Viking History Q&A: Season 2, Episode 1

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History.com checks in with Vikings show researcher Justin Pollard to get the historical context for each Vikings Season 2 episode. 

Season 2, Episode 1: Brother’s War

Question: When Rollo fights with Jarl Borg, he is bare-chested, as are several others, though most of the Viking army is covered in leather armor, or at least clothing of some kind. Why does Rollo fight with such little protection?

Justin Pollard: There were two ideas behind having Rollo, (and some other characters) fight bare-chested. First, we were referencing a particular group of Viking warriors known as “Beserks” – the shock troops of their day. The term beserk itself may derive from the Old Norse for ”bare of chest” implying that these troops fought that way–although some sources claim they wore wolf skins-. Most of what we know of the berserkers comes from saga sources so can be a bit fanciful, but their method of fighting (beserkergang) involved suddenly entering a terrifying state of frenzy in which they might kill anything that crossed their path. In Hrólf’s Saga King Halfdan’s beserks are said to have killed men and cattle–anything they came across. This obviously made them a powerful, if volatile weapon, and whilst they were admired in Viking society for their skill in battle, they were feared and often sidelined in peace-time.

The second idea was to show the role fate played in the lives of Viking warriors. In their religion your fate was set at the moment of birth when the Norns wove it into a cloth which they then hung in the Hall of the Moon. Nothing could undo those threads so you could not alter what would happen to you. This might seem rather depressing but actually gave individuals enormous courage as, particularly in battle, you were throwing yourself into the hands of the fates. There was nothing to fear as what will be, will be. By having Rollo fight without armor, and hence so vulnerably, we were trying to convey that sense, that he knew his fate was set so he had nothing to fear.

Q: In her conversation with Lagertha, Princess Aslaug refers to her well-known parents, Brunhilde and Sigurd. Can you tell us more about who these figures were in Viking mythology?

JP: Aslaug’s putative parents were two of the greatest heroes from Norse mythology. Sigurd is the central character in the Völsunga saga and is the same character as Siegfried in the German Nibelungenlied, and hence in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle of operas. In the Völsunga saga, Sigurd agrees to kill Fafnir, the son of the dwarf king, who has taken a great treasure given to him by the gods in compensation for their killing of his brother Ótr. In this treasure is a cursed rig which turns Fafnir into a dragon. Sigurd has the magical sword Gram forged, then digs a pit and waits for Fafnir to walk over it. When he does he stabs him with the sword, killing him. He then bathes in the dragon’s blood, which grants him invulnerability, and drinks some as well which allows him to understand the language of birds. The birds tell him his step-father has also been tainted by the ring and so Sigurd kills him before eating the dragon’s heart which grants him the gift of prophecy.

It is after this that Sigurd meets the shield-maiden and Valkyrie Brynhildr, who promises herself to him, but prophecies that he will marry someone else. Sigurd goes to live at the Court of the Burgundian king Gjúki, whose wife Grimhild covets the ring and the treasure. She brews an ”ale of forgetfulness,”’ which makes him forget Brynhildr and he marries the queen’s daughter. Grimhil then tries to marry her son Gudrun to Brynhildr, but he cannot reach her castle as it is protected by a ring of fire. Sigurd agrees to change places with Gudrun, crosses the fire and wins her hand on his behalf. Eventually, Brynhildr discovers the truth and arranges for Sigurd to be murdered in his sleep. She then throws herself onto his funeral pyre so she can join him in Hel.

Q: In Episode 1, Rollo betrays Ragnar. Would that have in fact been a big deal in Viking culture, or is sibling and family loyalty a construct of our world? Can you tell us more about Viking kin relationships?

JP: The glue that held this society together was a Germanic concept of kinship, where at every level an individual held allegiance to the head of his kin group– he child to the parent, the parent to the head of the extended family, thence to the local lord and so up through the ranks to the proto-kings of the age. In the Anglo-Saxon poems of the period, the worst thing poets can imagine is not death—but being cast out from their kin group.

Your relationship to dead family members as well as living granted you status in this world. This is why Aslaug was said to be the daughter of two great mythological heroes and why so many of the Vikings raiders of the ninth century claimed to be “Sons of Ragnar.” Kinship gave you your place in society and, beyond your actual family, a warriors war band provided another family with similar ties. These bands needed to be closely knit for such a dangerous life and members would swear oaths to their leader. We know from later sources that this usually took the form of announcing your own lineage before touching the hilt of the leaders sword as a mark of fealty. An oath-breaker was an outcast, who could never enter Valhalla but would, after death, be cast up on the Corpse Shore in Hel.

Q: Rollo’s fate is decided by the Law-giver. Who can become a Law-giver and what was his (or her?) role in Viking society?

JP: The role of a Law-giver or Lawspeaker was unique to Scandinavian society and operated as part of the local assemblies known as ”Things.” Very unusually for the period, Viking society was remarkably democratic and major decisions were made at these annual or semi-annual gatherings where all free people in the community could have their say on issues affecting them. These could then be voted on. This was a place where justice could be meted out, where arguments could be legally settled and where officials, even kings, might be elected. It acted as a pressure valve for a kin-based society where grudges and vendettas might otherwise escalate dangerously.

Presiding over the Thing was the Lawspeaker. Their job was not to tell the people what to do – as an Anglo-Saxon king might–but to recite the law (which they had put to memory), make judgments based on the extant laws and also formulate any new laws that the people had decided upon. They were the repository of local law and stories to be consulted during discussions.

The Parliament of the Isle of Man is still named after the meeting place of their thing–Tynwald.

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Q: Ragnar suggests to Lagertha that he could take two wives, and they could live happily together. We know from Season 1 that the Vikings were pretty open-minded about sex. Can you tell us about monogamy and polygamy in Viking culture?

JP: Polygamy seems to have been widespread in Viking society, although we have to bear in mind that many of our sources are Christian chroniclers who like to cite this as further proof of their wickedness. The important distinction here is between official wives (who held possession of the ”bride-price” paid to her by her husband, as well as the dowry paid by her father) and concubines. According to the 11th century chronicler Adam of Bremen, a Viking man was only limited in the number of concubines he took by what he could afford and any children he had by them were considered legitimate. Concubines however had a much lower status than wives. Wives could tolerate them because they represented no threat and this is the cause of the tension between Lagertha and Ragnar. Ragnar is not suggesting taking Aslaug as a concubine, a role she would never accept, but as another wife who hence would represent a real threat to Lagertha.

Q: At the end of Episode 1, Lagertha declares her intention to divorce Ragnar. Women wouldn’t necessarily have had that freedom in Europe at that time. What were the Viking attitudes toward divorce?

JP: Women have a role in Viking society very unlike that of women in most of the rest of Europe.  This obviously depends on class as slave women, like their male counterparts, have no real rights at all. However, what marks out Viking society is that the difference between male and female rights are much less stark.

In Frankia, the women were chattels, belonging first to their fathers and then their husbands. Their property and possessions equally belonged in law not to them, but the man who had power over them. There were some exceptions amongst the very highest in society, but this was the general rule.

In Viking society, this wasn’t the case. Fathers would generally select a suitable husband for their daughters, but would ask the daughters opinion as well. Marriage was fundamentally considered a practical political institution—helping to bond families together—rather than a love match. Love might follow later. A father who didn’t ask his daughter could still force the marriage through, but might find that the daughter later renounced it.

If a husband and wife didn’t get on, the wife could divorce him, without his permission. All she needed to do was take her witnesses first to the door and then the bedside and declare there that the marriage was over. The husband then had to return her dowry and other gifts and leave. If her husband died, she could chose another husband or live without, as she wished.

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