History of the World According to the Movies: Part 6- Vikings and Fighters

This is from a 1928 silent technicolor movie called The Viking which focuses on Leif Ericson. The accurate details about his life featured here are that he was the son of Eric the Red and discovered North America that we know of. Still, this picture shows a popular image of Vikings wearing horned helmets, which is not only historically inaccurate but also a stupid idea. Still, this doesn’t stop teams from having such images on their sports logos.

The Middle Ages isn’t one of the most accurately depicted times in movies. Much of how we view the medieval era isn’t shaped by actual history but by how it was viewed by later generations like in the Renaissance or the Victorian era. The Middle Ages lasted for about a thousand years or show as well as experienced lots of changes, but many medieval movies may take place in one era. Yet, they may have the people wear clothes and use weapons from a later period as well as large scale battles conducted in ways that would make most medieval military minds scratch their heads. Not to mention, some aspects of the Middle Ages are more likely to be filmed than others. Movies set in the Early Middle Ages tend to be about Vikings even though they were among many of the Germanic tribes wreaking havoc all over Dark Age Europe {mostly because few surviving writings from this era exist}. Well, that or King Arthur {who may just be a mythological figure}. Also, many of them tend to focus on fighting {like large scale epic battles} and most of them would be set in England {mostly because of Shakespeare, Robin Hood, and King Arthur} though there was plenty happening throughout Europe as well. This post will devote itself to the Vikings and the Medieval warfare inaccuracies portrayed in movies since these revolve around fighting which was common place in the Middle Ages.

No group gets more movie depictions in the Early Middle Ages than the Vikings, the fearsome Scandinavian raiders that bring any settled early medieval village to its knees. Many of these guys were pagans who worshiped the Norse Gods, wore awesome gear and carried gnarly weapons, sailed on ships with gruesome figureheads, and had long light hair and beards. Of course, this is the Hollywood depiction. Yet, the Middle Ages was a time where warfare was common place, of knighthood and chivalry, castles, battles, and tournaments. However, when it comes to Hollywood, there of plenty of things that movies get wrong which I shall list accordingly.

The Vikings:

The Vikings wore horned helmets and treated their women as objects. (The Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets, it was made up by Wagner when he did his operas on Norse and German mythology. Besides, a horned helmet wouldn’t be of any practical use whatsoever. Still, the Teutonic Knights and the samurai did though. And the women didn’t wear cone bras either. Also, Viking women held more rights than most other women did at the time.)

The Vikings were a savage people who raided and pillaged in areas all over Europe. They were also filthy as well as large and muscled. (Raiders, yes, but the Vikings weren’t uncivilized savages. They also were traders, explorers, artists, sailors, craftsmen, settlers, as well as a lot of other things. They also discovered Iceland, Greenland, and North America. And as for hygiene, evidence shows they were keen on personal hygiene unlike some European peoples. And they weren’t always hated and feared either.)

Vikings were tall, big, and blond. (Actually, though they came from Scandinavia and blond was seen as ideal, they took slaves from a great many ethnic groups who later joined them. So maybe there were Vikings who looked like Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine after all. Also, the average Viking man’s height was 5’ 7” which is not tall but fairly average.)

Viking was an ethnicity. (It was more of a job description derived from their method of raiding. Also, they did carry their weapons in normal life which they used for other purposes. They referred to themselves as Norsemen. All Vikings were Norsemen but not all Norsemen were Vikings. Also, most Norsemen would stay in villages all their lives.)

Vikings were clean shaven. (Male Vikings had beards.)

All Germanic tribesmen looked and dressed alike.

Viking women usually stayed home. (Many actually did accompany their husbands on invasions and sometimes fought according to recent evidence.)

Viking funerals consisted of a warrior being burned on the boat with all his possessions. (There was also a slave girl thrown in, too, but no one wants to film that.)

