How historically accurate is the TV show Vikings?
reading - words
Is the Viking series true to history?
how accurate is vikings?
A short historical point with specialists on the successful History Channel series.
Spoilers Alert for those who have not yet seen the first three seasons (and who would do well to get started quickly).
Inspired by the tumultuous life of Ragnar Lothbrok, the Viking series has won an audience of devotees eager to learn more about these famous "men of the North" who have fascinated for centuries. If the series written and directed by Martin Hirst is so popular, it's because its director has been able to mix an already well-established imaginary world around the Vikings with characters you get attached to, blood, love and action, even if it means sometimes distancing yourself from historical facts to make the series more spectacular.
In fact, Michael Hirst makes no secret of it. He had already taken some liberties with the Tudors and repeated the experience with the Vikings:
I don't think that as a writer you seek accuracy, because you can't be accurate unless you've been there and seen things with your own eyes. What you're looking for is authenticity, verisimilitude, and if you can achieve that, you're getting closer to the truth.
While many historians have criticized this taking of freedom from historical facts, others have praised the show's efforts to transcribe the Viking era.
So we discussed with two specialists in the field, Richard Fremder, a historian by training, director of Temporium (a company that seeks to promote general culture through its radio and publishing), and Louise Kæmpe Henriksen, curator at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, on a few themes such as costumes, characters, the place of women and religion, to find out if they really fit in with reality.
The difficulty of knowing the history of the Vikings
Telling the story of the Vikings accurately is not easy. While we still have very accurate accounts of events in Europe, it seems important to remember that they can be very subjective and give a biased view of what happened.
"This is the beauty (and the danger) of the historian's work. He has to be an investigator with usually only one testimony, and the reliability you can imagine," says Richard Fremder. At the time, Western populations will tremble in the face of these "barbarians" from the North, as the historian reminds us:
One must imagine the terror caused by the arrival of these bands of looters, who swept through a Western Europe that was then at peace and experiencing a true era of prosperity with unprecedented violence. As a result, there are many fantasies about them, especially because those who bore the greatest witness to this looting were the greatest victims during the first Viking incursions, namely the monks.
Victims of these Viking raids, the monks then had a tendency to exaggerate the facts, reducing at the same time their aggressors to the status of bloodthirsty men without faith or law, attracted only by the immeasurable riches that abounded in the churches of the time. It is therefore difficult to base oneself solely on their testimony.
In addition to these writings lacking bias, the Viking sources are equally biased. These are the skaldes, songs that told the famous sagas and legendary stories of the men of the North. "These kinds of poems were written about 200 years after the time of the Vikings, so in addition to being subject to the author's bias, they may well have been distorted over time," adds Louise Kæmpe Henriksen.
It is therefore not easy to accurately retranscribe the Viking period, but this has not prevented historians, with the help of archaeological research, from understanding some of the habits and customs of this fascinating civilization. Surrounded by historians, Michael Hirst seems in any case to have set a high point in retranscribing the appearance of the Vikings in a faithful manner.
From costumes to boats, an effort of historical reconstitution
According to the specialists, a great deal of work was done on the show by the costume designers concerning the Viking attire in the eponymous series. Indeed, according to Richard Fremder, "it can be taken as an example to work on the costumes, sets, and social organization". For her part, Louise Kæmpe Henriksen is pleased that they have challenged the traditional and entrenched perception of the Viking wearing a horned helmet, dirty chain mail and tattered clothing.
For the specialist of Viking ships - a symbol of power of this warrior people - the inaccuracy lies rather in the way the series represented this means of conquest. Concerning the type of boat called drakkar, those built by Floki at the very beginning of the series, a few small details particularly struck her:
The most obvious is the misplaced rudder to port (left). This is a very important detail in the development of marine technology during the Viking era.
She also insists on the place of shields on the ship that "not only block visibility for the rowers and prevent them from keeping pace, but also pose a potentially dangerous situation where the shields could catch water".
Despite these details visible only to an experienced eye, she acknowledges that the creators succeeded in depicting the Viking ships quite faithfully, respecting "historical and archaeological evidence and Viking imagery depicted on stones".
