I don’t know about you, but I for one have been obsessed with History Channel’s new mini-series Vikings. Yes, it’s highly fictionalized and dramatized, and yes, the plot is overwrought with all-too-familiar tropes, including the epic voyage into uncharted waters as a symbol that the times they are a-changin’, the stranger in a strange land who goes native, and even the Greek tragedy, i.e. man expedites perceived bad thing precisely by trying to quell or prevent it. It’s all in there, among the anachronisms, composite characters, and bizarre haircuts.
And still, the show is the closest thing to something we might deem historical on the History Channel at present, which is from what I can tell dominated by shows of two formulas: grown-up children doing dirty/dangerous/stupid jobs, or grown-up children buying and selling trinkets that are historical in the sense that they exist and may or may not be old. So even to have the monks at Lindisfarne speaking Old English for three seconds on a super-hyped television series is something. And did you see that sweet gratuitous illuminated manuscript footage?
And so Ragnar and co. have got me thinking: What can we learn from the real Vikings? Their actual history is, perhaps to the credit of the show’s writers, also something of a trope: population growth begets internal violence, then centralization of control and the repression of an underclass, then imperialist expansion, then the unraveling of a far-flung empire, then fragmenting and assimilation into new norms and practices, if possible.
This same story seems to be playing out over and over again over the centuries, though the context, characters, and technology are different each time, and now the oligarchies have the technology to take all species down with them during the unraveling phase.
I wonder what would’ve happened if the Vikings hadn’t decided to “settle down,” and instead of wintering in and then permanently inhabiting the lands they raided, they would’ve remained as autonomous marine units, perpetually sailing from town to town like the fabled ships of fools—boats captained by the insane with no memory of their port of origin. Would they have become a sort of aquatic hunter/gatherer tribe? Would they, like hunters, have kept their prey, i.e. sedentary civilizations, in check?