The Vikings were feared from all those they invaded. (Sometimes, but they weren’t bad rulers as well as accepted as traders. Also, they and the Slavs got along much nicely in what is now Russia and the former Soviet Union. It’s said Kievan Rus was founded by a man named  Rurik and his Viking band {who was a Finn raised in Swedish society} though it was already an urbanizing culture when those guys came.)

Leif Ericson was a Christian. (Nope, nor did he fall for an English Princess or land in Rhode Island {he landed in Canada, specifically, New Foundland or Nova Scotia}. Also, he didn’t speak Algonquin either.)

Hrothgar was a king of Denmark who met Ahmed ibn Fadlan. (Both these men existed in different eras. The Danish king mentioned lived during the 500s and wouldn’t have any contact with Muslims in the first place since Islam was founded in 622. The latter existed in 922. Of course, Vikings could’ve met Muslims though.)

The Vikings only used axes. (Vikings were all legally required to own weapons and the vast majority of Viking men and women used swords.)

The Vikings were unusually bloodthirsty and barbaric. (Well, they were living in a violent age and non-Viking armies were just as bad. However, they usually get special mention because of their willingness to destroy objects of religious value and kill churchmen, earning them a lot of hatred in a highly religious time. Also, they kind of enjoyed the reputation they had.)

Vikings were hated everywhere. (Some respected them like French king Charles the Simple who gave a Viking chief named Rollo Normandy and his daughter. In return these Vikings protected France against their wilder counterparts. Also, the Byzantine Emperors if the 11th century were protected by Swedish bodyguards in Constantinople.)

The Vikings lived only in Scandinavia and later settled in Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. (They started settlements reaching as far as North Africa, Russia, and Constantinople.)

The Vikings used crude and unsophisticated weaponry. (They were actually very skilled weapons smiths. They could make extremely sharp and flexible swords.)

Viking funerals were solemn occasions. (Yes, but after the deceased was sent in a blazing glory, it was basically a party with feasting and fighting afterwards.)

A Viking weapon of choice was the doubled axe. (No double axe has ever been found in early medieval Europe. Also, Viking axes were light and single handed and spears are the most common weapons found on their sites.)

Viking drank from skull cups. (They drank from horns.)

Vikings were a nation. (They were a groups of warriors, explorers, and merchants headed by a chieftain.)

Viking men had tresses. (They shaved the backs of their heads like a reverse mullet.)

Barbarians:

The Huns were Asian looking. (They were from Eastern Europe or Central Asia not Mongolia. Yet, we’re not sure what the Huns looked like.)

Attila the Hun visited Rome and fell in love with Valentinian III’s  sister Honoria. (He never visited Rome nor even met the Roman princess. However, he did consent to marrying her before invading the Roman Empire after she was caught in bed with her brother’s chamberlain. Yet, this had less to do with love than wanting her brother Valentinian III dead. Oh, and instead of being exiled to a convent in Constantinople, she was forced to marry a senator.)

Attila the Hun never had a bath. (He did bathe.)

Knights and Warfare:

Knights were honorable, chivalrous, warriors who wooed damsels, were faithful to their wives, and treated their subjects with respect. (Actually, many knights usually entered into arranged marriages and many of them would hump pretty much anything that moves. Also, many of these knights raped peasant women and took their aggression on the local population which was one of the reasons why the Catholic Church called for a Crusade. Oh, and prostitution was legal because it was believed to deter rape among the general population and even the Vatican had brothels. In the Middle Ages, knights in shining armor were more the exception than the norm.)

Knights followed a specific code of chivalry which depicted unwavering pillars of justice. (Knights basically followed chivalry whenever they wanted to and only respected those above them. Most of them did whatever they wanted such as rape, looting, pillaging, and killing peasants. In fact, they looting was their right since they thought the booty was owed for their services. Hell, they’d hang out at bridges and rivers in large groups where they’d pick fights with passing knights, kill peasants, and harass women.)

Good knights treated peasants and serfs like human beings. (Knights treated serfs incredibly terrible since they were at the lowest rung of society. Serfs were usually key targets of knights since they were responsible for the upkeep of an estate. And though they might not be killed by a rival knight, they’ll likely be severely wounded or dismembered so they’d be a drain on estate. If a knight killed another lord’s serf, he’d have to pay or receive a beating.)

