The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings

David Musgrove on an intriguing look at the Vikings in Britain

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Reviewed by: David Musgrove
Author: Robert Ferguson
Publisher: Penguin
Price (RRP): £10.99

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The Viking Age is generally deemed to commence in Britain in AD 793 with the vicious raid on the Lindisfarne monastery on England’s north-east coast.

Many reasons have been suggested as to why the Vikings arrived in their longships with bloodthirsty intent: poverty and land shortage in Scandinavia, simply that new technology enabled them to do it, or the need for kings to provide booty for their warriors are just some of the theories.

Ferguson offers an intriguing further possibility in this book, namely that the attacks were driven by fear of Christianity encroaching on the lands of the pagan Vikings.

From the AD 770s onwards, the Frankish emperor Charlemagne was bent on expanding his territory, and his Christian faith, northwards. The possibility of forced conversion, as was visited on the Saxons to their south, might have spurred the Vikings into an attack borne of self-defence against the most accessible Christian target they could find: Lindisfarne.

That’s not to say that the Vikings come out of Ferguson’s book as put-upon victims. He is quite clear to detail the violence they dished out to the people they raided, making the point for instance that the lack of pre-Viking place names in Orkney may indicate an act of genocide.

Whether the ferocity of their assaults was driven by a fear of Christianity or not, eventually the Vikings were assimilated with the peoples they had been terrorising, and came to take on their religion.

Ferguson shows how this change took place in a lively story that spans 300 years and takes the reader from Scandinavia, to Britain, across Europe and as far as North America.

It’s quite a tale, and Ferguson tells it well.

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David Musgrove is editor of BBC History Magazine