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July 28th, 2017

Viking Apocalypse **1/2

Available on Netflix

 

Based on the violence in movies and on the news, one might think that this is an unusually violent time in human history.

But, happily, this isn’t true at all. The more you learn about the past, the more you realize how wonderfully peaceful we are in comparison.

Take, for example, the Viking Era (793 – 1100). During these centuries, Europeans were tormented by bloodthirsty pagan invaders from Scandinavia.

The Norsemen sailed in without warning, looted whatever they wanted, and killed whomever stood in their way. Next time you see a Danish or Swedish guy – 6’2’’, 200 pounds, broad-shouldered – think about how it felt to your ancestors to see 50 of them, holding swords and axes, banging on their door.

Before long, people simply stopped rebuilding towns and monasteries that were on the coast or riverside. Trade, exchange of ideas, and civilization itself was snuffed out by Viking violence.

“Viking Apocalypse” – which isn’t quite as awesome as its name suggests – is a documentary about some enthusiastic archaeologists who slowly unravel the mystery behind an ancient crime scene.

On a construction site in southern England, builders accidentally uncovered a gruesome old grave. There were 54 skeletons, all decapitated.

At first the archaeologists assumed that it was yet another vicious Viking attack. But after doing more research, they discovered that the victims were all Vikings. This was a mass execution of Viking invaders by the local Anglo-Saxons.

The Vikings didn’t just inflict violence on Western Europeans; they made Europeans more violent.

Initially, our ancestors bowed to the invaders from the north. The frightened French gave them a large piece of land with hopes that it would lead to peace (the region is still called Normandy – land of the Norseman). Appeasement didn’t work.

Then Western Europe got tough. The Viking attacks ushered in the Age of Knights. There had been knights before, but now every locality absolutely needed to have some professional warriors to protect them.

These medieval knights were not courtly gentleman riding noble steeds. They were armed bullies who practiced warcraft all day and drank all night. Thanks to their presence, the Viking raids stopped. But then, what was to stop the bored, drunk knights from killing and pillaging their neighbors? Nothing.

Knights brought so much chaos to Western Europe in the 11th Century that the Catholic Church came up with the cynical plan of sending most of them to Asia.

It was called the First Crusade. Part of the motivation was certainly to win back the Holy Land for Christendom. But the other motivation, as explicitly expressed by Pope Urban, was to get Europeans knights as far away from Europe as possible because they were a murderous menace.

Ultimately, the archaeologists in “Viking Apocalypse” conclude that it was likely vengeful English knights who captured a boat full of Vikings and led them to a burial mound to kill them. The Vikings, the archaeologists say, bravely faced their executioners as they were being beheaded. Like so many men back then, they had lived by the sword, and they were prepared to die by the sword.

So, next time you’re watching the news and thinking about how bad things are: remember those 6’2’’ Danish dudes with axes who attacked your ancestors. 21st Century America is pretty darn peaceful in comparison.

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