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In my previous post on the History Channel’s The Vikings, I discussed the main characters of Ragnar Lothbrok, Lagertha, and Rollo, who are sort of a mishmash of historical and legendary characters. This post is going to focus on the last remaining major character, Gabriel Byrne’s Earl Haraldson, who is the main villain of the first season. For some reason he doesn’t seem to have a given name, being known only by his patronymic, which is pretty unlikely. Most of the important figures from this period are known by a given name and then a patronym (‘Haraldson’), loconym (based on a place—‘of Møre’, for example) or a nickname (‘Hairypants’, which is what ‘Lothbrok’ means). So this character should probably be something like Jarl Eirik Haraldson, and generally referred to as Jarl Eirik, instead of Earl Haraldson. Last names in the modern sense don’t exist in this period, and actually are a very recent development in Scandinavia. Iceland still employs a system of patronyms to this day.

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Earl Haraldson is presented as being a stock oppressive ruler. In the pilot, he oversees the local community, has the power to make boys adults by giving them their arm-ring, presides over the local court system, and controls where all the raids happen. This last point is explicitly connected to his ownership of the boats used, but he also seems to have some sort of exclusive right either to own boats or control how they are used, because Floki has to build his boat in secret. In the second episode, he executes a smith for the crime of making an anchor for Ragnar. In the third episode, he apparently has the right to know where Ragnar is, and when Ragnar isn’t around, has the authority to take a hostage as surety that Ragnar will return. When Ragnar returns with riches plundered from a monastery, the earl simply declares all the plunder his property, over Ragnar’s objections and declares the boat his as well. In other words, the earl is a totalitarian ruler whose authority cannot be openly disputed.

In the context of late 8th century Scandinavia, this makes little sense. Norse society in this period operated on a much more egalitarian footing than other parts of Europe. Norse society was managed by popular assemblies termed things. Things had multiple functions; they were local markets, places to make business deals and marriage alliances, and simple legislatures. They had no executive officers, however, because Norse society had no clear notion of government as a public institution. Instead, enforcement of any of its decisions fell to those who would benefit from those decisions.

Jarls were local strong-men, men who controlled enough resources to have substantial influence. These resources might take the form of good farmland, wealth, boats, respect for fighting prowess, noble lineage, a priesthood, and so on. But they did not automatically convey the right to rule. Political authority required the general acceptance of the community, and that was achieved through a combination of generosity, wisdom, success in battle, intimidation, and good will. A jarl who governed as abusively as Earl Haraldson does would quickly find himself without any political support.

Byrne as Haraldson

Byrne as Haraldson

Military support required significant bonds of loyalty between the leader, jarl or otherwise, and his men. The basic deal was that the leader of the warband would lead his men to victory in battle and they would fight to the death for him. After the battle was over, the leader took the plunder and then shared it out among his men, enriching them while also enriching himself. He was also expected to support his men in peacetime, usually by sheltering and feeding them.

But in the series, Haraldson does the exact opposite. He sends men out to raid in the Baltic, but apparently doesn’t go himself, so he was failing to take the military risks his men were taking, something that would probably have undermined his authority in a substantial way. When Ragnar returns from his first successful raid, the earl confiscates not only the majority of the plunder but also Ragnar’s ship. Yes, he does allow each man to take one item, but the whole emphasis in the scene is on the earl’s grasping, tyrannical nature. So rather than enriching his men he is stealing their property.

Haraldson takes the rest of the treasure and buries it in the ground, saying that Odin will allow him to take this treasure into the afterlife. This completely misunderstands the fact that many Norse treasure hoards were buried at some point. The Norse buried bodies with grave goods, sometimes quite lavish ones, which strongly suggests, although not conclusively, that the dead were expected to enjoy those goods in the afterlife. But there’s no indication that the Norse believed in some sort of “afterlife safety deposit system”, in which goods could be buried before death. Rather, burial of treasure was a means of keeping it safe during times of turbulence, with the intention of digging it up when things had settled down. So the earl’s burial of the confiscated plunder is just absurd. In the ground, it’s no use to anyone.