Armor was surprisingly useless against most forms of attacks. Whenever the plot requires, arrows and sword thrusts will punch through armor with ease. This is related to:

Braveheart Brigandine: This consists of metal plates riveted beneath a leather covering with a gap between the plates. This as flexible and easy to make, and virtually useless as protection, because any thrust will slide along the plate until it reaches the gap, slides into it, and kills the wearer. Its most perverse variant is the Braveheart Pajama Bottom of War: trousers with metal plates riveted to them with *large* gaps between them so the wearer can move. These gaps allow William Wallace to chop the wearer’s legs off with ease.  [From A Commonplace Book] (It’s unlikely that actual medieval fighters wore this.)

Studded Armor. Leather armor with decorative studs. This is designed to look like brigantine or similar armor to someone who doesn’t have a very good idea what brigantine looks like. The studs offer approximately the same protective value as loose change in the wearer’s pocket. However, the combination of metal studs and leather is very popular in bad historical movies, as well as the kind of bar where the patrons like that sort of thing. [From A Commonplace Book] (Armor wasn’t really useless in forms of attacks since many medieval soldiers used it in the form of chainmail, which was very heavy.)

For a medieval hero, a helmet is an encumbrance to be discarded as soon as possible, so that the hero’s face can be more easily seen and recognized. Unless it is desirable to wait until later to suddenly reveal that the armored figure is female, evil or somebody who we have already met. (Soldiers usually wore helmets in battle for good reason.) [From A Commonplace Book]

The Antagonists are Eeeeevil. Particularly if the protagonists are killing large number of the antagonists, having completely evil bad guys helps avoid any nasty moral ambiguity to the body count. Cardboard Cliche Villains don’t hesitate to promiscuously slaughter random civilians (Timeline), rape and kill women (Braveheart), not necessarily in that order (The Messenger) or toss babies into the fire (Alexander Nevsky) [From A Commonplace Book] (You see that many medieval movies operate on protagonist morality though both sides usually engaged in this.)

Protagonists can do no wrong. If a historical protagonist has actually made a belt from the skin of an opponent, or carried out a campaign of burning and pillage aimed at civilians, this will not appear in the movie (Braveheart)[From A Commonplace Book] (This was relatively common in the Middle Ages but this is right.)

Amazing Portable Siege Weapons. Enormous munitions siege weapons can always be deployed from somewhere else over medieval roads to where they are needed in whatever time is required by the plot (Timeline) [From A Commonplace Book] (These would take a lot of time and resources to assemble.)

Random Melee. Some modern fight choreographers like to show the chaos of battle by scattering fighters of both sides randomly about the field in a series of mostly single combats. (Braveheart, Branagh Henry V, etc, etc, etc.). (If you have gotten yourself into this kind of situation on a medieval battlefield, you, your companions, and/or commander are incompetent and will probably be dead in a few minutes. If you’re doing it right, you are standing in good formation with an ally on your left and your right, and you won’t break formation until your enemy is fleeing in rout, if then. Alexander Nevsky is one of the few movies that comes close to getting this right.) [From A Commonplace Book]

Only nobles fought battles. (Actually nobles were officers but medieval soldiers came from all backgrounds and most were drafted peasant foot soldiers.)

In a swordfight, you can always parry behind your back, and you must always find a set of stairs to fight on so that the loser can roll down them and die at the bottom. [From A Commonplace Book]

Knights could easily get up by themselves after falling off a horse. (Of course, wearing armor didn’t make this job easy.)

Knights fought in tournaments to win a lady’s favor. (It was battle practice and they weren’t fighting for girls as prizes. Sometimes there were prizes you wouldn’t expect.)

Knights never cheated in tournaments unless they were evil. (Cheating in tournaments was very common.)

