So, I have finally gotten around to watching the first two seasons of ‘Vikings‘, the fabulous fictional drama/blood-bath that has brought the Viking Age back into prime-time viewing. Since I run a third-year course for archaeology students with the same name (and yes, I do believe they stole it from me without any credit whatsoever, how could it possibly be coincidence?), I thought I needed to immerse myself fully in the blood- and semen-soaked world of modern TV Norsemen packed full of kick-ass shield-maidens, ludicrous and sinister dialogue and a mix of vicious and sometimes implausible fight scenes.
Let me make it clear. I am a serious academic who studies (among other things) the Viking Age. Let me equally make it clear. I don’t really give a Jorvik poo about whether women really did fight in battle, whether Vikings warriors wore eye-liner, or whether all the swords depicted have authentic late-eighth-century parallels.
I certainly couldn’t give a flying Odinic fart about whether the Northumbrian accents were ‘accurate’ (and by the way, who on earth really knows?), the tonsures were quite right, or how ludicrous ‘Winchester’ might appear.
As for details like whether it chimes that King Horik’s wife killed Svein Forkbeard (did I really hear that right?), whether Anglo-Saxon bishops would really rabble-rouse crucifixions of apostates in 8th-century Wessex, or whether pagan priests looked like they survived a good poisoning from The Name of the Rose, talk to Charlemagne’s elephant, coz the Prof ain’t listening. I’m not listening because obsessing over ‘historical accuracy’ makes no sense when this is fun, popular fiction.
Ok, it did annoy me intensely that the Anglo-Saxons were such credulous oafs in season 1 and despite better armour and weapons, still hadn’t a clue how to form and maintain a shield wall or post look-outs at night FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! I am more of an Anglo-Saxonist than a Viking boffin and these points really got my goat. And why wouldn’t the Vikings at least wear leather caps, if not helmets on occasion… But let’s not dwell on that…
What matters is that this is great, popular, horrifying, funny and exciting TV, and the storylines pay superficial, but respectful, attention to fictional stories that are rooted in the early Viking Age.
That isn’t enough though is it? Because they haven’t been superficial have they! This Canadian-Irish production has beautiful scenery and rich and detailed reconstructions of Viking Age buildings, boats, clothing and artefacts. In short, the series has been compelled to pay attention to archaeology in a range of ways, recreating a version of Scandinavia and parts of England – from Lindisfarne to Winchester – in the late 8th century. In many ways, we aren’t that far removed from Kirk Douglas and Janet Leigh, whose Viking world was similarly immersed in (for the day) attempts at careful reconstruction. What is fascinating is the centrality of the material world for the viewer, and the attention it is afforded in the storylines, from arm-rings to swords, from boats to smithies. I was particularly excited to see Roman relics and a fabulously antiquarian King Ecgbert of Wessex!
For both Anglo-Saxon and Viking archaeology, Vikings matters, and more than Time Team did for archaeology in general, or perhaps other fictional stories set in ancient Greece, Roman, the Middle Ages do for their periods. While this is the latest of a long series of popular manifestations of the Norsemen on the big and the small screen, it is the first series that immerses itself in the Viking world in terms of daily life as well as travel, warfare, cult and belief. The merging of the supernatural and the material is a prominent and compelling dimension, spanning both pagan and Christian perspectives.
Professor Neil Price, an eminent scholar whose work has explored many dimensions of Viking-Age life and culture, has written about the first season of Vikings in a recent book Viking Worlds: Things, Space and Movement, edited by the awesome Marianne Hem Eriksen and her colleagues at Oslo University. By the way, go buy Viking Worlds to get a taste of what Viking-Age archaeology is all about. Anyway, Neil says this:
“For the most part the series manages to avoid the traditional cliches”
On this point I would completely disagree: the series exploits, emphasises and expands the cliches and subverts very few. However, I don’t think that is a problem at all. Still, what he says next is more pertinent:
“The material culture is pretty good, and some of the new Viking archaeology has made it in there, slipped past the stereotypes in a way that does more to inform the public than we might realise”.
He isn’t specific about which elements he means. Still, in general terms, I think he is right, but I would say that while in terms of accuracy it might be only ‘pretty good’, in terms of how the material world is woven into the story, it is superb.
Neil then celebrates the presence of female warriors, not as “ridiculous Wagnerian clones, but recognisable women with weapons”. I would agree with Neil here too (and as I confess below, I am biased by the presence of Lagertha). What Neil is saying is that it isn’t as important whether women fought in the shield wall, as it is to identify the complex and varied social, economic and political roles of women in Viking-Age communities. Let’s remember that most of the women depicted are busy with a wide range of other activities from serving to child-rearing, craftworking to cooking. In fact, we should extend this to the Anglo-Saxon world too. Please also note: kids are prominent in the series too as characters: as victims and as heroes. Class divisions also get repeated airings as does slavery as an institution embedded within households.
The point is, I think Vikings is great news for Viking-Age archaeology. That doesn’t mean I am uncritical…
As an aside, with the wonderful Gabriel Byrne in season 1, I did keep expecting Fenster, McManus, Hockney and Verbal to appear at some point. I even imagined the late great Pete Postlethwaite rising from the grave to say:
“one monastery, one day’s work, very dangerous, he doesn’t expect you all to live…”
“because you have stolen from Mr Lodbrok, Mr Fenster, all of you, that you did not know you stole from him is the only reason you are still alive…”
Raiding a boat and killing all on board… “There’s no fuxxxng coke!”
Ok, I’m waffling and digressing now…
As I was saying, I am not uncritical. And yes, I am biased, Lagertha could simply slaughter Anglo-Saxons and strut around in mail for days without stop (or take baths if she prefers and insists) and I would watch the series like a drooling imbecile.
But is it ‘historical drama’? Well, it ain’t history, and it ain’t archaeology. It is ‘legendary drama’. The plots are barely plausible in detail althought the actors are fab and the humour is enjoyable. Of course it embellishes the historical detail (and remember how little we do know about this period) but it makes up for in its attempt to create a material world for a legendary early Viking Scandinavia and the early Viking raids on Anglo-Saxon England. In this regard, I take my helmet (without horns) off to Vikings and recommend it as essential viewing for all students and scholars of the Viking Age. And yes, Floki is great too.
I will follow up in further blogs with some more specific thoughts on the Vikings portrayal of death rituals, including cremation and furnished inhumation. Stay tuned folks!