In 2013, the History Channel debuted a Canadian-Irish tv series, The Vikings, starring Travis Fimmel at Ragnar Lothbrok and Katheryn Winnick as his wife Lagertha. While the series has some problems, it’s a significant step up from the History Channel’s traditional “ancient buildings were produced by aliens” programming. There’s both good and bad things to say about the series, and there’s enough that I plan to do several posts about it.
The focus of the series is Ragnar Lothbrok, a typical Viking living somewhere in Scandinavia in the 790s. He is married to Lagertha, a “famous shieldmaiden”. Together they seem to run a small farm and have two children. They are ruled over by Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), whose title should really be ‘jarl’ since that’s the Norse root-word for the English ‘earl’, but that’s a tiny quibble. The earl, who is a fairly stock-villainous character, owns the ships that his men use to go Viking, and he insists on taking them into the Eastern Baltic every year, to raid Russia. But Ragnar complains that the Eastern Baltic is plundered out, so he would rather go west. He’s heard rumors that there are countries there ripe for the picking. But the earl is extremely skeptical of these claims, and people think that there’s just sea to the west. And besides, it’s impossible to sail west because no one can calculate latitude and no one can navigate when it’s too cloudy or foggy outside, because Vikings navigate by the stars.
However, a stranger has told Ragnar there is land out west, and has given him two tools that will help him navigate. His friend Floki is a boatmaker and has secretly built a longship for him so Ragnar can assemble a crew and go wherever he wants. But the earl doesn’t want this, apparently because he’s a control freak, so Ragnar is going to have to do this on the sly.
The series’ creator is Michael Hirst, the screenwriter for Elizabeth and also contributed to Elizabeth the Golden Age. He’s also the executive producer for the Showtime dramas The Tudors and The Borgias. So this is a guy who’s seriously interested in history.
Hirst’s choice to focus on Ragnar Lothbrok is an interesting one. Lothbrok (or Lodbrok; they are essentially variant spellings of the man’s nickname, “Hairypants”) is a semi-legendary character from the Viking age. Historians use the term ‘semi-legendary’ when they can’t decide if someone is basically historical or basically fictional. According to different sources, he was the son of either a Danish or Swedish king and eventually became king of Denmark himself (or at least part of Denmark). He is reported to have raided widely in Britain and France, including attacking Paris. Various sources say he had three wives, Lagertha, Thora, and Aslaug, a Swedish princess whom he rescued from two giant serpents. He fathered a number of sons, all of whom seem to be genuine historical figures, and was supposedly killed by King Aelle of Northumbria by being thrown into a pit full of snakes, where he composed a famous poem before dying.
This ‘biography’ appears to be a confused muddle of several different historical figures including three different kings and two Viking leaders, as well as possibly one woman. The historical events attributed to him are contradictory in terms of chronology, but most of the sources seem to place him in the early to mid-9th century. The attack on Paris happened in 845, and his sons reputedly invaded England in 865 to avenge his death. One of these sons, Bjorn Ironside, figures as a character in The Vikings, played first by Nathan O’Toole and in later seasons as an adult by Alexander Ludwig.
The series gives Ragnar a brother Rollo (Clive Standen). Rollo is loosely modeled on the Viking Hrolf, also called Ganger Hrolf (“Rolf the Walker”), who founded the duchy of Normandy in 911. There is no evidence for any connection between Hrolf and Ragnar in the sources; Ragnar seems to be a mostly Danish figure, whereas Hrolf is more typically associated with Norwegian families, including the Norse jarls of Møre or the Yngling dynasty of kings, who are also connected to Sweden, although one source claims him to be the son of a Danish noble. Are you starting to figure out how confused Norse sources for the 9th century are?
From what I’ve just said, it should be clear that Hirst has taken a very umm…lenient approach to the facts here. He’s taken a probably legendary character who would have been in his prime in the 840s, made him the brother of a man who was probably only born in the mid-840s, and pushed both of them back into the 790s. That means that his son Bjorn, who is 12 years old in 793, according to the series, will be terrorizing England when he’s 84.
