We all know that Vikings as a series takes some, uh, liberties when it comes to historical accuracy in the name of storytelling and artistic licence but as a whole it also tries to bring the past to life with the use of old languages and historical characters. However when the character Yidu, a Chinese slave, appeared in Kattegat it had me wondering just how much of stretch that would be.
Is it even possible?
The short answer is that yes, it is technically possible.
Yidu mentions that she was captured by pirates in the red sea which means she would likely have been taken by the following route:
- Board merchantman from China (for some reason)
- Sail across the bay of Bengal
- Past the southern tip of India
- Up through the Arabian Sea
- Then into Red Sea to be captured
After that she would be in the hands of Arab or Byzantine merchants, both of whom had frequent trade contacts with the Norse via the Mediterranean Sea and the Volga River respectively.
However, Yidu also mentions that she was captured during the Siege of Paris, where she was already a slave at the time. Despite their pretentions of civilised behaviour, the Franks did have fairly profitable slave trade, and so Yidu would have come to them through their own trade links with Middle Eastern merchants.
According to what appears to happen in the show, she was then picked up by merchants again during the Siege and then shipped up and around Europe to Norway (where the fictional Kattegat is supposed to be). Somehow.
So is it plausible?
I seriously doubt it.
Although there is certainly evidence that the Chinese had a few sparse trade links with the Middle East, we need to consider the slave trade dynamics of the places she ended up in.
As I’m sure you know the Vikings have a reputation for taking slaves on their frequent raids across Europe but, despite what happens in the show, most of the slaves were then sold on to their trade partners in Byzantium or the Middle East. The thing that drove the Norse to raiding in the first place was that their land wasn’t too great for farming so collecting even more mouths to feed kinda goes against their best interests.
But then again, we can’t really account for Ragnar and his shenanigans. If King Ragnar wants an exotic Chinese slave to feed him his drugs then there isn’t much arguing with him. That being said, the merchant that sold Yidu should have know the North wasn’t a seller’s market, and if he got her from the Siege of Paris then he should also have known that Ragnar and his band of merry men would have taken boat loads of slaves themselves. Plot holes, anyone?
Now how about Paris? Let me tell you about Paris.
Even though, as mentioned, the Franks had a burgeoning slave trade, they never had much use for them. The market was more geared to collecting captives and then selling them on to places such as Venice, Byzantium, and the Middle East, so them retaining slaves was highly unlikely.
However, it could be possible that Yidu was caught in the transitional period before being sold on. But how on Earth would she have gotten to Paris in the first place without travelling through the places she was going to be sold right back to?
So, to reiterate, a Chinese slave being sold to the Vikings is possible but also highly implausible.
Then why is she there?
Simply enough it’s because the writers wanted her there. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, showrunner Michael Hirst says, “…I checked with our historical consultant and he said it’s all possible, it’s all plausible, it almost certainly happened”.
I don’t know who they used as a historical consultant but they probably ended their sentence at “possible” and Hirst was so enamoured with his idea that he took it as good enough to run it. After all, this is the man who put a man in traditionally woman’s role (the seer) and is filling the place with more and more shield maidens each season.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with arse-kicking warrior women like Lagertha, and historically there were a few, it’s just that there weren’t that many, despite the remarkably progressive women’s rights in Norse culture.
So far it seems like the only purpose Yidu, with an interesting backstory in her own right, has filled is to provide Ragnar with his ancient Chinese leaf drugs and occasionally do the horizontal monster mash with him.
Maybe we’ll see some sort of development when Ragnar inevitably takes her to Paris with him (it’s not unreasonable to assume she can speak Frankish too) where she tries to escape and find her way back home. Or she could continue to be a disappointingly unfulfilled side-character designed only as a distraction for Ragnar.
However, if they depart from the sagas and from history enough to send Ragnar all the way to China I’ll definitely throw my toys out of the pram and probably refuse to watch it. Although, to be honest, I do want to see how they end it.
So in conclusion, Yidu is:
- Entirely possible
- Extremely implausible
- Exasperatingly probably pointless
Let’s just hope she ends up doing more than just making Aslaug jealous.
P.S. For easy access to more pedantry, why not follow me on Twitter?