“The Northman”: Synthesizing Hollywood Historians with Reality
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, the recently released film “The Northman” portrays Viking life in stunning and vivid detail. The historical accuracy is said to be unprecedented; Robert Eggers, director of The Northman and other historical tales (The Witch, The Lighthouse), emphasizes his employment of Viking experts to achieve such an accuracy. The film indubitably meets contemporary historians’ expectations; but for economists of the Austrian persuasion, the film provides an excellent example of the fallacious and often contradicting interpretations historians provide for historical phenomena.
At its core, the film balances two commonly-propagated tropes about Vikings: their brutal and animal-like nature, and their trust-based society of egalitarianism. How can one reconcile these views? On one hand, Vikings are rapacious misanthropes that plunder and torture with abnormal barbarity; on another, they live by oaths and reputation. Egger’s “The Northman” excellently displays this dichotomy; in the beginning of the film, we witness the Vikings “going berserker” before raiding a Slavic village, murdering and violating all they can.
In contrast, much of the film is about fulfilling oaths and attaining/maintaining “honor”; in a later scene, the protagonist hands a gold piece to an unknown Viking sailor, who are to bring the protagonist’s dazzling bride-to-be on a months-long sea journey to Orkney in recompense. How are the Vikings that violate any woman they find also entrusted with ensuring safe passage for a beautiful woman, of whom they have no consequences of disturbing once past the bay line? This is not an oversight of the scriptwriter (though one may imagine his or her own puzzled look), but one of contemporary interpretations of Vikings.
Pete Leeson has extensive literature on the economics of pirates. Using rational choice theory (and much supplementary data), he accurately deduces that pirates did not plunder and murder solely to quench their own depravity, but because doing so was wealth-maximizing for securing early surrenders. When merchant ships would spot the jolly roger, they predicted facing rapacious blood-fiends, and moreover that their lack of immediate surrender would result in excruciating torture and execution.
As Leeson notes, it behooved pirates to emphasize a favor for torture and a high discount rate (high time preference) to secure plunder with as little cost as possible. Contemporary historians failed to reconcile pirates’ brutality with their crafting of, and adherence to contracts of private governance; rational choice theory, however, gives us a clearer picture.
Vikings likely have a similar explanation. “Going berserker” and torturing victims brutally both imply a high discount rate, and further reinforces that retaliation would be met with severe consequences. Both serve the purpose of securing plunder and victory with little cost. Berserker roughly translates to “bare-shirted” or “bear-shirted;” note that although going berserker is a “state of mind,” they are denoted by physical appearance, almost as if they are signaling ferocity to enemies and not actually manifesting the spirit of a wild beast.
If Vikings truly entered an altered state of mind granting them superhuman abilities that clouded their judgement (thus giving them a high discount rate), why would they take so much care to signal this to enemies? Deliberate signaling is contradictory to the frenzied disposition they exhibited, akin to pirates’ perceived temperament.
As the historians and archeologists advising Eggers’ film indicate, there is also surprisingly little historical text or archeological finds that give us any glimpse of the religious rituals which shaped Norsemen’s barbaric mindset. In an interview regarding his film, Eggers discusses how they crafted the set regarding the “scene where Berserkers need to transform human beings into beasts through shamanic ritual”:
“The academic consensus was that Vikings didn’t have special clothing for rituals. But the academic consensus is also that rituals involved splattering blood over everybody. I said to the archeologist Neil Price, ‘So, like, everyone was just walking around covered in blood all the time?’ And he was like, ‘Wow, I never considered that.’ So, based around a lot of other ideas we saw in sagas and archeology, we did invent the ceremonial clothing for rituals. That was total invention.”
Interestingly, we don’t know how Vikings became berserker; the “ritual” is completely unknown, save for the fact that blood was supposedly splattered on everybody. Therefore, it could be equally true that no ritual ever existed. It seems modern historians have interpreted this part of Viking lore with the same scrutiny as recently-raided 9th century Slavic villagers: completely accepting what the Vikings wanted their prey to believe. Remember that Leeson confronted a similar issue: contemporary historians interpreting pirates to be exactly what the marauders wanted their prey to believe of them.
Dissimilar from Leeson’s work, we do not have any early data on Vikings; record-keeping at the time was understandably scant. For comparison, the golden age of Vikings took place from 793–1066 AD; the “Domesday Book”, widely considered to be one of the first attempts at actual record-keeping, was written in 1086 AD. Without supplementary data and trustworthy sources, we may only deduce what we can with rational choice theory.
However, contemporary historians also lack sources. They use accounts written centuries after-the-fact (by the posterity of Vikings’ victims, nonetheless), and completely accept their retellings as truth. But, it is unlikely that Vikings could organize raiding expeditions alone if they were truly the carnal beasts one reads about in the sagas. Had they been so, merely transacting would be unfathomably difficult as commitment issues would stall parties’ enthusiasm. Without transaction, it is hard to imagine any society existing.
“The Northman”, a splendid (but gory) tale, was expertly informed by contemporary historians and archeologists; as such, the film excellently displays the flaw in common academic interpretations of Vikings. Logically, I would not go anywhere near an individual that violates and murders for sport, and I would certainly not transact with them; individuals in history would have likely thought the same, because they are equally rational beings.
To assume otherwise when interpreting historical phenomena is fallacious methodology, but it is common practice in contemporary academia. Economists are often accused of “economic imperialism” when applying methodology to non-market behavior; we must continue to do so until other social sciences begin to adequately interpret human behavior.
Sam acknowledges Janna Lu for her wonderful editing help and encouragement.