And then there is the character of Lagertha. In the series she’s a ‘shieldmaiden’, which seems to mean that she’s a trained female warrior. Shieldmaidens occasionally feature in Norse literature, but there is no solid historical evidence for any formal practice of women warriors in Norse society. The whole question of whether Norse women carried weapons or fought is a complex one. Most of the women mentioned as fighting in the sources are Valkyries, essentially Norse angels who choose the dead for the god Odin. There are a few literary women who kill people, such as Freydis Eiriksdottir, who slaughters a number of women with an axe in the Saga of the Greenlanders, but she is not a warrior, just a killer. Stories about valkyrie warrior women marrying mortal men seem to be a masculine fantasy to demonstrate male sexual prowess (the way that many recent action films have included a ‘tough female fighter’ character, who ultimate yields to the male hero sexually).
Archaeological evidence is patchy. A small number of female graves have included arrows, spears, and even swords, but scholars have debated how to interpret this fact. In some cases, it is possible that the grave originally held a male body that has now been lost, making the man’s weapon appear to be buried with his wife. In the case of swords, it has been argued that the woman inherited a sword because she was an only child, so that it might not be evidence of actually using the weapon, simply owning it. But on the flip side, the sex of the body is sometimes only established by the grave goods that accompany it, with the assumption being that bodies buried with weapons are men and bodies buried with cooking implements are women; this assumption was recently disproven in one case by DNA testing. What this means is that there may well be more women buried with weapons than scholars now recognize. Given that bows and arrows and spears can be used for hunting and for self-defense when men are away, it seems reasonable to assume that at least some Norse women did occasionally use weapons. But it is a huge step from that to a claim that there were ‘warrior women’ of the sort that The Vikings seems to be picturing.
The series appears to be drawing heavily on the Gesta Danoroum, written by the late 12th century Christian Danish author Saxo Grammaticus. Saxo’s work is an amalgamation of history, legend, and conjecture, all filtered through Saxo’s Christian viewpoint. (It’s also the source Shakespeare used for Hamlet.) Saxo mentions a few warrior women but usually in a way that makes it clear he is disapprovingly contrasting the pagan Danes of the past with the Christian Danes of his day. So his discussion of pagan Danish warrior women might be fictions intended to indicate how barbaric the Danes were before they converted, rather than evidence that pagan Danes included female warriors. By refusing to be mothers, warrior women were rejecting the proper, subordinate, role Christian society expected of them.
What he tells us about Lagertha is that she was a virginal warrior woman (note that the term ‘shieldmaiden’ implies virginity), whom Ragnar fell in love with. She set a bear and a dog on him, but he killed both and thereby got her hand in marriage. They had a son (not Bjorn Ironside) and two daughters. Then Ragnar abandoned her to marry the Sweedish princess Thora. Later, when he needs assistance, she leads an army to rescue him. He also at one point describes her as “flying about” the battlefield, which might be a reference to moving quickly, but has also been interpreted as literal flight, which would tend to support the notion that Lagertha is essentially a valkyrie rather than a mortal woman.
The decision to treat Lagertha as a real woman and as a warrior in her own right clearly owns a lot to contemporary ideas of strong female characters in film and television, and much less to an interest in historical accuracy.
So thus far, the hero of the story is semi-legendary, his brother and his son are real, but are half a century too early, and his wife is basically fictional. However, all of them have at least some basis in the sources of the period, so Hirst gets credit for using actual literary characters and real people rather than just making up his own.
Earl Haraldson is entirely fictitious. But I’ll talk about him and what’s so seriously wrong with his character in my next post.
Want to Know More?
Vikings Season 1 is available on Amazon.
There are a lot of general introductions to Norse society and the Vikings. One good readable one is Else Roesdahl’s The Vikings: Revised Edition.
A nice introduction to the general culture of the Norse is James Graham-Campbell’s The Viking World. It’s got good visuals.
If you want to know about Ragnar Lodbrok, you can read The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok. They’re not very long.
If you’re interested in Norse women, the two books I’d recommend are Jenny Jochens’ Women in Old Norse Society and Judith Jesch’s Women in the Viking Age. Jochens’ book is very much about average women in the period, with a good exploration of their economic roles, while Jesch’s book does a nice job of looking at what various literary sources can reveal about Norse women. (Full disclosure: I studied under Jesch for a year as an undergraduate.)