Robert Ferguson's "The Hammer And The Cross: A New History Of The Vikings" was a decent history on a big subject. While I certainly learned a whole lot, it wasn't as engaging a history as one might expect, given the subject matter. Not that I'd expected heart-pumping action, but its tone didn't always rise to the content.
The Vikings are all too easily stereotyped and underestimated. Knowing that there was more to their role in Europe and beyond, but with little sense of what that might be, I'd been looking for a good review of the subject for a while.
It would be easy to turn this post into a 'did you know that...' exercise, but I won't - suffice to say that their stamp on European history is substantial, and wider-reaching by far than what the 'raider' stereotype allows for.
As the title suggests, a key thread throughout the text is the tension and evolution of 'pagan' religion versus Christianity both within and without the Viking community. It rewards the reader with some appreciation for how Northern Europe was converted, and the 'blow back' that accompanied this proselytization (e.g. chucking monks into the sea to drown as a mock-response to forced baptisms).
The Viking role in the history of the British isles and Russia were very illuminating. I'm trying very hard not to insert a 'did you know' so I'll leave it at that.
While I likely would have balked at an 800+ page doorstop, at 380 odd pages, it did leave me wanting more context and detail, particularly on the colonization of Iceland and Greenland, and what is known about Vineland. While Ferguson devotes a chapter to Iceland, and it's touched upon throughout, it wasn't enough for this appetite.
On that note, here's me at Thingvellir Park in Iceland, site of the first democratic parliament in history. Pretty progressive for a bunch of savage raiders, no?
Still, it seems they also drowned criminals, witches and the like in the pool below the falls here. They had that whole ultra-violence thing going too...