Part 77: Disability Corner: Ivar the BonelessDisability Corner: Ivar the Boneless
If you talk about disabled people in history, youll often hear people comparing how modern society treats disabled people to previous societies deeply favorably. Youll get horror stories about accusations of witchcraft and cursing lepers or whatever contrasted with accessibility ramps and sign language, often with the implication that in our enlightened era, we treat disabled people far more humanely than our brutal, barbaric ancestors. But as weve covered in the thread, we dont really treat disabled people humanely today, and people of the past werent always inhumane, either. I mean, were definitely better about it, but when you look through the records you get everything from caring for those unable to care for themselves being seen as a religious duty to disabled professionals earning their living well enough to blow past the times average lifespan to Neanderthals taking care of people who couldnt contribute, we have evidence of disabled people decidedly not getting shafted by the people around them. Like Ivar the Boneless, an infamous Viking warlord.
Ivar was definitely based on a real person, the chief commander of a large force of Scandinavian warriors that landed in England in the mid-800s. The locals werent exactly strangers to major Viking raids, even ones big enough to defeat full armies in pitched battles, but this was the first time theyd come with a force large enough to actually campaign. After a decade of constant, bloody warfare and frequent Viking victories, Alfred the Great FINALLY managed to check them and get them to settle down; they took over a good half of England, soon known as the Danelaw, and ruled it surprisingly well for a half-century before the English kicked them out. Ivar himself disappears from the record in the wake of their victory, probably because he died. Some historians think hes also Imar, the leader of a similar army in eastern and northern Ireland at about the same time. At this point, Ireland had been both raided and settled by Norsemen for the better part of a century, and he fought Norse settlers and native Irishmen until he took over Dublin and founded a dynasty that controlled huge swaths of land on both sides of the Irish Sea, at least when they werent killing each other. We dont know, though, because while the dates and actions line up, theres too many details that dont quite add up to be sure theyre the same person. Or to prove basically anything about him.
See, Dark Ages or not, we have plenty of sources that mention him. Trouble is, those sources are English and/or Irish chronicles and manuscripts (which say hes a monster) and Scandinavian sagas and histories (which say hes the best thing ever). The only people who didnt get their information fifth-hand dont describe him beyond hes a Viking leader and he killed a bunch of people, so we dont know how closely that guy lines up with the one that shows up in various sagas. Hes a big question mark, which is why I put the based on a true story disclaimer earlier. So, instead of just citing Wikipedia and calling it a day, I went through those sagas (and a couple other sources too) to get a better idea of who were talking about.
- Ivar loved his family. He had a couple half-brothers he didnt give two shits about, and he also had a complicated relationship with his dad; he frequently ignored his fathers orders to go off on his own, but he seemed to respect him and (according to the sagas) went to England in the first place to get vengeance on the guy who killed him. But the guy was practically joined at the hip with his three brothers and his mom: he and his brothers function as a unit so much their characterizations kind of blend together, and whenever his mom shows up he stops to listen to her and basically makes her a member of his command staff. Didnt hurt that she was also a wizard. All this kind of lines up with the records; we know both Ivar and Imar always operated with multiple brothers, and while we dont know why, exactly, the Great Heathen Army came to England under his leadership, the unprecedented size of the force implies there was something unusual going on. Of course, that could just mean the Vikings figured out more men could take more stuff, but.
- Ivar was a genius. Basically every time he shows up hes in control of the scene; his brothers always defer to him, fights always go his way once he takes the reins, and the narrative always talks about how smart he is. Always. This is a guy who defeats witches by identifying and destroying their sources of power, despite not being a witch. At one point he tricks an English king into letting him build a city smack dab in the middle of his territory, and after spending decades making his living by murdering people he snipes the kingdom out from under him via visionary lawmaking and sound fiscal policy. This also lines up with the historical record. Ivar or Imar, he always shows up as the first among equals, theoretically just the older brother or something, yet hes the only one who conducts diplomacy and gives orders. The moment he dies is the moment the war effort peters out and the Great Heathen Army stops winning victories.
- Ivar was a complete bastard. That king? That was the guy who killed his dad. Ivar (at least according to the sagas), after fighting him for a while, admitted defeat, sent his brothers home, and swore allegiance to him as a vassal in charge of his new city. He then spent years in deep cover, gradually building up our base before bringing his brothers back and driving that kings other vassals to stay home. After betraying his oath, Ivar captured him and cracked his rib cage from behind, pulling his lungs through and draping them over his back. Every time, every time, Ivar takes a town he orders every mothers son inside slaughtered; in a period where Norsemen regularly enslaved their victims, Ivar just killed everybody. This is a guy who cut his way through Europe just to sack Rome, only giving up after North Italian locals convinced him the city he just sacked instead was way too far for his forces to walk. This definitely lines up with the historical record (even though the whole Italian thing may have appended him to his brother and his expedition. The English and/or Irish hated him for a reason, and the less said about what he did the better.
So why am I talking about him here? Well, he almost certainly had a disability.
There are other theories out there: some historians argue his nickname refers to his cowardice (unlikely for a seasoned raider and conqueror), a mistranslation in an English source of a term that means the Hated (not likely that that Latin phrase made it all the way to Iceland), or erectile dysfunction (nobodys dick is so limp people have to carry him around on a shield). But most of the sources I found present those as theories that dispute the accepted narrative, which lines up with the saga that describes him as having been born with gristle instead of legs/bones (leg and bone are synonyms in Old Norse, but Ivar the Boneless is way cooler than Ivar the Legless so historians tend to go with that).
