The real Vikings: the early medieval world behind the hit drama
The exploits of Norse warrior Ragnar Lothbrok and his kin in hit TV drama Vikings has brought fresh interest to the myths and figures of the early medieval world. As the final series continues, Professor Howard Williams explores how the show’s sweeping ambition has tackled historical issues of the Viking era while creating an immersive world – one with more reality than you might think…
From 2013 to the second part of the sixth and final series, airing on Amazon Prime from 30 December, History Channel’s Vikings has brought a hit multi-season historical drama about the early Viking world to international audiences.
Following the adventures of the legendary figure Ragnar Lothbrok (or Loðbrók) and his sons including Bjorn Ironside, Ubba and Ivar the Boneless, writer Michael Hirst portrays a 9th-century world of seaborne conflict, far-flung connections and family feuding on an unprecedented scale. Despite numerous films over the years, occasional documentaries and an ongoing rival drama series The Last Kingdom, nothing can compare in scale and duration to Vikings in bringing the early medieval world to global television viewers.
Vikings offers up more than 65 hours, of exposure to a fictional 9th-century world of battles and intrigues. Simply put: never before has the Early Middle Ages been afforded so much screen time. Moreover, while The Last Kingdom mainly centres on the Vikings in Britain, the ambitious geographical and temporal sweep of Hirst’s narrative is remarkable.
The show is able to explore many interleaving stories featuring different settlements and spaces, stories and characters in Scandinavia and beyond, encapsulating multiple generations of raiding and exploration in the Baltic, England, Frankia, Byzantine Sicily, Islamic Spain and North Africa, Russia and Iceland. In the show’s culmination, series six is even set to take one of the sons of Ragnar to Vinland – North America.
- Vikings Season 6: what’s happened so far?
History vs entertainment, and the historical accuracy of Vikings
Is this popular show a good or bad thing from an academic perspective? Is the show a litany of pseudo-histories, or does it serve as successful edutainment? I suggest it does both.
As a specialist of the Early Middle Ages, including the archaeology of the Viking period in Britain and Scandinavia, I argue that we can celebrate the immersive, diverse and rapidly changing material environment Vikings delivers. We can take it seriously as a form of public engagement – not because it ‘gets everything right’, but because it inspires so many insights and tackles many key issues which historians, archaeologists and other specialists are investigating about the Viking world.
Let’s be clear: there’s no point in picking holes in the accuracy of this show in terms of precise plot content or chronology, any more than precise details of the costumes or sets. This is a 21st-century take on 19th- and 20th-century literary portrayals of 13th-century sagas, themselves drawing orally transmitted remembrances of the 9th–11th century.
Despite the rhetoric of some of the actors when interviewed, the show isn’t a window onto the past. Vikings doesn’t show us the adventures of well-known historically attested individuals, nor does it always show well-substantiated historical events as scholars understand them. Instead, it is engaging fiction: a dramatisation of legends in which the 9th-century Viking world is simplified and sketched, with events and processes, from the earliest raids to the invasion of the Great Heathen Army, conflated and sometimes confused.
Having said that, there are some pretty prominent features of the show that test the patience of even the most liberal critic. For example, there is no evidence beyond legend that captured heathen Norsemen or apostates would be crucified by bishops in 9th-century Wessex, any more than the idea that ‘blood-eagling’ is a confirmed pagan sacrificial execution rite (as shown in series two and four).
Likewise, Ragnar Lothbrok unquestionably didn’t lead the famous Viking raid against the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 and stay alive to lead huge armies against Paris in both 845 and 885–86 (series three and four). King Alfred’s court didn’t entertain the sons of Ragnar on his side (series five), and the Rus Vikings of Kiev didn’t launch an invasion of Norway (series six)!
A key problematic historical issue is the emergence of ‘Vikings’ as a self-defined identity. No one would have gone around saying “we are Vikings” in the 9th century: this owes far more to our 19th-century inheritance and popular imaginings than it does to how early medieval people might have talked about and perceived themselves.
