Vikings, Monks, and a Good Old Story

Of the the History Channel’s biggest recent hits has been the historical drama, Vikings, based on the legendary ninth century Norwegian, Ragnar Lothbrok. The History Channel has long been struggling for stronger ratings, and Vikings’ success has encouraged them to do more historical fiction.

vikings-history-channel

Historians find historical fiction rather problematic, primarily because it relies on anachronism: the assumption that people in history thought just like us, even though they often didn’t. The creators want you to empathise with their characters, so you’ll keep watching the show. Historians are thus left with a quandary: we like historical fiction, because it encourages people to explore history, but it often portrays people from history inaccurately.

In Vikings, this is most clearly seen in Athelstan, a monk captured by Ragnar from the famous Lindisfarne monastery. By this time in real history, Celtic and Benedictine monks had recently converted most of Ireland, Wales and England. For example, the founder of Lindisfarne, St Aidan, converted the warrior-king, Oswald of Northumbria in the 600s. Northumbria had been pretty violent when Aidan got there, but monks had already converted lots of rather violent places by then anyway. Part of the reason the Vikings found it so easy in the 900s to raid monasteries, was because by then Christianity had brought so much peace to those areas, that monasteries were internally safe from attack.

If a real monk from Lindisfarne was captured and enslaved in Norway, he would have already been embedded in a religious culture proudly dedicated to successful mission, particularly in extremely violent areas. He would be thoroughly trained in conversing theologically with other worldviews, showing the comparative benefits of Christianity. And he would be standing on the recent historical reality of having seen Christianity radically transform his own society, from one of violence to one of relative peace.

So how does Athelstan go? This is perhaps best seen when he asks Ragnar’s friends about Valhalla. They proudly tell of its halls, where warriors kill each other every day, and then are resurrected to drink all night, before it starts all over again. Athelstan then asks them how they think the world was created, and they explain that it was created from the vanquished corpse of one of their gods, Ymir. They then contemptuously ask Athelstan how he thinks the world was created. We don’t hear Athelstan’s response – all we see is his bewildered expression, which implies, “How can my puny creation story compete with something as awesome as that?!”

Plenty is historically accurate here: the description of Valhalla, and the Norse creation story; the early Viking contempt for the Christians they had just vanquished; their identifying violence with glory. But Athelstan’s attitude is just fanciful, historically. In real life, he would have been trained since a child how to answer the question confidently, drawing upon both Scripture and Christianity’s historical tradition. Christian Celtic monasticism framed creation as being the glorious explosion of the Trinity’s symbiotic love, to create a loving symbiosis between all of creation, and especially between all humanity, made in His image to reflect that symbiotic love. If Athelstan were a real monk, his embarrassed silence would be the exception, not the rule.

But Athelstan isn’t meant to represent a real monk. He’s meant to look Durham_Cathedrallike he does, but really, he’s there merely to suggest the Vikings had every right to show contempt for Christianity. That’s because the History Channel assumes its audience increasingly wants to show contempt for Christianity, and so will empathise with Vikings’ characters.

Historically, though, within 100 years of Ragnar, Scandinavia had become profoundly Christian. Indeed, the Norsemen had become Normans, and had begun building the greatest Christian cathedrals in history, all across western Europe.  And that was not because the Vikings were forced into Christianity by vanquishing Christian kings – the Vikings were the ones doing the vanquishing. The vanquished Christians converted their vanquishers. That was because, when the Norse worldview was compared to the Christian worldview, the Vikings abandoned their old worldview in droves.

Sadly, people will watch Vikings uncritically, and will actually think they’re getting an accurate understanding of history. Their understanding might fit neatly with their pre-conceived prejudices, but it won’t be history. It’ll be fiction, dressed in faux-fur as fact.

Matt Gray

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11 responses to “Vikings, Monks, and a Good Old Story

  1. Fantastic post, Matt. Thank you very much. I have a growing agitation when it comes to how peoples’ worldviews are portrayed with a bit too much modernity – or post-modernity, for that matter – in period pieces. Especially as it concerns the portrayal of woman. Unfortunately, though, having examined many films from many cultures from the last century, this is no new trend – in any culture, really. History will always be clouded somewhat by the subjectivity of human perspective.

    Regardless, I am writing to inquire about your conclusion. While I essentially agree with the idea, I am not sure about the bridging details of the second-to-last paragraph. I have not studied the history of the post-Roman British Isles thoroughly, but I understand that a majority of the initial raiding and conquering was by the Saxons, who I understand came from lands more associated with regions including present-day northern Germany. Furthermore, I understand that the Normans led by William the Conqueror who later invaded present-day England in 1066, thus displacing Saxon hegemony, which had before displaced British hegemony except in areas like Whales and even generally present-day Ireland and Scotland, came from what is today the region of northern France. Hence the English language is greatly derived not only from Latin (the Roman influence), but also German and French.

