This week’s episode swings back and forth between Kattegat and Wessex, and seems yet again to offer similarities and differences between the world of the northmen and the world of Wessex. When we first glimpse Ragnar he is skinning a rat. In an earlier episode he had torched the grain supply to lure his enemy, Jarl Borg, into the open, so now he is reduced to consuming roast vermin. Meanwhile, over in Wessex King Ecbert is welcoming our old friend King Ælle of the snake pit (from last season) to a settlement lavishly bedecked with banners, royal canopies and a groaning table. The contrast is pretty stark. The beefy King Ælle, by the way, appears none the worse for wear after having traveled by wheeled box for over 200 miles – a journey of at least eleven days and possibly more.
We are still vaguely in the early 9th century, but the writers are playing fast and loose with Anglo-Saxon history in this segment. King Ecbert raises the cry, “God save England!” All very nice except there was no England. Not then. There was the island of Britain, and on it were seven different kingdoms. Ecbert was king of the West Saxons, and although he no doubt wanted to raise his banner over the kingdom of Mercia just to the north, (and eventually he would, in 829), to have everyone in the settlement crying “God save England” is anachronistic. The first man to be able to call himself king over something that might be considered England would be Ecbert’s grandson, Æthelstan.
As for Ælle, I have mentioned before that any Northumbrian king by that name belongs 50 years in the future. On the other hand, Ragnar’s Saga pits him against Ragnar, so I understand why he is part of this story. The legends about Ragnar and his sons sprawl over most of the 9th century, and the one figure we can really latch on to as historical in this series is Ecbert. He reigned in Wessex from 802 to 839.
King Ecbert the Ambitious (and I really do love this guy), suggests to Ælle of Northumbria that they forge an alliance between them to defeat both the pesky Vikings and the misbehaving Mercians. To seal the pact, Ecbert’s son Æthelwulf will marry Ælle’s daughter Judith.
Okay, stop right there. Æthelwulf’s first wife was named Osburh. She hailed from the Isle of Wight and Æthelwulf probably married her when he succeeded his father in 839. He DID marry a woman named Judith, eventually, but she was the trophy wife that he married late in life. Judith was the daughter, not of Ælle, but of the Frankish king Charles the Bald. She was about 12 years old when the aging Æthelwulf met her in Frankia, married her and brought her home to Wessex. He only lived for another two years, so perhaps his young wife wore him out.
Poor Osburh. The series writers have combined Æthelwulf’s two wives and given her the name Judith. I hate when that happens. It was Osburh, not Judith, who gave Æthelwulf many sons, including the youngest of the brood, Alfred the Great.
I have another problem with this marriage. Ecbert would probably not have arranged to marry off his son as part of an alliance. He would have married the girl himself. Æthelings didn’t marry until daddy died. They messed around a lot, but they didn’t marry. And if a king needed to make a new alliance, and the wife was in the way, he sent the wife packing and started over with a new one. This happened all over the early medieval world. Charlemagne, for example, went through five wives in this fashion. King Edgar of England went through 3. It’s an old story.
As for the wedding itself, the vows would have been made and the couple blessed at the church door, not at the altar. And I doubt very much that they would have been using those marriage vows that sounded so familiar. They really grated on my ear, and they weren’t written until the 15th century. It’s a quibble, I know. The writers were trying, I think, to compare the Christian wedding with the pagan wedding that was taking place over in Kattegat. That marriage scene between Floki and Helga was set out of doors and showed them making vows to each other as well. In fact, it looked remarkably similar to a number of weddings I attended back in the 1970’s.
I liked the exchange of swords that we saw there, although, as Sandi Layne writes over at LissaBryan.com, the rings would have been placed on the sword hilt, not its point. (Setting them on the points was much more dramatic, I admit). Sandi also refers to a marvelous description of Viking wedding practices at the Viking Answer Lady. Scroll down to The Groom for more information about the sword, but in fact there is a great deal of fascinating information about the Vikings on her site.
And now I come to the part that I’ve been dreading having to recount: the Blood Eagle that Ragnar carved on Jarl Borg’s back. This has been presented for centuries as a pagan ritual associated with Odin. According to my research, the blood eagle was never practiced. It was first recounted in the 12th century and was probably the result of a misinterpretation of a skaldic verse, but it was so fascinating and gruesome, and seemed to capture Viking cruelty so well, that it kept getting repeated and even embellished. And now the History Channel has filmed it. I can’t really blame them. This is television drama, and yes it is Very Dramatic. But it is definitely not historical fact. We’re watching fiction here, folks.
I am enormously impressed, though, by how this sequence was filmed. It seemed to me that it was meant to be a counterpoint to the crucifixion scene from Episode 4. That King Ecbert was able to stop that event with a single command while King Horik cannot prevent Ragnar from taking his revenge against Jarl Borg is a good illustration of royal power in Wessex vs royal power in Scandinavia at that time.
The segment began when Ragnar described to his son (and to us) what was going to happen. That was pretty ghoulish. But here’s the thing: the execution was portrayed like a solemn, ceremonial sacrifice that even the victim understood and accepted. Jarl Borg acquiesced to his fate, and it was carried out on a stage by a white-garbed Ragnar. Yet except for an initial incision (like a surgical drama) and spatters of blood, the camera never showed what Ragnar was doing with knife and axe. Instead it fixed upon the victim’s face and upon the faces of those watching. It didn’t matter. What was happening had already been planted in my mind by Ragnar’s description. I never saw what Ragnar did to Jarl Borg except in my imagination, and it still it made my stomach turn.
As I write this I’ve been wondering if the creepy spamaðr was part of that scene. I can’t remember but you know what? I’m not going to watch it again to find out.