The Viking Wars by Max Adams

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“The Britain encountered by the Scandinavians of the ninth and tenth centuries was one of regional diversity and self-conscious cultural identity: of Pict, Dál Riatan and Strathclyde Briton; of Bernician and Deiran, East Anglian, Mercian and West Saxon,” writes Max Adams in his new book The Viking Wars. “Ancient kingdoms surviving in Kent and Cornwall, Powys, Gwynedd and Dyfed, Hwicce, Lindsey and Man had profoundly individual identities that endure, in many respects, into the present and played pivotal roles in the story of the Viking Age.”

Adams follows up his fantastic 2016 history of “Dark Ages” Britain, In the Land of Giants, with this vast and exuberantly detailed account of the unforeseen disaster that swept down on that Britain out of the north at the end of the 8th century, most iconically in 793 on Lindisfarne, which was attacked by Viking raiding parties that would go on to ravage most of the country in the ensuing generations, ending only with the expulsion of the Scandinavian ruling class from York in 954.

In the UK, The Viking Wars is titled Aelfred's Britain, and retaining that title in the US edition (while simultaneously dropping the pedantic period spelling, of course; Alfred the Great practically invented the concept of “common usage” in the English-speaking world, and it most certainly applies to him) would have tipped readers off to a major focus in these pages: King Alfred, about whom Adams writes with a complex and moving sympathy often missing from actual biographies of the man, “a soldier-philosopher in the mold, perhaps, of Marcus Aurelius; an administrative reformer whose experience of the Great Host had taught him the art of the possible; a passionate educator and expert in the deployment of his powers of patronage to initiate his own renaissance.”

That renaissance was threatened at every turn by the waves of Viking raids, and The Viking Wars brings those raids home to the farms, towns, and actual people who endured them. This is as much a fine-grained history of the English home-front as it is a broader story of dramatic sea-rover aggression. Adams studies songs, building plans, law codes, and ancient manuscripts, pulling everything together in order to craft the most elaborate picture yet made of what the Viking raids actually meant to the people who endured them.

As in the all the best of such writing, this often means trekking through midden-heaps:

The urban diet, when it can be reconstructed from food remains preserved in rubbish and cesspits, relied for its staples on bread and cereals, honey, lentils, leeks, peas and beans, fruits, nuts and fungi, washed down with weak beer whose alcohol effectively purified dodgy water. Food seems to have been stored and processed domestically in small quantities. The evident widespread consumption of sloes, hawthorn and rowan berries reflects the need for antiscorbutics during later winter when fresh fruit and vegetables were in short supply.

2018 has seen a small bumper-crop of excellent books about the Viking Age, and Adams has written the best of the bunch, the lively-yet-scholarly modern epic history the tale deserves.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is