Robert Ferguson's title has already been used at least twice for Viking-related works, which makes one wonder about his subtitle: what's 'new' in Viking studies? The history of the Vikings has been well known, in outline, for a long time. By early medieval standards, we have very good documentation for it, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in Frankish and Irish annals, with further contributions from Arab and Byzantine sources, while the Icelanders' passion for sagas and poems means that we also have versions of the Vikings' side of the story. The many 'sagas of Icelanders', or Íslendinga sögur, are not strictly speaking about Vikings, for 'Viking' was a job description rather than an ethnic label; but some Icelanders, notably Egil Skallagrimsson, went through a Viking phase, as did several of the Norwegian kings whose lives are recorded in the 'kings' sagas' or konunga sögur, and more indirectly in the praise poems of their skalds (bards). The attitude of modern historians to these native and semi-fictional sources is rather like that of the Victorian paterfamilias to fallen women: they are ostentatiously scorned in public, but too tempting to leave alone. Nevertheless, all this material is familiar. So, does Ferguson have new material, or a new attitude?
LRB 22 July 2010 | PDF Download