Archiver > GEN-MEDIEVAL > 1997-01 > 0852445720

From: "Peter E. Murray" <>
Subject: Re: Ragnar Lothbrok
Date: Sun, 5 Jan 1997 01:28:40 -0500

You wrote:
>Date: Fri, 13 Dec 1996 20:46:28 GMT
>From: Stewart Baldwin <>
>Subject: Ragnar Lothbrok

>Was RAGNAR LOTHBROK historical?
>One of the things that makes this a difficult question to discuss is
>that the question "Was Ragnar Lothbrok historical?" is itself
>somewhat ambiguous. Thus, before the question can be discussed, the
>question has to first be more clearly defined. To mention two
>opposite extremes, a skeptic could ask whether or not everything which
>is said about the character of Ragnar Lothbrok is historically
>accurate, observe that the answer is certainly "no", and then claim
>victory. At the other extreme, a proponent of a historical Ragnar
>Lothbrok could ask if a Viking by the name of Ragnar ever existed,
>point out that a Viking having the correct name ("Reginheri") appears
>in the Frankish annals, and claim that Ragnar Lothbrok was therefore
>historical. Neither of these two extremes is acceptable in a serious
>argument on the subject, so I will discuss the subject from the
>following middle ground. The criteria which I will use are that in
>order for Ragnar Lothbrok to be considered as historical, there should
>be a historically documented person of that name who actually
>performed a significant number of the deeds attributed to the
>legendary Ragnar Lothbrok.

Note that this is not the same as examining whether Ragnar Lothbrok
existed (an issue commonly raised in one-liners in this list). In a
poorly documented age even the most important personages of the day may
not appear in contemporary documents. A critical examination of the
late and indirect evidence, as attempted here seems to be the correct

But it seems to me that the criterion of historicity chosen is
arbitrary, and appears unfair at the outset since it requires multiple
"deeds" by a man named Ragnar to be available in the contemporary
historical record, while only one is identified (perhaps others can be
found in the record? - see further possibility below).

>I think these are reasonable criteria, and
>the remainder of this discussion is based on these principles. Now,
>to answer the question: No, Ragnar Lothbrok does not appear to be a
>historical figure, based on the above criteria. I will give some
>comments as to why I have this opinion, and then mention some reading
>material for those who want more.

Why not cut the opinion and leave it to the evidence since plenty of
uncertainty still remains.
>The contemporary historical records of the ninth century (when Ragnar
>Lothbrok supposedly lived) show only one Viking of the correct name, a
>Viking named "Reginheri" (a Latin form equivalent to the name Ragnar)
>in France WHO DIED IN THE YEAR 845, according to the contemporary
>Frankish annals. The emphasized words in the previous sentence are
>often conveninetly overlooked by those who wish to use Reginheri as a
>historical prototype for Ragnar Lothbrok. Since Reginheri died in
>France in the year 845, he cannot have participated in the later
>events which form the principal part of the legendary Ragnar
>Lothbrok's exploits. In addition, there is no good evidence that
>Reginheri was the father of any of the individuals who later came to
>be regarded as sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. Thus, Reginheri fails to
>satisfy the criterion mentioned above. No other historical Norseman
>named Ragnar is known for the appropriate time period.

If the siege of Paris is the only historical deed by a
Ragnar on record, then 100% of the historical deeds appear also in
Saxo's story. If the death of the historical vs legendary Ragnars
are incompatible (as they seem to be), then it must be determined
if the saga account of Ragnar's death was present throughout the
growth of the legend or if it is a literary accretion.

What is the source for the statement that the Ragnar who
sacked Paris in 845 died that same year in Francia? I have (from
Starcke: Denmark in World History) that Regner's army in Paris
suffered an outbreak of dysentery, and that Regner was said to have
died of it after his return home, this information being from Count
Kobbo who was apparently at Horik's court when Regner returned.
Starcke is suspicious of Kobbo's statement but does not comment on
Kobbo as a source. Does anyone know if Count Kobbo's account is in
a contemporary source or recounted in a later document? I wonder
if his account may instead relate to a later attack on Paris, in
865, when according to F.D.Logan (The Vikings in History) a viking
force which had overrun the Seine defenses at Pitres raided the
Paris suburb of Saint Denis, and were punished by an outbreak of
severe dysentery in their army.

