I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Archive for March, 2013

From the Stereotypes of the Norsemen deliver us… IIII

As the series reaches its halfway point, there are fewer things upon which to comment. Not because it is getting more accurate but because they keep doing and presenting inaccuracies over and over again. Besides, the cinematography is so fast moving and often so dark that often you cannot get a good glimpse at what it being presented. Even when you stop the picture and take a closer look, it is still a bit ambiguous!

But I’ve decided that I really want to see the Viking warrior unsheathe the sword strapped on his back!

Correct

We see geese! That’s in England, but at least it is a tip of the helm to agrarian roots of the time!

But a wheeled hay wagon is seen in the homeland!

Buckets do not have ferrous bands; I think the one I saw had rope bands!

Proper stool

Someone had mail (under his black gambeson for pity sake, but still…)

What looks like an oil lamp (but with pronounced flame)

The darkness of the long hall was well represented

Incorrect

The Saxon crown is from a later time

Wide belt. I was certain that one was to be handed down to WWF wrestlers!

Quillons are too wide on one swore

Vestments are wrong

Table is too tall

Drakkar is very far out from shore

The Englisc wearing brooches with chains between

Helmets that just look wrong, as if they were cast-offs from “Knightriders”

“You’re too young, Gyda, to drink ale.” I’d rather see you die from impure water…

Female costume is even less accurate than male armor! A high-class woman looking with a teeny-bopper with bare arms and loose-knit dress?

The candlestick holders are unlike any that I have seen

The mugs/cups are larger than I’ve ever seen, and the pitchers don’t seem to be pitchers, at least those I have seen or seen pictures of

Athelstan’s tunic is too short…but then so are many more of the tunics

Uncertain

I’m not sure even holy places would have been burning candles—so bright, they’re probably bee’s wax—in so many places

Norse use of archery in battle (controversial)

Do the thrones look more Victorian than anything?

Are the shackles slave shackles? Would they have keys?

At last, the casting of stones and bones! With a reappearance of the guest star from “300.” The casting of rune stones is probably a modern newagey procedure; there is no indication of it in the sagas

If Ragnar kills the Earl, then he will become Earl. Possibly, but the position is selected by the people!

A Note on Names

While the names in the series seems equally divided between actual names and what seems to be fantasy, the naming procedure for the Norse seems to be utterly unknown. The standard naming process seems to be that Norse names are conventionally three: the personal name, the patronymic (or in very rare cases where the mother is more prominent than the father, a matronymic) and a soubriquet (which can change through a bearer’s life). There is not a single character n the whole series which uses such a tri-name system, and the one person who uses a patronymic—Earl Haraldson uses the patronymic as more of surname (which is actually several centuries in the future). For a while, I suspected that the “Earl” (especially since it was not the more correct “Jarl”) was actually his first name; but with the discussion between him a henchman this week about who would be the new Earl completely demolishes it unless he’s like Major Major in _Catch 22_… So until they start showing women with patronymics or people with the three names or calling Bjorn Lothbrok—the son of Ragnar Lothbrok—the infinitely more proper Bjorn Ragnarsson, I’ve have to assume either sheer ignorance or stupidly assuming that the hoi polloi viewers cannot identify family relationships without family surnames!

I cannot wait to find out what surnames will be used by the Englisc… 🙂

Want to know how Norse naming practices were actually done outside of Hollywood, you might want to take a look at this well-done article on Norse naming practices.

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From the Stereotypes of the Norsemen deliver us… III

In the third episode, the series seems to be spiraling down toward outright cheap pulp fantasy. The true worth of the series for a serious Viking enthusiasts seems to be that it inspires the viewer to see what is true and what is purely fantasy and improvisational. You are urged to check what the provenance is for anything presented on the screen. In a few cases, you may be able to find to your delight that you may actually learn something that you did not notice or know!

But I think the producers may have done that purely by sheer luck! For example, a horn used as a candlestick holder seems, according to Chad White, to have been lifted from a fantasy role-playing game; how much more of this series has been provoked by fantasy games or novels and owes very little to any original research? It leads me to suspect that any correct research was something done by the game company or writer, and the producers are as willing to accept the incorrect as the correct research done in that manner because it doesn’t really matter to them. They are more concerned with dramatic license, a fair enough thing—see “Excalibur” or “300”—except that it is being shown on The “History” Channel, which implies a bit of responsibility. Maybe they were will have commentators at the end of the series, like they used to have on history movies, commenting on what was right and what was wrong…thought I doubt they will.

Correct

Proper use of hostages (see their instance in the invasion by Sweyn Forkbead)…but I do not think they realize that it is proper, just an old melodramatic ploy showing how evil the Earl is.

Lurs or horns used to make announcements.

The portrayal of Athelstane as a manumitted slave—a freedman, a person who owed allegiance to his former master but who existed in a caste between freeman and thrall—was very well done and common despite its presentation as something that was unique and uncommon.

Incorrect

Black costume. But it is deep and ominous, so that is more important in the minds of the producers than any accuracy!

The hangeroc worn by Lagertha is totally wrong. Even if we accept the flappy tabard style of hangeroc, it would have straps, and the tortoise brooches would be used to secure the flaps. Here, the brooches are placed just like brooches would be today; they are not tortoise brooches, but at least beads and jewelry are hung between them.

Hatless women. I hate to get tiresome and continually harp on this, but…

Jewelry worn by Earl’s henchman is rather large and rather uncategorizable. He’s also in black though…

Sleeveless underdress on the queen

Shield maiden. A great example of the descent into the cheap pulp fantasy of Red Sonja and Xena.

The armor on the Anglo-Saxon warriors is just pure fantasy. Where is the mail and the byrnies? At least we haven’t yet got to the helmets shown in the previews!

Uncertain

Silver hoards seemed to have been mainly deposited for reasons of religious sacrifice or simply for safety and not for use in an afterlife. Certainly items buried were for that use, but this appears to be either a confusion or a simple improvisation.

The Earl notes, after Ragnar’s successful return, that all before him have failed? What is he talking about? On the one hand, it might be an almost science-fictiony improvisation of a back story that might be used for later, albeit clichéd effect.

Dumping a dead slave overboard seems more like a reference to the American slave trade. I cannot find any clear reference one way or the other, so I can only assume that it is a bit of poetic license.

We mentioned before that only women wore earrings in the Viking Age, and apparently not that many were worn to begin with. The earrings worn by the women in this episode seemed rather striking and dangley, more in keeping with modern mores and based in many instances on the products of modern vendors who give ambiguous lip service to the accuracy of their products but generally no provenance.

The hood worn by Brother Athelstane drops down across one eye. That is obviously an attempt to show character and mood, but it is something that is familiar with me while wearing a hood! Accidental accuracy?

The group sex made reference to Norse sexual mores that were probably different from the monogamy. It was a part of the present culture and not quite, then, as naughty and titillating. An interesting point that draws us back to the earl’s earlier betrayal of the man who would sleep with his woman.

The distribution of the booty is really Hollywood. That is not to say that it was not done in this manner—look at the later pirate distribution contracts—but it seems a little too pat and a little too simplistic. The fear that the Earl will kill them if they put up a fuss goes against everything that I have read and learned about Scandinavian society of that time.

With the emphasis on shaving heads by the Norse—both conjecturally in history and certainly in the hairstyles shown in the series–the emphasis on Norse wonderment at the tonsure seems a little strange. Although it might be a comment upon the Norse astonishment at Christians shaving a part of the head the Norse do not, it seems more a modern-day comment upon how weird tonsures are.

The early English kingdoms were generally known as the Heparchy, indicating there were seven of them. Certainly, the number might well have varied, and geographic knowledge might have been vague enough to validate Athelstane’s number of English kingdoms, but I am in a foul enough mood about the produces’ research skills that I am tempted to take the exposition merely as the “truth” presented to us by the omniscient producers!

The fact that the earl took possession of the ship indicates an erroneous perception that you did not own anything but that instead everyone held things in a feudal manner, a largess from their betters. Or maybe socialism if we are to judge from some statements made by conservative commentators depicting the villains as wimpy and devious liberal socialists while the good guys are the straight-thinking and hard-hitting conservatives. William Short of Hurstwic notes that “The power of a earl depended upon the goodwill of his supporters. The earl’s essential task was to uphold the security, prosperity, and honor of his followers.” The earl was chosen by the followers, not as an inheritance, and was often chosen in terms of wealth. The son of a earl might have put him on a fast route to the positions, but it wasn’t dead set. The anonymous au5thor of an article by History World International notes that “Both kings and jarls had to rule according to law. No laws were written down until around 1100. Before then the laws were really traditions and opinions of the majority of the people. The people elected lawmen who had to know these unwritten laws and explain them to the rulers.” The role of his wife seemed rather ludicrous as well. From the sagas, she’d probably have been taunting him to get better rather than stroking his ego!

Next time, I hope to comment upon naming standards of the time and what I find those exhibited in the series to be so ridiculous, along with further notes on the correct, the incorrect and the uncertain areas. In the meantime, I cannot hope that everything I have written is a hundred percent correct; if you have any additional or contradictory provenance, I look forward to seeing it!


From the Stereotypes of the Norsemen deliver us… II

Plans to deal more deeply with subjects that were wrong have been put off, and I’ll just offer a few more notes gleaned from last night’s showing of “Vikings”…

One BIG Thing Before We Start

Geography and geographical knowledge. The Norse–and almost everyone until Washington Irving–knew that the earth was a globe. What they thought more than anything else was that all the land was in a circle on top of the globe. That is alluded to in the Fenris myth that was recounted last night. Everything was in a circle, so there was more land coming up (when Vinand was discovered, the Norse thought that if they went farther they’d just run into Africa). The Norse certainly knew about the continent of Europe and just as certainly England. I also wonder what route the raiders took if they were out of sight of land for so long. It made me wonder if the producers were representing the Scandinavian lands as some separate Ultima Thule way up north! Poetic license? License revoked!

Good

• The subdued natural colors (though, from the still of Ragnar in an abysmal neon blue tunic that I’ve seen, I fear this was just to emphasize their poverty and will be changed later on)

• The shoes I got a good look at were apparently turnshoes

• The tent on the ship. I would have liked more details on what the tent covering was (I at first thought it was the sail, but that might havbe been a pre-conceived notion) and what the cross-pieces were; but for this being the first time such a thing was needed in the storyline, I can let those things slide)

• Appropriate grill on hearth fire (larger than those I’ve seen)

• Use of ravens to see if land was near

• Use of make-up for Viking warriors (although it seemed meant as if it was meant as war paint in the manner of Native Americans)

• The cleaning ritual was almost exactly what was noted by Ibn Fadlan (I shan’t comment on how much I think his prejudices were as evident in his account, just as those of the Christian chroniclers were evident in theirs)

• Tonsures on the clerics (that weren’t shown in the preview shots)

• One guy with shaved back of head (an interpretation of a contemporary description of Norse hairstyles)

Bad

• Too many candles. No rushes, and what might have been meant as oil lamps were too bright)

• Horn used as a light/candleholder (is there any provenance for this; I’ve not seen it!)

• The queen’s “nightgown”

• Blackmailing a blacksmith (I’ve been led to believe that smiths who could work iron were considered close to the gods and scarcely someone you’d want to get mad at you)

• Boots too tall

• Someone wearing his sword on back; for that matter, too many swords and no spears

• The horses are not proper for the time; in fact, there are so few animals, except ravens, that it is rather unsettling

• Uncertain of the pier; think they just had posts for tying the ships…which they also had in the film

• Did the vellum crumple like paper? (I did like Ragnar tasting it as if to see if it was leather)

• My wife the calligrapher, doesn’t think gold was used either as a paint or an application at this time

Things I’ll let slip…

These are just interpretations and done without provenance but with poetic license and necessity to tell the story.

