The Vikings: A Nova Documentary


By Jeffery Moore

 


Much has been said and written concerning the Vikings in the last thousand years: most not very flattering. The problem with the information written is that the sources which produced it were oftentimes the victims of Viking raids or expansion, or at the very least, partial to the plight of the victims. It is easy to see why the Vikings got such bad reviews. As historian Thomas McGovern states in this film, "You get bad press when you burn down the newspaper office,” meaning that the literate who keep the records will always have the last word. The vast majority of accounts about Viking society and history that have survived in writing were indeed “written by the staff” of medieval clergymen who feared and despised the Vikings. The fact that the few writings produced by the Vikings themselves are in rune, an ancient form of Germanic carvings, usually memorializing family members or warriors, leaves the history very one-sided, even in terms of more recent scholarship.

This documentary levels the playing field just a bit by presenting a much broader and more fairly based case for both how the Vikings lived and what their actions did to shape modern history. Thus, it provides viewers with a different picture of both who and what the Vikings really were and how their actions had a positive impact on the history and development of many lands, particularly in economic and administrative areas.

The PBS documentary is well made, as is to be expected from PBS. It is a welcome attempt to present a more balanced view of the Vikings and to show how their age had many positive results in many areas of Europe. Directed by Mikael Agaton, narrated by Liev Schreiber and written and produced by Julia Cort, the presentation runs about two hours and is interesting and understandable enough for an adult audience from high school or college, but may be lacking in much new information for a seasoned historian. Nevertheless, great filming, excellent illustrations, period realism and modern re­enactments make it enjoyable to watch.

 

The film begins with some well presented archeological evidence from the Swedish dig site at Birka on Lake Malar in Sweden. The site is developed by not only the traditional archeological methods but also by use of much more high tech means such as Ground Penetrating Radar and infrared filming and photography. How the Vikings lived is re-enacted and their homes are recreated with computer animation. In opposition to many historical accounts it paints a more human and humane picture of the Vikings in their home environment. An in-depth study of the long developed site at Birka is presented by Magnus Magnusson in his book 1980 book Vikings which is well worth reading for both Viking enthusiasts and students of history.

In addition, sites are visited such as Novgorod, Russia and Newfoundland, Canada, both of which present a wealth of Viking artifacts and history. Expert sailor Helge Instad and his wife, archeologist Anna Steena, recreate Leif Ericsson's voyage from Greenland to Newfoundland utilizing the original directions from Icelandic Sagas. Expert historian and archeologist Brigitta Wallace of the Canadian Park Service presents the view that the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows was a base camp from which the Vikings were able to explore areas such as Vinland, mentioned in the Sagas for its grapes and walnuts, an area now thought to be at New Brunswick, Canada.

The site at Novgorod, Russia holds similar interest as well as some more surprising information with the "Novgorod Letters.” Written by both men and women in runic characters , the letters show a very human side to daily Viking life, talking about the ever popular subjects of love and money, and love of money.

 

A number of experiments are examined in the film, such as the voyage of a Viking ship built of Irish timber. At 118 feet, the ship was far longer than any so far discovered and shed a different light on the Vikings and their excellent maritime knowledge. A journey from Iceland to Greenland was also re-enacted, complete with the use of a Sun Compass, recreated from one found in Iceland. Expert navigator Max Winner claims it is more accurate near the poles than a magnetic compass. Icelandic Sagas also receive a high mark from archeologist Thomas McGovern as he agrees that Iceland was once heavily forested. McGovern points to the proof in the archeological findings and attributes the deforestation to both man and his beasts, which have stripped the island almost bare.

Descriptions of many major Viking campaigns include brief mention of the 865 invasion of England, supposedly in revenge for the slaying of a legendary hero Ragnar Lodbrok, The Battle of Stamford Bridge, where the fabled Norwegian King Harald Hardrada's reign and life ended in 1066; this battle is considered by many to be the final battle of the Viking Age. Glaringly absent in the film are the many Viking battles fought in France. The attacks and lengthy sieges of Paris in 845, 865 and 885 are not even mentioned. The Treaty of St. Claire sur Epte and the Viking takeover of Normandy receives just a passing reference concerning William the Conqueror's relationship to the Viking founder Rollo, (or Robert), of Normandy. Missing also is any reference or discussion of the hundreds of thousands of pounds of Danegeld paid by kings and local governments of Europe to persuade early Scandinavian raiders to leave or attack elsewhere.

The film does a much better job presenting Russia's Viking history, pointing out the Soviet Union's policy of presenting Russia only as a Slavic country. The lives of the Rus founder Rurik and his great-grandson, Vladimir are fairly well covered and their links to Constantinople and the Middle Eastern trade routes well established. Another re-enactment is that of a portage from the River Dvina to the River Dnieper: it is shown, complete with a Viking styled boat cart, which the crew of the re-enactment built,Viking tools in hand. Historian Gleb Lebejer of the University of St. Petersburg oversaw the project and is convinced that Slavs, Bols, as well as other tribes must have helped the Vikings with such tasks either as paid labor or as slaves. Little attention is given to Constantinople and its long association with the Rus of Sweden but the documentary satisfactorily describes the Vikings' trade and service as mercenaries in the Varangian Guard. Not much detail is given on the Guard or its highly honored leaders, most memorably, Harald Hardrada, future king of Norway, nor are the important treaties between the Byzantine Empire and Kievan Russia remotely fleshed out. Mention is made of the Rus' attack of the glittering city in 911, but much is left up to the viewer to do some individual research. Good reading for this can be found in Gwyn Jones' 1968 book, A History of the Vikings. Jones also offers a wealth of information on the Vikings in France.

 

Historians of the time period and their writings get enough attention to whet the appetite for more information. Adam of Bremen is referred to by his writings, if not by his name. Mentioned also is Nestor, the monk and historian, as one of the authors of the Primary Chronicle of Russia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are highlighted briefly, but more as a side note than a source of solid information. Again A History of the Vikings by Jones is an enjoyable way to follow up such tidbits. Another briefly mentioned topic is how the Vikings themselves assimilated into the populations they attacked. For example, after forty years of raiding in Ireland, England, Normandy and Russia, there was clearly some growing unity as shown by marriages, conversions, place names, word exchanges and even legal documents. When Alfred the Great’s grandson Athelstan called one of his most important Witans, the names of those leaders in attendance show almost an equal number of English and Danish lords. The point was well made in the film on how the Byzantines were able to dominate the Vikings through trade and diplomacy, but at the same time the Vikings were quickly assimilating into the Slavic populations of Russia. Whether it came to the bedrooms of Europe or the board rooms of government, Viking fierceness could turn quickly to flexibility and tolerance. This was in part due to their genuine curiosity about other cultures and their appreciation and adaptability.

Author Jacqueline Simpson in her 1997 book The Viking World approaches, however, the assimilation issue from a slightly different perspective. Simpson questions both the information of chroniclers and the actual motives of the Vikings themselves for the raiding and pillaging. Simpson asks;

"And what did they do with the money, since only 125 ninth century coins from England or the Frankish empire have been found in all Scandinavia, despite the heavy payments of Danegeld mentioned by the chroniclers? It has been recently argued that even at this period many of the raiders were primarily interested in finding new land, and that their plundering was merely a way of winning enough wealth to set themselves up as farmers. It may well be that all the emphasis on looting and ravaging is somewhat misleading, and even during the first decades of the raids a good deal of settlement was going on, unnoticed by the chroniclers."

Perhaps too the Vikings were merely human. Like all peoples surely, they looked for land to settle, a stable future for themselves and their families and to grow old in peace, or, maybe they just bluffed their way into most of the royal families of Europe! So, as it usually does, history again has created more questions than answers.

Although the film starts with the promise of new information, much of it has been previously documented. What could have been more adequately presented or discussed is the profound effect the Viking Era had on the modem world. Nothing is mentioned of the necessity that arose for poorly defended countries to organize and establish stronger ties between fragmented groups and their militaries, between local communities and their leaders. Political structures were still in the "Dark Ages" and the Viking threat demanded more innovative thinking and actions. The basis for stronger governments in Russia, England., Ireland, Normandy, Capetian France, even distant Sicily, began during this time period in an almost direct response to Viking actions in attacks, conquests, trade, assimilation, and intermarriages. By Queen Victoria’s death, virtually every ruling house of Europe could trace its family heritage to a Viking ancestor.