Category Archives: History

How History Channel’s ‘Vikings’ Compares To Reality

Spoiler alert: the below contains spoilers through the third season of Vikings.

Over the past three years, Vikings has gotten better and better every year. Its story lines are consistently good, but it’s grown in scale from a Viking villagers attacking an English monastery, to a Viking king laying siege to Paris. And the show tries to be historically accurate: as a PopSugar interview with an expert tells us, the costumes, hair styles and characters all fit within the Viking culture, even if some of it is the stuff of legends. The series even has a lot of dialogue in authentic languages of the time: Old Norse, Old English, Old French, none of which sound anything like their modern counterparts.

vikings explanation

But how about the timeline and the characters? How do they compare to real history? The article gets the crux of it:

the show is both radically compressing and extending eras

The first raid portrayed in the series, in the second episode of the first season, is the infamous first Viking raid ever recorded, in 793 A.D., at the monastery on the East English isle of Lindisfarne. (The sunstone they used to navigate is thought to be real, too.) The attack was as shocking, if not more so, than the show makes it seem. To the British, the Vikings were demons.

Lindisfarne was located in what at the time was the Kingdom of Northumbria, and in the next episode, we meet its king, Ælla. Here is the first glimpse of the mangling of the timeline: in history, Ælla dies in 867. He looks to be in his 40s in the series, but let’s say life was hard back then and he was 25: that would mean he lived to be 100. However, Ælla does play a prominent role in Norse legend, particularly in one of the Norse sagas about Ragnar Lodbrok, The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons (possible future spoilers) and it makes sense that they included him in the show.

We’ll get back to Ragnar himself — as well as the rest of the Vikings — a little later but first, let’s look at the events of the second season because here, the series jumps forward four years and expands in scope quite a bit. In the second episode, the Vikings, now accompanied by King Horik, land in Wessex and we meet King Egbert. The historical Egbert lived from 770-something to 839.

Egbert_of_Wessex_map

If we count from the known raid of Lindisfarne, the series would be in 797-798, which would put Egbert in his late 20s, when he was in exile. However, he looks like he’s in his 40s, with his grown son, another historical figure named Æthelwulf, being in his late 20s. In the seventh episode, Egbert and Ælla, whose kingdoms are separated by Mercia, propose an alliance against the Vikings and Mercians, and seal it by wedding their children, Æthelwulf and Judith. It is believed that the real Ælla did have a daughter, but she was named Æthelthryth. However, the real Æthelwulf was indeed married to a Judith in order to form an alliance, but she was Judith of Flanders, and the alliance was with West Francia.

In the eighth episode, we meet a Princess Kwenthrith of Mercia, who seems to want to be either Queen Cynethryth or Princess Cwenthryth. If we have to pick one, it’s probably the former, who lived in late 700s, and was actually queen. However, neither of these women fought a civil war or ruled alone, as Kwenthrith in the series did, and so she seems to be largely fictional. The real Egbert did defeat Mercia though, in the late 820s, and was briefly the 8th and penultimate bretwalda, or ruler of all Britain. His grandson, Alfred the Great, was the last bretwalda. Incidentally, in the series Alfred is the name that Egbert gives to Aethelstan’s bastard child with Judith.

So, based on Egbert’s age and the events, the story seems to not take place as much in the late 790s as the 820s. (Egbert’s son, Æthelwulf, is first mentioned in history in 825 as heading a large army, so he had to be at least in his 20s by then, which matches up with the TV character.) If we leave Ælla and Kwenthrith out, and pretend the attack on Lindisfarne wasn’t the famous one in 793, we can almost say the series takes place in the 820s.

Paris_in_9_century

Almost, because the events of the third season would disagree. Noting that there’s no jump in time like the four year one in the previous season, Kwenthrith’s uncle, Beorhtwulf, dies in the battle in the first episode, and she poisons her brother, Burgred, in the fourth one. In reality, both of them were kings of Mercia for decent amounts of time: the former from 840 to 852 and the latter from 852 to 874. This not only really upsets the correspondence with the series, but also puts the story even later, in the mid 800s. The invasion of Paris introduces even more confusion.