But there is another Regner on record who "destroyed" Flanders in 858
according to Starcke (who speculates that the two Regners may be
the same, Count Kobbo notwithstanding). Does anyone know about
this event, and if so whether it from an annal or some other near
contemporary source?.

Starcke's referencing is defective on this point, but from his
bibliography it seems likely that he obtained his details from one
of these secondary sources:

Mawer, Sir Allen: Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons, 1908-1909.
Saga Book of the Viking Club. VI, 68-89.

Smith, A.H.: The Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, 1934. Saga Book of
the Viking Society XI, 173-191.

>No contemporary record gives this name, and it is significant that
>when the name finally does make it appearance in the records 200 years
>later, it stands alone. (Ari, writing in the twelfth century, was the
>first known writer to make Ragnar and Lothbrok the same person.) The
>name first appears (as "Lothbroc") in "Gesta Normannorum Ducum", by
>William of Jumieges, writing about 1070, in which Lothbroc is called
>he father of Bjorn Ironside. (A Viking named Bjorn is verified by the
>contemporary chronicles, but without the nickname.) Adam of Bremen,
>writing soon afterward, called Ivar the son of "Lodparchus". Besides
>the fact that this Lothbrok is not attested in any of the contemporary
>sources, there seems to be another problem, and that is that the name
>("Lothbroka") appears to be a women's name. See the article on
>Ragnars saga" by Rory McTurk in "Medieval Scandinavia: an
>encyclopedia" (New York and London, 1993). If this argument based on
>philology is correct, then this Lothbrok(a), if historical at all,
>would be a women, and clearly not identical with the legendary Ragnarr
>Lothbrok. (I do not have the background in linguistics to comment
>further on this gender argument.)

The name 'Lothbrok' in its various forms, although sometimes
used alone, has the appearance of a nickname in its structure and
meaning. Although it only appears in late sources, it is mentioned
by both English and Scandinavian writers, so it is important to
discuss whether these records are independent. Also it should be
noted that nicknames are intimately associated with the language
and culture of the individual, so it is not surprising that foreign
contemporary sources seldom mention nicknames at all.

The alternate forms Lothbrok and Lodbrog are interesting since the
former means "Hairy-breeks" and the latter means "Raven Banner".
Perhaps originally a deliberate play on words? Perhaps there is a
connection with the famous Raven Banner supposedly captured from
the brother of Ingvar and Halfdan in 878 (according to an early
interpolation in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)? Incidentally,
depictions of the raven on banners, coins, as a dynastic symbol,
etc during the viking age would make an interesting topic in

On the suggestion that the name Lothbrok on its own may be a
woman's name, this may be an incorrect inference from usages where
it is grammatically feminine. Or I suppose it could be a nickname
that could apply equally to a man or woman. There has been
apparently much discussion of the 12th century runic inscription at
Maeshowe in Orkney: "This mound was raised before Lodbrok's; her
sons they were bold". Bugge is cited as saying that "Lodbrok"
cannot here be assumed to be female considering usage in rustic
Norwegian dialects (Munch: Norse Mythology, revision of Magnus
Olsen, p.357-9 notes on Ragnar Lothbrok and his Sons). However I
have seen one saga genealogy (can't remember where) that
included a female Lothbrok in an unrelated context.

>The "Fragmentary Annals of Ireland" (edited and translated by Joan N.
>Radner, Dublin, 1978, formerly called "Three Fragments") has an item
>of interest which has frequently been pointed out as possibly relating
>to the legend of Ragnar Lothbrok. In it, a certain Ragnall (Rognvald)
>son of Alpdan (Halfdan), king of Norway, is mentioned, and his
>exploits prior to the fall of York to the Danes are given, in a
>context in which it is at least arguable that Ragnall and Ragnar
>Lothbrok were the same person. There are two problem with this

The text of the Fragments (I can supply it if necessary) leaves
absolutely no doubt that it refers to the same individuals and events
as the Scandinavian legends of Ragnar's sons, including the capture of
York and the expedition to the Mediterranean. But it also gives
information independent of known sagas about the father "Ronald",
including a different parentage (Halfdan instead of Sigurd) and a most
interesting name "Aunites" for the Danes over which his father had
ruled. True this is a very late source, but it leaves no doubt that
this Ronald of this story corresponds to the Ragnar Lothbrok of Norse
legend despite the differences.

