I want to make a few comments about the physical culture of the series, by which I mean the sets, clothing, and props. To really do a scholarly analysis of this issue, I’d have to follow Nordic archaeology a great deal more closely than I do. But I know enough to make some basic observations.
The set designers and prop masters have made an effort to capture some real elements of Norse culture. For example, in the pilot episode, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and her daughter Gyda are weaving using a warp-weighted loom, which is historically accurate. Some of the characters are drinking from cups fashioned from horn in a reasonably Norse style. The longship Floki builds is a pretty decent example of that type of ship, and the sailing details likewise make an attempt at accuracy. (However in the pilot, Floki claims he can get two whole boards out of a particular tree, which means he’s apparently using the other 9/10th of the tree for firewood; he ought to be able to get about 20 planks from one tree.)
When Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and his crew raid Lindisfarne in the second episode, the crosses and other religious paraphernalia they recover bear a reasonable resemblance to early medieval religious artwork. When they raid Hexham in the fourth episode, there is a nice example of an Anglo-Saxon stone cross in the town, and the church itself has a passable attempt at an early medieval wall mural depicting either the apostles or a group of clergy (although we know very little about how the walls of churches were actually decorated in this period, so it’s purely conjectural that they might have had figurative murals rather than, say, just simple abstract patterns).
Likewise, the series has taken some effort to make the weapons roughly accurate. The swords, for example, generally don’t have cross-pieces or elaborate hilts the way later swords did. The spears are simple wooden shafts with a metal head attached; the axes are single-headed and usually have at least a downward ‘horn’. The shields are round with a metal boss in the center. The armor is mostly just leather clothing and occasionally chainmail. Helmets are few, but mercifully are just metal caps, with no horns or other nonsense on them. And most of the men fight wearing nothing heavier than cloth or leather.
Yet some serious mistakes do creep in with the weapons. Lagertha’s sword is of a much later style with a curved cross-piece. Many of the Anglo-Saxons wear helmets with nasal strips, which was an 11th century development, but this may be an effort to help the viewers distinguish the Anglo-Saxons from the Norse visually. In the fourth episode, one Viking uses a recurved bow, unknown to the historical Norse, and the Anglo-Saxons carry longbows, which the English wouldn’t adopt until the late 13th century. The Anglo-Saxons also wear lamellar armor, which is highly improbable; chainmail would have been far more likely.
The buildings in the show look loosely like Norse buildings, but are too elaborate. Most early Norse structures were simple single-room halls, with a central fire pit for heat and light; because there was only a single source of heat, the structures were usually not subdivided into smaller rooms. However, Ragnar and Lagertha’s modest house appears to have at least four rooms: an entry chamber, a main room with the hearth, a bedroom for Ragnar and his wife, and a room for the children. The show repeatedly makes the point that Ragnar and his wife want privacy when they have sex, but in this period, it is likely that most people expected their sexual privacy to be limited to a blanket, rather than a different room. (And in one episode, Ragnar and his wife invite Brother Athelstan (George Blagden) to have a three-way with them. By Norse standards it would have been unacceptably humiliating to Ragnar for another man, much less a slave, to have sex with his wife. Norse men were extremely sensitive to slights about their sexual prowess, since it implied they were unmanly.)
In the final episode of season 1, Earl Berg’s hall has glass windows several hundred years before anyone else in Europe.
While the clothing looks reasonable from a distance, once we start looking at details, the clothing becomes problematic, because it’s entirely too fitted. Early medieval Norse clothing was quite loose, and generally one-size fits all. Both men and women wore the same basic tunic, with differences mostly centered on the neckline and the length of the skirt. Sleeves would have been loose. Pants would have been quite loose, more like modern cargo pants than modern denim jeans. On better clothing, the necklines, cuffs, and hemlines might be decorated with specially woven trim decorated with animals or knotwork. Very little of the clothing in the show seems to have this sort of decoration on it.
So Norse men dressed like this:
and Norse women like this:
Note that the woman is wearing an under-tunic, and over that she’s wearing a looser dress sometimes called a hangerock. Some of these were sideless, consisting of a wide strip of cloth that hung down the front and the back of the tunic, a bit like a sandwich board. They were fastened at the shoulders with brooches (from which jewelry could be suspended), and then belted or simply allowed to hang free, acting a bit like a modern apron.
He’s wearing a tightly-fitted under tunic with fitted sleeves, with a leather jacket over that, and a leather breast-plate with metal rings sewn into it over that. Very little leather clothing has survived from this period, but it’s unlikely that it ever got as fitted or elaborate as this.
Also, as I mentioned in a previous post, Ragnar’s nickname Lothbrok means “hairy pants”. The idea here is that he’s wearing pants made from leather that still has the fleece on it, which in the context of the story is supposed to help protect from snake venom. Yet in the series, he generally wears sleek leather trousers. As a basic rule, fitted leather clothing, which turns up very commonly in contemporary medieval films and shows, is not medieval and represents a significant intrusion of modern fantasy styling into the past. This is particularly true for pants; the leather breeches that might have been worn in this period would have been baggy (again, closer to cargo pants rather than denim jeans).
