One of the biggest criticisms used against historical dramas is the accuracy of the costuming. It's easy to see why historians would be easily irritated by visual errors when representing history— after all, they're the misconceptions that stick in people's minds the easiest. Ever wonder why so many people associate Vikings with horned helmets?
The costumes on History's #Vikings are undeniably striking, and the badass armor that's been so prevalent throughout the many battles of Season Four are no exception. But did the real Vikings really dress like that in battle?
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The Argument Against Historical Accuracy
Vikings costume designer Joan Bergin has been accused of having a pretty poor understanding of Viking history and culture due to her choice of clothing designs. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she explained that she does indeed take some creative liberties with history:
"I always take liberties. If you start clearly, you show that you’ve done the research, and you know where the basics have come from, then you can kind of fly and you can take on extra imagery"
That very admission alone is enough to make historians' blood boil. But as much as having a subjective interpretation of history seems a little off, it's a necessary step in ensuring the longevity of the show.
Vikings may be a show based on history, but its purpose is to entertain rather than educate— and no one knows this better than show creator Michael Hirst. He explained the motivation behind his decision to play around with the history books in an interview with the New York Times:
"I especially had to take liberties with ‘Vikings’ because no one knows for sure what happened in the Dark Ages. Very little was written then. We want people to watch it. A historical account of the Vikings would reach hundreds, occasionally thousands, of people. Here we’ve got to reach millions."
Not to mention there's very little reliable information from the Viking Age, which means most of what we know about Viking culture is largely the guessing work of historians and archaeologists. When it comes to historical facts from that time, it's all a bit of a grey area.
With that in mind, let's examine the hits and misses with the historical accuracy of the armor on Vikings:
Why The Dull Color Scheme?
From the muddy ground to the eternally grey skies, Vikings is very consistent with its aesthetic, and the armor is no exception. With a limited range of earthy hues, the warriors could almost blend in with the forest around them.
But not everyone's a fan of the muted tones. Both viewers and historians have criticized the show for making its characters look more Mad Max than medieval. Is this an account of Europe in the 800s, or a post-apocalyptic sci-fi?
They're fair criticisms, too. Despite the show's dreary tone, Vikings were actually big fans of color. They used plants to dye fabric in bold, bright colors, a practice which is often replicated at modern-day Viking fairs:
Chances are, Viking battlefields were a lot more brightly colored than the neutral palette shown on Vikings. But while it's not very historically accurate, it definitely makes for a more enjoyable image for a mass audience.
Where's All The Metal?
A large part of the criticism surrounding the "biker" image on Vikings comes from the overwhelming amount of leather. It's a distinct change from the usual medieval battles shown on screen, which usually feature armies clad in chainmail, metal plates and helmets.
Considering metal is far superior to leather in deflecting sharp swords, spears and arrows, why would a Viking army opt for leather? Simple: metal was expensive. Most Vikings were farmers first, and warriors second. They made do with thick, padded fabric and leather, which helped deflect incoming blows to some extent.
There have been accounts of chainmail and helmets found at Viking burial sites, but many historians say that they were often reserved for those with more status and wealth. Not to mention metal would have significantly impaired their agility in combat due to its weight.
Sure, Vikings may have opted for a pretty stylized version of the protective leather garments, but the material was still a popular choice for the common Viking warrior.
Why Aren't They Wearing More Armor?
It may seem absolutely absurd that Rollo would often fight shirtless, but there's actually some historical backing to that. Viking berserkers are said to have had superior fighting abilities, often appearing to be immune to pain and thus requiring far less armor. One theory suggests that they fought bare-chested, possibly without even a linen shirt to protect their skin. Though to be honest, it's pretty obvious that the show's team latched on to this theory just so they could show Clive Standen shirtless.
So what about helmets? As mentioned above, metal armor was an expensive commodity for the humble Viking. Metal helmets like the one shown in the photo above were used by those who could afford the material. Those who couldn't often used thick hats made from fabric such as felt. And no, Vikings most definitely did not wear horned helmets.
As for the distinct lack of clothing of any kind of material, that probably wasn't too far from the truth either. Don't forget that Vikings found glory in death on the battlefield, and certainly weren't afraid to die. How else would a Viking get to Valhalla?
Check out Vikings costume designer Joan Bergin discussing the historical inspiration behind the show's costumes: