Socks. You do not really expect a documentary about Vikings to talk about … er, socks. However, we did also get shield maidens, sorceresses, sagas and the sacrifice of slave girls. And ship burials and sailcloth. Maybe they just put the socks in for the sake of keeping up the alliteration? Not a horned helmet (yes, all right, we all know that Vikings didn’t really wear horned helmets!) in sight, and no mention of Valhalla: this first episode was all about women in Viking society. Technically, Vikings were the only the people who actually went off raiding ‘n’ trading, but the word’s generally used in English to mean the general society of Scandinavia during the Viking Age.
The Vikings drama series with which this documentary series has been made to tie in is largely set at “home” in Norway, and features a number of strong female characters, notably Lagertha, the shield maiden and later queen, and Aslaug, the princess and volva (sorceress). The characters are not meant to be historically accurate, OK, but this episode of The Real Vikings focused on the role of women, and took Lagertha and Aslaug as its starting point.
First up, Lagertha. People think of Viking warriors as all being male, right? Wrong! Shield maidens are not only mentioned in sagas: they really existed. Remains from a grave in Birka in Sweden, buried alongside various accoutrements of a warrior, proved to be those of a woman, much to the delight of Kateryn Winnick, the actress who plays Lagertha. I was quite chuffed myself 🙂 . So, yes, there were female Viking warriors!
Then on to volvas (sorceresses), such as Aslaug, played by Alyssa Sutherland – who got to visit another Viking site, Fyrkat in Denmark, where the grave of a “magic woman” in a wagon had been found. That wasn’t quite as exciting as the shield maiden, because magic women/wise women exist in many cultures, in many eras, but it was still interesting. Without wishing to write an essay on The Da Vinci Code, Britannia, Troy: Fall of a City or anything else not relevant to Vikings, women played such an important role in religion in the past, and that was destroyed by most of the recognised religions of today. But, hey, maybe the tide’s starting to turn again, with women now able to act as priests/ministers in some denominations of Christianity and Judaism. We can live in hope!
Next, more prosaically, came the important role of the lady of the hall, who, with the men often away, would have played a crucial role in local administration and justice. This was illustrated by … well, mainly scenes from the programme, actually, but also by a burial ship found near Tonsberg in Norway, containing the remains of two women.
This then took us on to the rather less inspiring subject of human sacrifice, which really isn’t something usually associated with the Vikings, but which was shown in one episode of the programme after the scriptwriters came across an account of it written by an Arab traveller who’d visited Scandinavia. Around 40% of the population were slaves – a surprisingly high figure. For every few shield maidens, sorceresses or ladies of the hall, there would have been an awful lot of slave women. And some of them would have suffered the horrible fate of being sacrificed so that they could “accompany” their master or mistress to the afterlife. This again was illustrated by scenes from the drama series, which didn’t do much for the gravitas of the documentary – but, to be fair, the documentary series has been made to accompany the drama series, and the drama series has worked wonders in getting people interested in the Vikings.
Lagertha and Aslaug, in the series, are both wives of Ragnar Lothbrok, and the programme then moved on to the subject of concubinage and polygamy. This was going on in England, too: Harold Godwinsson, of Battle of Hastings fame, had a “handfast wife” – another term for handfasting being “married in the Danish tradition” – as well as the “official” wife he married later. That was more a case of having one Christian marriage and one non-Christian marriage, though: some of the Viking men had several concubines, a practice generally associated more with Asia than Europe. This led to the promulgating of the theory that the reason for going off a-viking in the first place was that a few blokes had so many female partners each that there weren’t enough ladies left for the others, so they were all hoping to make themselves rich and therefore more eligible! Hmm. I’m not entirely convinced about that as an explanation for the Viking Age, but the idea that centuries of raiding, trading and conquest were all down to lonely men trying to give themselves a boost in the marriage stakes is certainly quite … quite something, anyway.
Furthermore, not only were they apparently only going off a-viking to impress the girls, but they wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere without the girls … because it was women who made the sailcloths for the longboats. So there! It’s all about women. The programme was getting slightly silly by this stage, but it is a fair point – none of the Vikings would have gone anywhere without their boats, and the boats wouldn’t have gone anywhere without their sails.
And this talk of the textile industry was where the socks came in. Apparently, it took all the wool from one sheep to make one Viking sock. Who on earth worked that out? And how? And, more to the point, why? Incidentally, if you Google “Viking socks”, you get all sorts of answers about some sort of knitting technique called “nalebinding”, and you also find out that a famous Viking sock (yes, there is such a thing as a famous Viking sock) was found in York in 1972. Google “Coppergate sock” and you get all sorts of answers. Who would have thought that Viking socks attracted so much interest 🙂 ?
Anyway. That’s enough about socks. This is not going to be the most deep and meaningful series ever, because it’s meant to tie in with a fictional series that, entertaining as it is, doesn’t even pretend to be historically accurate, but it’s still worth watching. And it’s great that Vikings has attracted so much interest that a documentary series to go with it has been commissioned. And, hey, we all need socks!