I just found this article about the history that the show deals with, and sure enough, it says many of the same things I said:
The problem — and this is serious in a series coming from a network that calls itself the History Channel — is that this is precisely the opposite of the political dynamic that was actually playing out in the Viking Age.
In the Viking Age, there was indeed an old tradition — but it was a tradition of freedom and democracy. And there were fresh new ideas about — but they were ideas of centralization and autocracy.
Again, I’m not sure this means the show isn’t worth watching, as long as we remember it’s fiction. If anything I hope it’ll get more people interested in this period and region so that they’ll read up on the real history.
I’m really enjoying the Vikings show on the History Channel. I may just be displaying my ignorance here, but so far as I know this is one of the first dramatic narratives on television to feature the Scandinavians. I love that they aren’t shying away from the fact that Vikings were essentially pirates, and I’m enjoying the featuring of things and Norse mythology. (Did anyone else get a feeling of foreboding when Ragnar saw Odin? Since he’s such an ambiguous figure? As much an omen of bloodshed and catastrophe as he is of victory.)
However, I do think it’s necessary to note a few historical inaccuracies I’ve noticed so far. My research has been mostly in the medieval period, but I have read a little about the Viking Age, and I think it’s a little unfortunate that there are some pretty basic errors about the way Scandinavian society worked at that time on a show aired by the History Channel. (Then again, History has never been particularly known for its accuracy.)
- A thing would have essentially been a democratic assembly, one in which cases were tried (as was shown in the first episode) and a lawspeaker gave a judgment. So there are three problems, so far as I can see, with how the thing was portrayed on the show: (1) Haraldson, who is an earl (the Old Norse term would be jarl), would not have played the role of a lawspeaker. A jarl was a sort of chieftain or local king (on a very small scale), just like Haraldson. However, a lawspeaker was a man chosen to recite the laws, provide judgment in criminal cases, and preside over the thing. He had no authority outside of the thing, and the office of lawspeaker would not be held by a jarl. (2) The decisions made at a thing were legislative and judicial in nature, but the thing had no executive power. It was up to the people to enforce the decisions that had been made. It would not have declared a death penalty; rather, it would have outlawed the man, and from there he would have been given a certain set amount of time to flee the country in safety, after which he could be legally killed by anyone who met him. (3) The decisions made at the thing were not the whims of a single man, neither a jarl or a lawspeaker. All sides of a case would be heard and deliberated, and the lawspeaker’s final judgment was the result of this essentially democratic process.
- Another minor problem with the thing scene is that it’s held at Haraldson’s Great Hall, rather than at a thingstead, which was a neutral ground set aside for the holding of things. The shelters which people would use at the thingstead were not permanent buildings as shown in the show, but rather “booths” that would be set up anew each time a thing was held.
- Though the raid on Lindisfarne was the beginning of the Viking Age, it was certainly not the first knowledge that Scandinavians had of England. The idea that they might have believed there were “no lands in the West” is absolutely false. (By the way, the description of England as “West” is not an error. Though it’s technically south of Scandinavia, they spoke of England, as well as the Faroes, the Hebrides, etc. as part of “the West”.)
- Though Lindisfarne was indeed raided by Vikings, it is not known who conducted the raid. I suppose Ragnar Lodbrok is as good a candidate as any, but it’s not historically known. However, we do know that he was in England and met King Ælla in 840, while the Lindisfarne raid was in 793. This is a difference of many decades, while the show makes it seem like the two events happened in the same year, if not the same month or even week.
- Finally, and this is a rather minor quibble, but I find it strange that Haraldson would be addressed thusly. Haraldson is a patronymic, and would have been used mainly to distinguish him from others who shared his given name. In the show it seems to be the only name he has.
Like I said, medieval history in Norway is really my strong point, not the Viking Age, so if any of this is wrong please don’t hesitate to tell me. Also, none of this is intended for the purpose of bashing the show or discouraging anyone from watching it. I’m really enjoying it, but knowing the real history behind it should make it more enjoyable.
— Charlie, Girls, “Hard Being Easy”