Review of The Far-Farers: A Journey from Viking Iceland to Crusader Jerusalem
by Victoria Clark
Walker and Company 2004 400 pp. 27.00
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
Imagine, if you will a world beset by sectarian violence, aggressively warlike leaders, fanatics leading deluded believers to their death, with political, religious, and economic corruption everywhere. Victoria Clark paints a picture of such a world—not ours—but Europe of the eleventh century.
From Heinrich Schliemann’s Odysseus to Stephen Minta’s Aguirre, travel books frequently adopt the strategy of following a former traveler’s journey. British journalist Victoria Clark’s journey begins with the Icelandic Viking Thorvald, hero of a saga entitled Thorvald the Far-farer, whose conversion to Christianity led to a series of trips to the European mainland and back. From there, Clark follows the paths of other travelers on a route that leads from Hamburg, crossing back and forth across central Europe, to Italy, Greece and Turkey, ending finally in the horror of the First Crusade in Jerusalem. Along the way Clark relates the stories of these eleventh-century religious pilgrims alongside her contemporary journey of rediscovery.
After Thorvald’s disappearance from the narrative, we encounter the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, whose “political vision was larger and more generous than any nineteenth-century German nationalist, any modern builder of a united Europe, let alone any start of the last millennium Roman or Saxon could credit.”
The Catholic Church, far from a cloistered power, was active in medieval politics. “It seems that by the late eleventh century the Roman Church had waxed rigid, bureaucratic and powerful enough to be treated as a temporal power like any other, an obstacle to be got round, trick or use.”
Indeed, the Church was more worldly than one might expect. “Three tenth-century Italian popes had died in the act of having sex: one of a heart attack and two at the hands of cuckolded husbands.” One of Otto’s successors, the pious Henry III, sought with only modest success to eliminate two common church practices, simony (buying and selling church positions) and nicolaitism, (married or fornicating clergy).
In the modern section of the narrative, interwoven with her medieval narrative, Clark encounters some characters, such as the goth Anya, a waitress in the Swiss city of Constance. Touring a Catholic church with her, Clark notices Anya dipping her hand in the holy water and shaking it. Anya explains: “I only do it because I believe that if you dip your fingers in and then shake your hand it keeps all religion well away. If you dip your fingers in and then cross yourself it means you’ll get sucked into all that God stuff.”
Clark’s narrative is larded with tales of the slaughter of Jews, contests of power and will between the Church and political leaders, and, in an extended section, the disgraceful First Crusade.
Politically fragmented, religiously divided, its leadership a complex quilt of interlocking familial relationships, medieval Europe is a place of divisions within divisions. The lay reader needs to be led through this massively confusing social and ideological landscape by a sure hand, and unfortunately, Clark is not entirely successful in doing this. Her frequent references to her reading of then-contemporary texts comforts the reader that she knows what’s she’s talking about, but her attempts at using the conceit of the journey to create a clear, sustained narrative doesn’t work.
Here, for example, is a paragraph tossed off in the middle of a larger story. “The Seljuks had been losing ground to the Fatimid dynasty of caliphs who had conquered Egypt and were eyeing southern Palestine and Jerusalem by the end of 1097. For the time being the Shi’te Muslim Fatimids, Arabs rather than Turks, could see no advantage in waging a joint jihad with Sunni Muslim Seljiks.” Just trying to get the names straight, much less understand the complex interrelationships of the various conflicting parties expects far too much of a reader not already steeped in the history of this era.
Clark completed her text just weeks after another century’s religious fanatics drove airplanes into skyscrapers. She sees that history can teach, but people are too often unwilling to learn. “It may be that the terrible lesson western Europe’s eleventh century taught us but the second millennium has still failed to ram home is that man is a greater danger to himself than the hostile universe will ever be.” Organized religion, in Clark’s view, just makes things worse.