Likewise, some archaeologists have pointed out flaws or issues with the representation of Viking ships (the rudders are perhaps wrongly placed on the left (port) side, and the ‘sunstone’ navigation method remains speculation); combat (the usual cluster of implausible tactics involving shield walls rapidly descending into open melee with few bowmen, not to mention the portrayal of berserkers and siege engines floating on pontoons); and costume (including too much leather and fabulous but purely imaginary jewellery and gowns).
And while treasure is shown as a goal of raids and distributed to followers, and arm-rings feature as expressions of fealty to lords, the silver economy of the Viking Age isn’t touched upon at all, in any of the six series of the show.
These are but some of the ways in which this fascinating, rich and varied show plays fast and loose with many details of the 9th-century world. Indeed, while the show shuns the Viking horned helmets cliché, it might be considered guilty of promoting a host of new myths based on slender evidence about costume and appearance.
Certainly, the Norse are shown with fabulous hairstyles, and while many of those shown in Vikings related to modern aesthetics, there is convincing visual, archaeological and historical evidence for elaborate coiffures and beards, as well as eyeliner. Yet the near-absence of helmets all together is implausible.
Meanwhile, Vikings has led the way in making facial tattoos seem historically valid among elite Norse groups. Cosmetics in the programme lurch between very modern female beauty regimes to the imaginative representation of face-paint in battles and religious contexts. These are imaginative and evocative but bear little historical support.
Vikings portrays warrior women: did they exist?
Other dimensions of Vikings hover between fact and fiction. One controversial topic is that of female warriors as a trained dedicated cohort of Viking armies with cultic dimensions linked to Freyja, a goddess in Norse mythology. When I first saw the show, I took this merely as an elaboration of 19th-century fantasy inspired by the 12th-/early 13th-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus mixed with the modern desire to insist on powerful female characters operating in a man’s world. I was more struck by the limited attention to female participation in voyaging as merchants and traders. I hadn’t anticipated that academics would take this dimension of the show quite so seriously.
Since 2017, however, Vikings facilitated the credibility and a positive reception among both academics and the public for new research on the 10th-century chamber-grave Bj.581 excavated in the late 19th century at Birka. This weapon grave is now attributed to an adult female based on both osteological and ancient DNA evidence. Some experts have claimed she was a ‘female military commander’. The search is now on to find more Viking warrior women – such as Lagertha, wife to Ragnar in the series – in the archaeological record, with multiple TV documentaries pursuing this agenda. Archaeology, it seems, follows art.
- Viking women: at home and at war
Religion and ritual: how Vikings explores real history
Having said that, the show deserves considerable academic respect on multiple levels. The complexity of the societies shown deserves credit. Through Vikings, audiences get to see the pagan Norse encountering the practices and beliefs of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, waging war, attempting to forge alliances, and making ambitious attempts to settle in England, become lords in Frankia, and serve as Varangian Guard – bodyguards in the Byzantine empire. The diversity of peoples within Scandinavia is also explored: with social strata from slaves and poor farmers to merchants, earls, kings and queens depicted.
The tenuous nature of royal power as depicted in Vikings is surely right. Likewise, a sense of national identity is present, but rightly vague and incipient: Scandinavia is shown populated by Norse-speakers living in dispersed farms under different and conflicting rulers.
Yet we also encounter the Finno-Ugric-speaking reindeer-herding Sámi. Meanwhile, the coastal trading settlements are shown to contain slaves and traders from all over Europe and the Middle East. We even meet a Chinese princess, and a wanderer, Sinric, who might be Frisian or Saxon. Oddly, Celtic-speaking peoples seem to have been completely missed out, which is difficult to countenance. In the series, the unification of ‘Norway’ under Harald Finehair takes centre stage, making this a popular origin story for modern Scandinavian nations as well as affording windows onto early France and England.
The show deserves considerable academic respect on multiple levels
For me, the material cultures and built environments portrayed deserves more credit than the storylines and characters. The creators have been at pains to create an immersive material world rich in Norse customs and laws, while beliefs and legends are explored from many different angles and perspectives. The first series is particularly ‘ethnographic’: one has the feeling of entering an alien world of Norse people and practices, from their perceptions of fate and the supernatural, to their social etiquettes and lifestyles.