• The “Domesday is coming” riff; it’s just as contrived and possibly as false as “there are no lands to the east” thing

• The killing of people who will become slaves (seems much like Christian propaganda; why indiscriminate slaughter of someone you can get money for?)

• The leather apron on the smith (we’ve been discussing this lately in Regia)

• This Cuthbert was not THE Cuthbert, who died about a century before, but since Cuthbert was so entwined with Lindisfarne, I’m not certain whether that name would have been used, especially so prominently

• Surprise about written word; runes were probably variations of Roman cursive and imo–controversial–well known and disseminated. I’d have been amused by Ragnar grousing that skins were being wasted instead of using stones

• The cages for the birds that have, to my knowledge, no provenance, but they had to have something like that!


From the Stereotypes of the Norsemen deliver us…

I saw the first episode of “Vikings” on The “History” Channel last night. I was honor bound to watch it; after all, if it’s a success, we’re going to have MoPs showing up at events thinking they know everything accurate about the time because they’ve seen this and “Game of Thrones.”

What was my reaction?

Two fold. It dealt—almost randomly it seems—with actual things. Briefly and in no particular order…

• Showing affectionate family relationships in Norse families

• The use of wooden swords to teach kids how to fight

• Wooden bands on tubs and buckets

• Believable portrayal of market (probably thanks to other, later portrayals)

• Portrayal of a þing (though it was portrayed as more autocratic than it probably was)

• A warp-weighted loom in action (more later)

• Portrayal of Norse female defending the home (not being a Viking though)

• Good—if controversial—explanation of bearing dial (though too large) and sun stone (I was so relieved it was not a magnet in the style of the Kirk Douglas “The Vikings” film)

• Hearth fire in the middle of the hall

• Use of both cups and horns for drinking

• Treating headbands almost like modern ties (but set a trifle too high IMO)

One of the phrases used by the program’s publicity was that the series was going to demolish old stereotypes. Perhaps so. But it certainly initiated new ones. Now we will examine the other side of the penny, examining both large and small inaccuracies. Disregarding most of the numerous inaccuracies with costuming and furniture, let’s look at a few.

• The exposed hair on women and a cap from a later period on one guy

• Fur worn with hair to outside (and even fur on bedclothes was arranged this way…probably to emphasize that it was fur!)

• Too much leather (leather was used in earlier eras for clothing, not so much the Viking Age)

• The use of the title earl (a term of the Englisc; why didn’t they use “jarl”?)

• Use of patronymic as a surname (Earl Haraldson?)

• Cannot comment on the shoes because they weren’t shown well enough, but didn’t some of them used in the film have heels?

• Swords were used for slashing not thrusting (Imperial Roman use; the Norse used spears!)

• The banners were more like later period gonfannons

• Shield maidens were probably a literary device

• There is no provenance for Domed Chests (a hobby horse of mine)

• Was the jarl wearing an earring? (Even few women wore earrings)

• Emphasis of farmer as a separate job from viking (a farmer often planted and then went i-viking)

• Women speaking in þing

• Exiling, not death penalty, was more common (and running the gauntlet being pelted with veggies…wtf?)

• Too much use of candles (Miss Julie noted the lighting was weird)

• The rudder is on the left (why do they call the right of a ship the starboard?)

• Bjorn’s seax is shaped wrong (but understandable; I’ve priced cheap blade blanks, and many are shaped like this)

• There is an indentation at the bottom of some cups (yeah, anal… :\)

• Confused description of how a Viking ship works (it reminded me of a character explaining skiffy science)

Next week, I’ll go a little deeper on a few points…and deal with a few BIG ones…

For folk who don’t have access to the mini-series, there are quite a few stills at this site along with some breathless text.