Monday, June 21, 2010

The Vikings: A History

Author: Robert Ferguson
Publication Date: 2009
Length: 382 pages without notes and index
Cost: $32.95 for the hardcover
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this in the "New" section of the library, having a vague recollection of the author. I looked back through my copies of BBC History Magazine, and the author composed a cover feature for the magazine in December 2009; however the title of his book is listed there as The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings. I believe this is an American publication of the same book.

The Backstory

What scholars term "The Viking Age" loosely spans between the 8th and 11th centuries, and the "Vikings" are generally identified as Scandinavians living in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark at that time. The beginning of "The Viking Age" is most often considered to be June 8, 793 B.C.E., when a group of "vikings" attacked the abbey at Lindisfarne in what was the beginning of centuries of similar raids on forts, towns, churches, and cities throughout Europe and into Asia. There are several theories surrounding why these raids suddenly occurred and were carried out with memorable ruthlessness. There seems to have been tensions between the Christianized parts of Europe and those that remained heathen, and recent scholars identify Charlemagne's brutal treatment of Saxons in his empire (who were pagan) as one possible reason why attacks on buildings with distinctly Christian associations were so violent. Another possibility involves an increase in the population in Scandinavia to the point that bands of young men had to find their fortune, literally and figuratively, away from home. Whatever the reasons, "The Viking Age" can be viewed in two distinct stages--raiding and later, settlement.

Some of the greatest names of the early medieval period are associated with "The Viking Age." In Ireland, the semi-mythical king, Brian Boru, is said to have engaged in a definitive battle with the Vikings, the Battle of Clontarf, in 1014 after years of viking settlement and assimilation. In England, King Alfred the Great proved a formidable opponent to the viking leader, Guthrum, and their mutual respect led to the development of the "Danelaw," or the division of England into two "kingdoms" administered on one side by Alfred and on the other by Guthrum. Aethelred the Unready, ruling England about 100 years after Alfred, proved too week to counter continuous viking attacks, and his death, followed quickly by the death of his son, Edmund Ironside, left England in the hands of King Cnut. Cnut would famously marry Aethelred's widow, Emma. Viking raids in France began during the reign of Charlemagne and would continuously threaten the stability of the Frankish empire after the division of his kingdom among his sons. Viking expansion led to the settlement of Iceland, Greenland (temporarily), and part of North America (also temporarily). Their history comes down to us through sources left behind by those who were subjected to their violence, a series of sagas and poems composed by Scandinavians, and some descriptions made by observers, notably Ibn Fadlan, a Muslim.

As settlement slowly replaced raiding as the primary goal of the vikings, "The Viking Age" came to a close in the 11th century. A viking imprint was left in places like England, Normandy, and Ireland, where the vikings settled the longest. The image of a fur-covered warrior bearded, with long hair, and a horned helmet is primarily the creation of the Victorian Age, whose historians attempted to make the vikings into an "other." In reality, the vikings were one piece of an intricate, interacting puzzle in the early Middle Ages, and as much as their culture was felt in places they attacked, and later, settled, influences from these people were not unfelt back home in Scandinavia. The greatest influence was Christianity, which was gradually introduced through a combination of interaction with Christians, efforts by missionaries, and the influence of kings and noblemen who chose Christianity over traditional paganism. By the 11th century, raiding became a thing of the past as kingdoms solidified into political units more difficult to deal with. Without question, "The Viking Age" had a profound impact on those who lived through it in language, settlement patterns, shipping culture, and art.

What About the Book?

Writing a comprehensive, readable history of a time period that spans 300 years and dozens of cultures is a nearly impossible task, although Ferguson takes it on admirably. The book is a good read and manages to skim the surface of the major time periods, individuals, and areas associated with the vikings. However, I'm afraid this was too big a task overall--but you can't blame the author for the nature of the beast. A history like this could have spanned volumes. Every time period, every part of Europe mentioned here, could have formed a book in and of itself without trouble. Ferguson makes a valiant attempt to try and put it all together in one, and it is a good overview that introduces the readers to a variety of interesting cultural elements and people.

The problem with this book, outside of the sheer amount of information, is how it is organized--and I am sure not everyone would agree with me about this. Ferguson bounces around between different parts of Europe and Asia, it seems to try and make a homogenized whole of the book chronologically. However, with so many people and so many sources, it really is impossible to follow the same area of Europe or Asia through it as an "uninformed" reader. Areas I know something about, like England's history, were far more readable to me because I knew the names and I knew the chronology. However, I didn't have the background to make the same connections and evaluations regarding France, Spain, Iceland, Scandinavia, Denmark, and parts of Asia, and this was a drawback. One would be hard-pressed to find someone with very solid footing in all of these areas throughout this period. I think that the organization of this book is a product of the author's knowledgeablity of this topic and probably, these areas. It is clear from his biography that he knows this topic very well, but in his attempt to include everything, he forgot that not everyone has that fundamental background. If he had focused on one area, brought it through "The Viking Age," and moved on to another, I think the reader would have had an easier time. Because it is not organized that way, the reader has to remind himself/herself who the people are each time Ferguson returns to the different areas of Europe and Asia--a drawback if you don't read the book in large chunks.

In addition, Ferguson also attempts to include too much information that regularly leads him on tangents. These tangents are definitely interesting, but they put the reader in a position where he/she is consistently asking "where is this going?" In fact, this lack of perceived unity is an argument for retaining the original title of the book, The Hammer and the Cross, because it actually gives the reader something with which to unify many of the these tangents. As a reader, I was expecting a history of the vikings only, but this is a history of the vikings and viking culture's interaction and acceptance of Christianity. Had the original title been retained, I would have had different expectations for the book--expectations that better aligned with the content.

As an advertised history of the vikings, there is a lot this book leaves out, including any detail about their social structure, their craftsmanship, and their culture. Women make brief, often unnotable appearances. Much of the book is a detail of the main viking leaders of the age and a history of their deeds and effects on the areas of Europe and Asia in which they operated. The rest focuses on Christianity and its gradual adoption by viking culture in Denmark and Scandinavia. To these ends, Ferguson does an admirable job. The writing produces a "quick read" effect for the reader. He clearly researched this very extensively, and he throws in a great deal of archaeological and documentary evidence, which is a great strength. The book feels the lack of an Epilogue or a chapter to round out the age properly, but the information is excellent and the book is generally very enjoyable.

Rating: A 7 as a history of the vikings. An 8.5 as a history of the vikings and Christianity. Admittedly, I wouldn't have picked this up had it been advertised as a history of the vikings and Christianity, which would have been a great loss.
Buy It or Borrow It: In this case, buy it if you're an avid viking fan or researching the topic--all of your primary sources are named in here at least once. In other cases, borrow it and photocopy the parts of it that focus on the time period or geographic area of your interest. Don't buy it if you're just looking for a good read--this is a bit too historian-speak for that.

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