No Surrender

Tom Shippey

  • The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings by Robert Ferguson
    Allen Lane, 450 pp, £30.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 7139 9788 0

Robert Ferguson’s title has already been used at least twice for Viking-related works, which makes one wonder about his subtitle: what’s ‘new’ in Viking studies? The history of the Vikings has been well known, in outline, for a long time. By early medieval standards, we have very good documentation for it, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in Frankish and Irish annals, with further contributions from Arab and Byzantine sources, while the Icelanders’ passion for sagas and poems means that we also have versions of the Vikings’ side of the story. The many ‘sagas of Icelanders’, or Íslendinga sögur, are not strictly speaking about Vikings, for ‘Viking’ was a job description rather than an ethnic label; but some Icelanders, notably Egil Skallagrimsson, went through a Viking phase, as did several of the Norwegian kings whose lives are recorded in the ‘kings’ sagas’ or konunga sögur, and more indirectly in the praise poems of their skalds (bards). The attitude of modern historians to these native and semi-fictional sources is rather like that of the Victorian paterfamilias to fallen women: they are ostentatiously scorned in public, but too tempting to leave alone. Nevertheless, all this material is familiar. So, does Ferguson have new material, or a new attitude?

There are certainly different attitudes to choose from. The problem for scholars in this area (as I’ve pointed out before – see LRB, 3 January 2008) is that Vikings already have a well-defined public image: horned helmets, berserkers, longships, Valhalla, dying sword in hand, drinking out of skulls, one-eyed Odin and all the rest of it. It’s a staple of the comic-book industry, if nothing else. There’s a natural urge to distance oneself from this (much of it, like the horned helmets, is plain wrong), but there is also an established scholarly agenda, well exposed by Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation (2005). Briefly, after World War Two the Edward Gibbon view of late antique history – Latin civilisation destroyed by Germanic barbarians – became thoroughly unwelcome in the new Europe, as too close to what had just happened and implying some kind of fault-line across the continent. A more Charlemagnian version of history was promoted, whose central figure was someone Ward-Perkins calls ‘the Euro-Barbarian’: an honest and well-meaning fellow, a little rough round the edges, almost too eager to play his part in the Euro-project, but a real asset once you got to know him. The Vikings became, in what cynics have called the ‘dry sherry’ school of Viking studies, ‘Euro-Barbarians Stage II’, with stress laid on trade and technology and really wonderful craftsmanship, while swords and skulls were shuffled into the background. See the title of the late Peter Foote’s The Viking Achievement (1970).

Ferguson, though long based in Norway, was a pupil of Foote’s and although he early on declares an interest in restoring ‘the violence to the Viking Age’, his training still shows, notably at the end of Chapter 11. This not only declares that in Viking York ‘the transition from raiders to traders ran its full course,’ but also suggests that tenth or 11th-century York was ‘the first true manifestation in England of an urban middle class that is more conventionally located to the London of some six or seven hundred years later’. That seems well off chronologically as regards London, if not York, but the urge behind the claim is easily explained. Ferguson’s general attitude is not especially novel, but he’s trying to strike a balance and that is new. Has he, also, got new material?

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