>interpretation. First, Ragnar and Ragnall are not the same name, even
>though they look similar. Second, and more important, the Fragmentary
>Annals are themselves not a contemporary source, and there is good
>reason to be suspicious about them. However, even if we were to allow
>that the events given there are historical (a concession which many
>historians would be unwilling to make), and then concede further that
>these events form the basis of the Ragnar legend, then we would still
>have that the person on whom the legend was based did not have the
>right name.
On the varying form of Ragnar's name in various sources,
(Ragnar, Reginhere, Rognvald, Ragnall, etc), it is not impossible
that chroniclers simply recorded the variant of the name that was
most like a familiar name locally. In Francia, names like Reginar
were familiar, while in Ireland the same is true of Ragnall. In
Ireland in particular even contemporary sources took great
liberties with foreign names, and scribal alterations compound the
problem. I also seem to recall an instance in the sagas where
Ragnar's death is conflated with that of his reputed son Rognvald
who died in Orkney. There is the possibility too (which I have
never seen properly discussed) that Ragnar was originally a
diminutive form of Ragnvaldr.

>Could RAGNALL and LOTHBROK have been the same person?
>We have already seen that the only historically attested Ragnar
>(Reginheri) cannot reasonably be regarded as a historical prototype
>for Ragnar Lothbrok. Thus, it appears that the best attempt to argue
>for a historical Ragnar Lothbrok is to propose (as has been done on
>numerous occasions) that Ragnall and Lothbrok were both the same
>person, and then assume that the similar (but different) names Ragnall
>and Ragnar were accidently confused. Thus, let us see what
>assumptions are needed in order to assume that Ragnall and Lothbrok
>were the same person, assuming that they existed at all. In order for
>this to be the case, we must make the following assumptions:

I wonder if (instead of looking at assumptions which themselves
embody an opinion) it would be more useful to take each of the key
statements from the sources and determine the following:
- Are any of the statements necessarily INCONSISTENT with the
hypothesis that Ragnall and Lothbrok are the same (and refer to
the Ragnar Lothbrok of legend)? In answering the question it
may be useful also to investigate whether the statements
are inconsistent with each other or are not independent of
other statements being considered.
Each of the assumptions listed could be considered reasonable (apart
from lateness of the sources) but ultimately not amenable to proof
without some new information. It is not at all clear to me how ALL of
items (1) to (6) are obligatory for Ragnall and Lothbrok to be the same
>(1) We must assume that Adam of Bremen (late eleventh century) was
>correct in giving "Lodparchus" (i.e., Lothbrok) as the name of the
>father of Ivar (late ninth century).

Does Adam mention Ragnar separately?
>(2) We must assume that the "Coghad Gaedhel re Gallaibh" ("The War of
>the Gaedhil with the Gaill", ed. by Todd, London, 1867), a twelfth
>century Irish source, is correct in stating that Halfdan of Dublin
>(killed in Ireland in 877, according to the Annals of Ulster) was the
>son of a certain Ragnall, and that this Ragnall was the same as the
>Ragnall who appears in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland.
If the Halfdan in Ann Ult is someone else (which I doubt) does it
really matter to the argument?

>(3) We must assume that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is correct in
>stating that a brother (unnamed, but called Ubbe in later sources) of
>Halfdan and Ivar was killed in England in 878, despite the
>contradictory testimony of Aethelweard which gives a very different
>reading for the same event (see 4).
>(4) We must assume that the chronicle of Aethelweard is wrong in
>stating that Halfdan brother of Ivar was killed in England in 878, for
>otherwise that would prove that Halfdan of Dublin (d. 877 in Ireland)
>was a different person from Halfdan brother of Ivar.

Aethelweard is considered to have mangled (not the only time) the
version in the Anglo-saxon Chronicle (ASC), a version of which he
largely used for this particular period. Keynes and Lapidge (Alfred
the Great: Asser's life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources)
note Aethelweard's error (p248). So the statement in ASC is to be
>(5) In addition to assuming that Halfdan of Dublin was the same
>person as Halfdan brother of Ivar, we must also assume that this Ivar
>was the same person as Adam of Bremen's Ivar, keeping in mind that
>Aethelweard's chronicle, if correct, would imply the existence of two
>Ivars in the British isles at this time.

