Mother of Kings by Poul Anderson

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Gunnhild, Mother of Kings, lived in the 10th century AD. What we know of her life, which sounds pretty dramatic, comes from the Scandinavian sagas. A lot of the facts are disputed, but Poul Anderson did a superb job of deciding what he thought was the most likely and turning it into a historical novel. Some of it does stray into the realms of fantasy, with the idea that Gunnhild practised some sort of witchcraft, but it worked well. It’s all such a tangle – there are so many kings and queens and jarls, and an awful lot of them seem to be called either Harald, Haakon, Olaf or Eirik, and he did a brilliant job of turning it into a book which wasn’t too difficult to follow! He also did a particularly good job of showing how people tried to come to terms with both the traditional ideas of the Norse gods and the new ideas of Christianity.

The Norse sagas are intriguing … history and mythology combined. Do you try to disentangle one from the other, or do you accept that the two are combined?

This was a very good, and not particularly easy, read. The Americanisms grated on me a bit, but the author was American so I can’t really complain about that! Now I need to tackle the Heimskringla directly!

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The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern

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Russia, July 2012 391When Tallinn was besieged by the forces of Ivan the Terrible, its beleaguered people begged the King of Denmark for help. He sent them a thousands sides of bacon, so that they wouldn’t go hungry. The author, German-born but British-raised and a naturalised British citizen, of this book, written in the 1880s, was terribly shocked that the Danes wouldn’t do any more to help their fellow Protestants, but the thought of the poor Estonians trying to fight off the Muscovite army with a stack of Danish bacon made me giggle.

Er, anyway. Back to the point! I’ve never read a history specifically of the Hanseatic League before. I tend to associate it with Henry VII and his various squabbles with it, but that’s just me being Anglocentric! Speaking of which, I read Hakluyt’s book on the voyages of Willoughby and Chancellor years ago, when I was 18, but it’d never occurred to me until reading Helen Zimmern’s book that the Hanse would’ve been narked about the development of trading links between England and Muscovy!

This is a Victorian book, and it’s very much of its time – hurrah for free trade and hurrah for Protestantism, etc! – but Victorian historians, with their glorious Whiggish style, tend to write rather entertaining books. The history of the Hanseatic League doesn’t sound as if it’d be particularly entertaining, but, in fact, it is.