The enigmatic character of Ragnar Lothbrok
When you start to approach the main character, Ragnar Lothbrok brilliantly played by Travis Fimmel, things get complicated.
The farmer, who is going to rebel against his gossip in the first episodes, "is actually a synthesis of several characters who lived between the 8th and 9th centuries," says Richard Fremder.
This hero with a semi-legendary destiny, whose name translates as "Ragnar with Hairy Pitch" even had his own "hit saga" of the time, of which three different versions have survived.
This great Viking chieftain "would have had several wives, the first of which was conquered after a victory against a dragon (or a snake), a recurring theme in this kind of literature. He tried to invade England, but was captured by the local king who had him thrown into a snake pit. It is there, before dying, that he would have declaimed a poem recapitulating his 51 battles fought".
If there is no mention of the dragon in the series, it proves that these vibrant legends of heroism written two centuries later helped to create the fantasy of the man, but also of the Viking woman.
Among the Vikings, free women with a vital role to play
In discovering Vikings, the place of women in this society, although associated in the collective spirit with the term "barbarian", is striking. One could easily imagine enslaved women, who are content to carry out orders. However, from the very first episode, Lagertha appears as a strong and independent woman, capable of defending herself alone when two possible rapists break into her home.
As the episodes unfold, her strength of character and courage are constantly revealed. She does not hesitate to go to the West with her husband, after having insisted for a long time to accompany him. When he humiliates her while accepting that Aslaug stays, she decides to divorce him and leave.
After stabbing her new husband in the eye, who beats and humiliates her daily, she in turn manages to obtain the status of Jarl. All in all, Lagertha demonstrates that a woman can be the equal of a man, in a time when the term feminism was not ready to exist. But was it really like that at the time?
Pretty much, yes! While most Western civilizations of the time let women take care of the daily life of the village while the men set out to plunder or trade, Viking women went to fight alongside the men.
Indeed, according to an article entitled "Viking women: raiders, traders and settlers" published in historyextra.com: "a study on the DNA of ancient bones exhumed in Norway shows that the Vikings did not leave their wives at home during their war campaigns".
Viking women therefore played a central role in the expansion and settlement in the North Atlantic. In addition, "Scaldic poems and legends tell stories of women warriors fighting side by side with men or at a distance to encourage them to fight," says Louise Kæmpe Henriksen.
She is delighted that the series insists on this strong representation of the Viking woman, through several characters. "They were far fewer in number than the men on the battlefield, but they were there," says Fremder:
The Viking woman is considered free and plays a vital role. In Viking society, men and women are above all good partners. Marriage is really a political or economic affair, the aim being to set up an association that is profitable for both.
If of course attachment and perhaps even love can result from this union, archaeology does not tell us much about this type of relationship. The custom leaves to each member of the couple the right to take an unmarried concubine or concubine, but only if his or her spouse accepts it. A common-law union of sorts!
The Importance of Religion to the Vikings
Between Ragnar's visions, the regular references to different deities and powers such as Odinn, Thor or their paradise Valhalla, the consultations with the seer, the sacrifices or rites, one only has to watch a few episodes to understand that religion occupies a particularly important place in the life of the Vikings.
At the time, religion was of paramount importance everywhere in the world, but theirs "is of a rare complexity," says Richard Fremder. It is far removed from the general view held by the Christian world that they were only "savages" and "pagans.
"The Vikings had no scientific understanding of the world," explains Louise Kæmpe Henriksen, which gave their polytheistic religion great importance. "We must understand that the Scandinavians of the 8th century were not materialists. So there is no difference between life and death. The rites of magic allow them to create links, bridges between the two worlds. The Viking is never alone", Richard Fremder adds.
Their greatest God is thus Odinn, regularly named in the series. Often mistaken for the God of war, he is above all "the God of knowledge, of poetry, of wisdom," and as strange as it may seem, "the Vikings aspired above all to peace and trade," assures the historian.
Concerning the other gods, "they are magicians, often giants, whose names are Ocean (Aegir), Sea (Sjor), Earth (Jörd), Sky (Lopt), or Thunder ... (Thorr)". As for the raven that we find in the credits and from time to time in the series, it is not synonymous with bad omen as one might think, but with victory and fertility.
