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22 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Engaging History of the Northern Conversion Period, 7 Feb. 2010
This review is from: The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings (Hardcover)
This was a good read and gave succint, engaging explanations about who did what when and why during the Viking Age. Ferguson outlines the various arguments put forward by historians explaining why the Viking Age began in the first place - for my money the massacre of Heathen Saxons by Charlemagne must have played a major part in the triggering of violence and raiding by Germanic peoples (as well as the refining of shipbuilding - perhaps northerners were prompted to build bigger and faster ships as they felt the sting of an encroaching Christian empire which was aggressively expansionist?) No doubt loot was also a major pull to go out and raid, since as Richard Fletcher in his "The Barbarian Conversion" explains, monasteries in those days were also like a kind of bank where local wealth could be stored. In Germanic society as in many others, captured wealth, land and booty meant political clout since one could secure the loyalty of retainers through the tradition of gift-giving ("you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" is an attitude of ancient provenance in European politics!)
On reading Sean McGlynn's "By Sword and Fire - Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare" I am put in mind of the possible similarities between the mindset of the later medieval Christian Crusader and the Viking raider as described in "The Hammer and the Cross". Where the Crusader seems to have had the thought "Let us go to Jerusalem and slay the Infidel - we'll win a whole stack of loot in the process and come home rich beyond our wildest dreams! (Oh yeah, and we'll win an automatic ticket to heaven!)" the Viking may well have been thinking "Let us go to the monastaries and bespoil the growing Christian menace - see how they've slaughtered our Saxon cousins, burned the holy shrines and broken the idols of the gods - ours'll be next! We'll also come home loaded to the gills with gold and be rich beyond our wildest dreams! (Oh yeah, and we might just get a big fancy funeral and get to drink in Valhalla with Odin!)"

Some think that religion is just a minor issue in such affairs, with lust for gold being the major motivating factor (with religion being used as more of an excuse than anything else), and for many who took part in such events this may well be true. However, from the Saxons' outrage at the destruction of their holy tree the Irminsul (a potent symbol of the Saxons' Heathen faith) to Christian citizens of Coventry being devastated and enraged by the damage to their Cathedral by German bombing in WW2 (surely a similarly potent symbol of their faith and regional identity), people have and still do take matters of religion and cultural identity very seriously. Attacks on such can have devastating effects on the collective psyche of a people and can lead to desire for violent retribution which can also be taken on by related peoples in neighbouring areas (consider that many Danes would have had Saxon relatives - hearing of the massacre of such a great number in a seemingly religious campaign by a Christian Emperor must have set many hackles rising and would have provided a potent fuel for the quite literally incendiary events to come.) Whatever good intentions the Christian missionaries may have had (or thought they had) during their attempts to convert the peoples of Europe, in some places these appear to have been completely overshadowed by savage acts of pious arrogance and stupidity (such as burning shrines and knocking down holy idols - acts we would quite rightly be horrified by in our modern era of religious freedom.) Ferguson's work does make important points about the seeming tolerance and acceptance of syncretism displayed by some notable leading Heathens, whilst in contrast Christians seem to grow in intolerance and a kind of arrogant religious absolutism. He does not, however, seek to play down Viking violence and atrocities which surely must have served only to harden Christian attitudes and actions toward those who would remain Heathen, confirming the oft-spoken adage that "violence begets violence".

Read this book alongside Richard Fletcher's "The Barbarian Conversion" and Sean McGlynn's "By Sword and Fire" to get a nicely rounded view of the conversion period in northern Europe and its aftermath in terms of what if any effect it had on the peace and security of the lands in question (Fletcher's work particularly gives some examples of the aforementioned acts of pious arrogance and stupidity on the part of Christian missionaries, which he refers to coyly as "acts of Christian self-assertion"). Christianity may have brought us the "Age of Chivalry" (and McGlynn's work roundly shatters some of the illusions about that) and the eventual end of some gruesome sacrificial rites and slavery, but it also brought some rather grim religious intolerance and oppression which would eventually lead to appalling violence and atrocities all of its own.

I admire Ferguson's unflinching yet at times quite sensitive look at what surely must have been a major period of upheaval in Europe, not only in terms of the horrific violence and material effects it had, but also the effects on the very hearts and souls of the people who lived through it and were often torn between loyalty to the ways of their forefathers and the pull to adopt the "new ways" of the Middle Eastern god. None of the books I've read previously on this subject have really addressed this most important issue in any depth at all - Ferguson is the first to really drive home the point to me that for many people the question "to convert or not" was likely a deeply troubling one involving many long debates, much soul-searching and dreadful uncertainty. The psychological effects of such a major change in the way people are supposed to think, act, mark seasonal and life events, consider their place in the grand scheme of things etc, as surely happens during collective religious conversion, cannot be underplayed. Fletcher's addressing of the issue is for me a worthy enough reason in itself to read this book.
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Initial post: 15 Sep 2012, 17:29:43 BST
KaleHawkwood says:
A fascinating & helpful review - though you may wish to amend the name Fletcher in your last sentence to Ferguson.
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