Key primary sources
A brief introduction to the key written sources and authors mentioned throughout this website can be found below, along with bibliographic references to modern English translations. Simply click on a header to learn more about the source.
Abu'l ibn Khordadbeh
Abu’l ibn Khordadbeh was a ninth-century Arabic geographer based in northwestern Iran. He was the first Arabic scholar that we know of to describe the Rus’, in an account written between 844–848. His account describes the trade routes and wares of the Rus’ traders, and notes that they travelled as far as Baghdad, which they were able to enter by pretending to be Christian.
Samarrai, Alauddin I., 'Arabic Sources on the Norse: English Translation and Notes. Based on the Texts Edited by Alexander Seippel in Rerum normannicarum fontes arabici' (Master's dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1959) [link to PDF].
Adam of Bremen
Adam was an eleventh-century cleric associated with the German Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen. Between 1073 and 1076, Adam composed a lengthy, four volume historical treatise referred to as the Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg, which ranged widely from its central subject matter to address much of the history of medieval Europe, including some valuable passages concerning the early history of the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian kingdoms. Nevertheless, Adam’s history has a number of very clear biases that should prevent us from taking his words entirely at face value. Some of these originated with his sources; Adam’s primary source for Scandinavian history was the testimony of the contemporary king of Denmark, Sven Estridssen, who clearly harboured strong views about some of his predecessors (his father Ulf had rebelled against King Knut the Great). Furthermore, from the ninth century (see Rimbert's Life of Anskar below) until the twelfth, Hamburg-Bremen claimed spiritual authority over the all of Scandinavia. Scandinavian kings, however, were not always happy to accept this authority; kings of Norway and the early kings of Denmark imported Christianity from elsewhere, primarily the British Isles, much to the chagrin of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. As a result of these perspectives, certain rulers described in Adam’s history are portrayed somewhat negatively: Sven Forkbeard and Olaf Tryggvason, both of whom looked to English clerics for spiritual authority, were portrayed as pagans. Adam may also have deliberately changed the account of the conversion of Harald Bluetooth to avoid crediting a missionary from a rival bishopric (Utrecht), a duplicity revealed by the more contemporary account of Widukind of Corvey.
Alcuin was a scholar from York who became a leading scholar at the court of Charlemagne in the late eighth century. He was an instrumental member of the intellectual movement known as the Carolingian Renaissance and educated Charlemagne’s children, including Louis the Pious. In 793, he wrote a number of letters (to King Athelred of Northumbria, Bishop Hygbald of Lindisfarne and Archbishop Athelhard of Canterbury) addressing the Viking attack on Lindisfarne that began the Viking Age.
Allott, Stephen, transl., Alcuin of York, c. AD 732 to 804. His life and letters (York: William Sessions, 1974).
Amin Razi was an Arabic geographer based in Persia in the late sixth century. His encyclopaedia includes materials from the Viking Age, including descriptions of Rus’ converts to Islam living among the Volga Bulghars.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
This comprehensive catalogue of annals provides a year-by-year description of events, ranging from a sentence to multiple pages, for the entire period from the creation of the world until 1154. In the form we know it, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was first commissioned during the reign of King Alfred (871–899). Although it is likely that some of the information about events before this derived from other sets of annals which did not survive, the lack of evidence to corroborate this make the Chronicle an uncertain source for the Anglo-Saxon period prior to Alfred’s reign. After Alfred’s reign, the Chronicle was copied in various locations over time and gradually became split into a number of versions, some of which vary quite considerably in their content. The Chronicle was not always updated year-by-year; more commonly a large number of years were filled in at a time. Certain periods, such as the reigns of Anglo-Saxon kings in the early tenth century, do not receive much coverage and are chronologically confused. Other periods, such as the latter decades of the reign of Athelred the Unready, are described in exhaustive detail. While some of the entries are brief and dispassionate, others reveal a less neutral tone; the chronicler of Athelred’s time is forthcoming in his negative view of Athelred’s foreign policy decisions, and may even have been composed after Knut’s conquest of England had been successful.
Swanton, Michael, ed. and transl., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, rev. edn (London: Phoenix Press, 2000).
The following translation can be found online: Giles, J. A., transl., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1949).
