REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Vikings: A History” by Robert Ferguson

This book took me a full two weeks to read through.  I expect that’s hardly a good beginning to a review meant to encourage a reader, but this is a book by a writer who is doing a bang-up job of wrestling a coherent historical narrative from a collection of unreliable sources about a pre-literate culture.  Unreliable because many of the stories the Vikings told about their own history were written down long after the events they describe (when they are describing actual historical events).  And many of the poets who were part of that heathen culture had their own poetic axes to grind in praise (or condemnation) of their Viking chieftains.  The other accounts were written down by non-Vikings, and a lot of folks in western Europe and the British Isles had reasons to dislike the violent heathens from the north that were raiding their monasteries.    Fortunately for us, the author Robert Ferguson has the trustworthy mix of interest, knowledge and skepticism to give us a comprehensive tale of the Viking culture.

The reason we care about the Vikings is because they had a tremendous cultural impact on Western Europe, not just as raiders, but as settlers who, over time, became a part of the lands they first set foot upon as invaders.  If you descend from a Western European or English/Irish bloodline, then Vikings of some stripe are in your family tree.

Besides painting an illuminating portrait of the culture of these northern seafaring raiders, The Vikings gives an even more profound glimpse into the centuries-long process of European Christianity displacing Viking Heathenism.  This is a powerful tale that any of us can relate to.  For it turns out that Christianity was the wave of the future, and became heavily identified with civilization and progress and as such was used as a tool of control by cagey chieftains, kings and bishops.

In this role Christianity had the advantage of central control, which naturally appealed to a leader of unruly tribespeople.  Heathenism (and Viking culture, in particular) was much more egalitarian.  Yes, there were priests and shamans and tribal chiefs, but leadership was by mutual consent of the led, and religious practice was an individual as much as a communal affair.

The Vikings, it turns out, were everything we thought them to be: violent, vain and warlike.  But they were also a people of laws, honor and rough humor.  And it turns out that the brutality that the Vikings visited upon the monks and monasteries of England and France was a response to religious violence visited upon their heathen brethren by the representatives of Christ.  The Christian religious leaders had decreed that the killing of a heathen did not count as murder, and a particularly bloody massacre of a community of Vikings became well known throughout the northern lands.  The Viking age was launched, in so small part, as a religious war.

Of course we know who “won” that war.  Ferguson’s book confirms earlier suggestions that the Norse pantheon had fallen from its earlier heights to become the subject of more coarse ridicule than serious worship.  In short, the stage was set for a change.  Not that the rank and file gave up their idols easily.  Far from it.  Throughout the Viking age, the battle raged back and forth with monasteries (and cities) burning to the ground as often as heathen temples.

In the end, this is the story of human culture and it’s evolution from a larger tribal identification into the beginnings of nationhood and national (over cultural) identification.  Though I found myself getting lost in the lists of unfamiliar names (a bit like reading parts of the Old Testament), the human stories are compelling, heartbreaking and enlightening.  The Vikings in this book are living, breathing, modern humans like you and me, living out their ethics and aspirations in their turbulent, colorful, tragic and dramatic times.

I recommend this book.  It’s a good way to get to know your heathen great-great-grandparents!

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

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