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The Vikings: A History Paperback – September 28, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Sporting monikers such as Sven Forkbeard and Harald Bluetooth, the Vikings left arresting traces in saga and chronicle, in addition to their signature destruction and massacre. Ferguson synthesizes Viking scholarship for a general audience and follows the Vikings wherever they went. Spreading from Scandinavia, they entered written records as a result of raids on Britain and Ireland in the late 700s; soon the divisive Carolingian empire, and the land that would become Russia, would experience the Viking scourge as well. But along with slaves and booty came the encounter with Christianity, among whose proselytizers numbered the fearless believers who brought the Gospel to worshippers of Odin and Thor. The pagan-Christian interface informs Ferguson’s narrative, and by emphasizing experiences of the conversion process by identifiable individuals within a centuries-long direction of Vikings forsaking their old religion, the author textures the pillage that he asserts is necessary to a complete understanding of the Viking age. Integrating archaeological, genetic, linguistic, and literary information, Ferguson realizes a Viking history bound to satisfy the interested reader. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Ferguson adds another layer to our perception of our origins in this compelling and often poignant account of a pagan warrior society faced with Christianity on the march Independent --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; International Edition edition (September 28, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143118013
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143118015
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #217,249 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bruce Trinque VINE VOICE on December 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover
One of the first difficulties in writing a history of the Vikings is deciding what defines a Viking. The derivation of the term "viking" is a matter of controversy, and even whether the word is Scandinavian in origin. And what period is to covered? Robert Ferguson basically chose as the era of interest to stretch from the late 8th century when Viking raiders suddenly burst upon the shores of Western Europe and "roughly speaking all the Scandinavian peoples were Heathens" until "roughly speaking all the Scandinavian peoples thought of themselves as Christians" (the 11th century or thereabouts). But an even more fundamental difficulty in undertaking the construction of a coherent history of the Vikings is the absence of firm pre-Christian Scandinavian written records. At a time when more or less reliable chronicles were being recorded in France and Germany and England, Norway and Denmark and Sweden were still very much lands of myth and legend. The archaeological record is somewhat sparse and erratic, so to a considerable extent Ferguson must present the Vikings as seen through the eyes of English, Frankish, Byzantine, and even Muslim chroniclers. He has created a kaleidoscopic history, absorbing to read but necessarily fragmented, peopled by an extraordinary cast of characters sometimes dimly seen. Their true names, their family backgrounds, often even their places of origin, remain unknown except as recorded in distorted form by usually hostile and always foreign observers. Ferguson follows the Vikings in their wanderings from the Arctic coast of Scandinavia to North Africa, from the Middle East to Spain and Portugal and even beyond to Greenland and North America. At times, the great array of so many similar names -- so many Haralds and Eriks and Olafs -- is nearly overwhelming, but Ferguson in the end keeps a steady grip on his central story of how the lands of Thor's Hammer fell to the domination of the Christian Cross.
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Format: Hardcover
Robert Ferguson's new history of the Vikings is a remarkable book. It in Ferguson succeeds at setting out the broad historical outlines of Viking history and describing the unique character of Viking life and culture. He falls a bit short, however, in a thesis which he proposes, argues for strongly, and then mostly abandons.

But first, this book's many strengths. Ferguson is especially good at incorporating archaeological evidence in his work. His first chapters deal with Viking burial remains, such as the Oseberg ship, and what such gravesites can--and cannot--tell us about the Vikings. Further chapters discuss the Jelling Stones and the frequency of buried coin hoards. Ferguson also dwells at length on some of the less well-remembered journeys of the Vikings, such as their forays into Russia and Spain, and their gradual assimilation with preexisting cultures in places like Normandy and Russia. His chapter on the Viking presence in late Anglo-Saxon England is exceptionally good, perhaps the best chapter in the book.

The only thing keeping me from giving The Vikings five stars is one of Ferguson's central theses, that the Viking Age began as a reaction to Carolingian efforts to convert continental Viking peoples (i.e: the Danes) to Christianity. Ferguson argues quite strongly in favor of this interpretation, claiming that the targets of Viking raids were pointedly Christian locations like monasteries (Lindisfarne) and other religious centers. The Viking Age, according to Ferguson, was a distinct dichotomy of heathen versus Christian, with the heathens doing the raiding and the Christians praying for it to stop.

This is an interesting thesis but is hardly borne out by the facts. In fact, Ferguson's own book contradicts it repeatedly.
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Format: Hardcover
To start, Ferguson's book gives a nice review of the Vikings' many geographical influences. Instead of focusing a chapter on weapons, culture, time period, etc., the book is more focused on Viking conquest and settlement in Eastern Europe, England, Normandy, etc. However, the aspect that set this book apart was the acknowledgment of source conflict and uncertainty. Many aspects of Viking history are only recorded by one or a handful of medieval scribes, who would often bias their stories to suit their own family or religious needs. Ferguson is careful to bring these sources together to give a balanced picture. His handling of medieval Christianity was also very fascinating, particularly his thesis that the Viking raids may have been spurred on by over-zealous conversion tactics by the Frankish-Holy Roman Empire. Additionally, the reader also got a feel for the gradual conversion of the Vikings from Heathendom to Christianity, which was seen by many Viking rulers as a way to gain access to mainland European culture and society. Highly recommended for those interested in early European history.
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Format: Hardcover
If you know little about the history of the Vikings, this is not the place to start. But if you are reasonably well-read, Ferguson's book adds depth and color to the Viking history and experience.

"The Vikings" presents its selections of Viking history in part through archeological and literary sources. The result seems almost anecdotal at times, but it is through anecdotes that Viking life, society and history take on added dimensions.

If, for example, you do not know about the raid on Lindisfarne that many say began "The Viking Age" you will learn little of the specifics from Ferguson. What you will learn is how the chroniclers in England saw the raid, how it was perceived by Bishop Alcuin in the court of Charlemagne and, speculatively, why the Vikings may have chosen to attack Christian sites as retaliation for forced conversion of Danish (Viking) Heathens by forces under Charlemagne.

Ferguson covers most of the standard parts of Viking history, the raiding and conquest of Normandy, the trading network through the Russian river system, the settlement of Iceland, the Greenland and North American adventures, the centuries-long struggle for England and the coming of Christianity to Norway. He adds attention to the Vikings in the Mediterranean and Iberia and interactions with Islam.

What sets his approach apart from other writers I have read is the central role of literary sources and archeological data. Instead of telling us what happened, frequently he lets us see the facts on the ground (through archeology) or hear the voices of those affected (throgh quotations from annals, correspondence and the like).

Throughout, the broad sweep of "the forest" is less obvious than the particular "trees," that make it up. A first time reader of Viking history may come away with a confused understanding from a disjointed narrative. One who knows the outlines well will find his knowledge of Vikings and their age richer for the effort.
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