First, we meet Count Odo, who in reality, fairly successfully defended Paris from the Viking siege of 885-886. However, all other signs indicate that the siege portrayed is the one from 845, because it:

  • was the first Viking siege of Paris, and this seemed to also be the case in the series
  • was led by Ragnar
  • better matches the battle tactics used
  • occurred during the reign of the Frankish emperor Charles the Bald, who was the grandson of Charlemagne, as mentioned in the series
    • Charles the Fat ruled during the 885-886 siege, and he was great-grandson of Charlemagne
    • Charles the Bald was named so ironically, because he had lots of hair, just like in the series
    • Charles the Bald had a daughter, as in the series, while Charles the Fat did not
  • ended with a raid inside the city and the payment of 5670 lb of gold and silver, as shown in the series

So it’s pretty clear that aside from Odo’s presence, who was not yet born then, the siege depicted is the one in 845. In the season three finale, Ragnar pretends to convert to Christianity and then die, uses his coffin as a Trojan horse to get into the city, fights his way to the gates, and lets his army in. In reality, they didn’t need to do that to get into the city, and that story is actually attributed to Ragnar’s son, Björn Ironside, who did the same thing to get into what he thought was Rome, but was actually Luna.

Princess-Gisla-MORGANE-POLANSKI-and-Emperor-Charles-LOTHAIRE-BLUTEAU

Finally, Charles the Bald marries his daughter Gisla to Rollo, in order to secure an alliance with the Vikings. This is interesting for two reasons:

  • Remember Judith of Flanders, who married Æthelwulf? She was Charles the Bald’s daughter. It’s strange that in the series, they named his wife Judith and made it a diplomatic marriage, but with the wrong kingdom
  • Charles the Bald did not have a daughter named Gisla but his grandson, Charles the Simple, is believed to have had one named Gisela, whom he did give to Rollo — in 911

Which brings us to the Vikings themselves and some history, which may or may not turn out to be spoilers of later seasons of the show:

  • The actual Rollo lived from about 850 to 930, and apparently had nothing to do with Ragnar. He and his army eventually settled in Normandy — which took its name from the Normans, meaning North men
    • Incidentally, Rollo is the great-great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror, and thus an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II and many other European monarchs.
  • King Horik ruled the Danes from 827 to 854
  • It’s not known which historical figure Ragnar was, if he even existed, but legend has it that the Great Heathen Army, which conquered much of England starting in 865, was led by his sons and constituted to avenge his death

Ragnar-and-Charles-1940x1456

If that’s true, that would mean Ragnar was born in the early 800s, and could’ve laid the 845 siege to Paris. But there’s no way much else in the timeline makes sense:

  • King Horik died 9 years after the siege of Paris in real life, but before it in the series
  • The historical King Egbert died in 6 years before the siege, but he’s still alive in the series
  • Rollo was born 5 years after the siege, Odo 7
  • The situation with the Mercian monarchy in no way represents reality

However, we do get a sense that even though people and events have been shifted both backwards and forwards through time, the story does take place in the mid-early 800s. The two firm historical dates we have are the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 and the siege of Paris in 845. Given they both can’t be true, and based on the other events in the series, fixing it to the latter seems more “correct”.

So in that case, Lindisfarne has been pushed forward in time almost 40 years; Egbert and Æthelwulf about 10 years; Ælla and Ragnar are about where they should be; Horik has been pulled back 10 years, and Rollo and Odo about 40; Gisela, almost 70.

Which is actually not a bad way to do the series: it takes about a century from the height of the Viking Age, compresses it down to a few years, and tells the most interesting stories, with compelling characters that shared a history, even if they weren’t actually contemporaries. Portraying that much history in one series would be very hard without a device like this. And actually, our historical sources from back then are so shaky, that who knows if what we think we know actually happened that way.

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Lawyer Ads Weren’t Legal Until 1977

Toward the end of the fifth episode of Better Call Saul, Jimmy is talking to his brother Chuck about his right to advertise, at which point Chuck mentions that the practice “wasn’t even allowed until five Supreme Court justices went completely bonkers in Bates vs State Bar of Arizona“. And indeed, bar associations until that time had traditionally banned all forms of lawyer advertising — the thinking being that good work is its own advertisement through the word of mouth it generates and that discussing money matters was beneath the professionalism of a lawyer.

