Guest post — Vikings’ historical background

Northmen on the Raid

Randas bæron
sæwicingas ofer sealtne mersc,
manna menio; micel angetrum
eode unforht.

Seavikings, many men,
carried their shields over the salty seas,
a selected flock, that walked
withour fear.

Shady men with long, dreaded hair and beards, emerging from the morning fog over the river, wielding mighty axes and brazen swords, calling upon their wild, nordish gods, hiding their muscular, sea-torn bodies behind colourful, round shields and jumping over the planks of their dragon-headed ship. Soon everywhere is fire and blood, for nobody can escape their wrath; nobody can stop their force. And before any help can arrive, the savage northerners are gone with all the supplies and treasures; and all the healthy men and women they didn’t slaughter. They are the demons of the seas, the pest of the coasts – they are Vikings.

This, or something like this, comes to everybodys mind if one speaks of vikings. But there is more to these rough northmen than just the looting and robbing, slaughtering and plundering. They also were merchants, very competent smiths and excellent farmers. And: they most likely didn’t call themselves vikings!
Even though the origin of the term viking isn’t fully developed, it is proven that some of the earliest indications of the term vikingr are to be written down in the 11th century, just after the great era of the northmen had ended. Overall the Old World, from the Frankish Empire to the biblical lands, viking had become a term losely used to define lawless, savage raiders which came from the sea or greater rivers.
Also the modern term vikings is never used to describe a certain ethnic group, but a range of various folks and nations that emerged around the same time in southern scandinavia, who prayed to a variety of more or less overlapping gods and used similar tactics and strategies, up to the famous dragon-headed warships (but: they did not put their shields on the railing whilst on the sea, for they would have fallen off in the first itsy-bitsy storm).
One also has to distinguish between the víking, a private raid for loot and fame, and the official war-raids, which were ordered by kings or their opponents to improve positions.

In the series Vikings, brought to us by History Channel, we follow the early beginnings of the fast-forming viking nations, which frightened Northern Europe for almost 300 years, until the last vikings had been defeated at the great battle of Hastings (1066 A.C.) and the large trade post Haithabu was burned to the ground.
Although there already had been raids against Anglo-Saxonian settlements and forts in the early 700s, the time entitled “viking age” by danish archaeologist Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae, is set to start with the raid on the Northumbrian monastery Lindisfarne in 793 A.C. Yes, the one where Æthelstan, whose existance is unlikely, got robbed from, but where the bones of a saint named Æthelwald were preserved, until the bishop Eardulf left the monastery in fear of further viking attacks in 875. Also the humane treatment of slaves amongst viking earls is documented and shouldn’t be compared to a concept of slavery as in Rome or Persia.
As shown in the series the impact of the vikings’ emergence was heavy on the Saxonian kingdoms and in the following years hordes of fame-hungry warriors raided the pre-english kingdoms Northumbria, Wessex and Mercia almost every summer. Most of these raids were of “private” nature and had personal enrichment as their only target. That’s because personal riches also granted access to higher social ranks, bigger lands and a bigger horde of men, willing to fight under the same banner, which equals bigger raids in the next year and so on. Also there were raids of a more “royal” nature, which had the target of gaining influence, war-money and estates. In the series this is portrayed in the beginning of season two, when Jarl Borg attacks Ragnars earldom in an attempt of extinguishing his legacy.

But to keep it in the spirit of this blog, I want to give some historic information on the characters, which are portrayed in this little, unagitated masterpiece of a drama.
Ground rules: 1. Denmark was a kingdom, almost in the medieval understanding. A king got elected through his godly heritage, and he reigned over men, not over lands. Every man with enough money and loyal men opposed a potential threat to the throne, even though the king had to be approved by the eldest. 2. England was merely a concept and consisted mainly of the Anglo-Saxonian kingdoms Wessex, Sussex, Essex, Northumbria, Kent, East Anglia and Mercia, and the celtic regions Wales and Strathclyde.

First, of course, there’s Ragnar Lothbrok, who is said to have lived through the 9th century, but whose existance is highly controversial. Ensured is that a viking leader raided the northern Frankish Empire around 845, who had to be bought off with nearly three metric tons of silver and gold. In frankish chronicles he is called Reginheri and he might have been affiliated with the Danish king, even though the king did not approve of his raids. Under strange circumstances Reginheri died soon after these raids. Yet it is also likely that Ragnar and Lodbrok where two seperate individuals and history merged them into one.
A more fictional approach of heritage is the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok, a hero of viking sagas, who is mentioned in the Icelandic Ragnars saga lodbrokar and in the 9th book of the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian of the 12th century. Here Ragnar comes from high ancestry, a Danish noble, whose name derives from the thick loden-trousers he wore whilst slaying a lindworm, to be protected from its poisonous bites. From this point the codices have nothing much in common except his first and second wife: Lathgertha (who is said to be a great warrior and of beautiful golden hair) and Thora; a third wife is either called Aslaug or Suanlogha. Aslaug is the daughter of Sigurd and Brünhild from the Völsunga saga and the real protagonist of the Ragnars saga. She also gives birth to Ragnar’s sons Björn and Sigurd, latter has the “Eye of the Snake”, just like his mother.

Also Ragnar and Aslaug had a son named Ivar, the Boneless. The series’ interpretation of his name (him having crippled legs) might be inaccurate, because beinlauss or beinlausi was a Norwegian expression for wind and so this byname could have been a hint to his expertise as a navigator. There was a real viking leader named Ivar Ragnarsson, who led the Great Heathan Army together with his brothers Halfdan and Ubber Ragnarsson, to seek vengeance for their father, who was executed by the Northumbrian king Ælle. They plundered and conquered great parts of the Anglo-Saxonian kingdoms between 865 and 877, just to leave after some years of rehabilitation to keep on terrorizing the European mainland. The settlers who were left behind established the kingdom of Jorvik (York), which held up until 954, when the last Danish king Erik Bloodaxe was driven away.

Then there is the devious king Egbert of Wessex. His date of birth is unknown, but he ruled the kingdom of Wessex from 802 until his death in 839. Under his regence Wessex became the most powerful kingdom of the Anglo-Saxonian heptarchy and vanquished the long supremacy of the kingdom of Mercia.
Last but not least, the bearded big-player, king of Denmark and breaker of nearly every oath he makes: king Horik I. He, like his pendant from Wessex, is based on a historic template. King Horik of Denmark reigned from 827 to 854. His father was known for his wars against Charlemagne, but killed by two of his nephews and succeeded by his nephew Hemming. Horik and one of his brothers overpowered Hemming quickly and took what was meant to be rightful theirs. After they expelled another rival only Horik was still alive and became sole king. He refused Christianity and raided Hamburg in 845, destroying its cathedral. It is told he was affiliated with above mentioned Reginheri and even having him and his followers killed unter mysterious circumstances, because of disapproval of his success on raids in the Frankish Empire. No spoilers intended.

That’s it folks, I’ll leave you here and hope you enjoyed this bit of “dry backstage knowledge” to the rainbow-world of television. Have a nice day and stay alert, sincerely Advocate of Entropy.

Update: Advocate of Entropy now has his own blog.


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