Haraldson also apparently puts his men through a rather perverse loyalty test. In the second episode, he tells one of his men that he can sleep with Siggy, the earl’s wife, if he wants to. The man goes into the earl’s bedroom, and Siggy invites him into the bed, but then attacks him. Haraldson walks in with guards and orders the man taken out and killed. Aparently, the earl is checking to see which men want to get busy with his wife, so he can kill them and prevent her from committing adultery. But the damage this would do to his reputation and the loyalty of his men would be enormous.

Sure, we can justify a lot of this by saying that the earl is a bad ruler; Norse literature has its share of abusive or stupid rulers. But almost no one other than Ragnar ever seems to challenge the earl’s right to do what he does, even when the earl and his men are not present. Everyone seems to assume that the earl has the right to do these things, when in fact he doesn’t. In the fourth episode, the earl asserts that Ragnar owes him loyalty simply because he is the jarl, which is false. Ragnar owes him loyalty only if he has sworn oaths of loyalty which Haraldson has justified with gifts of wealth and political support.

To get around this, the series invents a custom that the jarl performs an adulthood ceremony for 12 year old boys, giving them an arm-ring for which they must swear loyalty. This arm-ring is considered sacred and oaths sworn on it must not be broken. This is all sheer nonsense. Jarls and other leaders did give out arm-rings as a sign of favor or as reward for support, but they weren’t sacred objects or signifiers of adulthood.

What’s really going on here is that the series is resorting to the modern assumption that rule by nobility and kings must be abusive, because it’s not democratic. Hollywood has a long tradition of pandering to American political ideals by treating any other political system as inherently bad. What’s particularly frustrating about this is that the Norse were actually much closer to traditional American notions of the independence and the moral rights of the individual than most other medieval cultures.

Haraldsson's chief skill is sitting menacingly

Haraldsson’s chief skill is sitting menacingly

The Lack of a State

Another major problem with this series’ depiction of Norse government is that it assumes that Norse society, like modern America, has a notion of the state as formal institution with its own recognized coercive authority. The place where this comes through most clearly is in the trial scene in the pilot. In the scene, the earl conducts a court in a manner similar to a judge. There is an accusation that a man has killed another man in a quarrel over land. The man claims that he admitted the killing, so that it was not murder, but Haraldson points out that the man walked past two houses where he did not announce the murder, and thus must have intended to keep it secret, since the law specifies that a killer may pass the first house without announcing a killing if the victim’s relatives live there. Then Haraldson asks the community to vote on the man’s guilt, and says that the verdict must be unanimous. When the community condemns the man, Haraldson orders the man executed.

There’s so much wrong here it almost deserves its own separate post. The series has presented Norse law as operating as a primitive version of American or British law, with the earl acting as both the judge and the prosecutor, the community acting as the jury, and Haraldson’s men acting as the police force and executioners. This presumes that the earl has some sort of formal right to act as a judge and enforce the law.

But Norse society operated on a completely different model. Norse law was understood to be the possession of each individual, and thus was something that the individual enforced for himself. Crime was understood in terms of injury to a specific victim and that person’s kinsmen; if there is no injury, there is no crime (this is another reason that Haraldson’s confiscation of the boat is wrong—Ragnar has not injured the earl in any way). If a man injures someone, either physically or through taking of property, the victim acquires the right to avenge the injury by inflicting reciprocal damage to the perpetrator. If the perpetrator has taken the man’s cow, he is allowed to take goods of equal value from the perpetrator; if the man has caused physical injury, the victim and his relatives are allowed to inflict a reciprocal injury on the perpetrator or his relatives.

In this system, there is no judge, because the victim and his kinsmen have the right to act as the judge of their own injury. This means that the system treats every injury as a new injury, even if it was inflicted as a punishment for a previous injury, because each kin group thinks in terms of its own injury. So if Hrolf injures Svein, Svein and his brothers will attack Hrolf and injure or perhaps kill him. But that gives Svein’s relatives the right to kill Hrolf or his relatives, which gives Hrolf’s relatives the right to retaliate. This could be extremely disruptive to the community, but it was understood as legally and morally right. When Haraldson claims that secret killings lead to revenge feuds, he’s wrong; open killings lead to revenge feuds, and that’s seen as appropriate, because that’s how the law works. Secret killings were a problem precisely because no one knew who to take vengeance on. So when the dead man’s wife realizes he’s been killed, she doesn’t go to earl Haraldson; she goes to her husband’s family and rallies them (and perhaps her own birth family) to go after the killer.

