The fourth season of Vikings began this past Thursday on the History Network and as with the previous seasons it didn’t disappoint. The visuals are stunning and the realization of Carolingian Paris is a thing of beauty notwithstanding the misplaced hill in the centre of what will be become the Ile de la Cite.
We are currently experiencing a golden age of historical drama and it is not surprising that many of these dramas draw upon the rich source material of the Middle Ages to tell their stories. Vikings stands out as one of the best shows at the moment not only because of the production values and the quality of acting, but also because of the high degree of faithfulness to the historical period depicted.
As you can probably tell, I am a huge fan of the show. It’s one of the few shows that I actually look forward each week and so I was excited with anticipation for the beginning of this season. As a fan of Carolingian France, I am particularly interested in how Vikings will treat Rollo’s narrative.
For those who’ve seen the previous seasons (and warning spoilers ahead, but the history books have already spoiled the basic plot) the third season ended with Ragnar’s men pillaging Paris and Rollo entering into a treaty in which he had to convert to Christianity and marry Charles III’s daughter.
This season picks up with Ragnar and his followers returning home and Rollo and an encampment of Vikings remaining in Paris. While the basic plot lines are there, there are certain historical inaccuracies that quickly become apparent. First, when Bjorn returns home and displays the map of continental Europe with the Mediterranean Sea and the Byzantine empire, his half brother inquires as to what it means. Bjorn responds that he has no idea. Of course, from a narrative stand point it’s way of moving Bjorn’s storyline to focus on his growing independence from his father and setting out to find his own destiny which has been a major theme of the show from the beginning. However, late 8th century Europe and especially the shipping routes of the Mediterranean were known to the Vikings as they were highly connected to the global economy of the post-Roman world.
The first half of the episode focused on Ragnar’s return as well as Lagertha’s return to Kattegat where with the help of the earl exacts revenge on those who plotted her downfall by the judicious use of Frankish crossbows. At the end of the massacre, Lagertha proves again why she is not someone to mess with.
The second half then turns it attention to Rollo in Paris. It opens with his marriage to the extremely reluctant Princess Gisla who came with the property. In a scene reminiscent of La Reine Margot, the stubborn bride is forced to accept the marriage vows when her father, Charles shoves her head down.
The aftermath of the wedding puts Rollo into a different light and suggests that there is more to him than just brute violence, though we are reminded of this later in the episode. While Ragnar is in part a legendary figure, Rollo exists very much in the historical record. However, this is where the show again takes some liberties in the interest of the narrative. The real Rollo did in fact lead a Viking force that besieged Paris and led to a treaty between him and Charles III the Simple,
not to be confused with Charles III the Fat. Quite honestly, one of the shortcomings of the Carolingian period is trying to keep all the Charles’ straight. Yes, Rollo received what would become known as Normandy as part of the payoff to prevent further attacks on Paris. However, this occurred nearly 100 years after the supposed time line of Vikings which takes place approximately in 793.
So if we take the opening of season to commence in 793 and allow for twenty years over the past three seasons (based on the growth of Bjorn, though he seemed to suffer from the same aging disease as Lion-O from Thundercats in that he aged and no one else has, but that’s a different blog post) we would be in the year 813 or 814. Charlemagne died in 814 leaving the empire to his only surviving son, Louis the Pious and although the empire would come apart at the seams shortly into reign, the Vikings would only enter the picture later. In fact, some the historical records suggest that some of the Vikings were invited to fight on behalf of the warring brotherly factions, suggesting again how interconnected the Northmen were with the larger European political and social networks.
The only thing that kind of disappointed me in the depicting Rollo and Charles III (the Simple, not the Fat) was that Rollo did not have one of his men swear the oath of fealty to the king. The soldier refusing to bow, lifted Charles’ foot up to reach the Viking’s mouth and in effect tossing Charles on his back to the amusement of the Vikings and I dare say to many of the Franks as well.
Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the best shows on TV and I absolutely love, but as a historical by trade it is fun to try to note where the inaccuracies are and point out the actual historical facts behind the narrative.
I hope to be able to provide a review of each episode of Vikings throughout the season. Next week’s episode looks excellent. Enjoy