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?

Two open frontiers for Viking and Dark Age studies are, evidently and sometimes spectacularly, archaeology and DNA, and here Ferguson’s long residence in Norway and consequent familiarity with modern studies from Scandinavia is a major asset. He opens the book with an account of the reinterpretation of the famous boat burials of Gokstad and Oseberg. Discovered in 1880 and 1904 respectively, the two unearthed longships are the most familiar, and beautiful, artefacts of the Viking Age. A replica of the Gokstad ship was sailed to America in 1893, just to make a point to Italian-Americans; the Oseberg ship, with its load of grave-goods accompanying the two females buried with it, was thought to be a sort of royal yacht for coastal waters only. Electronic scans have now revealed that the Oseberg ship was not reconstructed correctly, and would have been perfectly seaworthy, while a 2007 forensic study of the male occupant of the Gokstad grave shows that he was not, as previously thought, an old man crippled by rheumatism but ‘an extremely powerful and muscular man in his forties’, nearly six feet tall, with horseman’s thighs and a pituitary tumour which increased production of growth hormone. But as the Old Norse poem ‘Hávamál’ so rightly says, there’s always someone as tough as you are, and so it proved in this case. The buried man had received four wounds – a stab, sword-slashes and a blow from a club or hammer – and they were what killed him. He was buried with a dozen horses, six dogs, a peacock, 64 shields and much besides.

Among other grisly discoveries noted are the finds at Repton in Derbyshire, which may have included – the site has been repeatedly disturbed since it was first discovered in 1686 – a tall skeleton in a stone sarcophagus, and a stack of bones from 264 individuals, most of them unusually tall and robust males. Battle-dead? Massacre? Monkish charnel house (Anglo-Saxon monks were better fed and probably bigger than most)? Most of the Repton dead had died violently, and Ferguson gives details of what happened to one of them which are best passed over, except that he must have been a Viking, because he was buried with a Thor’s hammer amulet. Hoards keep turning up as well. The recent one unearthed in Staffordshire is pre-Viking, but the Cuerdale hoard found near Preston in 1840, with its rings and brooches and 5000-plus coins datable no later than 905, has been eclipsed by the 1999 discovery in Gotland of the Spillings hoard: 67 kilos of silver including 14,000 Arabic coins – enough, Ferguson notes, to pay the household taxes for all the 1500 farmsteads on Gotland for six years.

Viking Age Danes seem to have put an awful lot of effort into short-term projects, although their purpose is often far from evident. Ferguson notes, for example, the 820-yard bridge across the Vejle valley, 18 feet wide, capable of bearing a five-ton load, the longest bridge built in Denmark before 1935, and nowhere more than two inches out of line. It was never repaired or maintained, and ‘archaeologists have estimated its functional life as at most five years.’ Another enormous project, which Ferguson relates to King Harald Bluetooth’s claim on the Jellinge runestone to have ‘won all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian’, was the building of the ‘trelleborgs’, half a dozen of them, all with the same pattern of a walled and moated circle divided into quadrants, with identical barracks-style buildings within each quadrant. Viking training camps? But in that case why is there again no sign that these were maintained? Could ‘trelleborg’ mean ‘thralls’ town’ or ‘slaves’ town’, and would that mean that they were built by slaves, or could they be enormous barracoons for slaves? No one knows.

DNA, too, has cast less light than one might have expected. The BBC TV series Blood of the Vikings allegedly discovered that 60 per cent of the male population of the Orkneys and Shetlands have DNA of Norwegian origin, while a more limited test, of men with surnames attested in the islands since medieval times, gave an even higher percentage: which makes Ferguson wonder what happened to the pre-Viking male population, who seem to have mysteriously vanished, just like the Irish monks whom the first Scandinavian settlers found living in Iceland. A later survey by scientists from the University of East Anglia, however, got much lower results. And given that the same BBC survey ‘found it impossible to distinguish between the DNA of the fifth-century Saxon invaders [of England] and ninth-century Vikings’, there has to be some doubt about the reliability of the evidence, especially when driven by a search for glamorous ancestors. One finding that comes up several times, however, is that Y-chromosome DNA found only in males, and mitochondrial DNA passed on only from mother to daughter, tend to give different results: modern Icelandic female DNA is much more closely related to Welsh or British than that of Icelandic males (though there is a substantial minority even among the men with Insular connections). It is possible, then, to extract hints of genocide and slave concubinage from the DNA evidence – the latter is backed up by famous cases from the sagas, like that of Melkorka, mother of Olaf Peacock in Laxdæla saga – but interpretation is rarely secure.