Chuck McGill explaining Bates vs the State Bar of Arizona, in the fifth episode of Better Call Saul

Chuck McGill explaining Bates vs the State Bar of Arizona, in the fifth episode of Better Call Saul

 

Well in 1976, an Arizona legal clinic which only handled basic legal matters placed an ad with prices for some services it provided, such as uncontested divorces and basic adoptions. The State Bar of Arizona sued them, and the Arizona Supreme Court found in their favor. But, the United States Supreme Court, having recently ruled that laws prohibiting pharmacists from advertising their prices were unconstitutional, took up the case and ruled that the same bans are unconstitutional for lawyers also. The thinking was that the rules were not only anachronistic, but that they constituted a disservice to the common man in that they prohibited the free flow of information.

It was an early ruling on the concept of commercial speech, which has since evolved quite a bit, and was most recently the reason behind the landmark ruling of Citizens United vs FEC, in which the ban against corporations spending money on political campaigns was lifted.

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From Wikipedia

English Man Requested ‘Trial By Combat’ Instead Of Paying A Fine

The Telegraph reported way back in 2002, that a 60-year old man from a town in eastern England got a roughly 50$ fine from their DMV for failing to file some form. He’s unemployed, so he didn’t pay it and eventually had to go to court over the matter; there, he entered a not-guilty plea and requested trial by combat, to the death, with a champion clerk put up by the DMV. He was willing to fight with “samurai swords, Ghurka knives or heavy hammers”. The magistrates declined his offer, and instead fined him about 600$.

Tyrion Lannister's champion, Bronn, fights in trial by combat against Ser Vardis Egan, champion of House Arryn, in season 1 of Game of Thrones

Tyrion Lannister’s champion, Bronn, fights in trial by combat against Ser Vardis Egan, champion of House Arryn, in season 1 of Game of Thrones

 

Trial by combat disappeared from use in legal systems across Europe prior to the Renaissance. In Britain, the last trial by combat sanctioned by the monarch is thought to have taken place in 1583, in Dublin, under the auspices of Queen Elizabeth I. The last such type of trial probably took place in the early 1600s, but was not abolished by the British Parliament until 1819. Therefore, since US law prior to the 1776 Declaration of Independence comes from British common law, trial by combat is technically still legal in America. Someone should try it though, just to make sure.

From The Telegraph, via FAIL Blog

 

Sarasota Main Street In 1950s

Main Street Sarasota, FL in 1950

There are a bunch of other old pictures of Sarasota and her surroundings at the Sarasota County website and also a City-Data forum.

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From The Real Florida

The Sequel To ‘300’

It’s not called 301, unfortunately, but rather 300: Rise of an Empire. The original film depicted the Battle of Thermopylae in August of 480 BC, in which 300 Spartans plus a few hundred other soldiers admirably and surprisingly held off a Persian army a thousand times greater. After a few days, they were defeated however — partly due to a betrayal — and at the same time, the Persians also won the naval Battle of Artemisium. So, after being defeated on both land and sea, the Greek allies retreated and the Persians occupied Athens.

However, the Greeks regrouped shortly thereafter and in September defeated the Persian navy at the Battle of Salamis. This was the turning point of the war, and will likely be the focus of the movie, along with the Battle of Artemisium. Several months later, in the summer of 479 BC, the Greeks decisively defeated the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, which ended the Persian invasion of Greece.

Salamis is one of the most important battles in world history, because had it been lost by the Greeks, it would’ve likely meant the premature end of Western civilization. Without the Ancient Greece which rose to power after the failed Persian invasion, the West would’ve turned out quite differently. For example, Socrates, one of the most important figures in Western philosophy, was born ten years after these events.

The main characters in the film are the Greek general Themistocles and the Persian queen and commander of the navy in the Battle of Salamis, Artemisia (played by Eva Green — Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale). Two characters from the original, Persian King Xerxes I and Spartan Queen Gorgo (played by Lena Heady — Queen Cersei on Game of Thrones) also seem to have prominent roles. It opens on March 14th, 2014.

