Thursday, December 22, 2011

Vikings, and the best book I ever gave up on

So, I'm ashamed to say that on my trip back to the library, I also turned in "The Vikings" by Robert Ferguson with 100 pages to go. I had had the book in my posession since late August, and had renewed it a bunch of times. I read a fair amount of it, but finally just faced facts that I was hopelessly bogged down and needed to give it back.

I bogged down because it wasn't what I was looking for. Military history has never interested me much, and that's what this was. I was hoping that the books would focus more on the belief systems and daily life of the Vikings. To make myself get through some of the military stuff, I used a trick so simple, I can't believe I never thought of it before: I took notes. Every time I found something interesting, I wrote it down.

The book made me realize, first of all, how little I really do know about some eras of history. The narrative we get in school tends to start with the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans, and pick up sometime in the Middle Ages, where you learn about the Magna Carta, the War of the Roses, the plague, Queen Elizabeth and King Henry. In 1442, the story begins its move across the ocean but stays sort of vague until the American Revolution era. But you're missing a good 1200 years of human history, between the fall of Rome and the point where the story gets picked back up.

So, this book was fascinating from that perspective. Ferguson considered the "Viking era" to begin in 793 with a violent attack on a monastery in Lindisfarne, and to end circa 1066. The most striking aspect of Viking history is the lack of evidence and narrative. They were an oral culture, more or less, and left behind mostly artifacts that are still being uncovered today. One of the most striking discoveries was in 1816, of a ship burial with tons of grave-goods. It was at this point, as a new museum was being developed expressly for it, that the Stone Age/Iron Age/Bronze Age divisions were created by the new museum's curator. It was initially just his means of sorting the artifacts, until he took a step back and discovered that there was a real progression there.

A chapter is devoted to their beliefs, but most of the book is devoted to their military adventures all across Europe and even into the Middle East a bit, it seems. Like I said, I'm not reallly into accounts of battles and conquest, and this book was not exactly written in an entertaining way, not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, But I enjoyed the book a great deal for what I did get out of it, and I'm looking forward to tracking down other books that may focus more on the aspects of that era that I do find interesting.