Lagertha dresses like this (when she’s not fighting):
While this looks like an undertunic and hangerock, in reality it’s simply a dress with a wide panel in the front that suggests a hangerock. The dress is fitted at the waist, rather than belted, making it a much more complex item of clothing than would have been worn in this period.
Another issue is the coloring of the clothing. As the first two pictures suggest, the Norse liked brightly-colored clothing. Their daily work clothes may well have been drab earth tones, but for important occasions, all but the poorest would have dressed in strong blues and greens and perhaps reds. However, among the Norse in the series, bright colors are almost entirely unknown, apart from Earl Haraldson and Siggy, both of whom wore brighter colors in one episode. The result is a much more drab and faux-medieval community than the historical Norse would have known.
So the clothing is more a modern take on Norse fashions than an attempt to accurately capture Norse clothing; it is generally much more tailored and much darker than Norse clothing would have been. However, compared to Reign, these items are museum-worthy. They actually make some effort to convey Norse fashions in a way that modern viewers might find attractive.
Hair and Grooming
The men in the series wear their hair in a variety of fashions, but most wear it long. Some let it hang free, while others braid it or simply tie it back. Most have beards (Earl Haraldsen is an exception here; he wears a mustache and goatee). A number of them shave part of their heads; Ragnar has shaved his temples, while his son Bjorn has shaved the back of his head but not the top or sides.
Norse hair styles are hard to recreate because there is little good direct evidence. Archaeology cannot tell us much about this issue. The best we can do is to look at carved wooden heads in artwork and try to figure out how the hair is worn. The artwork’s somewhat ambiguous evidence suggests that men wore their hair collar-length to long in back, with bangs in front.
There is very little evidence that Norsemen ever shaved any part of their heads. One early 11th century Anglo-Saxon letter that says the Danes wore their hair “with bared necks and blinded eyes”, which suggests long in the front and either braided or shaved in back. The Bayeux Tapestry, from the late 11th century, shows Norman French (who were descended from Norse settlers of the early 10th century) wearing their hair short in front and shaved in back. But there are several problems with using this as evidence that the Norse generally shaved the backs of their heads. First, the Normans weren’t Norse; they were removed from Norse culture by more than a century, although there were certainly contacts between the two groups. Second, the Anglo-Saxon letter is making a point that the Danes are morally corrupt and reinforcing that point with a comment about their hair styles; that means it’s not unbiased evidence. More importantly, the letter’s description contradicts what the artwork seems to be telling us. Most importantly of all, just because 11th century Danes and Normans may have shaved the backs of their heads doesn’t mean that 9th century Norse did the same thing (and remember the series is set around the year 800). And even if we take the Tapestry and the letter as evidence that Danes shaved the backs of their heads, there’s literally no evidence for Ragnar’s shaven temples. So in my estimation, the show seriously misrepresents Norse men’s hairstyles.
Remember, in historical films, the hairstyles will almost aways reflect contemporary ideas of male and female beauty and grooming rather than historical standards, and the shaven heads are a good example of this principle. To a modern audience, they convey a sense of untamed masculinity.
Brother Athelstan is clean shaven and wears a tonsure that he tries to maintain for a while after being taken as a slave. This is a reasonable representation of what a monk would have worn. In fact the episode briefly explores the challenges he has in trying to maintain his own tonsure; in monasteries, monks paired off and shaved each other. Gentlemen, stop and consider for a moment the challenge of shaving any part of your face or head without a mirror. (In a rather silly moment in the third episode, Bjorn asks what’s wrong with Athelstan’s head, referring to his tonsure, having apparently forgotten that both he and his father shave parts of their head.)
Despite modern notions of the Norse as dirty and unkempt, the Norse were, by all accounts, quite fastidious about their cleanliness, grooming, and hygiene. Bathing and saunas were common practices, faces were washed every morning, and hands were washed at meals. (The pilot repeats Ibn Fadlan’s description of the Norse passing around a bowl of water to wash their faces and then blow their noses into; either Hirst has read Ibn Fadlan or he’s seen The 13th Warrior. But as I mention in that other post, there are reasons to not trust Ibn Fadlan’s description of their morning hygiene rituals). Combs were extremely common, and simple hygiene kits containing tweezers, nail picks, and ear spoons have been found. That said, medieval standards of cleanliness were lower than modern American standards, but modern Americans are obsessive about this issue in ways that are abnormal historically (and probably unhealthy for us).
So the series seems to be trying to strike a balance between showing them as less clean than us but still interested in cleanliness, grooming their hair, and so on. So I can give the show some credit for that.
Those who are interested in the whole question of Viking grooming and hygiene can visit the Viking Answer Lady for more information.
Want to Know More?
Vikings Season 1 is available on Amazon.
A nice introduction to the general culture of the Norse is James Graham-Campbell’s The Viking World. It’s got good sections with daily life, art styles, jewelry, and so on.