Ancient Kings On the Edge of Historicity

Asked Felicia:

“… those Viking saga kings, Ragnar Lodbrok and Björn Järnsida. I’d like to know if there exists any evidence at all that these persons ever existed?”

In the present, the categories “real person” and “fictional character” are pretty distinct. But when we look retrospectively at the first historically documented centuries in any given area, things get fuzzy. And it’s even worse if we look at people who are supposed to have lived before the introduction of writing to an area, and who are mentioned in early or foreign texts. These centuries to either side of the introduction of writing is known as protohistory, and protohistorical information is strictly speaking not factual knowledge. Not because we know that it’s wrong, but because it is impossible to corroborate. Protohistory is information of indeterminate value, which is extremely frustrating to many amateur historians who Want To Believe.

Beowulf and Arthur are protohistorical figures. And Arthur illustrates another tendency: even if there’s is reason to believe that he existed, almost none of his most famous characteristics are likely to be historical truth. He probably wasn’t named Arthur, he had no round table, his queen wasn’t named Guinevere, his stronghold wasn’t named Camelot, none of his “knights” wore plate armour, and so on.

Then on the other hand there are all the countless real, living individuals of the past of whom we know the name, the approximate date and the region they lived in – and nothing more. Because when people start writing, they usually start small, and one of the first things they write is names. We’ve seen it recently on the Hogganvik rune stone. Skelbathewar and Naudigastir were in all likelihood as real as anybody who reads this, but we hardly know anything about them. They are not protohistorical, just extremely poorly documented.

But perhaps Felicia’s question was specifically about Ragnar Lodbrok and Björn Järnsida, not so much about generalities. Both are protohistorical figures: Ragnar Shaggy-breeches and Björn Ironside.

In Ragnar’s case, we’re dealing with a documented 9th century Viking leader of that given name onto whom later story-tellers painted thick layers of fiction, including his second name. Or perhaps it is meaningless to make that identification since the historical guy and the Ragnar of later legend have so little in common.

Björn is said to have been Ragnar’s son and is an even worse candidate for factuality than his dad. There is contemporaneous written evidence for a Ragnar at the right time and in the right area. Not so with Björn. And this is why historians have long since scrapped the idea of a “Munsö royal lineage” springing from him.

Source-critical historians try to avoid believing in anything until good-quality sources force them to. Such a historian needn’t spend much time thinking about Ragnar or Björn. Alternatively, you can have the opposite attitude: that you want to avoid disbelieving any statement in early sources unless contradictions force you. Trouble is, it’s possible (and quite easy) to write internally consistent fiction. Thus, in my opinion, only the source-critical attitude deserves the moniker vetenskap or Wissenschaft, that the English language unfortunately lacks.

Dear Reader Peter Olausson points to a piece where historian Dick Harrison says pretty much what I said above.

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14 thoughts on “Ancient Kings On the Edge of Historicity

  1. What, next you’ll tell me Arthur and his knights never killed ferocious rabbits or compared the wight of witches and ducks? They must have – I think I saw a documentary or something about it once.


  2. The most literal translation of Wissenschaft into English might well be philosophy, now sadly archaic in that sense.

    Wikipedia asks us to live up to

    the standard of verifiability expected in academic and science-related work

    – much more awkward, to be sure, and shouldn’t that be falsifiability 😉 ?


  3. Thank you for thar very interesting answer. If I had it right then, persons with the namnes Ragnar and Björn might have existed at around the time they´re said to, but they have probably not much to do with the saga persons with these names?


  4. At least Björn, and possibly Ragnar too, was a common name in the Viking Period. So yes, there definitely existed people with those names who bore little similarity to the saga characters. In the case of Björn, thousands of people.


  5. I find it hard to believe that the Swedes have any deep emotional attachment to the supposition of historicity for the kings Ragnar and Björn, so I would assume they wouldn’t have a problem seeing things from your point of view, as I suppose most Brits would be concerning Arthur. But how is the historicity of these folks any different from that of Moses or Christ? Yet even some biblical scholars that regard most of the stuff written about Christ as mythology seem to cling, nevertheless, to the notion that the guy really existed, even in the absence of any accounts on the part of historians who were writing at the time. Separating historicity from wishful thinking seems more difficult when the mythology has been tenaciously clung to for so long by so many.


  6. It’s probably a question of early indoctrination. If your parents teach your from day 1 that it is vitally important to believe in King Björn and the Munsö Lineage in order to be considered a good person, then you will probably find it hard to get rid of that idea.


  7. I’ve long held that the question of a legendary character’s historicity hardly ever has a meaningful answer, mostly because the question itself tends to be indistinct.

    There likely aren’t too many legends that were made up of whole cloth from the get-go – the vast majority probably have sizable threads of historical events woven into them, but it’s just not possible to separate them from the exaggerations and inventions, the crossovers and re-adaptions, and whatever else happens to a tall tale in the retelling. There is evidence for not only one, but several real life persons by the name of “Robert Hood” in Medieval England, and there really were outlaws in Sherwood forest, and there was an office called “Sheriff of Nottingham” – but that doesn’t reach to the core of the question people have in mind when asking “Was there really a Robin Hood?”

    And much the same with Jesus – I would be very surprised if there wasn’t some itinerant preacher by the name of Yeshua or Yoshua who traveled around Judea during that general timeframe, and some of the stories and statements in the Gospels might actually stem from him. Some others are clearly later additions and might have referred to a different person originally – but, again, that’s not the question people really mean when asking about the historicity of Jesus.


  8. Funny that you should bring this up now as I am looking for information about Björn Järnsida. Interesting reading however and thanks for the inspiration!


  9. And Arthur illustrates another tendency: even if there’s is reason to believe that he existed, almost none of his most famous characteristics are likely to be historical truth. He probably wasn’t named Arthur, he had no round table, his queen wasn’t named Guinevere, his stronghold wasn’t named Camelot, none of his “knights” wore plate armour, and so on.

    We can be quite certain that most of the things people associate with Arthur are not true, because (a) they’re hilariously anachronistic for the only time frame he could reasonably have existed in, and (b) they don’t appear at all in any of the earliest Arthurian material. There couldn’t be any crusading kings of a unified Britain (or even England) in the mid 1st millennium, because the crusades hadn’t started yet, kingship in the usual sense didn’t really exist yet, and Britain definitely wasn’t unified. He couldn’t have had a “castle” as we understand it, because they hadn’t been invented, and so on… And he can’t exist in the time when these things did exist, because if he did, we’d certainly know about him.

    However, the name “Arthur” alluding to an exemplar of martial prowess does seem to appear fairly early on (depending on how you date the various bits of Y Gododdin).

    Sorry for the side-track – I spent quite a bit of my youth trying to figure out where Arthur could fit into history. Fortunately, the reality it lead me to was actually more interesting than the myths.


  10. I wasn’t aware that Arthur were portrayed as a crusader. I thought his big thing was staying put and defending England and Wales against nasty Germanic speakers.


  11. I wasn’t aware that Arthur were portrayed as a crusader.

    I’m having trouble finding a reference at the moment, but I’m fairly sure at least one version has him off on crusade, leaving Mordred in charge, which ultimately leads to the Battle of Camlan.

    It might be a brain fart on my part though… Geoffrey of Monmouth has him fighting the equally fictitious Roman emperor Lucius Tiberius in Gaul.


  12. This was a great post! These kings on the edge of historicity make great fodder for fiction, though, precisely because nobody really knows. Not very unlike Helen of Troy, or Theseus, or any of the heroes written about by Homer.


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