The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings
by Robert Ferguson
Penguin Books, Paperback, 450pp, ISBN 978-0-141-01775-4
In England, the Viking Age is generally accepted as beginning with the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 and ending in 1066 with the failure of Harald Hardrada’s (Old Norse Haraldr Harðráði) invasion at the defeat at Stamford Bridge, although as Ferguson points out immediately in this work, other nations have very different delineations of the termination of this period. The Irish close the Viking Age with the battle of Clontarf (1016), historians of Gotland around 1020, and others terminate it with the extinction of the Norse settlement at Greenland around 1500.
The identity of the Vikings themselves are no less easy to pin down. Not all Scandinavians (or all Scandinavian seafarers) during the Viking Age could be considered Vikings yet Norse colonies on the Isle of Man and around the north-western periphery of the British Isles are designated Viking rather than Norse. It is a brave undertaking to write a book on a subject matter that is, to begin with, so unclearly defined. Ferguson addresses these (and other complex) issues and, rather than brushing the difficulties aside, entertains them in an engaging and lucid manner. His writing style is very clear and illustrated with vignettes ,which often give novel insight to the remarkable and occasionally hilarious interpretations of the Vikings, though his focus remains very much historical.
He defines the Viking Age as being one which, at its beginning, was marked by the Scandinavians considering themselves, “roughly speaking”, heathens, and ending when they, “roughly speaking”, considered themselves Christian. He works with the accepted dates of 793-1066 but dedicates chapters to pertinent issues outside of this dating, such as the Norse colony on Greenland and the Norse discovery of America (c. 10th-15th centuries) and the history of the Icelandic Commonwealth (settled by Norsemen in the 9th-10th centuries) until its loss of independence to Norway in 1263. Roughly speaking then, this is a survey of the history of Norsemen and it extends from L’Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland (where we find the remains of a Norse settlement in America) to the Rus Vikings observed along the river Volga. It discusses every facet of Viking life from the disputes among royalty (and the part they played in the events leading up to 1066) to settlement in England (the Danelaw) to Islamic-Viking interaction.
Ferguson’s approach can only be described as fantastically interdisciplinary, incorporating evidence from archaeology, numismatics, literature and even the sciences (such as geology) seamlessly throughout his historical investigation. His presentation of the evidence is scholarly but not tediously so. Whilst footnoted and (for the most part) grounded well in scholarship it is kept unintrusive and minimal and relegated to the back of the book – allowing for the option of consulting scholarly works for further reading should it take your fancy. No prior knowledge of the period, its history or its authors is assumed and the major personages (literary, political, legendary and religious) are introduced colourfully.
The angle found within the New History of Vikings is an intriguing one. Ostensibly it sets up the narrative to follow that of the battle between heathendom and Christianity but after suggesting that one of the causes of the Viking Age was a backlash against the encroachment of Christianity, only takes up this theory fleetingly throughout the book. It is an interesting argument that turns the popular depiction of the blood-thirsty savage Viking on its head and invites the reader to sympathize with them. It also tries to draw attention to the gentler facets of Viking life such as their art and their religion – but as attractive as such a set-up is, there are problems. Firstly the attitude Ferguson takes towards ‘Heathenism’ is that he endows it with a degree of homogeneity. He is correct in observing that the Norse gods Odin (ON Óðinn), Tyr (ON Týr), Thor (ON Þórr) etc. are attested in the pre-Christian beliefs of other Germanic people as in the English reflexes Woden, Tiw and Þunor (as found in Wednesday, Tuesday and Thursday, respectively), however to stipulate that because these gods have the same names their worshippers practiced the same religion is to oversimplify. There was no central doctrine and variation was inevitable between groups who had long been out of direct contact with one another. Surprisingly, he seems to suggest that ‘Northern Heathendom’ is somehow closely allied even across very distantly related cultural and ethnic groups: when discussing the religious importance of the horse to the heathen Scandinavians, he presents a Celtic kingship ritual involving copulation with a horse without qualifying any kind of relationship between Celtic heathendom and Germanic heathendom; later on he ‘evidences’ an argument for the existence of the practice of tattooing among the Germanic heathens (which is arguable – though part of his argument is based on an unsupported use of the ON verb rísta ‘to carve’) by referring to the tatoo-covered “Özti”, a 5’000 year old hunter found in the permafrost of the Öztal Alps, again without justifying why there should be any relationship between them. Related to this – and doubtlessly because of his definition of ‘Viking’ (see above) Ferguson ends up frequently equating ‘heathen’ with ‘Viking’ and it tends to muddy the issue.