    I mention this not to discredit your theme in writing, which is important, but to clarify (for myself perhaps – I may be mistaken) about England’s Christian influences and the nature of those influence transforming the perspectives of Britain’s invaders. Your statement seems more in line with St. Patrick’s influence on Ireland, in other words, than the Christian captives’ influence on Scandinavia – as it relates to the culture and architecture of Western Europe, at least. For example, I understand that as the Papacy in Rome grew more politically powerful with the rise of monarchies in Western Europe, an after-effect of the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, Christianity was brought by the Normans in a slightly new and certainly more complicated way to British culture. The Normans did instigate the building great cathedrals and castles as they asserted their dominion against the Saxons and even the native Brits, hence giving rises to stories like Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott or the curious evolution of lore surrounding the hero of Robin Hood, not to mention earlier legends surround King Arthur.

    Anyway, pardon this long diatribe. I was only inclined to respond due to the subject of the post being on the importance or preserving more accurate history in the face of current perspective. If I am mistaken on my facts, however, I welcome correction. Thanks.

  2. Hi JD. Always happy to discuss English missional history. :)

    England began the Common Era as a Roman province, and after Boudica was defeated, moved increasingly towards the Roman religious framework. Constantine meant that it became Christian from the fourth century. However, when the Roman Empire abandoned Britain in 409-410, as you said, German Saxons and Angles conquered it, returning it to paganism.

    Meanwhile, Ireland – which had always remained fiercely independent of Roman rule and influence – had begun to converted to Christianity, thanks in part to Patrick (himself a captured Roman Briton who became an Irish slave). By the 600s, the Irish monastic “Peregrini” (missionaries) had begun converting Wales and England. Iona on the west of Britain, for example, became an influential monastery by about 563 with Columba; and in the east of Britain, as I said in this article, Lindisfarne became an influential monastery after St Aidan converted King Oswald of Northumbria (northern England) around 635.

    At almost exactly the same time, ANOTHER major missionary effort was begun independently from Rome, by Pope Gregory I (aka “the Great), via a missionary later called Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with Augustine of Hippo). Augustine converted the southern king, Ethelbert of Kent, around 599.

    Eventually, in 664, the two groups essentially united (overcoming VAST cultural differences! A fascinating story!) at the Synod of Whitby, thanks to the King Oswui of Northumbria. From there, they began escalating missions to the rest of Europe.

    While you’re right, the Normans formally invaded England with William the Conquerer in 1066, by then, the Norse had had a long history of, er, “interaction” with the English and especially their monks (easy picking for raids!). Many had since emigrated to England, and become Christians. William’s Normans invaded from NORMANdy in France, where they had already by then lived since at least the time of Duke Rollo around 910ish (when he also converted to Christianity, after beating up a fair chunk of France).

    An excellent source for a lot of this (and a ripping read anyway!) is the Venerable Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, which is easily available, for free (try http://www.ccel.org, for example). Obviously, I couldn’t go into this much detail in the post above, but I’m more than happy to expand for somebody who’s interested. :)

  3. I guess at the end of the day, though, I wasn’t suggesting that captured monks from England went to Scandinavia and were entirely responsible for having converted them. I think that’s probably part of the story, based on the evidence, but there are a lot of other factors involved in the reality of Norse conversion. My point was, the idea that ANY British monk would be the snivelling, inadequate kind of guy Athelstan is, would be VERY unusual.

    This is compounded by one of the later episodes in “Vikings”, where Athelstan not only formally abandons Christianity to become a follower of Oden et al, but also claims to have earlier been a MISSIONARY to Europe (France specifically) before settling at Lindesfarne. If that were true, he’d stand in a robust Christian missional tradition, such as Boniface (d754, patron saint of Germany), and would be one of the last people you could reasonably imagine would just abandon Christianity so readily.

  4. Thanks for the added details, Matthew, and especially for the link to Christian Classics Ethereal Library, which appears to be a rich digital feast of resources.

    Once again, it is unfortunate how passive, weak, or corruptible Christians are perceived and portrayed. There are some exceptions, and more than exceptions in real life, but there seems to be less general interest in highlighting those stories – for various reasons, I am sure. Alas.

  5. Nice discussion and nicer entry, Matt. I’ve just watched the episode of Lindisfarne in “Vikings” and lamented the unaccuracy of objects raided (ex: the altar cross, the one portable… looked really 13 Century or even Baroque, uchs!). But the point you make is more interesting than material unaccuracy.
    Thanks a lot. I’ll be watching you blog.

  6. Pingback: Anacronismos espirituales | Mujerárbol Nueva·

  7. The answer is he wanted to survive. Why Rattle the cage of these violent men and further separate yourself.

  8. Pingback: Top 5 posts of 2015 | Wondering Fair·

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