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“Ranvaik Owns This Box”

By (January 1, 2010) 7 Comments

The Vikings: A History

By Robert Ferguson
Viking, 2009

On a beautiful day in June, A. D. 793, the monks of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria were busy going about their daily business. There’d been a violent thunderstorm the night before, so there was probably some cleaning up to do – enough tasks out of the ordinary so that perhaps nobody was watching the sea. It wouldn’t have mattered much in any case – they would have had at most an hour to marshal the defenses of their monastery, and besides, what defenses? And what need? Sleek, monster-prowed ships slicing in fast to the rough beach – these could be messengers, traders, anything.


It turned out they were the end of the world. By the time the monks at Lindisfarne even conceived of peril, it was upon them: a marauding band of Norwegians sprinting screaming from their longboats, brandishing swords and great axes. The marauders slaughtered all the monks, destroyed all the fineries of church and monastery, stole anything valuable they could find, and sailed away. Aghast reports of the incident quickly spread throughout the Christian kingdoms of the England and the realms of the Franks, but the ink was scarcely dry on those reports before those kingdoms were experiencing attacks of their own. The Viking Age had begun.

For two hundred years after Lindisfarne, waves of Scandinavian marauders – Vikings – erupted in all directions from their ice-bound homelands of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark every summer, sailing as far as North America and Istanbul, as far as Kiev and Jerusalem. Swedish Vikings struck east to the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea; Danish and Norwegian Vikings pillaged their way down the coasts of England, Ireland, and France, and the combination of blitzkrieg strategy and bloodthirsty tactics created a new name for terror in the vocabularies of any community reachable by water.

It’s a weird irruption on a world-wide scale, and it’s challenged historians ever since. What caused it? Famine or overpopulation in the Scandinavian homelands? Mercantile opportunism? What facilitated it? The naïve decadence of what were once outlying districts of long-faded mighty empires? The Medieval Warm Period, which lasted from roughly 800 to 1000, produced average temperatures warmer in summer than any in 8,000 years, thus making sea-lanes navigable earlier and longer and further north? And most puzzling of all – it seems – how to characterize this Viking Age? A clash of cultures, Christian, Muslim, and heathen? Or simple brigandry?

Robert Ferguson latest book The Vikings takes on all these tangled questions, and it must be said at once that it possesses neither the bracing compression of Johannes Brondsted’s 1960 study The Vikings nor the literary flair of Gwyn Jones’ 1968 A History of the Vikings. I doubt Ferguson would argue with either of those statements, nor should he: his book has mighty formidable strengths of its own. Compression is certainly not his aim – he lavishes attention on every aspect of the Viking Age – and to the extent that literary flair encourages sympathy, he wisely distrusts it. Much nonsense has been written about Viking ‘cultural contributions,’ and Ferguson’s extensive endnotes show he’s read it all, including the accounts that emphasize Viking trade missions and agricultural settlements while downplaying the aforementioned pillaging. This type of historian (Brondsted has less of it than Jones, and as we’ll see, even Ferguson isn’t entirely free of it) always tends to overlook two things: first, the wet, barking sound a heavy axe makes when it bites into cranial bones, and second, the fact that Viking wasn’t a culture – it was a thing the bored and avaricious men of three countries did during the summer. True, sometimes once they’d killed or enslaved all the original inhabitants of a particularly choice spot, they’d lay foundations and stay – but then they weren’t Vikings anymore. “Beyond a certain point,” Ferguson reminds us, “conditionality defeats its own ends.” He aims to provide a corrective:

The cultural relativity of our own times makes this kind of assertion [Victorian moralizing about the depravity of the Vikings] problematic. No longer able to view the violence characteristic of the Vikings as a sort of brisk adolescent workout before the onset of maturity, we prefer instead to describe and analyze their achievements as traders, travellers, explorers and founders of towns, and to extol the beauties of their poetry and jewellery. But, while all of these are entirely valid perspectives, the pendulum may have swung too far: as one modern historian put it, the revisionist view has come close to giving us an image of the Vikings as a group of ‘long-haired tourists who roughed up the locals a bit.’ Among the aims of this book is to restore the violence of the Viking Age …