Most of The Hammer and the Cross, however, tells a familiar if updated story. Ferguson’s method, roughly speaking, is to intermingle chronologically oriented chapters, which keep the history moving along, with chapters on the various geographical expansions of the Viking Age. Scandinavians established immigrant communities, of varying types and with varying effects on the respective national histories, in England, Ireland, the northern and western isles of Scotland, Normandy, Iceland, Greenland and North America, and in Eastern Europe as far south as Ukraine, while they also raided the Mediterranean coasts and islands, and clearly had flourishing commercial connections with Muslim lands, as shown by the enormous number of Arabic dirhams found, especially in Sweden. (There is even a runic memorial stone for someone called ‘Mutifu’, which may be an attempt at ‘Mustapha’.) All these ventures get their section or chapter. There are even two chapters on the English Danelaw, and they are full of information, but there are some underlying questions one can’t avoid.

What caused this strange phenomenon of a small and scattered population gaining moral, physical and often political dominance over much larger and richer groups? One peculiar factor, not much discussed, is the Viking ability to shrug off losses. In 844 they lost many ships to King Ramiro in northern Spain. A few months later, another fleet took Córdoba, only to be chased off by Emir Abd al-Rahman II, with further heavy losses: 500 dead, 30 ships burned. They still came back a few years later to hit the Balearics and even northern Italy. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 876 the Vikings lost maybe 4000 men and 120 ships in a great storm off Swanage, with all the pre-industrial man-hours the ships and weapons represent in charcoal-burning and iron-smelting and carpentry and sail and rope-making. In between times, and especially in Ireland, the Danes and Norwegians fought among themselves, taking casualties which in proportion to their base population must have dwarfed 1 July 1916 on the Somme. None of it seems to have made any difference, or had any deterrent effect at all.

Did they have a technological advantage? Ferguson likes this theory, and like many before him points to the longship. The evidence of the Gotland picture stones, and of securely dated pre-Oseberg boats, leads him to argue that between 780 and 820 ‘a remarkable technological breakthrough occurred in the construction and use of sail.’ There must be some doubt about this. The early seventh-century boat found at Sutton Hoo has no mast or sail, and no keelson in which a mast could be stepped. These could have been taken out to accommodate the burial chamber, however, and Edwin and Joyce Gifford, who built a half-size replica of the boat to try it out, are quite sure that its structure is that of a well-designed sailing ship, not a rowing boat. The same might be true of the Nydam boat from two centuries earlier, once one allows for the kind of reconstruction error which earlier downgraded the Oseberg ship.

Along with that goes the mysterious case of the Portland raid. The Viking Age in Britain is commonly taken to have started with the famous raid on Lindisfarne in 793, the Pearl Harbor of the Dark Ages, for it came with no warning – the monks can have had less than an hour to react, if they reacted at all. But four years earlier there had been a fight at Portland in Dorset, in which the king’s reeve was killed, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle comments: ‘Those were the first ships of the Danish men which sought out [or perhaps, ‘which attacked’] the land of the English race.’ Two versions of the Chronicle note further that the raiders were Norwegians from Hörthaland round Hardanger Fjord, while Æthelweard’s Chronicon two centuries later, drawing on what must have been local knowledge, adds that the reeve’s name was Beaduheard. But Portland, in the middle of the south coast, is a strange place for a first encounter with men from Norway. There must have been some previous reconnaissance, possibly carried out from bases seized much earlier and without the knowledge of the outside world in the northern and western isles of Scotland. Perhaps the real question should be not what started the Viking Age, but what caused the temporary intermission between the constant seaborne raiding reported by late Roman and early Frankish historians, and its resumption two or three centuries later.

