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Ragnar Lothbrok and the Semi-Legendary History of Denmark
By Ryan Hall Kacani
Bachelor of Arts Thesis, Brandeis University, 2015
Introduction: From the late eighth to the late eleventh centuries, nearly the entirety of Europe was held at the mercy of Scandinavian raiders. These Viking warriors took countless riches from the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian France, and, when plunder was not plentiful, extorted thousands of pounds of silver from the regions’ rulers. By the end of the ninth century, they had conquered part of England, and by the end of the eleventh, their Norman descendants finished the task. Viking raiders made their way through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, conquered Slavic settlements in Russia, and crossed the Atlantic to settle Greenland and continental North America. Understandably, they have remained a colorful, important part of modern Western culture’s collective imagination, and are ever present in the forms of football teams, blockbuster superheroes, and television series.
Common misconceptions about horns and barbarism aside, medieval Scandinavian culture was rich with legends, mythology, and heroic figures. While the exploits of later Viking raiders and Scandinavian kings were well documented, traveling back to the beginning of the Viking Age and beyond, documentation becomes increasingly scarce. Without a doubt, some of the most popular figures of the zenith of the Viking Age were Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons. These semi-legendary figures were reportedly the kings of Denmark, and in the case of Ragnar himself, of all Scandinavia. Ragnar united Scandinavia and raided much of the known world. His sons led the Great Army to conquer England and martyr St. Edmund, and their descendants continued to rule both realms for centuries to come. Yet, as we will further discuss, there has been constant debate on the identity and even existence of Ragnar Lothbrok himself.
Over the next five chapters we will have two primary functions. The first is to trace the history of the Danish throne from the point at which it separates from mythology in the late fifth century — becoming what I will frequently call semi-legendary history — to the deaths of Ragnar’s supposed sons near the end of the ninth century. In doing so we will discuss certain insufficiencies in the historical record and the questions they raise in an attempt to fill those gaps with certain logical answers. This first task will place the political and cultural history of the Danish throne into context for the second task, which is an examination of Ragnar Lothbrok himself. Beginning in earnest with the third chapter, we will recount the legendary life of Ragnar Lothbrok as it appears in multiple sources, then embark on a discussion on the historical model, or models, for that legendary character. Finally, we will continue to look at Danish royalty with particular emphasis on Ragnar’s sons and the question of both their paternal and, more significantly, maternal parentage.