History’s hit new show Vikings has drawn a fair amount of praise from critics who have hailed it as the next Game of Thrones and the show that will rescue the network formerly known as The History Channel from its ancient aliens past. The show follows the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary 8th century Viking who carved out a small kingdom for himself. The show has been renewed for a second season and its unclear whether they’ll stay with Ragnar or jump ahead to show Viking quests to Iceland, Greenland, and beyond. Personally, I’d love to see them tackle the attempt by some eastern Vikings to sack Constantinople, but that will probably have to wait for season 67 at this rate. Either way, despite the praise from critics and viewers, the show has come under fire from historians. Often the criticism focuses on how the Vikings are dressed, whether Iceland Spar was really used , or what type of government they had. All these concerns are fine for the nit-picking historian, yet they omit quite possibly the most egregious error – that the Viking world had no knowledge of the British Isles or anything outside the Baltic.
Some have pointed this glaring inaccuracy out, most notably a piece in the American Spectator which was overshadowed by the author’s insanely paranoid argument that the show was an attack on American conservatism. The belief that 8th century Scandinavians were isolated from the rest of the world is preposterous and so easily demonstrably false. For instance, ask scholars the causes of the Viking Age and one of the most popular hypotheses is that Scandinavian traders were facing increasing discrimination from an increasingly Christianized Europe. Viking raids began as reprisals for attacks on their merchants. In this sense the show does invoke the clash of civilizations and religions, yet again from a position that neither knew of each other. To see why this narrative of isolation is plainly stupid, one only needs to look at the origins of Anglo-Saxon England. The history of pre-medieval England, perhaps more than any other country, is one of invasion and assimilation. Some of the earliest invaders came from what is now Spain’s basque region, followed by the Britons, the Romans, the Angles and Saxons, the Danes, and finally the Normans before things settled down. The last two are more or less Viking invasions even though the Normans were Christianized at that point, yet the Anglo-Saxon invasion clearly shows some parallels to the later ones. First, take a look where they were before moving on to England.
Yup, that’s right at the mouth of Vikingland, in modern-day Denmark, a full half-millenia before the Viking Age. Of course the reasons for the Anglo-Saxon invasion differ from the causes of Viking expansion. Most historians agree that geographic pressures forced migration from the eroding landscape of Northern Europe and various communities of Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and Jutes lived side-by-side in England. A migration map provides a more detailed view of the 5th century.
It should be fairly clear then, that Scandinavian communities had a close relationship and history with the British Isles, (not to mention that all Danish Vikings had to do was walk south to realize that there is a world outside the Baltic). One could view Scandinavia as the center of two spheres, one in the Baltic and one in the North Sea. That would explain why Danish and Norwegian vikings raided and built trade networks to the West, and why Swedish vikings went east, establishing kingdoms in Russia. Viking expansion was very much based on already known trade routes and expanding those routes. For instance, Dublin was founded as a Viking trading post. Viking culture certainly focused on battle and personal glory, but these were more influences for their expansion and quests for new territories rather than their sole motivation.
I understand why the show might try to take such a narrative – voyage and discovery comprise the common conception of Vikings. But if this is what they wanted to go for, then why not tell the story of Leif Erickson or other Vikings who really were explorers? There is not a single episode that does not play off the supposed VIking ignorance of Britain or vice versa and every time it makes me cringe and takes it out of any historical context. In this way, Vikings comes off as much more fantasy than historical drama (the opposite might be said of Game of Thrones). The viewer gets lost in the mythical realm of Scandinavia with staggering mountains and fjords serving as symbols for its isolation rather than the flat plains of Denmark bordering the Frankish empire.
Why is this important?
This portrayal of Vikings would be forgivable if it wasn’t on a channel called History. I’m not saying they need to get every little detail right, but they can’t misconstrue the entire fabric of the past to try to milk dry a new world/clash of civilization narrative. Ignoring trade networks and cross cultural interaction ignores one of the largest driving factors of history, it’s how ideas spread, how alliances form, and how empires rise. Very few times, outside the age of exploration, have groups encountered each other unexpectedly, without knowledge of their existence. The Roman Empire knew relatively little of the Chinese, yet thrived off trade with them, especially for their silk. Scandinavia knew about their neighbors.
This view of history also promotes the myth of barbarism, that anything outside the Greek/Roman/Christian worlds were just tribes of barbarians, ignorant about their world and intent on raiding and pillaging. History has done some job to ameliorate that by giving glimpses of the legal system and religion, which is why I say it feels more like fantasy. We tend to view barbarians on the periphery of great civilizations as distinct and separate groups when in reality there was plenty of interlinking networks and cross-culture communication. Even before the Viking Age the Danes had begun constructing defensive fortifications against the Franks in the form of Danevirkes, clearly designed to mark their boundaries and keep others out much like Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. Nonetheless the border town of Hedeby served as an important trading center during Ragnar’s time between the Franks, Slavs, and Scandinavians.
The Viking Age did not emerge as a clash of civilizations but rather as the north’s ascendancy to power relative to other European kingdoms, and alongside the economic growth of the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Portraying Scandinavians as internally responsible for the sudden start of the Viking Age by designing a new ship breaks a technological bottleneck that never even existed.
This critique may feel like nitpicking, but the narrative is referenced in nearly every episode and is the driving motivation for the Vikings. Outside of this glaring error it’s not necessarily a bad show, it’s just hard to compartmentalize the terrible history from the good.