Book reviews

"Book reviews are, unfortunately, sometimes very irresponsible business," said one of my teachers during my first semester of graduate school in 1991. I have often been able to confirm the truth of that statement, although I have tried to be as responsible as possible in my own reviews. It has been particularly interesting to read reviews of my own books, since here I know the book very well. Some are very well put together, some are mediocre, some are outright bad. 
I have never really liked to get into public debates with the reviewers. My philosophy is that if they say I am wrong, I either am wrong, or I have not conveyed why I am right well enough in the book. I was amused by a review I recently read of my book The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe (Yale University Press, 2012).
This review complains that my book does not present new ideas as much as is claimed. For example, "historians have not been using narratives without taking the methodological problems into consideration":


"This certainly has not been true of Scandinavian researchers for a long time, I would say since Grund in 1871 showed how Adam of Bremen pushed Otto II’s invasion of Jutland in 973 back to the 960s to give the impression that the Danish conversion was a direct consequence of the invasion."






I certainly did not claim that this realization was my idea; I cited previous literature which had repeated Oscar Grund's ideas (my reviewer calls him Otto Grund). Perhaps I overstated the novelty of how I present the conversion (I still think my book is very different from any existing presentation of the conversion), but all right. I am not going to argue about whether I should have said "somewhat new" or "rather new."



Judge my surprise when I read this several paragraphs further into the review:




"When Otto II attacked Denmark in 973, Håkon [an earl in Norway] came to the rescue, but he and Harald were defeated. As part of the peace Harald promised to convert Norway, and Håkon was baptised.As soon as Håkon returned to Norway, however, he renounced the Christian faith and broke his bond to Harald. Winroth neglects to mention this story, even though it is found in the later historical sagas."


This is exactly what Oscar Grund proved is an invention of Adam of Bremen! The reason why I do not mention this story is that it has been proven false. The later "historical sagas" (meaning the Icelandic sagas that claim to retell historical events) took the basic story from Adam of Bremen and then elaborated further about Håkon. Or, if you do not trust me, trust Oscar Grund: "Für die Geschichte wird sich aus diesen isländischen Sagaen so gut wie Nichts entnehmen lassen" (p. 590). I use the development of this myth as a seminar exercise when I teach undergraduates at Yale about historical methods. I would be a bad historian indeed if I mentioned this obviously fabricated story.

So, on the one hand, Scandinavian historians do not need me to tell them not to trust the narrative sources; on the other, Scandinavian historians apparently trust narrative sources, even if they claim to have read Oscar Grund!

I also otherwise think my book presents a rather different story about the Scandinavian conversion than other books. 



Oscar Grund, "Kaiser Otto des Grossen angeblicher Zug gegen Dänemark," Forschungen zur deutschen Geschichte 11 (1871), 561-594.

Helle Vogt, review of Anders Winroth, The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe, Comparative Legal History 3 (2015), 216-221.










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