The puzzlement here comes from the fact that the jewelry is gorgeous – the wood and stone-carvings are lovingly intricate, and of course the sagas and poetry are among the finest the human race has ever produced. And the puzzlement is easily fixed: it was the folks back in medieval Sweden who created the jewelry, the artisans in medieval Denmark who carved the wood and stone, the bards in medieval Norway who sang the sagas that were later transcribed. The Vikings themselves created nothing but havoc and desecration – they were to their respective home cultures what an avalanche is to a mountainside. When contemporary figures like Charlemagne’s chief cleric Alcuin decried the violence of these new invaders, they ignored those home cultures, completely focusing on the main fact that the Vikings displayed the same brutish rapacity bullies everywhere have always shown. They would strike a coastal village or even a major city (Paris, Seville, Lisbon, London, Dublin, and many more were sacked several times), or religious house, burn everything, rape all the women, kill all the children, and enslave all the men excepting only the small percentage they chose to torture to death (“the blood eagle” was a favorite specialty: cutting open a man’s back, pulling his lungs out, and watching as the last few agonized screams cause the bright pink sacks to flutter like wings), and then demand exorbitant payments to insure they wouldn’t do it again.

Ferguson is well aware of all this and keeps a watchful eye on the homogenizing schools of history that might seek to ameliorate it, but sometimes he seems to forget that healthy caution and side entirely with those academics who can somehow make themselves think an abomination like “the blood eagle” can ever be a true expression of a culture:

Our pluralistic twenty-first century tries to encourage respect for the cultures of others and an acceptance of them on their own terms. The position would have baffled men like Bede or Alcuin, effortlessly certain of their right to impose the new and superior values of one culture upon another perceived as inferior and backward. We see Heathen ninth-century Scandinavians not as the horde of savages they were to these early churchmen but as a people who had evolved a social and spiritual culture of their own.

This kind of namby-pambyism is maddening, and it’s rendered all the more so by the distinctly contrary notes that creep into Ferguson’s narrative at the oddest moments. At one point he tells the story of how Norway’s saintly Christian King Olaf was once briefly beguiled by the stories told him by a one-eyed stranger who then departs his halls, leaving behind thick steaks which Olaf orders thrown away because the stranger was obviously Odin, “whom the heathens have so long worshipped” and Olaf doesn’t propose being tricked by some washed-up god. Ferguson drily comments: “Olaf contented himself in throwing away the horse-meat steaks that the wily old god had tried to slip him. He might have been better advised to hunt him down and kill him, for in the aftermath of his own death at the battle of Svold both the Agrip and Theodoricus Monachus describe a Heathen revival in Norway.” Hunt him down and kill him – that, at least, is a real Viking historian talking.

And there’s a good deal of fantastic Viking history to tell. The real-life characters here – Sven Forkbeard, Eric Bloodax, Harald Bluetooth, Lucky Leif Erikson, Olaf the Fat, Hakon the Good, and dozens of others – read like figures out of the semi-mythological sagas in which many of them later starred, and their exploits here (especially of course the nautical exploits, all accomplished in ships with very little freeboard and highly inadequate navigation), though often gruesome, are also often grand in scale. Ferguson’s accounts of such notable Viking-contenders as Alfred the Great are complexly thrilling despite the fact that all the right is on one side and all the wrong on the other. Ferguson also tells well the epic story of the Viking assault on Lisbon in A. D. 844: 80 longships fought three pitched battles with the local navy and succeeded through much combat in taking Seville. They held it for two weeks, until the emir Abd al-Rahman II finally took the whole thing seriously enough to send his army. The Vikings were always more hit-and-run freebooters than disciplined rank-and-file, and they were badly defeated in the ensuing battle – thirty longships burnt, hundreds of captives hung from the palm trees outside Seville, the heads of 200 Viking warriors sent to a fellow emir as an interesting souvenir of these tall, fair-haired strangers who momentarily caught him by surprise.

