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.
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 like 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.