Richard Shaw hopes that a history of the Vikings in England will persuade us to take the period seriously
Vikings: Fear and Faith by Paul Cavill, HarperCollins £16.99
when a historian picks up a book entitled Vikings: Fear and Faith, he tends to be a little worried about what he is going to find inside. Indeed, this book does contain some of the classic errors associated with AngloSaxon history: the assumption of a unified Englishness, for instance, well before it actually existed, and the description of the West Saxon conquest of the rest of what we now term England as a "reconquest". All that shows, though, is that spin is no modem invention, and that the spin of the supposedly primitive AngloSaxons has been more effective and long-lasting than most.
What this book does do, despite such minor flaws, is draw attention to the vision and practical ability of the men who ruled Wessex and finally England — after, that is, they had created it.
Cavill's central thesis follows Nicholas Brooks's argument that the Viking invasions provided the "crucible" in which England was formed. By destroying the other kingdoms, the Vikings cleared the way for Wessex to conquer the land and to claim the people by appealing to the threat of a common enemy.
What Cavill adds to this picture is the religious dimension — something, again, not original in itself: Patrick Wormald's The Making of English Law, for example, has previously made clear the importance of the religion dimension in the formation of England. For Cavil!, too. England is indeed cast in the fiery crucible of the Viking invasions, but the fires are fires of faith.
The various English peoples were unified by the one thing that distinguished them from the Vikings and these invaders' attractive culture of violence and wealth — Christianity.
Alfred the Great pointed the way. At the end of the 9th century, after a century of Viking raids, this king, the only English monarch to be accorded the title "Great", realised just how important religion could be in forming the political will of his people. The official annals of his reign describe the West Saxons as the "Christians" and the Vikings as the "pagans".
In the end, the equation of Englishness with Christianity grew so strong that, when Cnut came to the throne through conquest in the early 11th century, this pagan Viking had to convert to Christianity and even go on pilgrimage to Rome to prove to his new people just how English he really was.
Credit for this vision is rightly given by Cavill to Alfred, who is now, of course, sadly best known for a culinary catastrophe that never occurred. Perhaps this work may go some way to rebuilding the prominence of Alfred in the popular consciousness.
The great strength of Cavill's book is that it does not patronise the reader. About a third of it is taken up with translated primary sources. By reading these, people will discover how much fun they are. The world they describe is the stuff of Tolkien or Pratchett, and immeasurably more entertaining than the serious secondary sources written about it.
If this work is successful, perhaps people may begin to press for the study of the Anglo-Saxons to be continued — or resurrected — in schools. It certainly goes a long way to disproving the commonly quoted idea that early medieval history is irrelevant. As the book shows, this was the period in which England — country, culture, law and language — was created.
What could be more important for a modern Englishman that to find out how he came to be called one?