The Vikings themselves had a weakness for collecting souvenirs from all their various raids, and as Ferguson makes clear time and again, they did so in the crudest fashion:

A feature of the raiding and church-burning that ensued [after Lindisfarne] was the Vikings’ penchant for cutting up stolen items, like Bible clasps and crosses, and reshaping them into items of personal ornamentation. ‘Ranvaik owns this box,’ its new owner had inscribed in runes on a beautiful, house-shaped box found in Norway in the seventeenth century. Graffiti depicting the prows of longships had been carved on its base. Made in Scotland toward the end of the eighth century, its original purpose had been to house the bones of a Christian saint. Useful enough for Ranvaik, no doubt, but also an active expression of cultural disrespect.

But despite the clear portrait such accounts paints, Ferguson still lapses into exactly the kind of 21st century conditionality he affects to deplore. It’s the most persistent shortcoming of this otherwise superb book, as in the picture given of the effects repeated raiding had on 10th century England:

The raiding that had softened up the south of the kingdom over the preceding years, the vast and debilitating payments demanded, the Danes’ evident disdain for an enemy unable to defend itself, the encouragement of the repetitive ease of victory against a thoroughly demoralized population, all these must have combined to make it clear to Sven that finally, after 200 years of pinching, hairpulling, punching, kicking, and worse Viking bands of various sizes, the English were ready to be taken.

Pinching and hair-pulling is just about as bad as “cultural disrespect” when you’re talking about teenaged girls gang-raped in front of their parents, or grandmothers harried to pieces by war hounds, or babies chucked from sword-tip to sword-tip. And even that takes a back seat to the book’s single most hilarious implication – that the Vikings might have been doing all this raping and pillaging out of self-defense. The theory, duly reported by Ferguson, being that when Charlemagne began converting all the Saxons in the northern parts of his kingdom to Christianity around A.D. 771, word spread to the lands of Scandinavia that this murderous new religion was coming to consume them all. Ferguson tells the story of a Norwegian sea-party that came ashore at Portland on the south coast of England in A.D. 789 only to be confronted by the king’s reeve and his men and told they would all be taken into custody. The Vikings of course slaughtered the official and all his retainers, to which Ferguson adds, “perhaps the men were afraid they might be forcibly baptized and then executed.” Well, yes, perhaps they did. Or perhaps they were already intending to kill every soldier and official in Portland, sack the place, and then extort protection money – which is exactly what they did.  

England is where Ferguson’s story is fated to end, because that’s where the Viking Age effectively came to a close. And true to form, it was a spectacular close – a death in battle, worthy of Valhalla. In 1066 King Harald Hardradi of Norway led a massive invasion force – close to 300 longships packed with warriors – to wrest the throne of England from Harold Godwinson, who’d had himself crowned king after the death of Edward the Confessor. Harald Hardradi was aided in his efforts by Harold’s disaffected brother Tostig, and whether they thought they were exercising their rightful title to Edward’s crown or not, the expedition and the battle that followed, at Stamford Bridge, have ever since formed the traditional terminus to the grand Viking Age (Viking raids sputtered on for a while afterwards, but grand termini typically don’t care about such details). The Vikings foolishly left their heavy armor behind in their ships but fought on with desperate valor as they were pressed on all sides by the English. Eventually they were overwhelmed; Harald Hardradi and most of his lieutenants died in battle, and the victorious Godwinson extracted from the pitiful remnant of the Viking force a vow never to invade England again – after which the remnant boarded their handful of undamaged ships and sailed away.

“The devastation of all the islands of Britain by the Heathens” (as an Ulster annalist of A.D. 794 put it) was over, and it was time for the skalds to take the stage and start singing about bravery and valkyries and cultural conditionality.

Freydis Skaar is a native of Knivsta, Sweden, and went to school in Uppsala. This is her first piece for Open Letters.