What that means specifically likewise has a bunch of theories around it. Most of the sources I found said he probably had brittle bone disease, something the recent Vikings series took and ran with (warning: ableist language). Im not a huge fan of the theory I dont think it lines up with his behavior, and not in a he cant possibly have done anything way. See, hes frequently described as taking part in battle, but he never goes to the front line; hes always sitting on a shield in the rear with a longbow so big hes the only one that can pull it, giving orders and sniping literal sacred cows (they show up a lot as magic guardians that he kills because hes just so smart). In fact, hes never described as walking anywhere, or even standing up he holds court from his chair whenever someone comes to him. In fact, at one point he asks his soldiers to throw him onto one of those dead magic cows as an intimidation tactic, which, uh, may not have been ideal for someone who had osteogenesis imperfecta. So Im inclined to believe he was legless, not boneless. But ultimately, its not really something I can prove. And the sources Id theoretically use to prove it? Well, theres a thing about them.
A lot of websites cite the whole brittle bone disease thing when talking about Ivar, but almost none of them actually mention who came up with idea. They treat it like the theory formed out of midair instead of something somebody developed. I had to go digging to find even a name. Turns out the source, as far as I can tell, was Nabil Shaban, a disability activist and respected actor (he showed up everywhere from BBC documentaries to Doctor Who to Children of Men). He helped put together a documentary that laid the theory out, if you want to check it out. Dont read the comments, though. You shouldnt be reading YouTube comments anyway, but every single comment that talks about its content attacks it by attacking him, saying hes projecting and making things up. They say his conclusions are all bullshit because he draws almost exclusively on Icelandic sagas, which are just distorted collections of legends that only barely represent fact. Except no, thats actually highly debatable. To compact a centuries-old argument into a few sentences, the modern conception of history as a factual depiction of events doesnt date back very far. Histories were usually written with other goals in mind, whether the author wanted to make their country or patron look good, organize events to prove the inevitability of their religion, or just grind an axe. They werent afraid of inventing things to back themselves up (ever heard the Romans make a desert and call it peace? Yeah, Tacitus probably pulled that out of thin air). That doesnt mean they were completely untrustworthy or anything, just that you shouldnt treat them as inherently superior. And oral histories, which the Icelandic sagas served as for centuries? Well, just in general theres been a recent movement to reevaluate how untrustworthy they may or may not be. The classic example for this comes out of the Australian Aboriginal oral tradition which accurately preserved events from the end of the last Ice Age, as reported by Scientific American, but the ways they preserve that information (mnemonic techniques and extensive cross-referencing) show up in just about every oral tradition Australian Aboriginal, Native American, Homeric Greek, or, indeed, Icelandic Norse. We ARE talking about the tradition that preserved knowledge of Norse settlements in the New World for almost 1000 years before archaeology backed it up. From what I can tell, the current scholarly consensus is that you cant trust oral tradition for dates, fine details, or things that people involved kept private, but you can trust it for broader stuff: big events, chronological order, mass movements, and the sorts of things a lot of people would have witnessed. Ivar sniping cows? Definitely in the first category. Ivar not being able to walk, riding on a shield in full view of his army and holding court in front of dignitaries while never standing up? That crosses into the second.
But none of those commenters know any of this, and frankly Im not surprised. I went to their channels to figure out where they were coming from; the vast majority showed no sign of any knowledge of historiography, at best following channels that uploaded general documentaries. But the moment they saw this video these dipshits all put on their historian hats and confidently declared it failed to meet the standards of proper history that they didnt understand. And its not like the world at large had a different reaction, either. Just googling Nabil Shaban pulled up a Guardian article about the documentary; the article refers to Shaban as a gnome-like little soul with a personality out of all proportion to the size of his socks and spends the next several paragraphs adroitly switching between condescending to and insulting him in some real ableist ways. The author in question, Nancy Banks-Smith, was shortly offered the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to the literary culture of the United Kingdom. The rest follows that pattern. Funnily enough, most of the criticism fell on him, not the theory. Everyone from the highest critics to the lowliest Internet dwellers seems to targeted him personally as someone not worth listening to instead of attacking his ideas. So his name was effectively scrubbed from the information and it ended up free-floating on the Internet to be picked up by various other sources. The theory migrated all the way to mass media without anyone bothering to check where it came from, leaving Shaban firmly out of the picture.
Anyone familiar with disability issues or minority issues in general, really has seen this phenomenon before: a member of an oppressed community forwards an idea or image or phrase, it catches the attention of broader society, members of broader society forcibly separate it and its creator, they rob it of any attributes that might make it uncomfortable or hard to sell, and it enters the zeitgeist either without attribution or attributed to somebody else. This erasure pervades everything from influencers peddling snake oil as ancient Native American wisdom to Betty Boop. Sometimes the originators get actively screwed over, too, but at least that isnt the case here; Shabans spent the years since he released the documentary in 2003 building an impressive career on stage and screen, and even though hes been disconnected from his theory, it still has enough of a presence to make it on TV. Granted, its highly unlikely Vikings even consulted anyone with OI, let alone consider casting a disabled actor in the role (and that article explains the issues behind it better than I ever could), so to some extent its cold comfort to see the idea of an influential historical figure being disabled entering popular culture. We may be present, but that doesnt mean they acknowledge us as anything more than an abstract. But they do acknowledge us (which they dont always do), and they acknowledge us as something that isnt just a stereotype. And cold comfort it may be, at least its something, and we can use it as a platform to claw our way forward.