Some background on brutality of ancient wars before diving into Viking history – part 3

Seeing a few of these Viking longships rapidly approach your shores in the 800s was a sign your village was about to have a very bad day. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

One more post to provide context on the reputation of barbarity that is owned by the Vikings.

A wonderful book, The Vikings, from the British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a catalog of a fabulous exhibit assembled by the two museums in 1980. The major exhibit showcased the artifacts and cultures of the Viking era.

I’m reading my dad’s copy of the book. The text is still available on Amazon in the used market.

The goal of the exhibit was to introduce some balance to the competing visions of raw brutality and “strange glamour” that surrounds the Vikings.

Consider these two comments in the preface:

“In a brutal age the Vikings were brutal, but their brutality was no worse than their contemporaries. “


“The Vikings were administrators as well as pirates, merchants as well as robbers. “

Before you get worked up about blood eagles…

Oh, and if you get all worked up about the brutal cold-blooded barbarity of a ‘blood eagle’ execution, try looking up what the oh so very civilized English did when they hung, drew, and quartered someone.

As a hint, the civilized approach involves hanging a person almost to death, disemboweling the perpetrator, chopping the corpse into quarters (thus the quartering), then displaying the quarters around town. (I left out one part of their chopping regimen, which you can figure out for yourself if you are really interested.)

Maybe these are two different approaches, but the torture involved in being drawn and quartered comes from the same demented perspective as applying a blood eagle: inflicting severe pain while ritually executing someone who has the side benefit of warning everyone not executed that such an end awaits all who step too far out of line. The Vikings had nothing on the Saxons for brutality on that count.

Actually, I’ve not read that the Vikings did the desecration of corpse thing. I’m not defending either approach, just pointing out there was a lot of horrible stuff back in ancient times.

Roman executions

Oh, do we need to go into the exquisite torture involved in a days long execution by crucifixion, as that technique was perfected by the Romans? They studied the technique in order to maximize the humiliation, maximize the pain, and maximum the number of days the torture would be suffered before slowly dying of suffocation.

Keep all this in mind as you read of the Viking barbarity.

A contemporary example of brutality that surpasses that of the Vikings

This story is from Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth.

As Ragnar Lothbrok approached Paris, Charles the Bald divided his forces on each side of the Seine so Ragnar’s forces could not slip by on the other side of the river. Ragnar easily defeated half the troops.

As a combined two-for-the-price of one effort, Ragnar sacrificed a group of prisoners as an offering to the ‘all-father’ god Odin which also worked well as psychological warfare against Charles’ army.

Ragnar transported 111 captured soldiers to an island and hung them in full sight of the half of the army on the other bank of the river.

How horrible!

The brutality!

What barbarians!


That was the way of life in the ancient world.

Consider… Charlemange…

A few years before Ragnar’s psyops effort, Charlemagne put down a revolt amongst some of the Saxons in his empire.

To make it exquisitely clear to everyone under his authority that no one revolts against his authority, he executed 4,500 Saxon nobles at Verdun.

He beheaded four thousand five hundred nobles.

Not soldiers but the elite. The leaders.

4,500 executed prisoners by Charlemange.

111 executed prisoners by Ragnar.

4,500 is quite a bit larger than 111.

Unfortunately, Ragnar’s brutality is sorta’ kinda’ in line with the brutality of the time.

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