Even some well-meaning and authoritative portrayals of the Vikings fail to transcend popular conceptions, and many barely scratch the surface of what they were really like. The Hammer And The Cross, by Robert Ferguson, seeks to address the various elements of the Viking phenomenon.
The author looks at Norse mythology and culture, and some of the economic and sociological factors which might have guided or shaped the course of events. There is some illuminating information about shipbuilding and navigation, and the Vikings' relations with indigenous peoples. The author quotes from a wide array of sources, and of course invokes archaeological findings.
When a fuller picture is taken, the Vikings often seem no "worse" or "better" than any number of other peoples before them, or even since, just different. They just didn't have contemporary propagandists to plead their case and their merits. This lost ground, public-relations wise, has never been entirely recovered. Even in a 21st century secular setting, they seldom get the benefit of the doubt. This book tends towards an even-handed approach, although of course the occasions when the Vikings employed brutal means are highlighted.
Some of the most intriguing sections of this work are the ones which look at cultural mixing, such as that between the Norse and Celtic peoples, in Ireland for example. We can never know the full story, of course, because of the paucity of unambiguous evidence which is available. Terms such as "syncretism" get some use, though.
A large part of the book deals with the efforts to convert the Vikings to Christianity, and the accompanying interactions with European rulers and churchmen. The usual version which we get in television documentaries for instance, is fleshed out, with room to explore the nuances and intricacies. My impression is that the written record is more voluminous and "complete" than that for Anglo-Saxon England, for example, and this gives studies such as this a greater solidity.
The story of the excursions to the Eastern Baltic and Russia underlines the scope and diversity of Scandinavian exploration across those centuries. It also cautions us not to generalize about "Vikings", The activity was not centrally directed or controlled, and it happened over a long timescale, which can appear or feel compressed when detailed in modern histories. Some of the diplomacy engaged in by the Vikings and their adversaries may seem odd to 21st century sensibilities, but people back then had a certain shrewdness and realism about them...
The settlement of Iceland is also perhaps neglected by the mainstream. As with other chapters, much time is taken in distilling the truth from myth and legend. Norwegian domestic reasons for the Icelandic adventures are looked at, and though the real story is half-hidden in the literary sources, the fog occasionally clears!
Another central theme of this book is that of the Vikings coming to terms, or not as the case may be, with the social customs, values and attitudes of European Christian peoples. A wide range of archaeological material is referenced, and the volume of such examples gives The Hammer And The Cross quite a rounded flavour. The forays into North America make for exciting reading, and are another illustration of the scale of these endeavours.
In examining the reasons for Vikings converting to Christianity in the various territories and "theatres", the author makes some solid and convincing arguments. The case of Iceland is an especially interesting one.
By the very nature of the subject matter, some of this is not that easy to follow, with the jumble of names, dates, succession disputes, identity quandaries and so forth. The story does not flow like some others. However, the reader cannot fail to be impressed, if not always enthused, by the magnitude of the Vikings' efforts, and this book paints them as more "sophisticated" and cultured than is often made out, and may force many to re-appraise their attitudes. The latter certainly applied in my case.
An interesting and stimulating read.