The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings, By Robert Ferguson
Sunday 28 November 2010
One of the strengths of this "new" historical account of the Vikings is that Robert Ferguson stresses the extraordinary sweep of the invaders. Many will be familiar enough with Viking raids on York and Iona and with the viciousness of Hengest and Horsa, and the English language is full of Norse words. But the Viking influence stretched all the way to the Balkans and beyond, to Byzantium, thanks to their aggressive trading practices. They challenged Charlemagne's massive kingdom with raids of more than 100 ships at a time. They were an even more fearsome force than we have always believed them to be.
One of the weaknesses of Ferguson's overview is that it is an overview, and a sense of who the Vikings were as people gets lost. It's hard to know what motivated them, apart from rape and pillage – though Ferguson follows other historians in arguing that poverty and the lack of food forced the Vikings to travel, and that the pillaging of churches was a political act by heathens against Christians.
This dearth of personal detail is partly a consequence of the Vikings being an illiterate people: the first documentation comes 300 years later. But discoveries of ship burials do hint at possible personal histories: a woman buried with herbs associated with witchcraft; a young girl with damaged bones.
Ferguson retells the histories of great warriors such as Harald Bluetooth and Erik the Red, and provides faultless accounts of battles with the Saxon and English kings Alfred and Edward, emphasising the Vikings' capacity for violence and grisly executions. But one of the few women to make an appearance, the fascinating figure of Ethelfled, widow of Ethelred, who campaigned and organised forces, is only tantalisingly glimpsed. And a sense of them as individuals? I struggled to feel it.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Drugs Live cannabis trial: Hash is less harmful than any other drug, expert claims
- 2 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 3 Turkish Airlines flight TK 726 crash-lands on Nepal runway amid dense fog
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 The 'sex selfie stick' lets you FaceTime the inside of a vagina
The Great Comic Relief Bake Off, review: Alexa Chung's secret skills impress but Chris Moyles makes Paul Hollywood gag
Drugs Live: Twitter responds to Jon Snow and Jennie Bond smoking cannabis
Seth Rogan's pot fumes delay hacked Sony boss’s office move
India's Daughter: BBC Four documentary provokes outrage on Twitter
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'
Boris Nemtsov shot dead: Outspoken Putin critic who had expressed fears for his life is killed near the Kremlin