Viking History Q&A: Season 2, Episode 3

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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 3: Treachery

Question: In this episode, Kattegat is under attack. How common was infighting among the Vikings?

Justin Pollard: In the period of our show infighting is very common between Vikings simply because there was no such thing as a single Viking country. In the pre-Viking age the populations of Scandinavia had been quite disparate and largely self-sufficient. There was no such kingdom as Norway, Sweden or Denmark at the time and no one with the power or administrative structures to rule such a thing. It was only during the Viking age that the first real Scandinavian kings with any real power emerge.

These kingdoms probably came about by aggregation. Local lords would vie for power to control a certain area and groups of those would fall under a single leader who in turn might ally themselves with another powerful local leader who they thought might help to consolidate their position. In time, these regional positions became hereditary and agglomerated into what we know today as the Scandinavian kingdoms. This was not always a peaceful process, however, and at the time of our series each small region of Scandinavia is really its own kingdom—usually with more than one individual claiming control over it.

Q: Was Kattegat a real place?

JP: Kattegat is actually a seaway–a strait between Sweden and Denmark which probably derives its name from the Dutch ”cat hole”–being a description of the very narrow navigable passage through those waters. We chose this as the name for Ragnar’s home for two reasons. First, we didn’t want to use the name of a real town as we have no accurate contemporary record of where Ragnar was actually from. Indeed the Christian sources of the period rarely distinguish beyond calling Vikings just ”pagans” or ”northmen.” We’re not even sure from which part of Scandinavia many of the early raiders came.

Second, the etymology of Kattegat as a difficult to get to place, seemed to fit for the tucked away, apparently unimportant settlement from which the Vikings raids on the west would explode.

Q: Rollo points out to Siggy that she is not a shield-maiden. Can you tell us more about shield-maidens, and their role in Viking society? How did a woman become a shield-maiden?

JP: The idea of the shield-maiden is one we have taken mainly from Norse mythology although there is some evidence for women taking an active role in battle in Scandinavian society–for instance the Byzantine historian John Skylitzes records women fighting with the Varangian Vikings against the Bulgarians in 971. Also according to the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, at Brávellir where Sigurd Ring and Harald Wartooth fought, it was the 300 shield-maidens who held the field.

Even this last account must really be considered fictionalized, however, and most of what we know comes from the sagas and other literary sources. According to the tale of Ragnar, Lagertha’s career as a warrior started when a Swithian chieftain, invaded Norway around 840 AD. Ragnar came to fight the Swedes, and many of the local women dressed themselves in men’s clothing and fled to his camp to fight. Impressed with her courage, Ragnar courted Lagertha from afar. She feigned interest, but when Ragnar arrived to seek her hand, he was set upon by a bear and a great hound which she had guarding her home. He killed the bear with his spear and choked the hound to death, and thus won the hand of Lagertha in marriage. This is clearly a romanticized tale, but the idea of women fighting alongside the men is certainly not unbelievable.

In the sagas, a shield-maiden was a woman who often bore a burning grudge that could only be avenged through bloodshed. Someone who had put on men’s clothes (which was somewhat taboo in Viking society) and moved out into the realm of men. The purpose for us in the series was to demonstrate that women in Viking society had many more rights and freedoms than women in the rest of Europe at this date (and indeed for centuries after) and were much more vigorous actors on the public stage. Women certainly did occasionally fight in Viking society and the legend of the shield-maiden would be one known to every girl and woman–and , indeed, every man at that time.

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Q: What was Wessex, and was there really a King Ecbert?

JP: England at the time of our series was not one country, but a series of small kingdoms which today we call the heptarchy after the seven major kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. The kingdom of the West Saxons (known as Wessex) was centered in the south and west of England and expanded during the reign of Ecbert and his successors–particularly Alfred the Great–until it absorbed many of the other kingdoms.

There certainly was a real Ecbert. His accession to the throne of Wessex in 802 began the transformation of that nation and his descendants would go on to become the first kings of England. Until that time the state or Mercia had dominated much of southern England, but after Ecbert’s defeat of the Mercians at the battle of Ellunden in 825 and his subsequent invasion of their territory he became the overlord of the heptarchy –the greatest amongst those kings and their overlord–known as a ”Bretwalda” in Anglo-Saxon. At the time we meet him he is the most powerful ruler in the British Isles, capable of not only influencing the decisions of other kings but of imposing his will on a government (witan) that still had the right to depose him. Notably when Ecbert dies it is his son who succeeds him–not a forgone conclusion in Anglo-Saxon politics by any means.

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