Our Complacent Present & Elusive Past

What is wrong with this picture?  

by Michael Djordjevitch

Well, yes, it does seem they’ve left their helmets behind --- but, would they?  

Of course not.  

But then, with their helmets firmly in place, we would not be able to notice the remarkably up-to-date appearance of these Television Vikings with their hipster haircuts and tattoos.

Those missing helmets :

The following image the History Channel Vikings is even more arresting in its absurdity: charging into battle with the upper body fully exposed to harm !?!  And THIS in times when even minor wounds could easily become fatally infected.

For all their unceasing and unforgettable contacts over several centuries with Western Europe as well as the East Roman World (when the anguished prayer, “God save us from the fury of the Northmen” was ceaselessly intoned from the remote Irish and Scottish Isles to the distant Urals), not a single source refers to tattoos (the one mention in arabic is likely nothing more than a figure of speech indicating infidels, that is, savages by definition).  

The currently very popular television series on the History Channel, Vikings purports to tell the tale of the bloody eruption of the historical Vikings into Western Europe during the Carolingian Age through the life of a known historical character, Ragnar Lothbrok.  Of course, this dramatized presentation is primarily meant to entertain, but what it also signals is that our attention today tends to be engaged, and held, almost exclusively by the comfortably familiar, and that we assiduously resist the genuinely unfamiliar.  Whatever aura of the exotic, the distant, the other, that remains in these films is nothing more than an unreflective and thinly veiled pretense.  

Setting aside the deeper issues of story and characterization, even the simple reality of clothing (where just enough of this period is knowable) falls all too predictably in these films into today’s hipster default of dark ragged hues and black leather.  However, surviving evidence clearly points to a Viking enjoyment of bright colors, especially vivid blues and reds, realized in skillfully woven fabrics of wool, linen and silk.  Similarly, Viking armor had little in common with what our film presentations depict.  In the Viking Age their armored panoply belonged to the Late Roman/Early Medieval types which were common throughout the European World.  

Chain-Mail, for example, was very hard to manufacture, largely an imported high-status possession, and only worn in full-blown pitched battles, rather than in raids.  Leather too was prohibitively expensive, thus also high-status.  Armor made in the Carolingian domains was assiduously sought out, either through gift-exchange, trade, or plunder.  The attire of the average warrior was probably mostly his everyday clothing supplemented by a homemade wooden shield and a helmet acquired in battle from the defeated.  His leaders, on the other hand, looked a lot like the very people they were sacking, pillaging, or extorting.  

It should be sobering to discover that an illustration for a popular mid-nineteenth century book gives us a far more authentic glimpse into this distant world.  Needless to say, beyond foreign-made armor, highly ornamented and color-filled imported fabrics were another manifestation of status.  

Here we see the rebel and champion of the old religion, Thorir Hund, in a reindeer-hide tunic, mortally wounding the vividly attired and soon to be canonised King Olaf II Haraldsson (995 - 1030), St. Olave, at the Battle of Stiklestad (a watercolor by Peter Arbo for the 1860 book, Billeder af Norges Historie).

Below is a photograph taken at a large scale reenactment in Poland commemorating a pitched battle late in the Viking Age between Vikings and Wends, an image strikingly consonant with the painting above.  

It is noteworthy that those ambitious European amateurs in Eastern Europe aspire to realising a greater fidelity to the surviving historical evidence than that extremely well funded and shamelessly hyped American enterprise, the so-called History Channel.

Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831 - 1892), below, offers us yet another image of Vikings engaged in a full-scale armed encounter towards the close of the tumultuous Viking Age, with his well known painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, where Harald Hardrada (1015 - 1066), the much storied King of Norway (and sometime Varangian guardsman at the Imperial Court of Constantinople)  met his surprising end. 

Albert Pierre René Maignan (1845 - 1908) in 1874, in his superb painting in the Musée d'Orsay called “Start of the Norman fleet for the conquest of England in 1066,”  offers us insight into another reality, that of those left behind.  This poignant tableau reminds us that there was much more to the life of a Viking than the bloody melee of raids and pitched battles.  

In subsequent posts we shall turn to this wider perspective.

You can explore more on this topic in the video below: