'Vikings' Portrays Crucifixion as Normal Church Punishment for Apostates

April 4th, 2014 9:55 AM

Your humble correspondent is a fan of the History Channel show, "Vikings." However, its historical accuracy leaves something to be desired to the extent that a week ago I posted a thread at IMDB, Things I Learned While Watching 'Vikings', which humorously mocked such inaccuracies as well as anachronisms on the show. Along with noticing that Rollo wore L.A. Ink type tattoos, I also took note of a completely unhistorical type of punishment meted out to the apostate monk Athelstan: "The Church punished apostate monks by crucifying them and doing their best to make them appear like Jesus including a crown of thorns and a lance in the side."

As a history buff, I could recall of no instance in which the Church punished apostasy by crucifixion. Well, several websites researched that subject and found it not only to be completely unhistorical but also absurd. A.J. Delgado even contacted a well-known medieval history professor and got this response:

“….I know of no instance in the history of Christianity in which any Christians crucified others, even apostates. Even a document that suggests a threat of crucifixion was made has to be interpreted with extreme caution ….I think the creator of the show may have read a document designed to show the dangers of apostasy too literally. Medieval documents are replete with this kind of thing, and they require a great deal of interpretive subtlety and healthy doubt. Aside from the historical unreliability of such a source, there is also the fact that Christians would have believed that crucifixion was a “special” kind of punishment, reserved for Jesus of Nazareth (by legend, too, for Peter, who, to distinguish him from Jesus, was legendarily crucified upside down!) alone. So I think the watchwords here are circumspection and deep skepticism.”

So what is the motivation behind such an absurd historical inaccuracy? Mark Tapson at the Acculturated blog provides an answer:

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?

...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.

A.J. Delgado sums up the possible ulterior motive behind this obviously absurd and incorrect historical portrayal:

This is key example of what I like to call: the (liberal) tail wagging the (historical) dog. In the entertainment industry, the politically-correct agenda/theme/message (e.g., Christians are evil; white men, especially Republicans, are always to be cast as villains, etc) is what dictates how history will be presented. In other words, they (deliberately) do it backwards. Rather than allowing history to dictate the messages of a historical show, it is the liberal theme that dictates how/what/when/what of history will be portrayed, including what will be misrepresented, omitted, added, or embellished.

Since the pagan seers on the show are portrayed giving accurate predictions I now put on my seer robe to deliver this prognostication from Things I Learned While Watching 'Vikings':

In Viking vs Viking battles, those wearing plain brown hoodies are doomed to die.