The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings is a brilliant book. It is a scholarly, systematic and scrupulous investigation of the phenomenon of the Vikings. Roberts carefully weighs the evidence about every aspect of the farflung activities of the amazing men who discovered America, settled Greenland, invaded Britain and France, became the special guard to the Byzantine Emperor and – the biggest surprise to me – founded Russia!
The message repeated in chapter after chapter is that the evidence from the Dark Ages is so pitifully scanty that most of the subject is shrouded in confusion and uncertainty. Thus: nobody knows the origin of the word, which language it comes from or what it means; nobody can agree the date of the “Viking Era”; there is no agreement on the definition of the Vikings: was it an ethnic group, a racial group, men from particular countries, or was it simply a form of behaviour, that men from certain northern cultures would, as the Old Norse has it, fara i viking, which seems to mean ‘go a-viking’, as if viking is an activity or profession.
Or, alhough Viking trader-warriors from modern Sweden spent decades clearing the river routes south to the Black Sea and in doing so founded the city of Kiev, though they were widely described as the “Rus” and though this activity was the basis of the modern state of Russia, nobody knows what Rus means or where it came from.
Nobody knows what pagans did or believed. All the shrines were destroyed by Christians. None of htese people could write: they recorded absolutely nothing of their activities. Only one four line prayer exists anywhere, embedded in a long poem in the Poetic Edda. There are a pitiful handful of eye witness accounts of pagan Viking behaviour, none of which are very clear, there’s a number of runestones which barely convey anything, there is a handful of primitive picture stones. I understand better than before why, against the background of this pitiful lack of evidence, the Poetic Edda, the collection of poems and the Prose Edda – the synopsis of Norse legends – both set down in 12th century Iceland are so enormously valuable.
However, as the book progresses, an idea emerges which develops into Ferguson’s central thesis: this, like everything in the book, derives from a scrupulous weighing of the evidence, and it is that the Viking phenomenon was a religious war. The idea is broached in the chapter about the start of the Viking era (different in every country): in Britain it (notoriously) started with the brutal attack on Lindisfarne monastery in 793. Ferguson links this to the extremely violent and intimidating campaign of Charlemagne to convert northern Europe to Christianity which got underway in the 780s and targeted the Saxons who lived south of Denmark. As Charlemagne’s forces invaded Saxony, burning pagan shrines, forcibly converting pagans and killing resisters, thousands fled north into Jutland and, Ferguson argues, this may be what lies behind the sudden eruption of revenge attacks by the pagan men from the sea who we call the Vikings. Wherever the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian attackers landed, they went out of their way to loot and destroy churches and monasteries and to torture, rape and kill priests, monks and nuns.
Those within converted Europe, the Christians who wrote what records we have about the Vikings, the victims who were attacked again and again and again from about 800 to about 1050, they disagree about where the Vikings came from, whether they were blonde or dark-haired, what language they spoke etc – but on one thing they all agreed – they were heathen, pagani, unbelievers, infidels, illiterate outsiders, fired by terrifying ferocity and anger against everything connected with Christianity, going out of their way to loot and desecrate.
Which led me to wonder whether this period shouldn’t qualify as the First Wars of Religion in Europe – preceding the 150 years of carnage sparked by the Protestant Reformation (1500-1650), a period we should perhaps now rename the Second Wars of Religion.
This is a marvellous book, all the more awe-inspiring and romantic for the scrupulous care with which every scrap of evidence and every conflicting theory or interpretation is weighed and assessed.