Through each series, Vikings effectively and repeatedly explores how characters interact with their physical environment of mountains, forests and fjords, but also imagined supernatural worlds and perceived magical forces, from private prayer to consulting the Seer.
And even if elites take centre-stage, viewers are exposed to a host of background activities by others: fishing, hunting and farming; boat-building and repairing; cooking and textile production. This diverse and evolving 9th-century world provides glimpses onto the banal – daily regimes of cooking, feasting, travel by land and water, resting, sleeping, playing games, tending animals, combing hair and telling stories alongside the grand set piece voyages and battles.
What’s more, the show tackles both the clashes and shared values and practices of the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons, Franks and others they encounter in ways that challenge the prejudices of the viewers regarding what is ‘barbarian’ and what is ‘civilised’. The action repeatedly draws upon historical and archaeological evidence, incorporating and adapting scenes from Icelandic and Norwegian sagas.
In particular, halls are repeatedly shown as the heart of social, political and cultic activities for the Viking-period societies of Scandinavia, but they rightly vary considerably in their appearances and uses throughout the six series. From Ragnar’s farm in series one to the halls at ‘Kattegat’, ‘Hedeby’ and elsewhere, through the many hours of the show we end up finding ourselves familiar with the complex multi-functional architectures of the Norse hall. This is a world in which warfare, politics, family and community life, and religion interact in complex ways in the hall.
Another example is the defences built around the trading emporium ‘Kattegat’ by Queen Lagertha in series four. Regardless of the fact this is at least a century too early for defences around early towns, and the details of walls, ditches and towers might be queried, never before to my knowledge has any show attempted to show the vast labour involved in the creation of early medieval fortifications.
In recent book chapters, I’ve taken this argument forward in relation to how Vikings portrays pagan Norse funerals, the circulation and display of human remains by pagans and Christians, and the centrality of judicial assembly places and practices.
- Leif Erikson’s voyage to Vinland
While the show’s representation of each has problems and limitations, equally they draw on a rich range of primary evidence to afford stimulating perspectives on Viking society and belief. Notably, the funerals are multi-staged and varied according to the social identity of the deceased and varied circumstances of death at home and during raids: we see open-air cremation on land and over water, ship-burial, and more humble inhumation burials with and without furnishings.
Many funerals take their inspiration from sagas and archaeological sources equally. Never before have audiences seen this range of ‘Viking’ death-ways: no two funerals are alike, and each is shown as a public performance that might involve feasting, processions, animal sacrifice, and most disturbing of all, human sacrifice. Hence, Vikings offers insights into what we know about death in the Viking Age, but also the show serves to inform and inspire our own changing 21st-century death ways. Grave-goods are shown as carrying both personal stories and religious significance when placed with the dead, for instance in the touching funeral of Helga in series four.
Never before have audiences seen this range of ‘Viking’ death-ways: no two funerals are alike
In all these regards, Vikings deserves widespread recognition in promoting and enhancing fresh public understandings of the Early Middle Ages. Despite perpetuating and fostering some old and new myths for public consumption, Vikings reveals a drastic shift in public representations of the period. Viewers can experience a sense of a disturbing and complex Norse society, and a sense of history unfolding, in which the principal characters are repeatedly shown to be only part of broader changes in raiding, invading, trading and settling across Europe and beyond.
For me, it is the breadth and depth of this imagined early Viking-period material environment, both fabulous and factual, where Vikings shines forth and promises to engage and inspire new audiences to learn about the early medieval past.
Professor Howard Williams is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester specialising in the Early Middle Ages of Britain and North-West Europe. He has published a chapter on the show’s funerals (in Williams, Wills-Eve and Osborne (eds) The Public Archaeology of Death, Equinox, 2019) and chapters on the human remains (with Alison Klevnäs) and assembly places and practices (with Alexandra Sanmark) (both in Hardwick and Lister (eds) Vikings and the Vikings (McFarland, 2019). His Archaeodeath blog has repeatedly explored the death rituals portrayed in Vikings.