We all remember this episode where it is believed to the end that Ragnar will sacrifice Athelstan to honor the gods, and which ends with the sacrifice of Leif. There are no attested human sacrifices at that time, Richard Fremder assures us.
"The sacrifice, called blót, concerned animals, especially horses. It made it possible to give to the gods concerned the power of the animal in question". So the scriptwriters certainly decided to take this liberty to spice up the series.
When some historical dates don't fit
The authors also seem to have taken a great deal of liberty in the chronological treatment of events. It must be said that the sagas themselves recounted grandiloquent episodes, with little concern for chronology.
In an article published on the Popsugar website, Shannon Godlove, coordinator of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program at Columbus University, gives a glaring example: "In season 1, Ragnar and his crew attack a monastery, which probably represents the famous raid on the monastery of Lindisfrane. It took place in 793, but in season 3, the "Siege of Paris" took place in 845".
The series thus summarizes half a century in only a few years. This also proves that the same man, Ragnar Lothbrok, could hardly have been the commander of both events, as life expectancy was much lower at that time.
Season 3 concludes with a magnificent deception on the part of Ragnar. Passing himself off as dead, he succeeds in penetrating the impenetrable fortress of Paris. The reality was quite different, Richard Fremder assures us:
Already at that time, Paris was not a fortress. One must also bear in mind that it was not yet the capital of the Kingdom of the Franks. It is therefore an open city, which certainly has its bridges, but in the face of the armada that is about to appear, it is not a bridge that will stop them. They entered Paris using the classic Viking tactic of surprise. Ragnar Lodbrok advances, at night, with ... 120 ships! They advance silently, sails and masts lowered to under the small ramparts of the Ile de la Cité.
In the early morning, when everyone is still asleep or just one eye up, you then have 6,000 screaming men coming out of the ships and killing (and more if affinity) absolutely everything in their path ... By plundering naturally since the goal is the treasure.
And the small Frankish army gathered as well as possible by Charles the Bald runs away in front of the howling hordes. This is the real attack on Paris, the first one. Charles the Bald will end up paying an enormous tribe to Ragnar, the danegeld (a kind of mafia tax "you pay to be spared") to get him out of the city without too much damage. Which he will do.
Despite these examples of historical inaccuracies that have made many historians shudder, Richard Fremder considers them not so important. He was more embarrassed by the dialogues, and especially this sometimes aberrant mix of accents from actors from all sides.
"There's a real-fake effort. The actors are Australian, Swedish, English Canadian, Irish or Finnish... but they all have strange accents that don't sound like much. And when they find themselves in front of English people, the confusion is total: the series being in English, they are forced to keep this language to speak, but the English answer them in the language of the time, which is not English".
Despite this, the series has many advantages for historians eager to share their passion with as many people as possible.
A didactic Viking Tv Show
Vikings have the merit to interest those who would certainly not have bothered to discover the richness of this civilization. Louise Kæmpe Henriksen has seen this growing interest in Viking culture with a greater number of visitors to the museum for which she works.
"There is no doubt that interest in the history of the Viking period has increased in recent years, with the success of series such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom. Never before have so many Viking exhibits travelled the world". Not a day goes by without being told about the series at the Viking Ship Museum.
For Richard Fremder, what seduced him in this series was its playful and didactic aspect. "This kind of series makes you want to. And here, no book, no historian, no matter how good, will be able to compete. It makes you want to know more, to be interested, and, for that matter, to open books that you would have passed by without looking at them first".
Moreover, he particularly appreciates the fact that it does not claim to be "cultural" by "taking a tempting subject, a fascinating universe, and above all by writing a history that one wants to follow".
He thus recommends to History teachers to take into account series such as Vikings or Downton Abbey, where "we understand magnificently the evolution of English society between 1912 and 1930", or even certain video games such as Assassin's Creed or Unity, which "despite the historical errors, represent the Paris of the Revolution, such as no book will be able to transcribe it for you".
The strong point in Vikings is also that "the scenario is made in such a way that the hero always explains to his son what is going on, and therefore to us too", according to the historian. He concludes by saying: "it leads many people to know more, without necessarily plunging into painful works ... and there are some!".