Watch out! Major spoilers ahead.
“A king cannot be like an ordinary person. Must not behave or have feelings like an ordinary person. A king must be prepared to do the most terrible things. Things against all conscience. If he wants to survive.”
History Channel’s Vikings is a historically dubious show about — you guessed it — Vikings. Set during the reign of the legendary Norse chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok, it follows his many exploits, intrigues, and raids, as well as those of his sons. Despite the title card, the show also features ancient Frankish people, Mercians, citizens of Wessex, and more. That includes King Alfred the Great and Rollo, Duke of Normandy.
One such character is Judith, a virtuous and dutiful Northumbrian princess. She weds Aethelwulf, son of King Ecbert and prince of Wessex, in an arranged marriage. While there isn’t smoldering chemistry between the two, they seem more or less accepting of the arrangement. Until Athelstan enters the picture.
A Monk Unlike Any Other
Athelstan is a pious Christian monk fond of illuminating Biblical manuscripts and pulling off a tonsured head remarkably well. When Ragnar and his fellow Vikings raid the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 (a real event that kicked off the Viking Age), they take Athelstan captive. Thanks to Athelstan’s impressive and not entirely believable knowledge of their language, Ragnar decides to keep him as a servant.
Athelstan is treated with disdain by the Lothbrok family and other Vikings at the settlement of Kattegat. Eventually he wins their trust and love, despite him turning down the offer of a ménage à trois with Ragnar and his wife Lagertha. That’s due to a vow of celibacy and possibly a visceral fear of Scandinavian genitalia. But we digress.
Curious, cultured, and naive about people, Athelstan makes his way through the first episodes of Vikings relatively unharmed. Minus that time he was crucified. Throughout everything he maintains his Christian faith, although he waffles to the Norse gods every so often. He also flirts with immoralities like fighting, killing, and eating magic mushrooms. Athelstan’s guilt over his conflicting devotions is a cornerstone for the series during the first three seasons.
Morally Inflexible Until You’re Not
Everybody (except Floki) adores Athelstan, and that includes King Ecbert of Wessex. A shrewd ruler and devout Christian, Ecbert saves Athelstan from death by crucifixion and keeps him close thereafter. He values the priest’s input and knowledge and continually invites him to hang out with him and his daughter-in-law, Judith. It also helps that Athelstan knows Lagertha, who is in England with her fellow Vikings farming land under an agreement with Ragnar. Ecbert may be devoted to God, but he still believes he can play by his own set of moral rules. That includes hooking up with Lagertha in a Roman bath while a scandalized Judith and unsurprised Athelstan watch.
By this point Judith has already shown considerable interest in Athelstan. With no husband around (Aethelwulf is always off soldiering) and a son who’s likely often in the care of priests and tutors, she is lonely and bored. She tempers these feelings with visits to Athelstan. During one encounter she forces him to show her his crucifixion marks, which she caresses in an oddly sensual way.
While Judith acts like a besotted middle schooler, Athelstan is having a tough time hiding his reciprocated feelings as well. Ecbert notices and instead of being indignant on his son’s behalf, he slyly encourages an affair to take place.
Bad Behavior Begets Consequences
Take place it does, but briefly. Athelstan and Judith succumb to their desires, and then Aethelstan bounces back to the land of Vikings. Whether Ecbert or Judith is more upset by this is hard to discern. The princess does her best to play it cool but is noticeably depressed. She finds it hard to muster up the energy to pretend to like her husband, who is home after nearly dying a million times.
Meanwhile, Athelstan doubles down on his renewed Christian faith before meeting a brutal end at the hands of Floki. No one in Wessex is aware of this, however. When the pregnant Judith comes clean to Aethelwulf, the angry prince decides to go on another campaign. This time he’s off to Mercia, and one can’t help but wonder if his father sent him there to die.
Aethelwulf evades death again and returns in time to watch Judith give birth to a son. Now that she’s no longer pregnant, he can finally punish her for her wrongdoings. Lackeys unceremoniously tear Judith from the birthing bed before she can hold her newborn and drag her outside. There, they tie her up and proclaim her an adulteress. The punishment is a slap on the wrist — just kidding, it’s the removal of the ears and nose. Judith points out that Jesus would never sanction such an act, but the priest condemning her seemed to have missed that lesson in Sunday school.