Storming the castle through the front door was the best way to defeat an enemy. (In medieval warfare, this is the absolute worst thing you can do since it basically made the castle forces’ job a whole lot easier. Most medieval armies would usually surround the castle and hold it under siege until the resident lord or lady surrendered {though some did try to sneak in through the toilets which is also a dumb thing to do, which goes without saying}. This could take months or years. This is why so many nobles built castles back then because they were very effective defenses.)

Swords were a preferred weapon of choice for most of the Middle Ages. (Those living in the Early Middle Ages would rather use a spear or a battle axe {since they were easier to make and lighter than wood axes}. Besides, steel blades were rather expensive and difficult to make on swords. The Dark Age Europe weapon of choice was blade on stick, which they’d use for everything. Many Dark Age weapons were even passed down generations.)

Castles existed during the Dark Ages. (They didn’t in Britain at least until William the Conqueror. So if King Arthur existed, he wouldn’t have one.)

Early medieval knights were clad in full armor. (Knighthood as we know it didn’t exist yet in the early Middle Ages. Also, most knight armor we see came from the 13th century or later.)

Open fighting was a daily occurrence consisting of two armies on a big field. (From Medievalist: “Warfare was very common in the Middle Ages (as in pretty much every other age), but medieval strategists were too sensible to frequently attempt the type of battle we often see in the movies. Having two big armies charge each other in the field was a little too risky – the outcome could go either way. Because of this, the most common type of warfare was siege warfare: an army would attack a stronghold, and their opponents would try to withstand the attack. For some entertaining views of siege tactics, check out The Lord of the Rings trilogy (you’ll find sieges in The Two Towers and The Return of the King). While there weren’t a lot of orcs and goblins running around medieval Europe, J.R.R. Tolkien was a medievalist, so some of the tactics are borrowed from history.”)

Squires assisted the knight as a sidekick. (They also had to clean the knight’s armor as well as assist him in other ways.)

Medieval armor made knights slow. (From Writing Is Cake: “Somehow, somewhere, somebody started the idea that a fully armored knight was about as nimble as lead statue.  A lead statue high on quaaludes.  The cliche is an unhorsed knight was ‘as helpless as a turtle on its back’.  It’s not even close to true.  It is true that in the late middle ages, when tourneys were big money, specialized jousting armor was made.  These suits were designed for only one thing, riding a horse in a straight line with a lance.  They were never designed for any kind of real war (most had helmets that you couldn’t see out of)  Every other kind of armor was designed to keep a warrior alive on a field of battle and survival meant protection, mobility and vision.  Even the full plate was fully articulated and knights were expected to perform all sorts of acrobatics in them; leaping into a saddle, climbing up siege ladders with only their arms (think monkey-bars), and doing somersaults.”)

Medieval swords weighed 15 pounds. (From Writing Is Cake: “Your average sword was under four feet long and under three pounds.  A professional warriors sword would typically be more like three feet and about a pound and a half to two pounds.  The mechanics and physics of what a sword does is based on velocity.  Swords are light and balanced so the six to ten inches near the tip go as fast as possible with the least amount of effort from the end you’re holding.  Even the big two-handers like a Scot’s claymore or landsknecht’s pike breaker are much lighter than you might think.”)

There was one type of battle axes. (There were two consisting of a fighting axe for close combat and a throwing axe for distance.)

Soldiers never used guns in the Middle Ages. (They did in the later years.)

Flaming Arrows were often used in battle, particularly by those at castles. (They weren’t as often used as medieval movies claim it to be. I mean before you can set the arrows on fire, you had to wrap them in a flaming material first which may make them heavier, reduce their range, and inhibit its ability to penetrate the enemy’s skin. Also, may pose as a fire hazard. So flaming arrows wouldn’t be a handy way to kill someone and medieval soldiers didn’t use them to do so. Yet, whenever they did use flaming arrows, it was usually to frighten the enemy, letting archers know how to adjust their shots, and setting targets on fire.)