Ari the Wise's Islendingabok
Ari ‘the Wise’ Thorgilsson authored the earliest surviving text of Icelandic history, Islendingabok (the Book of Icelanders). The short text was composed between 1122 and 1133 for the Icelandic bishops, Thorlak of Skalholt and Ketill of Holar and provides a brief tally of major events in Icelandic history from the island’s initial settlement in 870 to the death of Bishop Gizurr Isleifsson of Skalholt in 1118. These events include the establishment of the Althing in 930 and the conversion to Christianity in 1000. Ari’s account has generally been regarded as accurate, but the dates it is possible he tweaked the dates of certain events to coincide with major happenings abroad. He also claims that Irish monks were present in Iceland before the Norse settlement, but this could be an attempt to establish a Christian presence in Iceland from the beginning of its history.
A compilation of sagas about Norwegian kings written by the Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson in around 1230. This is by far the most detailed written source for Norwegian history. In his prologue, Snorri argues for the validity of using skaldic poetry as a historical source, as he argues that for skalds to distort the truth would be perceived as mockery of the ruler they were praising. He also acknowledges his use of the work of Ari the Wise. The text proper begins with Ynglinga saga, which is a description of the lives of Harald Fairhair’s legendary ancestors based on the poem Ynglingatal. The remainder of the text is divided into sagas which each address the events of a king, beginning with Harald’s father Halfdan the Black and ending with Magnus Erlingsson (d. 1184). Despite its detail, the accuracy of Heimskringla can be called into question by the length of time between the text’s composition and the events it describes. Furthermore, Snorri had a complex series of allegiances: as an Icelander, it was in his interests to perpetuate the idea that Icelanders had fled Norwegian tyranny. His patrons, however, were Norwegian royals who claimed descent from Harald Finehair, and consequently his text gave Harald and his descendants a more prominent role than they may have had. Furthermore, Norway’s enemies are typically portrayed in a less-than-positive light.
Ahmad ibn Fadlan was a tenth-century Arabic theologian, who in 921 formed part of an embassy sent from Baghdad (the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate) to the ruler of the Volga Bulgars. The Bulgars were recent converts to Islam and ibn Fadlan’s role was to act as a religious advisor. He is most well-known for the account that he wrote of his experiences among the Volga Bulgars, which included interactions with the Volga Vikings (called the ‘Rusiyyah’ in his text), whose lifestyle he documented. He describes the traders as tall, blonde and tattooed. He also famously relates his experience of a Volga Viking chieftain’s burial, involving ritual sacrifice and the burning of the ship containing the chieftain’s body.
Lunde, Paul, and Caroline Stone, transls, Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North (London: Penguin Classics, 2011).
The following translation of the passage concerning the Vikings in the Rus' can be found online: Montgomery, James E., 'Ibn Faḍlān and the Rūsiyyah', Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 3 (2000), 1–25.
The Irish annals are our primary source for information about the activities of the Vikings in Ireland and western Britain during the Viking Age (particularly during the earliest phase of activity). However, they are a difficult resource to use. ‘The Irish annals’ is an umbrella term used to describe a large number of different annals that were kept by individual monasteries in Ireland. There is a lot of variation in details (including names and places) between different sets of annals. Furthermore, the annals are not preserved in manuscripts until long after the Viking Age, making their reliability open to question. Among the most important of the Irish annals were the Annals of Ulster, which were used as a source by texts that were produced later, such as the Cogad Gaedel re Gallaib (the War of the Irish with the Foreigners), which focuses on the conflict between the Irish and the Vikings. It has been suggested that a collection of annals known as the Chronicle of Ireland, which has not survived, formed the basis for most of the information found in the Irish annals up until 911.
The Jelling Stone
The Jelling Stone is a monumental rune stone that was erected by King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark in the 960s. The stone commemorates Harald’s parents, Gorm and Thyrvi, but is also a statement of Harald’s power and religion. The inscription states that Harald had won all of Denmark and Norway and had converted the Danes to Christianity, although the truth of all of these claims is open to question. The stone also has intricate stone carvings, devoting one face to an elaborate image of Christ on an interlaced cross. This and the presentation of the text itself may have been influenced by Christian manuscripts.
Landnamabok (the Book of Settlements) is a compilation of accounts from the early settlement of Iceland. The text moves from family to family, often beginning with a description of the circumstance that drove the settlers to migrate to Iceland, describing the voyage itself, and then relating the location that each family chose in Iceland and explaining local place names. The text survives in various versions and its origins are unclear, although they probably belong to the twelfth century. The text shows a fascination with the period Icelanders perceived to be their ‘Golden Age’ and serves the purpose of setting the noble origins of the prominent Icelandic families of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in stone. Many of these accounts were probably passed down by word of mouth, so their accuracy is hard to gauge. Many of the accounts support the narrative that the early Icelanders were driven from Norway by the tyranny of Harald Finehair and, although some of the settlers come from the British Isles, genetic studies have shown that a fair greater proportion of the settlers were Celtic than the text implies.
