5 Things The History Channel’s “Vikings” Got Terribly Wrong

The series's timeline does not match with the historical chain of events. Credits: Winchester University History Student's Blog

The series’s timeline does not match with the historical chain of events. Credits: Winchester University History Student’s Blog

The Timeline of the Series Is Messed Up

In the series, Ragnar is depicted as a man in his mid-late twenties. He is portrayed as the leader of the raid on Lindisfarne, an island off the northern coast of England. Ragnar Lothbrok, the historical figure, happened to invade this island 50 years later. Therefore, he would have to be an elderly man in his seventies, because it was in the 840’s that he and his Viking fleet invaded and sacked Paris. Taking the historical period into consideration, it is highly unlikely that he was 90 years old when he died in Northumbria. Except in rare cases, no man lived that long 1000 years ago.

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What do you think?

  • RobDegraves

    This is a very poorly written and researched article. 1. Ragnar is a mythological figure who’s exact origin could be based on a number of person, not all of which are Swedish. You can’t say he might not have existed as well as give him a definite origin. 2. Many people lived to a very advanced age, assuming they survived the various and all too common ways one could be killed. You would have had about the same proportion of people living to 90 as you do now, as long as they didn’t suffer any major illnesses, though this also depended on diet. It was the infant mortality rate that lowered the average life span. 3. No problem there, the Norse had been to England for centuries before. 4. Combat. The article has this almost completely wrong. Shields were very important but were not considered the primary weapon. The most common weapon would be the axe or spear, simply for economic reasons. Swords were expensive and only used by the wealthy. There are a lot of debates currently ongoing on how the Norse fought, considering that there is very little evidence since the Norse didn’t write. We have sagas and archeology to guide us, after that it’s all trying to recreate it from a practical stand point. Also, armor was also a question of practicality. Mail was rare because it was very expensive and even helms were hard to come by initially. Most Norse would have fought in what they could afford, leather and cloth most often. 5. The Jarl is badly portrayed in the first season, it was good to have him gone as it did not reflect Norse culture in any way. The show got better at that later on. I am all for bringing more correct historical content to tv and film, but this sort of article does not help. One also has to keep in mind how little we know about the Norse, particularly the details. There is constant debate on even well established facts about the various Norse cultures.

  • Shamis Sabri

    nice article

  • solerso

    The stylized, post modern hipster/red neck tough guy look is pretty dated and stupid too. As you’ve pointed out “Viking” society was not elitist anywhere near the extent assumed in the TV show..Viking “kings” (chieftans) were herders and fishermen. Men did not have the time or the interest in styling their hair – or in daily shaving, beards were ubiquitous, and worn long. From early medieval Scandanavian wood cuts and personal descriptions from period literature we have to assume that men grew their hair until it became an impediment, (this a matter of individual comfort/taste) then they cut it .Only slaves had shaven heads.The medieval tonsure worn (in humility) by monks may be, in part, a remembrance of this

    • Robert Ryan Corbell

      This is correct. Norsemen and their neighbors the Geats, Swedes, and Danes as well as later the Icelanders who are collectively known as the Vikings are described in writings of the era as well as their own sagas and shown in their own art as having full beards or if shaven, a thick and long mustache. Likewise, the hair of a free man was longer to show his status while cut off at a manageable length to keep from getting in the way during work or battle, usually between the chin and onto the shoulders. These styles of hair and facial hair could be brushed with special combs made of beech-wood or whale-bone and then oiled and braided for special occasions such as feasts and pagan holidays. Varangian guardsmen on the other hand, would wear their hair quite long closer to the depictions of Vikings you see in movies as well as keep a clean-shaven face and wear earrings which were all in keeping with Byzantine fashions and made them the target of jokes questioning their sexuality by their Islamic Abbasid enemies and seen as traitors by their own people for taking up foreign ways, although the latter had more to do with many of them becoming Christians than anything. The style shown in the show that a number of characters that are supposed to be warriors and free-born children including a young Bjorn Ironside of trimmed bangs in front of the ears and a shaven back that the writers love to brag about being “historically accurate” was indeed one that existed at the time in Viking culture, but worn by male thralls, or male slaves to expose their brand and status. A parent of a free-born child would never dream of debasing their son by giving them such a haircut nor would a warrior do this to himself. The scalp-lock style seen was not one even belonging to the Vikings at all, but to the Rus who were their allies and trade partners and as such would much later become associated as the hairstyle worn by high-ranking Cossack leaders in honor of them. Hair and facial hair throughout history and what is considered “manly” and such is some interesting stuff.