One thought put forward by Ferguson, here once more drawing on very recent work by Scandinavian historians, is that something went badly wrong for the Northern world some time in the 530s: a ‘Fimbulwinter’ when the sun was darkened by a huge volcanic eruption like Krakatoa, especially devastating in the high latitudes, possibly followed by the arrival of the ‘Justinian plague’ from the Mediterranean in the 540s. This could have led to a long demographic setback, and may have had something to do with the wave of gold hoards buried in Scandinavia about this time. As propitiatory offerings? For security during social breakdown? Again, no one knows. But in any case Ferguson’s more general explanation for the Viking phenomenon rests not on demography, nor technology, but on ideology. The Vikings, he thinks, were counterpunching, militarily but even in their literature and theology, against ‘the threat of militant, expansionist Christianity’.

Ferguson backs this up with some relatively extended studies of characters caught between two worlds, like the Norwegian king Haakon ‘the Good’, who became a Christian but was forced by his pagan subjects to carry out heathen ceremonies, like eating sacrificial horse liver. But his thesis could be taken further. The converse of his familiarity with Scandinavian materials is sometimes an odd blackout over English ones. He has King Athelstan down as King Edward the Elder’s brother (he was Edward’s son); the Old English poem is ‘Widsith’, not ‘Widsid’; Alcuin’s mention of Ingeld in his letter to Bishop Hygebald need have nothing to do with Beowulf; and I do wish the use of the name Egbert could be avoided. The man’s name was Ecgbryht, which means ‘Edge-bright’, and he would have pronounced it pretty much as a modern Scotsman would: Egbert just sounds silly. Also irritating are the rather frequent occasions when Ferguson uses a modern Norwegian or Swedish term (such as ‘Miðgarðsormen’) rather than the original Old Norse (‘Miðgarðsormrinn), or the English in which his book is written (‘the Midgard Serpent’).

More significantly, though, Ferguson has nothing to say about Alfred Smyth’s thoroughly contrarian thesis that, despite what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says, and woundingly for English amour propre, the pagan descendants of Ragnar ‘Hairy-Breeks’ contested rule of the British Isles for nearly two centuries with the Christian dynasty of Alfred the Great, stubbornly, often successfully, and to some unknown extent out of heathen conviction. It’s likely that there was a lot more apostasy in the Danelaw, even among those of English birth, than Christian chroniclers were prepared to admit. As late as 1000, Archbishop Wulfstan half concedes that for an English slave to run away and turn ‘from Christendom to Viking’ might be a very good career move, and not without a motive of vengeance, which would be ‘counterpunching’ indeed. One can thus imagine an even ‘newer’ history of the Vikings than this one, though it might prove an uncomfortable one for patriots or for believers in the irresistible progress of civilisation.

One final unwelcome thought – unwelcome mostly for Scandinavian historians – is that the real drive behind the Viking phenomenon might have been, not demographics, not technology, but an unusually extreme commitment to violent aggression. Ferguson notes some anecdotes tending to confirm this, like the Viking custom by which (according to the Arab historian Ibn Rustah) a father would throw a sword down before his newborn son and say, in effect: ‘This is all you will ever get from me.’ But there are more important indications in pre-Viking Scandinavia, notably the enormous dumps of smashed weapons found predominantly in East Jutland and the Danish islands close by, and dating from the late Roman period. Several contain enough gear to fit out hundreds of men. Classical historians noted the Northern practice of refusing to take or use battlefield spoils, destroying them instead as sacrifice to their gods, and viewed it with some horror: people who did that were also unlikely to take prisoners, or to surrender themselves. The romantic images of heroes dying sword in hand to go to Valhalla and avoid the shame of a ‘straw-death’ (dying in bed of natural causes) are not, then, without foundation.

It is said that analysts of the fighting in World War Two, concerned at the apparent reluctance to participate or even fire their weapons of so many of the Western armies’ combat soldiers, tried to figure out what characteristics marked the born warrior. Were they big macho types? Little guys overcompensating? Well-educated men with a strong belief in their cause? Or hooligans like the ‘dirty dozen’? The only feature they could find which seemed to have strong predictive power was that effective fighters had a strong sense of humour. And that is one of the really distinguishing features of Old Norse poetry, legend and saga: grim gallows humour. It is always a bad sign in a saga when someone cracks a joke.