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A History of Violence

William Kolkey

foerRobert Ferguson
The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings
Allen Lane, 2009
480 Pages
ISBN 978-713997880

Robert Ferguson ends his new history of the Vikings, The Hammer and the Cross, with a brief account of the crusading Norwegian king Sigurd, who in 1111 returned from the Holy Land with a splinter from the True Cross. Ferguson explains that the episode is a “stark symbol” of Scandinavia’s transition from paganism to Christianity. “We can be sure”, he concludes, “that King Sigurd’s Viking forefathers, had they come across [the True Cross] during a raid on a church, would have tossed it without a second thought into the flames of the fire they started on their way out.”

Maybe so. Ferguson’s Vikings certainly would. They pillage, rape, burn towns, perform ritualistic murder, and commit genocide. All this flies in the face of recent scholarship, which has stressed the Vikings’ experience as explorers and traders. And that’s precisely the intent. Ferguson believes that academia has gone too far in its rehabilitation of the Vikings, reducing them—in the words of historian David Dumville—to “long-haired tourists who rough up the locals a bit.” Accordingly, Ferguson’s aim is “to restore the violence to the Viking Age”.

At this he most certainly succeeds. But his goal comes at the cost of embellishment and an overly literal interpretation of his source material (medieval chronicles often exaggerated Viking violence, using it as a scapegoat for a community’s internal problems).

Even more troubling, Ferguson frames Viking violence as part of an epic contest between north European paganism and Christianity. He bizarrely claims that the Vikings’ debut in England, a raid on a monastery at Lindisfarne, was an act of vengeance—medieval terrorism against a “soft target”, perpetrated in response to a Christian king’s massacre of Saxon pagans. There is, of course, no evidence that such solidarity existed between German and Scandinavian heathens, or that Vikings thought in terms of global cultural conflict.

Hammer and the Cross, however, is not all bad. Ferguson aptly narrates the Vikings’ political achievements: their invasions and eventual conquest of England, colonisation in Eastern Europe, their voyage to North America, and so on. His chapter on the Viking settlement in Iceland—and the establishment of what Icelanders (somewhat questionably) claim to be the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy—is fascinating. But too much of the book is distorted for it to be a reliable guide to the Viking Age. It repeats too many of the early 20th century’s discredited theories about Viking violence, while ignoring modern scholarship’s efforts to contextualize the Vikings as more than a predatory other, but engaged participants in a complex international system. At its core, Ferguson’s “new history of the Vikings” is an outdated, old history. If King Sigurd’s forefathers had somehow come across it during a raid, they might be forgiven for what they did next.

William Kolkey is reading for a DPhil in History at Magdalen College, Oxford. He is a managing editor at the Oxonian Review.