How historically accurate is Vikings? A look at the facts behind the show

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Is Vikings historically accurate? How historically accurate is Vikings? The hugely popular History series is about to air its new season, and more folks are talking about it than ever before. The one question that seems to follow Vikings around like a curse, though, is also the simplest: is Vikings historically accurate? During the show’s run, experts have given Vikings fairly high marks for getting a lot of little things right–though, of course, there are exceptions.

It’s probably worth noting right up front that a lot of the “Is Vikings historically accurate” questions stem from a general skepticism about History’s committment to the concept of historical accuracy. The network has become infamous for promoting controversial and downright spurious shows, such as a documentary that blamed LBJ for the Kennedy assassination, a Nostradamus-based special about the alleged end of the world, and a general turn away from history in favor of unrelated reality TV. Vikings creator Michael Hirst (of The Tudors fame) was well aware of this when he began work on the show, and has spoken of his desire to put all “Is Vikings historically accurate” concerns to bed from the outset.

At the same time, though Hirst, “had to take liberties with ‘Vikings’ because no one knows for sure what happened in the Dark Ages,” he told the New York Times before Vikings Season One premiered. “Very little was written then….We want people to watch it. A historical account of the Vikings would reach hundreds, occasionally thousands, of people. Here we’ve got to reach millions.”

Because of the Vikings’ comparative advances in seafaring technology, Hirst said, his is a show about exploration–and violence. “They were way ahead of other people in boatbuilding and navigation. They discovered America hundreds of years before Columbus,” he explained. “They had the technology to build a boat, but it wasn’t about the boat. It was about: Where is it going to take you?…I wanted to tell the story from the Vikings’ point of view, because their history was written by Christian monks, basically, whose job it was to exaggerate their violence.”

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So: is Vikings historically accurate? Does it get that part of the history right? The answer is yes, more or less. The reason, according to medievalists, is that everything we know about Vikings comes from sagas–and sagas are histories passed down orally. By their very nature, they are open to exaggeration and re-interpretation: sagas “are more historical fiction than fact, more legendary than accurate depictions of the past of great heroes and warriors,” Dr. Shannon Godlove, coordinator of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Certificate Program at Columbus State University, reminds us. Specifically, Vikings is based on the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, a tale of events that allegedly took place about 1200 years ago. As Kimberleigh Roseblade clarifies, “With any historical adaptation, there is likely to be flaws mixed in with the facts.”

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That said, maybe the biggest flaw in Vikings‘ premise is that the Danes had not heard of the British Isles when the show begins. That idea is “absolutely ludicrous,” according to the Daily Targum, which notes that “trading routes along the North Sea date back even before the Roman invasion of Gaul in the 1st century B.C.” And, technically, we should always refer to the Vikings as the Danes–that is, when they’re not out being uppercase-V Vikings. Dr. Godlove explains: “Viking actually means ‘pirate’ in Old English, which is to say that it is an action or a profession. When Ragnar raided Wessex, he was being a ‘Viking,’ but when he’s at home farming, he’s just a ‘Dane.'”

Another of the show’s liberties is its compression of time: Ragnar’s season one raid of the monestary is probably based on the real-life Sack of Lindisfarne, which occurred in 793 AD; the Siege of Paris that we see in season three, though, took place in 911. And, violence-wise, one of Vikings’ most infamous scenes is all fiction–there’s no record of, the real-life Athelstan’s crucifixion while in Wessex.

In fact, on a related (and surprising) note, not only was the notion of crucifixion foreign to the Vikings, they didn’t have corporal punishment at all: instead, the worst judgment a person could recieve was to be outlawed by the rest of his group. “The man would be banished,” says the Targum;the Norse word ‘skoggangr’ for outlawry literally translates as ‘forest-going,’ that is to say he would be forced to live within the forests rather than within society.”

To the surprise of many a viewer, one of the most-often-overlooked inaccuracies on the show is its depiction of swordfightery. The inaccuracy, according to Academie Duello, is that Vikings did most of their fighting with their shields. “The sword does the damage but is tactically only secondary,” states Viking combat expert Roland Warzecha. “Because of the way these weapons were used in conjunction, Viking Age sword and shield combat was based on shield binds, and blade-on-blade contacts hardly ever occurred.”

Finally, the show’s reliance on a semi-magical Sunstone for navigational purposes is probably bunk, though historians can’t say for sure. Similar navigation could have taken place with any crystal: “the Vikings could have discovered this simply by choosing a transparent crystal and looking through it [via] a small hole in a screen,” says Academie Duello. And no sunstone has yet been found in any Viking settlement–though Guardian piece on the show pointed out that existence of a sunstone is now “generally accepted” among historians, but only because one was found in an Elizabethan shipwreck dated to 1592.

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Having said all that, what does Vikings get right? For one thing, Dr. Godlove claims that the show’s costumes are bang-on accurate, often based directly on illustrations from the period. (It’s worth pointing out, though, that Academe Duello suggests the show tends to skimp when it comes to armor for its warriors.) Vikings‘ noteworthy haircuts–particularly those for the men–are also period-accurate, as is its liberal use of makeup. Viewers are often surprised to find out that the makeup worn by the Vikings cast is, for the most part, true to the period; visitors from the Middle East made copious mention of the Danes’ maquillage, which was cutting-edge for the ninth century.

And the foreign language we hear sprinked throughout the show? That’s a hybrid of a couple of dead languages, but can be considered more or less correct, says a delighted Dr. Godlove. “I still can’t get over the fact that there is a show on TV where characters speak medieval dead languages to each other. This makes me so happy,” gushes the good Doctor, who hears in the language a mix of Vulgar Latin and Reconstructed Frankish.

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Another shock: the show’s depictions of largely independent women are largely correct, though the “Is Vikings historically accurate” crowd often has a hard time believing it. At that time, “women who had been widowed or divorced had greater freedom to determine their sexual and marital relationships than women in other parts of early medieval Europe”–a sharp contrast in a time when women were usually property. When Lagertha divorces Ragnar? She would have been able to do so. When she chooses whom to marry next? Also her right. “Women [in this society] had a great deal more political influence and many more legal rights” than their contemporaries, reminds Dr. Godlove.

If you are intrigued by the basis for the show–or you just want to discover more “Is Vikings historically accurate” nits to pick for yourself–you might check out this PDF of the genuine Saga of Ragnar, translated into easily digestible English for your pleasure.

And, to watch for yourself (hopefully with a keener set of eyes than before), tune in to Vikings Thursday nights at 10 PM EST on History.

RELATED ARTICLE: Vikings Season 4 spoilers and speculation

(Photo credits: Is Vikings historically accurate via History on Facebook)

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