How to portray the emotive dimensions of funerals in past times is an incredibly difficult task for historical dramas, especially when we are dealing with the death of a newborn infant. Archaeologists digging up the dead are affected by doing so, and debates continue to rage, framed by emotion, about the display of human remains in our museums. Meanwhile, the emotions of death must have been felt deeply in the past; the survivors presiding over past funerals would have conducted themselves at times of intense emotional feelings and outpourings at the loss of a loved one, especially a child. The idea that infant death was so commonplace that no one cared (famously espoused by Phillipe Aries and long debunked) is an insidious myth that aims to oppose experiences of bereavement past and present.
With this theme, we come to one of the most commendable scenes in the entire television show Vikings. And it is important to note that I say ‘commendable’ not because it is ‘true’ to a particular historical, literary or archaeological source, but for the opposite: because it shows something Viking scholars cannot access directly. Hence, while receiving many critical comments regarding the historicity of its portrayals and storyline, one of the show’s most important and necessarily striking repesentations regards what our sources cannot shed much light on for the Viking Age: the death and disposal of infants.
This is crucial to understand: not only does the show portray elaborate multi-staged high-status funerals and the disposal of the war dead, it doesn’t shy away from showing death on all its registers and circumstances. Also, disease and premature tragic deaths are shown too. Infanticide is represented twice: when Ragnar exposes Ivar but Aslaug saves him, and then Ivar follows through in disposing of his own crippled child Baldr (I didn’t want to blog about that one, it was too grim). Then, there is Ragnar mourning the death of his daughter, Gyda, whose funeral he misses because he is away raiding. And then there is the death of Angrbotha, where Helga disposes of the body in freezing weather, helped by Ragnar.
Adding to these instances, in episode 10 of Season 6 part 1, Gunnhild suffers the death of her newborn son and privately buries him alone: wrapped in his tiny robe. Sobbing and speaking to the tiny cadaver, she places the body on the ground surface in a seemingly private place away from a burial ground. Saying ‘sleep now’, she surrounds and covers the infant with the miniscule stone-setting with rocks. Gunnhild is shown as an utterly distraught and fragile figure – despite being a formidable shield-maiden and living a privileged lifestyle. In mourning she is shown utterly isolated and at a loss.
The landscape context is powerfully evoked as utterly introverted: the grave situated in a cleft without vistas and clearly situated so that the body and the act of mourning can be performed unseen. The cleft in which the body is deposited seems surrounded on all sides by higher ground: a location out of sight and out of mind.
In contrast, the boy’s father, Bjorn Ironside, as always, seems detached, unable to mourn and completely disinterested in the fate of his child. This contrasts with his father, Ragnar’s, mourning of his daughter Gyda, but reflects Bjorn’s earlier disinterest at the death of his daughter in Season 3. Bjorn goes on as before, disregarding Gunnhild but for a caring touch of her arm, and ignoring his other offspring. In fact, I’ve lost track of how many women and how many offspring he actually has: perhaps he is in the same position.
I’m not at all sure either portrayal finds testimony in the sources from the Viking Age, and both would be aberrant then as now, strongly suspect. A woman left to mourn in utter isolation? A man who cannot care less that his son is dead? What is most emotive of all for the viewer, however, is not the isolated and disinterested behaviours of Gunnhild and Bjorn respectively, but the materiality of the grave. In contrast to dramaturgical public ceremonies for the elite dead, the infant, while of royal birth, dies and is buried in privacy beneath a tiny, shallow, but carefully constructed cairn.
My point is that there is no link here to any specific archaeological evidence at all: infant bodies are notably under-represented in the archaeological record for the Scandinavian Iron Age. Equally, I’m not sure it reflects any specific historical or literary source, although the exposure of unwanted infants is attested, we know little more about neonatal deaths. The reactions of the father and mother depicted here undoubtedly say more about our world and our gendered cultures of bereavement in responses to infant death. Still, I would contend that a further emotive power derives from the fact such graves are unlikely to register at all in the archaeological record.
For those academics and commentators who take to social media just to deride Vikings for ‘getting it wrong’, including its alleged misunderstandings and misrepresentations of costume and architecture, perhaps think again. Not only should you perhaps consider watching, or watching more closely, at how death intertwines through the storylines in a fashion that has benefits to those interested in the Viking Age. In addition, you should consider how the show provides resources for those facing death and bereavement today. Also, reflect that maybe you are missing how this popular television series is revealing the complexity and variability of Viking-period death ways and modes of bereavment beyond our sources. I agree, much of what we are seeing is shedding light on our 21st-century gendered attitudes towards infant mortality, but in boldly portraying scenes like this, Vikings is not only responsive to the complexity of death in the Viking period and allows viewers to reflect on their own experiences and understandings, but the show is instructive for us and the limits of our knowledge and appreciation of the emotive power of infant death in the human past. This is why I regard the show a valuable stage from which to reflect on both mortality past and present.