Hermann Pálsson, and Paul Edwards, transls, The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972).
The following translation can be found online: Ellwood, Thomas, transl., The Book of the Settlement of Iceland (Kendal: T. Wilson, 1898).
At some point between 871 and 899, a sailor from northern Norway came to the court of King Alfred the Great in Wessex. He presented the king with a valuable walrus tusk and related to him accounts of his voyages around the northern and western coasts of Scandinavia. The text of this account was preserved in Old English, inserted into a translation of a geographical treatise by the fifth-century Spanish scholar Orosius. Ohthere’s Voyage is our earliest source for the people and geography of Scandinavia that is attributed to a Scandinavian. The text provides the earliest recorded references to Norway and Denmark in a Germanic language. Ohthere also describes the voyage from his home in northern Norway to the port of Kaupang in Skiringssal and from there to Hedeby in southern Denmark. Finally, he provides a fascinating insight into the relationship between the Norse and the Sami inhabitants of northern Fennoscandia.
The Poetic Edda and Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda
Byock, Jesse, transl., Snorri Sturluson: The Prose Edda (London: Penguin Books, 2005).
Faulkes, Anthony, transl., Snorri Sturluson: Edda (London: Everyman, 1996).
Larrington, Carolyne, transl., The Poetic Edda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Orchard, Andy, transl., The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore (London: Penguin Books, 2011).
Rimbert's Life of Anskar
This text documents the life of Archbishop Anskar of Hamburg-Bremen and provides our only source about Anskar’s missionary trips to Denmark and Sweden, first in 829–831 and again two decades later. The account was written by Rimbert, who was Anskar’s successor as Archbishop, in the 870s. Rimbert seems to have accompanied Anskar on these trips, and was therefore an eyewitness to some of the events described. This makes the Life of Anskar a unique and valuable source, although we should not forget the Christian perspective of its author.
The Royal Frankish Annals
The Royal Frankish Annals are a collection of Latin annals that were produced in the Frankish (Carolingian) Empire and contain information about the period from 741 to 829. It has been suggested that the annals were commissioned by the Carolingian rulers (the dynasty of Charlemagne) to reflect their perspective. Besides being a vital source for the reign of Charlemagne, the annals also provide us with our earliest source of information about Danish rulers. They describe the raiding activities of Godfred and the attempts of Carolingian rulers to establish diplomatic ties with the Danes, informing us in particular about the relationship between Emperor Louis the Pious and King Harald Klak. They also provide us with early evidence that the Oslofjord was ruled by Danes in the ninth century.
The Russian Primary Chronicle
The Russian Primary Chronicle is an account of the early history from around 850 to 1110, compiled in Kiev in c. 1113 and possibly commissioned by the rulers of Kiev. It is a vital source for the early history of Kievan Rus’, although its accuracy is open to question. For example, it famously relates that Riurik was initially invited by the Finns and Slavs of northwestern Russia to be their king; this account has a tinge of legend to it and does not seem to be realistic, reflecting the perspective of Kiev’s ruling dynasty. There are also various issues of chronology in the Chronicle when compared to independent sources.
The Sagas of Kings
The Sagas of Kings are a genre of Icelandic sagas that relate the regnal history of Norway and (to a lesser extent) Denmark. The most famous of these sagas is the compilation known as Heimskringla (see above). The sagas of this genre were generally produced at an earlier stage than the Sagas of Icelanders (see below) and are generally considered to be less stylised, instead providing relatively unembellished descriptions of events. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the information they contain is accurate. The sagas that describe the events of the Viking Age were produced in the first third of the thirteenth century, nearly two centuries after the Viking Age had ended. Besides Heimskringla, they include Morkinskinna, which begins with the reign of Magnus the Good (1035–1046) and Fagrskinna, which describes the same events as Heimskringla but in less detail. It has been suggested that Fagrskinna was produced in Norway, but all of the texts drew upon the same sources and traditions, making hard to identify one or the other as more accurate.
