.  Supplies also needed to be provided. 

It seemed that the Vikings had been victorious.  Sweyn Forkbeard pretty much unified England.  But then suddenly died.  The war’s outcome was no longer decided, but was again in question.

Cnut could not take control over the people like Sweyn Forkbeard did, for Cnut was not feared liked Sweyn Forkbeard.  Control was limited to very loyal members of the Danish army.  Some parts of the Danish army were disbanded immediately after the death of Sweyn Forkbeard.  The Anglo-Saxons who had to support King Sweyn Forkbeard, decided to go against the Danish army.

Cnut even left England to ask Cnut’s brother for support.  Cnut diplomatically lured many key people over to Cnut’s forces, and destroyed those that were enemies.  Promising benefits such as land and influential positions to supporters.  Even Thorkell the Tall changed sides to join Cnut.  In taking over Anglo-Saxon lands, Cnut broke some rules of engagement, such as executing a leader who capitulated to Cnut’s demands. 

Assandun was another battle that turned the tide.  Norse were victorious, but King Edmund survived, along with many Anglo-Saxon military might.  Edmund and Cnut did not want to continue fighting for everyone was tired of the endless conflict.  There were no benefits of continued conflict.  The lands would be divided between them. 

Edmund died a few weeks after the agreement to split the lands.  Possibly due to an infection, but might have been poisoned.  The peace treaty had designated that if one should die, that their lands would belong to the other.  Therefore, Cnut was elected as King of England.  Of a unified England.


How Was Power Consolidated?

Olaf Haraldsson held control over the largest amount of land, but with mostly symbolic power.  European kings depended on local nobility for authority, who were supposed to rule on behalf of the Crown, but the nobility generally considered the land as their own. 

Olaf Haraldsson and Cnut consolidated their respective power. The way Cnut consolidated power was through brutal tactics.  Many nobles that Cnut did not trust were executed.  Cnut’s power grew as more leaders were executed.

Conquest and control required different methods.  Needing to learn the Anglo-Saxon political structure and culture.  Cnut needed to placate Anglo-Saxon leaders, and reward Danish warriors.  Cnut even took Emma as his Queen.  Emma was Æthelred wife.  Marrying Emma signaled continuity of the Anglo-Saxon, while also prevented rebellion by potential opposition.

Cnut changed laws to protect property, and make seizure and random attacks illegal.  After Cnut’s control stabilized, taxes provided for more wealth than previously paid tributes. 

Cnut’s brother Harald died.  Therefore Denmark also came into Cnut’s possession.  Olaf Haraldsson in Norway saw the rise of Cnut’s power with unease.  Their connection has not been good.  Cnut considered Norway as part of Cnut’s region.  During the conflict between Olaf and Cnut, Cnut had eventually overcome Olaf Haraldsson. 

Cnut’s kingdom did not last past Cnut’s death.  Lands earned by conquest required strong leadership to maintain.  It was Æthelred’s remaining son Edward the Confessor who returned to England and was crowed King of a land consisting of Danes and Anglo-Saxons.



The main historic events under observation are sometimes given a history of their own.  Providing needed cultural and contextual background to develop a holistic understanding of the events.  Background information that can assist in interpreting events, but can also be confusing.  A confusion about the sequence of events, that also reflects the dynamic and complex experiences.

This book was put together well, especially given the scarce and mixed quality sources.  But, this also means that there are details missing.  Certain events are described within their broader cultural and military implication, without the specific reasons for them.

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•Who were the Vikings?
•How were the Vikings structured?
•What king of faith did the Vikings have?
•Who were the prominent Anglo-Saxon leaders?
•How was politics structured in Anglo-Saxon regions?
•How did religion influence power?
•How do we know about this era?
•Why did people change allegiances? 
•How did the slave institution function in the different regions?
•What war strategies were used during the Anglo-Saxon and Viking conflicts? 
•Why bribe Vikings?
•How did Anglo-Saxon kingdoms defend themselves against the Vikings?
•How did the Vikings engage in battle?
•What is Æthelred known for?
•How had Normandy’s sovereignty changed? 
•How as Normandy involved in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking conflict?
•Why did Sweyn Forkbeard decide on conquest rather than plunder?
•How effective was Cnut?
•How did Cnut build an empire? 

Book Details
Translator:            Alison McCullough
Edition:                 Revised Edition
Publisher:             Pushkin Press
Edition ISBN:      9781782278351
Pages to read:       320
Publication:          2022
1st Edition:           2018
Format:                 Paperback 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall          5