Ecbert asks Judith to name the father, but she refuses. Unaware that Athelstan has died, she loses an ear protecting his reputation. Seeing that the knife is about to slice into her other lobe like hot butter, she gives him up. Before they can remove more body parts, Ecbert convinces his devoutly dimwitted son that Athelstan was super holy and this must all be the will of God. God selected Judith and sent her a very important baby via Athelstan, and everyone should just calm down. How’s about they Christen the child, name him Alfred, and call it a day?
Would That Really Happen?
Hang onto your noses, because it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Mutilation as a punishment has been common throughout the world since antiquity, from Ancient Egypt and India to Pre-Columbian America and the Arab world. If it was long enough to snip off, the body part was fair game. Victims parted ways with their ears, nose, lips, tongue, breasts, genitals, hands, and more. Mutilation was the go-to for a host of crimes and undesirables like political opponents. Its most common use, though, was to punish adulterers.
Amputating the nose (a process called rhinotomy) proliferated across cultures. In some cases, the husband of an unfaithful wife acted as her personal butcher. Unsurprisingly, mutilation was for women, while men often got away with paying a fine or a light beating. If the husband didn’t kill him or request he get a rhinotomy too, of course.
You can see why amputating parts of the face would be so compelling as a punishment. If you survived the procedure and managed to avoid infection, you had a horrible life ahead of you. Not only were you doomed to live as a grotesque outcast, but your entire identity took a hit, as the face was of extreme importance. Your scars also ensured that everyone you crossed paths with knew on sight that you were an immoral jezebel.
A woman might also inflict this mutilation on herself as a way of warding off sexual advances. The theory was she’d be so repulsive that would-be rapists wouldn’t touch her. Playing plastic surgeon wasn’t off the table for religious communities when invaders came to their convents. Such was the case in the 9th century when the nuns in the St. Cyr Monastery in Marseilles performed self-inflicted rhinotomies to repulse the incoming Saracens. It stopped the sexual advances, but at a price — the invaders simply killed them all.
In the period Vikings is set, before the unification of England, Anglo Saxon authorities punished various forms of adultery. Society considered women to be on par with property that was under the care of a male relative or husband. It wasn’t until the 7th century that the first law code written in English came to be. Called the Law of Æthelberht, this set of legal provisions was penned in Old English in the Kingdom of Kent. Drawn up to preserve social harmony, it permitted men to seek revenge or compensation from men who had sex with women under their “care.”
Like everything in life, your social status determined how things panned out. Descending from king to slave, the document enumerated the specific recompense a man could expect. For instance, a freeman who slept with another freeman’s wife had to pay out his weregeld. A weregeld was essentially the monetary value of a man’s life based on his rank. So fingers crossed your lady love ran off with an earl or a duke. Although if she somehow managed to do that, your lowly status wouldn’t convince anyone to do much for you.
To add insult to injury, the philandering freeman had to scrape even more cash together to get married. Then he had to bring his new wife to the other man’s home.
Got Your Nose
While men squabbled over lost honor and money, the adulterous woman prayed they’d leave her face well alone. Kings across Europe in the 6th century and later had no issue using mutilation to punish would-be usurpers, those who engaged in prostitution, and the unfaithful. But not everyone was on board. Figures like Alfonso X of Castile felt the act was barbaric and forbade it, but this wasn’t the norm.
Alfred the Great (Judith’s bastard son in the show), expanded on the provisions in the Law of Æthelberht. He added that a man could legally attack another if he found him with his wife, daughter, married sister, or married mother behind closed doors or under the same blanket.
It wasn’t until after the unification of England in the 10th century that English kings began to think of adultery as a Christian sin. That meant punishment should fit religious parameters. For example, under King Cnut, an adulterous husband could expect a fine, unless the forbidden act was minor, AKA he hooked up with a slave. Then he just needed to offer up some old fashioned penance.
Female adulterers could expect no such graciousness. They received a healthy dose of corporal mutilation for their sins, which incorporated removal of the nose and ears. While Cnut’s laws were new in some ways and influenced by religious authorities, many believe the violence prescribed for women was simply the codification of a long-standing custom. A few generations prior, during Judith’s time, it’s probable that a woman would have suffered disfigurement for cheating. As the wife of the future king and mother to his heir, maybe someone like Judith could just go become a nun. Or perhaps they would’ve wanted to make an example out of her.
Either way, her real punishment was the earful of puns she heard after that.