Andersson, Theodore M., and Kari E. Gade, transls, Morkinskinna: The Earliest Icelandic Chronicle of the Norwegian Kings (1030-1157) (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000) [limited Google Books preview available here].
Finlay, Alison, transl., Fagrskinna: A Catalogue of the Kings of Norway (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
The Sagas of Icelanders
The Sagas of Icelanders are a genre of Icelandic saga that was produced in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. These sagas are preoccupied with the earliest settlers of Iceland. It is because of this preoccupation that so much material survives relating to the Viking period; the first two centuries of Icelandic history were perceived as a golden age of Icelandic heroes who broke free from the tyranny of Norwegian kingship and forged a new society. At the time that the sagas were composed, Iceland was convulsed with civil strife and the authority of the Norwegian kings was growing, leading eventually to Iceland’s submission to Norway in 1262–1264; the messaging of the Sagas of Icelanders was particularly appealing against this backdrop. These sagas must be appreciated primarily for the considerable literary skill that went into their creation, rather than their historical value. They are nuanced explorations of the preoccupations and concerns of a society embroiled in civil strife, but the extent to which they accurately depict Icelandic society is unclear.
Smiley, Jane, ed., The Sagas of Icelanders (New York: Penguin, 2001).
Viðar Hreinsson, ed., The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, including 49 Tales, 5 vols (Reykjavik: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997).
The Saga of the People of the Faroes
This saga was composed in Iceland in the early twelfth century and relates the early history of the Norse settlement on the Faroe Islands, focusing in particular on how the islanders were converted to Christianity and became part of Norway. The narrative for the initial settlement of the islands clashes slightly with alternative accounts and archaeological evidence, following the Icelandic narrative convention of claiming that the original settler, Grim Kamban, fled Harald Finehair’s tyranny. The text’s account of the conversion was used by drawn upon by subsequent Icelandic scholars.
The Saga of the People of Laxardal
The Saga of the People of Laxardal can be regarded as one of the most popular of the Sagas of Icelanders, having been widely read and reproduced in Iceland since it was composed in the thirteenth century. The saga follows the fortunes of the descendants of Aud the Deep-Minded (referred to in the text as Unn), who inhabited the area of northwestern Iceland known as Laxardal. The saga focuses in particular on a love triangle between Gudrun Osvifsdottir, Kjartan (the son of Olaf Peacock) and his childhood friend Bolli Thorleiksson which has tragic consequences. The saga is notable for featuring a number of prominent and powerful women, including Aud/Unn, Princess Ingibjorg of Norway and Gudrun herself, who plays a crucial role in bringing about the events of the narrative.
Kunz, Keneva, transl., The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason's Tale (London: Penguin Books, 2008).
Magnus Magnusson, and Hermann Pálsson, transls, Laxdæla Saga (London: Penguin Books, 1969).
The following translation can be found online: Press, Muriel A. C., transl., Laxdæla Saga (London: J. M. Dent, 1899).
The Saga of the People of Orkney
The Saga of the People of Orkney is the most detailed source for the history of the jarldom of Orkney. The style of the saga, which may contain elements dating back to the twelfth century, is more similar to the Sagas of Kings than the Sagas of Icelanders. Some scholars have even suggested that the saga was updated by Snorri Sturluson, as a lot of information is shared between the text and Heimskringla. The saga focuses on the fortunes of the ruling dynasty of Orkney and Shetland, the descendants of Jarl Rognvald of Møre, and appears to contain material of genuine Orcadian origins, although it was composed in Iceland. As with all of the sagas produced in this period, however, its late date makes the veracity of the account unclear.
Hermann Pálsson, and Paul Edwards, transls, Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney (London: Penguin Books, 1981).
The following translation can be found online: Anderson, Joseph, ed., and transl. Jón A. Hjaltalín and Gilbert Goudie, The Orkneyinga Saga (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1873).
The Sagas of Vinland
Two sagas, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red, provide us with our main literary sources of information about the Norse settlement of Greenland and Vinland. However, the two sagas differ in crucial particulars, reminding us that they are both literary creations that should not be relied upon for specific events. These sagas instead giving us a distorted view of the nature of Norse activities on the western shore of the North Atlantic. The primary difference between the texts is in describing the number of voyages to Vinland: The Saga of the Greenlanders describes a series of voyages undertaken by the sons of Erik the Red (most notably Leif Eriksson). The Saga of Erik the Red combines all of the voyages after Leif’s into one, led by Thorfinn Karlsefni.