What exactly does Adam say about this Ivar? Does he recount any of the
known legend, or anything fatally incompatible with it?
>(6) We must assume that the philological argument making Lothbrok(a)
>a feminine name is incorrect.

It could be both a masculine and feminine nickname. See comments
>(7) If Ari, the earliest author to mention Ragnar Lothbrok, is to be
>considered a reliable source on this matter, then we must also assume
>that Halfdan of Dublin was the same person as the Halfdan brother of
>Sigifrid who appears in the Annals of Fulda for the year 873, despite
>the severe chronological problems which that would cause with Ari's

This escapes me. Anyway the chronological problems with these
genealogies have possible explanations (correct or not we will never
know), if they are the ones I think you mean. But the 9th century is
for the most part beyond the horizon of the sagas, so the snatches of
tradition from this period are disconnected and full of obvious
inconsistencies, which is the reason for this thread in the first
>Of the above assumptions, numbers (1) through (6) are crucial if one
>wishes to argue that Ragnall and Lothbrok were the same, and (7) is
>needed also if it is to be assumed that the information given by Ari
>is accurate. Given the noncontemporary nature of the first two items,
>along with the contradictions present some of the others, there is a
>very small chance that all six of the crucial assumptions are correct.
>However, if any one of the first six items is false, then the case for
>Ragnall being the same as Lothbrok collapses, and we must conclude
>that the "Ragnall Lothbrok" attempt for a historical Ragnar Lothbrok
>is unsatisfactory. [Note: See R. W. McTurk's article "Ragnarr
>Lothbrok in the Irish Annals?" (Proceedings of the Seventh Viking
>Congress, 1976, pp. 93-123), where a different, but much more rigid,
>list of the same type is given.]
>Since all of the above attempts to find a historical Ragnar Lothbrok
>fail to satisfy the mentioned criteria, Lothbrok and Ragnall come from
>noncontemporary sources which are themselves open to suspicion, and
>the historical records show nobody else (as far as I know) who could
>be plausibly identified with Ragnar Lothbrok, it must be concluded
>that Ragnar Lothbrok is not historical according to the terms
>described above. In fact, if there is any historical basis to Ragnar
>Lothbrok legend, it is quite likely that Ragnar Lothbrok is the result
>of combining two or more distinct individuals into a single character
>having the attributes of both, in much the same way as Ragnar
>Lothbrok's legendary "father" Sigurd Ring is in fact a composite of
>two different men who fought against each other for the Danish throne
>in the year 814, Sigifridus ("Sigurd") and Anulo (of which "Ring" is a
>translation of Latin "Annulus"). However, such composite characters
>cannot be considered as historical, and there is no evidence which
>comes close to being contemporary which shows that either Lothbrok or
>Ragnall existed.
>The most ambitious attempt to portray Ragnar Lothbrok as a historical
>figure is "Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles 850-880" by Alfred
>P. Smyth (Oxford University Press, 1977). For a very critical
>examination of Smyth's views, see "High-kings, Vikings and other
>kings", by Donnchadh O' Corrain, in Irish Historical Review, vol 21
>(1979), pp. 283-323 (very highly recommended). Both of these sources
>cite numerous other relevant sources for those who are interested in
>further details.
>[Note: The usual apologies if my transliterations from the Old Norse
>alphabet into the alphabet available to me is a bit sloppy.]
>Stewart Baldwin

I don't doubt the possibility that Stewart's conclusion could be
correct, particularly not having yet had a chance to see O'Corrain's
article, but the arguments as presented seem to leave a lot of doubt.
So, following most writers I remain agnostic on Ragnar's historicity.
Laying out the issues as he has done I think is valuable, because
virtually every writer dealing with the period has had to visibly skate
around the issue, and Ragnar's kindred continues to intrude
uncomfortably into the genealogies.
I seem to be the only brave (or foolhardy) soul to heed Stewart's
call for comments on his article. Does this mean Ragnar Lothbrok
still evokes fear today?


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