Vikings is a historical drama television series created and written by Michael Hirst for the History channel, a Canadian network. Filmed in Ireland, it premiered on March 3, 2013, in Canada. The series concluded on December 30, 2020, when the second half of the sixth season was released in its entirety on Amazon Prime Video in Ireland, ahead of its broadcast on History in Canada from January 1 to March 3, 2021. A sequel series, titled Vikings: Valhalla, premiered on Netflix on February 25, 2022.
Vikings is inspired by the sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, a Viking who is one of the best-known legendary Norse heroes and notorious as the scourge of Anglo-Saxon England and West Francia. The show portrays Ragnar as a farmer who rises to fame by raiding England and eventually becomes a Scandinavian king, with the support of his family and fellow warriors. In the later seasons, the series follows the fortunes of his sons and their adventures in England, Scandinavia, Kievan Rus’, the Mediterranean and North America.
I recently watched all six seasons of Vikings. I found it an entertaining series, the exploration of people and a particular period of time. The story line seems to include so many threads, the invasion of England, Francia, expeditions to the Mediterranean, Iceland and North America, engagement with the Rus all tided together into a few lifetimes. This departure from history is something that Shane Cubis
Even when Vikings is portraying real-world events, it’ll often take the opportunity to shift them back and forth through time by a few decades or centuries. For example, when Ragnar and co. raided the Lindisfarne monastery back in season one and kidnapped Athelstan? That was 793.
Skip forward two seasons for the big Paris assault? That was 845 – half a century later. Alfred the Great took the throne in 871. And as we already said, Rollo was Duke of Normandy – from 911 to 927. This is like Gough Whitlam also being the driving force behind Federation, the Republic Referendum and the Postal Plebiscite.
What is most ironic is the argument that ‘Vikings‘ themselves are a fictious invention. As Alex Woolf suggests, “There was no such thing as a ‘Viking’ in the medieval period”.
The construct of the ‘Vikings’ conflates and blurs the distinction between eighth- and 12th-century pirates. Tenth-century kings based in Dublin and Christian rulers such as Cnut, all of whom lived in very different societies, had different belief systems and political and economic objectives. Each of these contexts needs to be dealt with on its own terms and not within a 19th-century construct that has more than a hint of racist essentialism to it. It is high time that historians, both academic and popular, ditched the Vikings as an outmoded and dangerous way of thinking. The Vikings never existed; it is time to put this unhealthy fantasy to bed.
It could be argued that this is really an issue with how we talk about the whole medieval period:
The thing about history, though, is that much of our understanding of the past isn’t settled fact. Clark no longer believes that his estimate of 150 days, made early in his career, is accurate. “There’s a reasonable controversy going on in medieval economic history,” Clark told me. He now thinks that English peasants in the late Middle Ages may have worked closer to 300 days a year. He reached that conclusion by inspecting the chemical composition of fossilized human remains, as well as through evidence of the kinds of goods that urban peasants in particular had access to. These factors suggest that they may have lived more materially luxurious lives—eaten much more meat and other animal products, specifically—than usually estimated, suggesting that they had higher incomes than would be possible at the era’s common daily pay rates if they didn’t work most days of the year.
The problem is that boxing things and putting labels can help provide a sense of understanding and control, no matter how false that might be.