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  • The Vikings: A History
  • R. Andrew McDonald
The Vikings: A History. By Robert Ferguson. London: Penguin Books, 2009. 464 pp. $32.95 (cloth); $18.00 (paper); $9.99 (e-book).

Robert Ferguson's The Vikings is a recent addition to a large pool of general studies on the subject that includes such classics as Gwyn Jones's History of the Vikings, Peter Sawyer's Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, and Else Roesdahl's The Vikings, as well as Richard Hall's splendid The World of the Vikings.1

Ferguson's stated aim in this book is to "provide an intelligent general reader who has an interest in the Viking Age with a study that might satisfy his or her interest without burdening it with an account of the innumerable controversies that cover every field of study of the period" (p. 8). Ferguson succeeds in creating a reasonably comprehensive and engaging study that meets its stated aims while simultaneously presenting some rather dubious interpretations of the homogeneous nature of Scandinavian society and the existence of a "northern Heathendom" that stood in opposition to its counterpart, western Christendom, with which it frequently found itself in conflict.

The text is organized largely in chronological fashion and covers the period from the late 780s/early 790s until the late eleventh/early twelfth century. Using the Oseberg ship (one of three Viking age longships discovered in southeast Norway in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries) as a springboard for an examination of Scandinavian culture and society, the author moves into a lamentably brief and cursory discussion (more on this in a moment) on the causes of the Viking Age, before tracing the Viking diaspora from Scandinavia [End Page 163] to Britain, Europe, and the East, and into the North Atlantic and the eastern shores of North America. The story then returns to Scandinavia in the age of conversion, which not only brings the story full circle from a geographical perspective but also provides a sense of conclusion to the Viking age, since, for Ferguson, conversion to Christianity clearly delineated the end of the Viking age: As he remarks, "perhaps the starkest symbol of the demise of one culture and its replacement by another was the adventure of the Norwegian King Sigurd, known as Jorsalfarer, the Jerusalem Traveller, who led a crusade to the Holy Land in 1108 and was the first European ruler to do so" (p. 381). As is to be expected in any study of the Vikings, the author integrates a wide range of diverse source material, both documentary and nondocumentary in nature, from well-known and frequently cited chronicles, annals, letters, and diplomatic documents to Icelandic sagas and Eddas, and from archaeological finds to linguistic and modern scientific evidence. One message of the book for the discerning reader will certainly be the remarkable range of material required to reconstruct the history of the Viking diaspora. Ferguson proves himself well acquainted with recent archaeological and scientific material throughout.

Adopting a chronological approach for the book does have its downside: namely, the rather artificial separation of regional events over long periods of time. Thus, for example, the reader interested in, say, Viking raiding and settlement in the British Isles will need to flip from chapter 4 ("The Devastation of All the Islands of Britain by the Heathens") to chapter 7 ("The Danelaw I: Occupation") to chapter 11 ("The Danelaw II: Assimilation"). Similarly, readers interested in tracking the Viking expansion into the North Atlantic must do so across two chapters widely separated by a diverse range of intervening material. Still, such an approach is effective and probably desirable for what is in effect an introductory text; works that proceed on a thematic basis, such as Peter Sawyer's Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, for instance, are susceptible to the criticism that they lack precisely the narrative context and background that Ferguson provides here. So, full marks for readability and above average marks for comprehensiveness. As a general study, then, Ferguson has certainly hit the mark and the book will be read with profit by his intended audience.

One area where the text may be found wanting compared with some...


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