27 Sep 2018 Interview with The Vikings authors Martyn and Hannah Whittock

Lion Books is thrilled to publish The Vikings: from Odin to Christ, a brilliant new history book co-authored by Martyn and Hannah Whittock, a dynamic father-daughter team.

Martyn Whittock is a Lion Books author and co-author of forty-seven books. Martyn has taught history at secondary level for thirty-five years. He retired in 2016 to concentrate more fully on writing. He has been a consultant for the BBC, English Heritage and the National Trust, and has written for historical and archaeological journals. He is an Anglican Lay Minister in Salisbury diocese.

Hannah Whittock is a Lion Books author and has co-written five books on Viking and Anglo-Saxon history and Norse mythology. She has also written journal articles on Anglo-Saxon frontiers and coinage produced during the Viking Wars.

Here Martyn and Hannah chat with us about their new book, what they hope to achieve by focusing on the forgotten story of the Christian Vikings, and how working as a father-daughter team works.

For those who have not read your book yet, where did you first get the idea for this story? How did that idea evolve into The Vikings?

Hannah studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge University; and went on to do an MPhil there, in the same subject. I have taught early medieval history at A-Level and so we both have an enthusiasm for this period of history. A few years ago, we collaborated on a book on the Vikings Wars in the British Isles and it became clear that the Vikings soon converted to Christianity. We decided to write The Vikings: from Odin to Christ, to show that this was not an isolated example, and to explore how they became Christians by looking at Vikings from North America to Russia, and from Sweden to the British Isles.

What did you hope to achieve by focusing on the forgotten story of the Christian Vikings?

We hope to correct the view that the Viking Age was just a pagan period as far as Scandinavians were concerned. In reality, although there initially was terrible damage done to Christian communities, Scandinavians and Christians soon began to interact in very positive ways. This changed the Vikings and we aim to show how this happened. They found Christianity attractive on many levels and this drove the abandonment of the old ways. The hammer of Thor was rapidly conquered by the cross of Christ wherever Vikings settled. In 1030, the army of King Olaf Haraldson of Norway advanced with the battle cry of “Onward, Christ’s men, cross men, king’s men all!” They and their faith deserve to be better remembered.

Why do you think most people don’t know about the Christian Vikings?

Modern films, books, TV series and advertising all focus on the first period of Viking raids: when they were pagans. It is as if the Vikings were frozen in that period of time and that was all they ever were. This is not just a product of modern image-consultants. Christian contemporaries of the Viking raids in the British Isles, in the eighth and ninth centuries, often called them “the pagans”, or “the heathens”. Islamic writers described the Viking raiders of Spain as “al-Majus” (fire-worshippers, pagans) and commented “may Allah curse them”. This paganism was certainly true at that particular time and it has greatly influenced our view of Vikings.

This was then reinforced by later medieval writers. In the twelfth century, Irish writers celebrated the heroic Irish king Brian Boru’s victory at Clontarf as being over a “wrathful, foreign, purely-pagan people”. Irish identity required the enemy to all be pagans. In thirteenth-century Iceland, it was Christian writers who recorded the pagan activities of their ancestors, in a period when the wild past could be safely recalled because it was no longer a threat. As a result of this, almost everything we know about Viking pagan beliefs was written by later Christians. But all of this tended to play up the paganism and play down the Christianity. But, in fact, they and their communities changed and developed over time once they started settling in an area. It is then that the media often loses interest in them! As a result, we are left with a very limited view of the ‘Viking Age’.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned while writing The Vikings?

How swiftly most converted to Christianity once they settled in an area. While the Scandinavian homelands were, indeed, some of the last places to convert to Christianity, this was not the case wherever Vikings settled. In these places they became Christians with remarkable speed. In England, the children of Vikings who had martyred King Edmund of East Anglia (remembered in the town of Bury St Edmunds) minted coins celebrating Saint Edmund! In Ireland, the death of Ivar, king of Dublin, was marked by an Irish chronicler with the words he “rested with Christ”; and Christian Scandinavians fought on both sides at the battle of Clontarf in 1014. In the East, they rapidly converted to Orthodox Christianity and founded the first Russian state, based in Kiev. In Normandy, they became such enthusiastic supporters of the Catholic Church that the pope even awarded William the Conqueror a papal flag and a commission to sort out perceived irregularities in the Anglo-Saxon Church in 1066. Not how we like to remember the Battle of Hastings!

How does working as a father-daughter team work? Do you enjoy working together?

We do enjoy it, as it involves a shared interest and lots of discussion! We have always talked a lot about this period of history and it is great to share and discuss things we have discovered. Hannah brings a lot of knowledge, based on her studies at Cambridge and the insights she gained from her brilliant lecturers and tutors there. I bring a long-term enthusiasm for early medieval history, experience in communicating history themes (after thirty-five years as a secondary school teacher), and experience in writing books. These are distinct things we each bring to the collaboration. We tend to divide up areas of work for each to concentrate on and then comment on each other’s work. My job is to edit it all, so that a joint-project speaks with one voice. That’s the hope, anyway!

What do you enjoy most about writing history books?

Discovering the experiences of ordinary women and men in the past. Fundamentally the past is ‘His-story’ and ‘Her-story’, and revealing the intriguing realities of past life is amazingly interesting. For example, did you know that Russian Viking traders, claiming to be Christians, turned up at Baghdad on camels? The past is remarkable!

Enjoy reading The Vikings! Buy your copy here.

“This is a stimulating and accessible approach to the Viking Age. Focusing on Vikings as Christian rulers and their followers opens up the question of just what we mean when we think of ‘Vikings’. Violent barbarians of legend have their place in this book but the authors look deeper at what it meant to live and prosper in early medieval societies, taking the ‘end’ of the Viking Age beyond where it is often assumed to be and ensuring that the story is told in terms which make it a truly international one.” - Dr Ryan Lavelle, Reader in Early Medieval History, University of Winchester

Interested in learning more about The Vikings? Read Martyn's article on The Vikings in Christian Today here.