The History Channel is usually pretty reliable when it comes to actual history, some of their other shows not withstanding. They choose experts for their commentary and go all out when it comes to dramatizing the events they're focusing on. The Dark Ages DVD is no exception.
The Dark Ages in Europe spanned roughly the period from 400 to 1,000 CE, give or take a decade or two. From the sack of Rome by the Visigoths, through the particularly interesting strategies of Charles "The Hammer" Martel against the Moors (a favorite of mine) on down to the Crusades, The Dark Ages doesn't miss a beat. Nor does it skimp on live action with accurate costuming, especially weaponry. Well done all around.
I know what you're thinking, Brethren, so let us just get it out of the way. What's up, Pauline? We stopped by to chat about freebooters, not the sack of Rome or the plague in Byzantium. Well, first of all that stuff is not without it's charm but second, I plan to focus on the doc's most delightful portion: the part about the Vikings.
Due to what was probably a combination of factors, not the least of which might have been crop failures and over-population in the future Scandinavian countries, the Vikings began to raid parts of Europe in the late 8th century. The first big hit was at Lindesfarne, England, in June of 793. The monastery there, unprotected and full of wealth not only in gold but food and goods as well, was an easy target for the Viking strategy of hit and run that served them so well for the next 200 years. They went home with their spoils and, as Dr. Kelly DeVries says in the doc: "This was like putting out a sign: Uncle Olaf wants you!"
Here is truly one of the most charming parts about The Dark Ages in general and the Viking portion in particular: the professors who do the play-by-play. Far from stuffy and full of themselves (as so many of mine unfortunately were), they relish every minute of their subject. Thomas Martin excitedly explains that the Vikings were "...really the best pirates, the best raiders" of any period in history. You get the feeling that he'd really love to join them in one of those shallow draft long boats of theirs and hit a few Irish monasteries himself. Shortly thereafter, Philip Daileader shows up and dryly quips that "Any time you're being attacked by a guy named Skullsplitter, you have to be concerned." Historian comedy at it's best.
Dr. DeVries reappears with the story of Agle the boy who, after losing a ballgame to a mate, hurries home to retrieve an axe with which he promptly caves in his buddy's head. His mother, in the words of the doctor "...isn't upset, but says he'll make a good Viking one day." All this around dramatizations of bloody Viking raids that give you a good idea of the disregard for human life inherent in the Viking society. Good times.
And then this guy shows up:
That is Ivar the Boneless being carried on his shield because, evidently, he was without the use of his legs. The picture, by the way, gives you just a taste of how well done the dramatizations are throughout the doc. Why the Viking warlord was known by his moniker is tactfully debated by the professors but, suffice it to say, whatever his trouble was it didn't stop Ivar from wreaking havoc.
In 866, Ivar and his "great heathen army" of several thousand Vikings landed in Northumbria and began to conquer. Like Henry Morgan in Panama, there was little chance of stopping Ivar's band of buccaneers. His particular target was York whose ruler, Aiella, had evidently killed Ivar's father. The heathen army stormed and won York. Aiella escaped.
When Aiella returned with what was left of his own forces, he was captured by a now enraged Ivar. This sets the stage for a torture worthy of any twisted pirate throughout history. As we watch Aiella's death dance at the hands of Ivar, the particulars of The Bloody Eagle are explained. The torso would be openned, exposing the ribs, and then the lungs would be pulled out and trussed up to form wings.
Cut to Dr. DeVries with a grin on his face and a glint in his eye as he says: "Yeah. Pretty gruesome."
And that's why I love the heck out of this documentary. People who have a true passion for it can make history not only interesting but fun. It's what I hope I'm doing here at Triple P. You all just can't see me grinning.
The Dark Ages is directed by Christopher Cassel and narrated by AJ Allison for The History Channel. Throw it in your Netflix queue next time you're there. I'm betting you'll enjoy it and, like me, you'll probably learn something too.