Magnus Magnusson, and Hermann Pálsson, transls, The Vinland Sagas (London: Penguin Books, 1965).
Saxo Grammaticus' Deeds of the Danes
Saxo Grammaticus was a Danish cleric and historian who lived from c. 1160–1220 and may have been the secretary of Archbishop Absalon of Lund. He is best known for his epic, sixteen-book history of Denmark titled the Deeds of the Danes, which was composed in Latin. The first nine books of this history are set in prehistory and relate various myths and legends, ending with the historical king Gorm. They are particularly useful in providing alternative versions of many of the myths found in the Poetic and Prose Eddas. The subsequent seven books cross into the historical period and relate the history of Denmark from Harald Bluetooth up until 1186. Saxo is rarely used as a source for the Viking Age history of Denmark: many consider his work as fanciful and untrustworthy, particularly as his version of events often differs from the Sagas of Kings. It is worth remembering, however, that his work predates these sagas and may in parts have as much claim to accuracy.
Ellis Davidson, Hilda, and Peter Fisher, transls, The History of the Danes, 2 vols (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1979).
The Synoptic Histories
This is a name given to three historical works that were produced in Norway during the twelfth century. They are the earliest historical accounts that are known to have been produced in Norway and predate many of the Sagas of Kings, which often used them as a source. The oldest text (although opinion is divided on this claim) may be the Latin Historia Norwegie (a History of Norway), with a possible origin in the mid-twelfth century. The text is notable for its detailed description of the Norwegian realm. The second synoptic history is the eccentric History of the Ancient Kings of Norway, written by Theodoric the Monk between 1177 and 1188. This text is highly influenced by Classical literature and often embarks on digressions and diatribes invoking Classical mythology. The final synoptic history is called Agrip af Noregskonungasogum (Extracts from Sagas of the Norwegian Kings). This is the only text of the three in Old Norse, and it covers the period from c. 860–1136 (although the start and end are missing). The narrative is very brief, only relating key details about each king. It is likely to have been produced in Nidaros (Trondheim).
Driscoll, Matthew J., ed. and transl., Ágrip af Nóregskonungasǫgum: A Twelfth-Century Synoptic History of the Kings of Norway, 2nd edn (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2008) [link to PDF].
Kunin, Devra, and Carl Phelpstead, transls, A History of Norway and the Passion and Miracles of the Blessed Óláfr (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2001) [link to PDF].
McDougall, David, and Ian McDougall, transls, Theodoricus Monachus: Historia de antiquitate regum Norwagiensium. An Account of the Ancient History of the Norwegian Kings (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1998) [link to PDF].
Widukind of Corvey
Widukind of Corvey’s Deeds of the Saxons provides some limited evidence for the reign of Harald Bluetooth. The history was composed between 962 and 973 and is thus directly contemporary with Harald’s reign. It provides the earliest attestation of the story of Harald’s conversion to Christianity by the missionary Poppo, who can possibly be identified with an individual named Folkmar, later the bishop of Utrecht. The account maintains that Poppo convinced Harald of the power of the Christian God by holding a red-hot iron and remaining unburnt. Adam of Bremen may have attempted to conceal the role of the rival bishopric (see above) by attaching the tale of Poppo’s conversion to King Erik of Sweden (the father of Olaf Skotkonung), stating that Poppo travelled to Erik’s court late in the latter’s reign to perform his ordeal; however, this is easily disproven as Poppo’s account was written before Erik became king, and Poppo was likely dead by the time Erik converted.
Bachrach, Bernard S., and David S. Bachrach, Widukind of Corvey. Deeds of the Saxons (Washington D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2014).
The following translation can be found online (subscription required): Wood, Raymond F., 'The Three Books of the Deeds of the Saxons, by Widukind of Corvey, Translated with Introduction, Notes and Bibliography', unpublished PhD dissertation (University of California, Berkeley, 1949).
Wulfstan's Sermon of the Wolf to the English
Wulfstan was an Anglo-Saxon cleric who held the bishoprics of London and Worcester and the Archbishopric of York during his career in the late-tenth and early eleventh centuries. At this time, Viking activity in England was renewed, culminating in the Danish invasion of England that placed Sven Forkbeard on the throne in 1013. Wulfstan is most well-known for his Sermon of the Wolf to the English, a fiery piece of polemic in which he portrayed the increased Viking activity as divine punishment for the various sins of the English people.