For all its mostly sound sourcing (albeit rather unusually – see below), there are moments where Ferguson presents some bewildering (and unsourced) interpretations. To illustrate with one particularly perplexing example: in his chapter on the ‘The Culture of Northern Heathendom’ he suggests that poetry in which some myths are preserved can be used to gain an insight into the ‘lost astronomy’ of the Viking Age – which is fair enough. However – and allow me to cite the entire paragraph so I may be free from accusations of doctoring – he suggests that
Odin’s sacrifice of an eye is likely the remnant of a story once told to explain why the sky only has one eye, in the form of the sun. The sibyl in this verse from ‘The Seeress’s Prophecy’ [ON Völuspá] seems to be referring to the rising of the morning sun:
I sat outside alone; the old one came,
The lord of the Aesir, and looked into my face:
‘Why have you come here? What would you ask me?
I know, Odin, how you lost your eye:
It lies in the water of Mimir’s well.’
Every morning Mimir drinks mead
From Warfather’s tribute. Seek you wisdom still?
His first sentence is unsourced and his ‘evidence’ in the form of this stanza is far from convincing. His method of referencing the texts also seems rather inconsistent to the point of being arbitrary; above he refers to it in English translation (I have supplied the Old Norse), elsewhere he refers to the poem Þrymskviða using the modern Norwegian Trymskvadet rather than the Old Norse or even the English (‘Lay of Thrym’).
This may seem like nitpicking but it is an extremely pertinent consideration given the target readership: if the book is aimed at a non-specialist readership it is puzzling to see that he refers to scholarship in Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic in the footnoted literature where points are made that could well be sourced into more infinitely more accessible scholarly texts in English. His use of modern Scandinavian names for poems and places falls into this issue too. If it is aimed at a specialist audience – which it presumably is not ? then none of his original ideas are sufficiently argued and certain parts of Norse history are insufficiently investigated. For example: the development of the runic alphabet is touched upon but not explained; the Islamic-Viking interaction is confined mostly to the writing of Ibn Fadlan and Norwegian political history contemporary to the lifespan of the Icelandic Commonwealth is largely ignored, despite its relevance.
The reviewer cannot help but feel that the book’s title – A New History of the Vikings – is ultimately misleading. What new material there is in the book is unsubstantiated and the history presented is generally too cursory to be useful for a specialist’s investigations. As a popular history however, the book does a very good job. It is well written – guilty of excessively verbose flair here and there but mostly done in a sober and unpretentious style with a stimulating narrative. It is particularly noteworthy for the diversity of research that is employed and for his brilliant encapsulation of such a large and complicated period of history into such a streamlined and easily-read book.
It is here that the major strength of Ferguson’s New History of the Vikings lies. To undertake such a contentiously defined period spanning several centuries and a hefty geographical expanse is brave – to write it in a straightforward, engaging and uncomplicated way is impressive. And – all for just £10.99 for around 500 pages including notes, illustrations and photographs, it is exceptional value for money. Unlike the majority of accessible works out there on Germanic heathenism it is not skewered by religious affiliation (whether neo-pagan or Christian) and this is refreshing, even if it is guilty of insensitive and sweeping generalisations of diverse cultures. As an introduction to the Viking Age, the general reader could do little better at present.