  • Robert Ryan Corbell

    This is only partly true. Historians generally agree Ragnar Lothbrok (Old Norse and Old Danish for “hairy britches” since he liked wearing woolen peasant drawers even as ruler in the saga and why it took forever for the serpents to kill him, not a family name and another thing to criticize about a show that makes “Braveheart” look like “Barry Lyndon” by comparison) is likely based on the real-life Ragnar Sigurdsson who led the 845 Siege of Paris which was nothing like the show where they show it looking like the 886 one with crude tree-trunk rams and ladders under Rollo who was completely unrelated to him. The 845 one was part of a series of revenge wars sparked by the Bloody Verdict of Verdun (where Charlemagne slaughtered the pagan Saxons, Frisians, and some of the Danish Vikings) led by the staunchly pagan king Horik I who also appears in a highly fictionalized version in the show and whose army was commanded by his thane and right-hand man Ragnar, a Swedish mercenary who was known to the Danish Vikings for his skill as a tactician as well as a warrior. He didn’t win the battle via the “Trojan horse” funeral trick, (that was actually the historical Bjorn Ironside who pretended to be ailing and accepted last rites from a Byzantine priest to break into the fortress at Luna and get the keys to the dungeon as well as weapons for him and his men who had been captured and fight their way out of the city as well as get back to his 100 ships and raid the place now that the city guard was dead) but starved the city out drawing out the army of Charles the Fat and pretended to retreat with their ships only to reveal that almost all his warriors were hiding on each side of the Seine River in the forests and slaughtered almost the entire Frankish army but the royal guard of a few dozen and the king himself. He was spared only because he gave them all the riches of the city in the form of enough gold, silver, and jewels as well as a number of peasants as slaves to fill half the roughly 100 longships, half of which were taken apart and rebuilt (they had taken a number of carpenters and camp-followers as well as their slaves with them for repairs and building forts) into knarrs or cogs, i.e. transport boats. When it comes to weapons and tactics, it’s absolutely true the Vikings used their shield more than their weapons during certain scenarios with it being as much a weapon for bashing and crushing alongside the usual defensive tool that could still be used actively for catching axes and swords, especially during “svinfylking”, or the “boar’s snout” flying wedge or during a shield wall as well as during the “holmgang” duels of honor. However, the show and the article overstates the use of swords which were mainly used by rich warriors and rulers and it was spears that were the primary weapon of war, as reflected in sagas and mythology with the spear as the favored weapon of Odin with throwing being discouraged for practical reasons (nobody wants to lose their weapon) and stabbing techniques being carried over to teach sword use. Axes were a close second and battle-axes were favored by berserkers while a simple, tomahawk-like hand-axe was carried by all as they were easy to forge and make and a practical tool as well as back-up weapon which along with a seax knife, tinder-bag with flint and steel, and personal sewing kit with plenty of string and leather cord could be used to repair and fix anything as everyone in Viking society was trained in basic carpentry, tanning, and leather-work/tailoring from a young age due to a harsh existence. It’s also true that in the pre-Viking era known as the Vendel era, Norse and Danish raiders did try to attack the Scottish coast and make war on the Saxons in Northumbria as well as raids in Ireland near Tara when the High Kings were still pagan prior to the Christian conversion of England and full conversion of Ireland but their numbers and ships were too small, making them easy targets for scouting parties and yeomen yet able to raid small villages for supplies and livestock as well as captives to sell to the Baltic tribes and Finns. Baltic tribes were easier to raid as mentioned in the first season of the show in spite of the references to the Rus (the Finns and Est along with the Livonians would make more sense) while the Finns could hold their own and were better as trade partners. The big screw-up of the series that this page does address well is the portrayal of jarls and kings as absolute rulers with complete control and the mention of the Althing as a novel concept that falls apart in the most recent episodes is indeed the opposite of real life. Jarls would have been elected by the “thing” by the elders of the village and if they became too powerful or proud then they could be cast out or fight to retain the title through combat. The idea of a king who seized power and became ruler over all who was not to be questioned was the novelty, the precedent set by Harald Finehair of Norway who is shown as the uncle of his great grandpa Bjorn Ironside for a real show of how much of a historical cluster-hump this show is. In short, this article does set straight certain things the show gets wrong while in the process either oversimplifying or not getting it quite right itself.

  • Major Frazor

    Sorry this is a shocking article. You’ve literally said that it’s widely known that Ragnars’ sons were historical figures and then said Ragnar may not have existed? And you attack the validity of the show despite the fact it is by your own admission “loosely based”. Please take it down.

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