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Posted on Oct 14, 2010 in Books and Movies

The Vikings – Book Review

By Braden Hall

The Vikings: A History. Ferguson, Robert. Penguin Books. 451 pages, including 38 pages of notes, 12 illustrations, 14 maps. Paperback. $32.95.

At first glance, Robert Ferguson’s The Vikings appears to be a novel about Vikings that once raided Europe. In reality, it is systematic study of Scandinavian culture and events during the Viking Age. Although the book is aimed at satisfying the curiosity of the general reader, Ferguson nevertheless supports his claims and deductions with evidence cited from archeological, genetic, linguistic, historical, and literary experts. His work is an in-depth study of the Viking Age in all its grisly, uncertain, and singular details.

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As Ferguson readily admits, studying and writing about this era is a difficult task. The period as a whole is fraught with many controversies, possibilities, and unknowns. While much of it is shrouded in mystery, he does a fantastic job of parting the fog that often shrouds this time period. Even though there is much confusion and uncertainty regarding many Viking dates, names, and places, he focuses his narrative on what we can know about the Vikings based on evidence professionals have found. His effort goes a long way in making Viking history enjoyable and easy to read.

Unfortunately, despite his attempt to weed out most of the unknowns associated with his subject, the structure of Ferguson’s work is confusing. His writing flows and is easy to read, but his chapters bounce from one subject, time period, or location to the next. At one point, a series of four chapters discuss the Viking involvement in the islands of Britain, the Carolingian empire, the Baltic area, and once again, Britain, which means the reader must go back three chapters to remember what was happening in Britain. It would have been much more cohesive if Ferguson had told everything that happened in the Carolingian empire, then everything that happened in the Baltic region, and then everything that happened in Britain. Nevertheless, with a little work, this lapse in structure can be conquered.

With that being said, Ferguson does a tremendous job including so many diverse details. He quotes and narrates many stories written by historians and writers from long ago, including The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Carolingian Chronicles, and the Russian Primary Chronicle. He also references the works of many Islamic writers and geographers who had an interesting perspective on the Vikings, the result of Viking/Islamic contact on three different continents.

Like these writers of old, Ferguson portrays Viking history from the context of a Christendom-versus-Heathendom conflict. This conflict is extremely important to history, and it plays out in many forms, not just in a religious sense. As Ferguson explains, this conflict also symbolized a conflict between civilization and barbarianism. The Viking Age began with the first raids on Christian monasteries, and it ended when the Vikings were finally converted to Christianity. In between lay numerous narratives and events.

At some points, the author had to decipher the truth that was wrapped within hyperbolic accounts. For example, legends of one Viking king named Vladimir say that he kept over 800 women for his personal pleasure. Obviously, this is an absurd number; however, Ferguson explains that even though this number is almost certainly not factual, it does illustrate Vladimir’s loose character and lack of self-denial. Ferguson frequently has to deal with this type of exaggeration, but the stories are highly scandalous and fun to read.

One of the more gruesome stories he shares is that of the Viking ‘Blood Eagle,” which is thought to have been a form of torture. It is mentioned many times in ancient literature, and he aptly re-tells two of its variations. The first is much simpler and less painful. It involves the carving of an eagle into the back of a prisoner. The second, more gruesome variation involves cutting through a prisoner’s back and then peeling out the rib cage so that it resembled the outspread wings of an eagle. The lungs would then be pulled out from behind. Stories similar to this are plentiful and certainly help to accomplish Ferguson’s stated goal of restoring the violence of the Viking Age.

In conclusion, The Vikings is an entertaining book to read. Despite the difficulties usually presented by Viking history, Ferguson does such a wonderful job of simplifying it so that any general reader with interest in Viking culture will learn much by reading his work. Even though he simplifies their history, he does not leave out any gritty, gruesome details. From monastery slaughters, to wars, to peace, Ferguson has written it all down.

Braden Hall holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from North Greenville University. He writes from Seneca, South Carolina, and recently presented an original paper to the Tennessee Conference of Historians.

1 Comment

  1. hard to read book some of the words i did not understand but it is a good book to read about vikings and you can tell he really put alot of research into this book.

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