Viking preview: The Hammer and the Cross

image from ecx.images-amazon.com

There's an interesting profile of Robert Ferguson, author of a new book The Hammer and The Cross (Penguin Press, November in the UK and Australia) in The Bookseller last week (18 September, p. 19; I think print-only). The author hopes to revive interest in the Vikings, along the lines that has been done over the past few years for the Romans. Apparently, historians currently view the Vikings (who did not keep written records) as having been traders, craftspeople and settlers, in contrast with their traditional popular reputation as warriors, pillagers and associated delights.
Ferguson thinks the Vikings need rehabilitation as violent, brutal people. His book has taken seven years to write, and looks at the "psychotic rage" of the Viking age from its beginnings (around the beginning of the last millennium) to the early 11th century, when it "fizzled out after mass conversion to Christianity". The book explores settlements in Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland, the activities of the Swedish Vikings (who went as far south as the Black Sea), and the Vikings in Normandy, Spain and England, complete with "horrific details", apparently. The Vikings "won" in England after 150 years of attacks; Cnut ruled the country for 30 years. "Had he been luckier with his sons, Britain might be a Scandinavian country today."
The author has lived in Norway for many years, learning the language so he could study the early modern writer Knut Hamsun and write a book about him. He then wrote biographies of Henry Miller and Henrik Ibsen. According to the Bookseller, his "literary background is evident in the book's skilful use of Viking saga and poetry to flesh out the history." Here is an excerpt (not for the faint-hearted):

Now, with the chamber boarded up, came what was probably the heart of the proceedings. Four or five dogs and two more oxen were slaughtered, as well as fifteen horses that had first been run to exhaustion. The furniture, tools and carriages scattered across the foredeck were bathed in their blood. Stones were then piled over the ship, breaking many of the grave-goods and rendering them unusable. The sights and sounds accompanying such an orgy of blood-letting we might perhaps be able to imagine, the atmosphere conjured by it probably not. As the mourners then set about completing the mound the sight before them must have been eerie and awe-inspiring, the blood-spattered ship with its cargo of dead women seeming to lurch forward across the field in a last attempt to shake off the engulfing wave of dark earth rising behind it. The meadow flowers preserved from this stage of the proceedings were autumnal, showing that the whole process from the opening of the furrow to the closing of the mound must have taken about four months. Clearly at least one of the women had died long before the burial took place.

One thought on “Viking preview: The Hammer and the Cross

  1. I like the looks of this. I’m a Viking fanatic and reenactor, but I’ve gotten really tired of the “Vikings as victims” theme that emphasizes the trade and tells us they were just misunderstood. What fun is that? And anyway (here’s a secret very few Viking enthusiasts will tell you), the real cash crop that drove their eastern trade, as well as a good chunk of the western trade, was human slaves. Call me narrowminded, but I don’t consider slave-taking a peaceful occupation.

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