Castles were easy pickings when the adult males were away. (If you think you could easily take castles in which the resident nobles occupying it are women and children, think again. Women of noble or royal birth in the Middle Ages had sufficient knowledge of warfare and combat training for defending their turf while their men were away. Also, many tradesmen of the era had their wives helping them in their craft so women armorer is possible. So the medieval notion of damsel in distress was probably a myth unless she’s trapped in a castle and being besieged by a force significantly outnumbering her. In that case, you might want to bring reinforcements.)

Swords made a clinking sound. (From Medieval Sourcebook: “From Cathy Hanley  [Here is a myth, or rather] an inaccuracy which appears in every medieval film I’ve ever seen. Why is it that whenever anyone picks up or draws a sword the filmmakers feel obliged to add that annoying “ching” sound, even when the sword is drawn from a leather scabbard or picked up off a table? Anyone who has ever tried to draw a sword (I have several) will know that it’s almost impossible to produce this sound. The only way I’ve found is to deliberately pull the sword across the back of a mail glove, but this isn’t very authentic!I know it’s probably more dramatic, but it sounds so false and is highly annoying.”)

Armor was too heavy. (A knight in full harness weighed up to 60 to 120 pounds. All he couldn’t do in it was swim.)

Sword fights lasted a long time. (Most usually lasted a few minutes even if it didn’t result in killing or seriously injuring one’s opponent.)

Only knights used swords. (All soldiers used them in battles and these guys weren’t all knights either.)

All European swords were straight blades. (Most were but some did use scimitars from the Middle East, especially after the Crusades.)

Swords were easy to make. (It took many years for a skilled master craftsman to forge a high quality blade.)

Swordfights were always honorable affairs. (Sometimes they were just about trying to win and survive and a lot of knights wouldn’t hesitate to use dirty tactics.)

Knights were helpless without their swords. (Each knight had significant training in self-defense and martial arts from the time he was seven. Of course, he may not be as proficient or as encompassing against an Asian kung-fu master, but if he lost his sword, he’d still be formidable foe. Also, historic records and manuals of such do exist.)

Stronger swords were better swords. (They also needed to be durable and flexible.)

Swords always stayed sharp. (All blades need to be sharpened.)

Knights were highly likely to be killed in battle. (Conscripted foot soldiers could be killed if they killed a knight even he fought on the other side. Capturing one was better since they could fetch a handsome ransom. Captured foot soldiers were instantly slaughtered).

Swords cut through armor. (Chainmail was quite impervious to swords.)

Medieval armies amassed thousands of people. (Depends on the setting. Maybe in national wars but in situations between two lords, it’s more likely a few thousand at most.)

Trebuchets were very effective weapons that caused a lot of widespread damage. (They weren’t effective at long distances or at low arc {they threw projectiles at a high arc}. Also, the biggest damage they’d do to a large castle wall is creating a huge dent and a thump upon impact.)

Medieval soldiers had no problem fighting at night. (Fighting at night is what most medieval soldiers tried to avoid for obvious reasons, except in stealthy sneak attacks if possible.)

The Longbow killed the knight. (The cost of putting him on the field did. From Lonnie Colson.com: “It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s currency to field one knight along with the necessary supplies and retainers he would need. Even more importantly, he had to be extensively trained from the age of 5 to deftly wield sword and lance while wearing armour. That is in stark contrast to the small sum that it cost to put an arbequs–early firearm–in the hands of a common soldier with very little training. Thus it was that with the dawn of the age of gunpowder we saw the sun set on the age of chivalry.”)

Any man can become a knight. (The vast majority of knights were born into wealth. Unless a foot soldier did something exceptionally badass in battle like saving a lord’s life perhaps. But they were just as likely to be killed by embarrassing someone born with money.)

Battle axes and wood axes looked about the same. (Battle axes were lighter than wood axes since it took much less force to cut people’s heads off than cut down trees. Simple physics, really.)

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2 responses to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 6- Vikings and Fighters

  1. My goodness! You’ve destroyed my image of of both knights and vikings! They were very complex people. Movies like the good guy/ bad guy scenario.

  2. Pingback: bottes grises pas cher

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