The wife and I love the History Channel series Vikings. It's a regular watch once a week. But this week, the series took an interesting turn:
A year ago on Acculturated I wrote about the excellent new History series Vikings and its potentially interesting conflict between pagan and Christian values, as embodied by protagonist Ragnar and his captive monk Athelstan, respectively. That clash of civilizations quickly moved to the storyline’s backburner, but now that we are well into Season Two (with a third having just been green-lit), it seems to be rearing its head again – in a disappointing way, unfortunately.
Initially repulsed by the bloodlust of the Northmen, Athelstan developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome in the course of his captivity, apparently backsliding from his Christian faith and gradually assimilating into pagan culture. In the recent episode “An Eye for an Eye,” he is taken prisoner yet again, this time by the Christian, Anglo-Saxon enemy of Ragnar and his seafaring raiders. A bishop condemns Athelstan for his apostasy, and he is tortured and nailed to a cross.
At this point, I did a mental double-take. Crucifixion? Certainly other cultures – most notably, of course, the ancient Romans – have carried out this monstrous punishment on Christians (and others). But, student of the Middle Ages that I once was, I never heard of Christians perpetrating it themselves, even in the heart of the aptly-named Dark Ages, a particularly savage time in European history (not that human savagery has abated that much). Considering that Christ’s torturous death on the cross is at the very heart of the religion, it doesn’t even make theological sense that believers would turn around and inflict it themselves. That’s not to say that the Church throughout history hasn’t been guilty of other cruelties. But crucifixion?
Researching this online, I stumbled across A.J. Delgado’s take on this same Vikingsepisode. She had exactly the same response as mine, and even reached out to a world-renowned medieval history professor about it. His response? “I know of no instance in the history of Christianity in which any Christians crucified others, even apostates.”
Of course, we’re talking about television drama and not a history lecture. Hollywood always plays fast and loose with historical fact, sometimes out of storytelling necessity and sometimes for political reasons. But this was a fairly eyebrow-raising deviation from historical truth, partly because it was so unnecessary. The bishop and his soldiers could have punished Athelstan in any number of bloody ways that would have been more historically correct, and the storyline wouldn’t have suffered for it.
So why choose crucifixion? And why hammer home the point (if you’ll pardon the pun) by depicting Athelstan as a Christ figure himself – flayed, crowned with thorns, and clad only in the familiar white cloth around his loins? Throw in a stereotypically fat, corrupt bishop, and it seems that Athelstan’s crucifixion was simply designed to paint Christians as cruel hypocrites, merciless crucifiers themselves.
There's more, including advice for the makers of the show, advice that will not be heeded I'm sure.
It's too bad. Christians are easy targets for the Hollywood crowd and apparently, the History Channel has joined the fray.
Sign of the times.