Obviously, feuding could be a serious problem, so Norse law recognized an alternative. Each person in this society had a recognized cash value that was a reflection of their social status and function in the community. When an injury or killing occurred, the perpetrator could offer to buy off the victim’s right of vengeance by paying either a fraction of the victim’s value (for an injury) or the whole value (for a killing) to the victim or his relatives. If the victim accepts the payment, he is agreeing to forego his right of violent vengeance.

So the thing that deters violence in Norse society is the threat of reciprocal violence from the victim and his kinsmen. Once violence has happened, the community would either begin taking sides or start pressuring the two sides to reach a peaceful agreement about how much financial compensation should be paid. The jarl’s role in this, to the extent that he had one, would be to either support one side in the violence or help negotiate peaceful compensation (and then engage in violence against whichever side broke the agreement later on). He doesn’t maintain a police force because there’s no need; the thing that stops crime is fear of retaliation. He doesn’t act as judge because he has no formal right to get involved unless one party or the other seeks his support. There’s no trial, because none is necessary. There’s no jury here, because each man has the right to enforce the law for himself and his kin. In fact, there’s virtually no notion of the state as a formal institution at all.

A key element of this system was family solidarity. Men were unlikely to achieve vengeance if they did not have strong kinsmen and family alliances to support them. There was a powerful cultural pressure on men to stand in solidarity with their kinsmen, and men without relatives were in a very vulnerable position. This is why the tension between Ragnar and Rollo, and Rollo’s desire for Lagertha is such an issue. The two men ought to support each other to the death. When the earl tries to bribe Rollo to betray Ragnar, this is the sort of thing a Norse saga might have explored, so on this point, the series is capturing something of the spirit of Norse literature, although it’s getting the legal details wildly wrong.

Another example of the series getting Norse law wrong comes in the fourth episode, when Ragnar is accused of killing Haraldson’s half-brother Knut. Ragnar acknowledges the killing but insists that it was justified because he caught Knut trying to rape Ragnar’s wife. In other words, Ragnar shouldn’t be considered guilty, because it was justifiable homicide. But Norse law doesn’t have the same sort of notion of guilty or innocence that modern American law does. In Norse law, intention and motive is entirely irrelevant. It does not matter if Ragnar had a good reason for killing Knut, or if it was done in self-defense. All the matters is that Ragnar acknowledges the killing. Having killed Knut, he and his family are now legitimately the targets of Haraldsson’s vengeance. The earl doesn’t need the sanction of the court to kill Ragnar.

Haraldson confronting Ragnar about Knut's death

Haraldson confronting Ragnar about Knut’s death

What we’re seeing here is the series just making up whatever nonsense it wants to in order to advance its plot. Instead of trying to show the audience how a very different legal system operated, it just imposes modern American notions of justice back on Norse society, picking and choosing whatever historical bits sound interesting and ignoring the rest. That detail from the pilot about a killer being allowed to walk past one house without announcing his killing is an authentic element of Norse law, so the scriptwriters clearly know something about Norse law, which means they’re making conscious choices to misrepresent the Norse legal system.

And the sad thing is that it would have been easy enough to get the law right and still serve the series’ goals. The writers could have worked Ragnar’s killing of Knut into this plot in a very Norse way. Here’s all they had to do: the earl stews on Knut’s death for a while, and then launches the attack on Ragnar’s farmstead in episode 5, not to punish Ragnar because he’s a criminal, but to avenge his dead brother. This would have made Haraldson a more nuanced character and allowed Gabriel Byrne to demonstrate that he can do more than glower. American television has for some time recognized that audiences are interested in more complex villains, bad guys that the viewer can have a little sympathy for while still rooting for the hero to win. But for some reason, the Vikings hasn’t recognized this.

Want to Know More?

Vikings Season 1 is available on Amazon.

To understand what’s so wrong with Earl Haraldsson, you’ll need to do some reading about the political arrangements of Norse society. P.H. Sawyer’s Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700-1100 is, as the title suggests, partly concerned with political systems of the period. Another good option is Birgit and Peter Sawyer’s Medieval Scandinavia: From Conversion to Reformation, circa 800-1500 (The Nordic Series)although it runs down to the 15th century, long after the Viking period ended.



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