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.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
comedy Erm...he seems to be back
tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 PlayStation and Xbox hacked by Lizard Squad
- 2 Christmas comes early to Hong Kong, as millions of bank notes spill out onto busy street
- 3 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 4 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
- 5 Vagina canoe artist defends herself over ‘obscenity’ charges
EastEnders Christmas special, review: Brilliant Danny Dyer glues you to your seat
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
Doctor Who series 9: Jenna Coleman staying on for whole season as Clara Oswald
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Alex Salmond has 'broken his word to the Scottish people' says Scottish Lib Dem leader