Vikings Attack Paris: How Closely Did the TV Show Follow History?
Vikings Ragnar Lothbrok
Update: Craving a taste of Season 4? See photos from the upcoming season here.
On Vikings, King Ragnar announced to his men their next target: Paris.
"Paris? What is Paris?" Rollo spits.
"That is a good question, brother," says Ragnar. "By all accounts, Paris is a huge, walled, well-protected city. This is something our people have never attempted or dreamt of before."
History Channel has teased that Vikings would be looking beyond Scandinavia and Britain to add Francia to Ragnar's conquests. And the storyline matches up with the real history of a Viking siege orchestrated by one of the historical figures on which the show's Ragnar Lothbrok is based. The character has progressed from farmer and father to sailor, explorer, raider, earl, diplomat, and, as of the Season 2 finale, king – more titles than any one man can achieve in a lifetime. But scholars believe that the "real" Ragnar, who has so many incredible feats associated with his name, was not a single man but a legendary conflation of several different warriors and kings.
Series creator Michael Hirst says that while a great deal of research goes into the show's writing and production, his goal isn't to produce a documentary-style history lesson. "I'm not looking for accuracy per se … if there was an accurate version, all historians would agree on it, and historians never agree," Hirst says. "But I think what I'm looking for is authenticity, plausibility, consistency, and as much truth as is possible within a drama."
The Danish Viking Reginheri, one of the figures scholars link to the legend of Ragnar Lothbrok, led a violent series of attacks on what is now France and sieged Paris, which was then an island city, in the year 845. Historical accounts indicate that he sailed a fleet of about 120 ships along the Seine, raiding the city of Rouen as he progressed. After Rouen, West Frankish King Charles the Bald sent an army to protect the Abbey of Saint Denis, but Reginheri's raiders routed this force and hanged 111 of their prisoners as a tribute to Odin. They went on to pillage Paris, staying until King Charles the Bald offered a payment of nearly 5,700 pounds of gold and silver for their departure.
Hirst attributes his Ragnar's impending sail to Paris to the character's insatiable curiosity and need to explore. For Hirst, Ragnar is akin to the Norse god Odin, who, according to Germanic mythology, was willing to sacrifice his own eye in pursuit of new knowledge.
"That's what also drives Ragnar, and it's a kind of, in a sense, it's a desire for fame, too, a fame for discovering or leading the Vikings to these places," Hirst said. "And fame isn't celebrity, fame is doing something amazing."
BEHIND THE SCENES: What it Took to Film the Vikings' Paris Raid
Reginheri's motivations for attacking Paris may not have been so idealistic. Before his invasion, Reginheri had been granted some land in Frisia—a region now part of Germany and the Netherlands--by Charles the Bald. The siege of Paris in 845 may have been vengeance for losing that land, and the large series of payments that King Charles offered were likely compensation for the territory Reginheri lost.
The historical gap between the earliest Viking raids and Reginheri's siege is significantly longer than the chronology that Vikings has covered so far, but Hirst views the attack as a way to demonstrate to the TV audience how quickly the scale of Viking raids escalated during that period of history.
"It's thrilling, I must say, and it seemed to me totally in line with the character Ragnar, this semi-mythic character, that'd I'd helped to create," Hirst says. "It is consistent with the philosophy, the way I'm doing the show, I think, even though the chronology is slightly ajar."
It's also the nature of the TV business. Vikings is a popular show, but there are no guarantees about how long it will remain on the air. Hirst said that he was too excited about the siege to risk pushing it to a future season.
Along with bloody battles, the Paris attack will stoke the spiritual conflicts of characters Athelstan and Ragnar, struggles Hirst says are central to the show. Not only did Reginheri's Viking campaign in West Francia involve the destruction of churches and culminate in an Easter-time attack on Paris, but it also fell victim to a deadly plague that may have been enough of a catalyst for some Vikings to convert to Christian practices. Hirst tells us that on the show, as the Parisians pray in their cathedral for God to smite the attackers with various afflictions, the Vikings will also contend with some spiritual unrest. "Ragnar, too, has moments of vision in which he sees both pagan and Christian figures," Hirst says. "So [religion is] high up there. It's one of the things that's part of the signature of the show."
Similarities between history's Reginheri and History Channel's Ragnar Lothbrok will likely end with the attack on the city of Paris. Reginheri supposedly died suddenly after returning from West Francia. One account, written by a monk of Saint Germain, states that God struck Ragnar down and caused his body to swell until he burst; a more likely explanation is that Reginheri died of plague-induced diarrhea, which, in terms of medieval medicine, could be construed as biblical bursting. It's difficult to imagine History Channel sending out one of their biggest characters that way. Plus Hirst still has plenty of ideas about where to take the Vikings next, including Iceland, Greenland and possibly even North America.
"They found a trading post, or what they think is a Viking trading post in the Arctic Circle," Hirst said. "And so, goodness knows where we can take these people [on the show.] I think it's an education for me as much as for anyone else."