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From YouTube

The Times Square Building, Then And Now

Way back over a hundred years ago, in 1903, Times Square was called Longacre Square — until the New York Times commissioned a building at the site and the square was re-named after them. That building is known as One Times Square, and it housed the Times for about a decade, until the newspaper moved to 43rd St. (It’s moved again since, in 2007, and now resides on 8th Ave.) This is a picture of One Times Square being built and if you click on it, you can see a high-resolution version that captures a lot of detail from life in 1903:

One Times Square, 1903

 

The Times sold the building in 1961, and it eventually became the billboard it is today:

One Times Square, 2012

 

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From Wikipedia, via Shorpy and Neatorama

Menu From Lincoln’s 1865 Inaugural Ball

The Smithsonian Magazine has an interesting article about President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, in March of 1865 — about a month before the Civil War ended and Lincoln was assassinated. (Presidential terms have only ended on January 20 since the 20th ammendment was ratified in 1933.) It hosted about 4,000 people and was a very late affair: carriages began arriving at 9pm, the president and his wife entered at 10:30, and dinner was served at midnight. It was buffet-style and, even though 300 people could serve themselves at the same time, the rush for all the men to fill up plates and take them back to their ladies resulted in a giant mess:

About the hour of 12, the Presidential party were escorted by a private entrance to privileged places. Soon afterward the doors were opened, and a throng of more than a thousand, who had collected at that end of the hall, poured into the supper-room. Of course, when three persons occupy the space barely sufficient for one, a “crush” is the result; and the crush which followed can better be imagined than depicted.

But this was not the worst feature. With that indecency of conduct and want of politeness and etiquette which characterizes many American people at table, and which is the certain accompaniment of a large crowd at a public supper, many gentlemen, and even some of our own sex who delight to be esteemed ladies, seized upon the most ornamental and least nutritious part of the table decorations, demolished them, carried the pieces off in handkerchiefs or crushed them under foot.

In less than an hour the table was a wreck; a few ornaments not destroyed were removed, and the array of empty dishes and the debris of the feast were positively frightful to behold.

The doors were now wide open, and hundreds of ladies in elegant silks, satins and velvets, and gentlemen in dainty broadcloth, surged and struggled back and forth. A few obtained something to eat, others very little, and many more only succeeded in ruining their toilets. As much was wasted as was eaten, and however much may have been provided more than half the guests went supperless. But it was a public supper; we were not much disappointed, and though the gentlemen who managed it may have been to blame for the want of room, the fact remains that the supper was a disaster, and detracted from the otherwise pleasant aspect of the occasion.

from the New York Times report of the ball

The entire write-up of the ball in the Times is very detailed and interesting, so it’s worth reading. Finally, here’s what they were all starving for:

 

The Times journalist noted that the food was tasty, but that the “name of the cuisinier has escaped us, and it is not worth while to hunt it up now. Suffice it to say it was not Delmonico, therefore we did not expect perfection.”

From Smithsonian Magazine, via NPR

Photo Of A Man Born In 1749

Conrad Heyer in 1852

 

The man above was born in Maine in 1749 and was 103 years old when this picture was taken. Over that span of time, he had fought in the Revolutionary War, crossed the Delaware with George Washington, then bought a farm and settled down in his native Maine. When he was born, the world population was a thousand times less than it is now, and in his lifetime the steam engine was invented, along with railroads, the telegraph, and of course, the photograph. His birthdate, like most people’s in that time, is hardly certain; but if true, he would likely be the earliest-born person ever photographed.

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From Doug’s Darkworld, via Neatorama

200 Years Ago, It Took 6 Weeks To Go From NYC To Chicago

Now it takes less than two hours — that’s 600x faster. The map below, from the 1932 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States shows how long it took to get from New York City to the various parts of the country.

 

This was before railroads were an option. By 1830, the trip from New York City to Chicago was halved to three weeks, and by 1857, it was down to two days. Sixty years later, it was halved again to one day — still by rail. Now, you can get to any major city in the world in less than a day, and to almost any point on the planet. Back in 1800, that day would get you to New Jersey. In fact, now, you could theoretically get to the moon in just a couple of days — something literally unimaginable when Thomas Jefferson was alive. Whereas 200 years earlier than that, in Shakespeare’s time, the top speed was exactly the same: the speed of horse.

Mother Nature Network has a couple of more maps from the atlas.

 

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From Mother Nature Network, via Laughing Squid

2012, As Told On Twitter

Cool video made up of tweets from pretty much every major event of 2012. Nice way to reminisce:

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From YouTube, via Laughing Squid