Tuesday, April 8, 2014

History Channel's "The Vikings" Is it accurate? Part I

"Viking Mom, is the new History channel show, The Vikings accurate?" 

We have been asked this question a lot since the History Channel moved their new hit series to Thursday night this season. 

Well first, let me share a bit of my credentials before I share the inaccuracies and accurateness of the show. Viking Dad and I are living historians in which we put on historical demonstrations to show how a particular time period lived. In our case its the Viking Age. The Viking Age is from 793-1066 A.D. During this time, the Vikings, also known as the Northman and the Norse created settlements in Norway, Sweden, South of Finland, Denmark, Greenland and Iceland. They also settled in Ireland, Faroe Islands, Normandy (courtesy of Charlemagne), Scotland (ever heard of the Clan McLeod?), Russia (The Rus!) and Anatolia. 

The Viking Family 

Our established persona, or story, is that Viking Dad is a Northman living in Iceland after serving fifteen years as part of the Varangian Guard. On his way home North after serving his time with the Varangian Guard he met me, his Saami, and we decided to leave with our household and live in Iceland. It was not uncommon for a Northman to travel with a Saami. To put on this kind of story one must study the historical records, the Sagas, the languages, archaeological papers, anthropological papers and finds. It does help to also have a background in anthropology in which I do. We do participate in the Society for Creative Anachronism but we have also branched out into other historical groups interested in telling an accurate history of the Vikings. I will also provide a list of common resource materials at the end of this post.

1. Who was Ragnar Lodbrok or Ragnarr Lothbrok, Ragnar "Hairy-Breeks", Ragnarr Loðbrók?

King Aella receving news from Ragnar's sons. 

Ragnar Lothbrok/Lodbrok is a prominent character and hero in 9th Century Norse History. He can be found in many of the sagas including his own "Rangnar's Saga" and the Anglo- Saxon Sagas. He is more legend, like Beowulf, then history. Like many legends, Rangnar is a combination of many warriors and possibly kings. He is the example of a great warrior, leader, and the proverbial boogy man. Rangnar was known as the "Scourge of Paris." He died in a snake pit by an English King, possibly the King Ælla of Northumbria. 

Like many colorful legends, Ragnar seeked for a better life and was known to be after the Danish (Juteland) throne. It is said that he held the throne for a short period of time. He was known for his raiding prowess into England and France. Some sagas say that he even went up against King Charlemagne. It is documented that is most notable raid was against Paris in 845 A.D. He spared the sacking of Paris for a heavy ransom of 7,000 pounds of silver. 

According to the sagas, including the Völsungasaga and the Gesta Danorum Ragnar was indeed married three times. He is linked to two famous shieldmaidens, Lathgertha in the Gesta Danorum, the Warrior Queen Aslaug in the Völsungasaga and the noblewoman Þóra Borgarhjǫrtr

The saga Ragnarssona þáttr tells that Björn was the son of the Danish/Scandinavian king Ragnar Lodbrok and Lagertha. It also tells that he had brothers named: HvitserkIvar the Boneless and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and the half-brothers Eric and Agnar.  Much of what is written about Ragnar are from the adventures and sagas of his sons. According to the television series, Ragnar fears that his son's would eclipse him in fame. Based on the sagas, they did achieve this foretelling. 

2. Were there Shield Maidens? 

I love the Viking Age. A time where women could pick up a sword and shield and kick some butt! Well, at least that is what the myth says we could do.

Much of what we know of the shield maidens is written in the sagas and by ancient historians. Archaeologically, there have not been any women graves found with weapons and shields. Some have been found with arrows and small axes but none of the "warrior" weapons. From a physical historical point of view there still is only circumstantial evidence that there were female warriors, or shield maidens. What we have are what is described in the sagas. 

Various sagas and Saxo Grammticus, the author of History of the Dane written in the 12th century, reference a number or women warriors. These include Sela, a woman warrior and accomplished pirate. Lathgertha, the wife of Ragnar. She is described as having the temper of a man in a woman's body. The sagas also tell that she bailed Ragnar out of trouble twice because she loved him fiercely despite his marriage to other women. There is something to be said about women's temper in the Viking Age. Hetha, Visna and Vebiorg fought in the great battle of Bravellir where Harrald the War-tooth lost his nephew Ring. Hetha survived and was given a portion of Denmark to rule. Leif Errickson's sister Freydis, while not named a "shield maiden" is said to have defended her homestead against raiders with only a sword, an axe and one boob exposed. Check out the Greenland Sagas Freyds was a force to be reckoned with back then. Freyds is the only grave ever found of these powerful women. 

Written in the Byzantine history is an account of a 971 A.D. battle in Bulgaria where the Varangians, Viking warriors hired to protect the Byzantine Emperor, suffered a rare defeat. It came as a great shock to the Victors to find armed women among the dead. 

Where there Shield Maidens? Yes and No. Where they like the ones in the television series? No. There are no physical evidence found, to date, to prove this fact. Did Lathgertha exsist? Yes. There were many powerful women in the sagas that may have not picked up a shield and sword, but defiantly could defend their home, their family and themselves. 

3. Did they really wear clothes like one would see in the television series The Vikings?

It needs to be made clear that the producer, Michael Hirst, who wrote the film "Elizabeth I" and HBO's "The Tudor's" also created " The Vikings."  Michael Hirst, while uses history for his stories, likes to sensationalize the elements of his stories. The Vikings series has received the same treatment as the Tudors and Elizabeth I. This is particularly noticeable in the costume designs. 

First of all. The Scandinavian countries are COLD!!! 

Clothing established status, wealth and location. The Scandinavian countries have harsh winters and clothing was designed for functionality and warmth. What we know about the garments the Norse men and women wore have been discovered in archaeological finds. The Norse loved colors. Clothing was made from wool predominately but linen, silk and leather were also used. Cloth was meticulously woven and very tightly woven. The burlap look seen in the series would have been worn by slaves, only. Cotton was a very rare item and very expensive. Wealth was expressed through jewelry and the quality of jewelry. 
Check out Hurstwic here.  and check out The Viking Answer Lady- What the Vikings Wore here. 

Ragnar and his family.


Viking Garb- 
The Norse wore layers of clothing to keep warm but also to show status. All were held together by brooches, pins, and belts. Hair was kept long and tidy. A married woman wore her hair in a cap and tide back and away from the face. 

The Viking series is not Michael Hirst's doctoral thesis. He wants to entertain us and that is fine. The movie has inspired and made an impact on press coverage of Viking Archaeology. A recent topic is the Viking navigational technology. How did they find their way to England, Ireland, Iceland and even North America? 

That is in the next chapter.....

Bless Bless

Resources:  A teaser!!!
The Viking Answer Lady 
Shield Maidens True or False
House Drekka-lundr: Bibliography

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