Department of History



Professor: Dr. Florin Curta

Office: 202 Keene-Flint Hall

Office hours: TR 12:00-1:00 or by appointment

Phone: 273-3367


Class will meet in Flint 119, MTWRF 9:30-10:45

The Gokstad ship (late ninth century)


Summer 2014

Course description

"In the year of our Lord 845, the vast army of Northmen breached the frontiers of the Christians. This was something that we never heard or read of happening before." This is how a Frankish monk from the monastery of St. Germain-des-Pres near Paris described one of the first attack of those whom we now call Vikings. Ever since that attack, the Vikings have fascinated European and American audiences of many persuasions. Visions of the Vikings as racial forebears and role models helped glorify Nazi territorial demands and the construction of the "Aryan" culture. Scandinavian immigrants of Wisconsin and Minnesota identified with the Viking farmers mentioned in old sagas as having settled in Vinland. To many, Leif Eriksson, not Cristopher Columbus, is the true hero in the saga of the New World. As plunderers, hooligans, but also mercenaries and soldiers of fortune, the Vikings populate the American imagination with dragon ships and horned helmets, from a Minnesota football team to Hoggetown's medieval fair. But who were the Vikings? What made them so difficult to represent by the traditional means of Western historiography and so easy to manipulate in contemporary culture? What were the historical conditions in which this name, Vikings, was first used and for what purpose? How was Viking ethnicity formed and under what circumstances did the Vikings come into being? Above all, this course aims to provide answers to some of these questions. We will explore social and political issues of Scandinavian medieval history and examine various aspects of daily life and Church organization. Following a chronological order, we will look, each week, at the questions and problems raised by the study of this region, and at some of the primary sources from which historians draw their analysis.


There is no attendance policy, but you are responsible for attending all lectures and reading the required texts. Class participation  may be taken into account to determine the overall grade. The basis for evaluation of performance will be four quizzes, 10 journal entries, and two exams (Midterm and Final). The unannounced quizzes are exclusively based on primary source readings from your McDonald book. All quizzes will consist only of questions (no essay). A careful study of these texts is necessary for a good performance at the quiz. The journal entries are e-mail message sent on my address (, in which you will discuss briefly the readings for the topics marked with (*) in the list of course weekly topics below. You can ask questions about the readings and/or make comments, raise issues that need clarification, etc. All journal entries should arrive at least 12 hours before the corresponding class meetings. Be sure to keep your postings to a reasonable length (175 to 250 words long). I do not want you to spend too much time on them, but I expect you to give an articulate presentation of your thoughts. Needless to say, I also expect you to check on correct grammar and spelling before clicking on "Send." The Midterm and Final exams will cover everything from lectures and readings. Both will consist of a short answer portion and a longer essay. Please review the University's academic honesty guidelines and the  Disability Resource Center checklist. Make-up quizzes, journal entries, or exams  exam will be given only for very serious reasons. Extra-credit work will be accepted only for students with active participation in class discussions. The format of the extra-credit option shall be discussed with the instructor during regular office hours. The following point-system will be used in determining the final grade:

Quizzes: 20 points
Journal entries: 20 points
Midterm: 30 points
Final exam: 30 points
Total: 100 points


Points Grade
97-100 A
93-96 A-
88-92 B+
81-87 B
75-80 B-
68-74 C+
61-67 C
55-60 C-
under 35E



[May 12] Introduction. Who were the Vikings? Vikings in European history [Oxford 250-261]; visit the exhibit "Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga"

[May 13] Myths about the Vikings [Oxford 225-249]
[May 14] Written sources and associated problems [Sawyer 1-5, 16-26]; for an example of Runic inscription, see the rune stone U 194 from Upplands Väsby (Sweden)
and the Jelling rune stones (Denmark); browse the Life of Anskar, Snorri Sturluson's Chronicle of the Kings of Norway; and Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum

[May 15] Archaeology and numismatics [Sawyer 5-16]; see the five Skuldelev ships and visit Lejre, with the hall of a Scandinavian chieftain
                                     Geography and landscape

(*, due on May 15 in the evening) Landscape
[Sawyer 27-35; McDonald 2-5]; see shaded relief maps of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland; see also pictures of a fjord and of the Hekla volcano in Iceland

[May 16] Resources, communications, and people [Sawyer 33-36 and 37-48; McDonald 5-15]; see a map with the most important locations mentioned in lecture; see a map of the Black Death
                                    The ninth century

(*, due on May 18 in the evening) Background: the Carolingian Empire
[Oxford 19-30; Sawyer 51-54; McDonald 245-261]; see Einhard's Life of Charlemagne, Charlemagne's letters and capitularies
 and Agobard of Lyon on the division of the Empire; read a short biography of Alcuin; see also the on-line map and an example of  Carolingian script

[May 19] Viking raids: why and how  [Oxford 1-18 and 30-63; McDonald 228-229 and 262-272]; see also three sources on Viking raids in late Carolingian Francia; see also a Carolingian coin (a penny of Charlemagne), the bridge at Pont de l'Arche, the ringfort at Camp de Péran, the two tortoise brooches, such as found at Pîtres;  see also maps of the 843 division of the Empire and of the Viking raids

[May 20] England and Ireland [McDonald 230-232, 235-240, and 242-245]; see the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (on the first Viking raid on Wessex) and the Annals of Ulster, a brief presentation of the Orkneyinga saga, and the Old English inscription in the Codex Aureus mentioning earldorman Aelfred; visit Jarlshof, Balladoole, Repton, and Dublin; see a brief presentation of Alfred's Jewel and a picture of the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise; see also on-line maps of the ninth- and tenth-century Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and of ninth-century Ireland
                                    Vikings in the West and in the East

[May 21] Iceland and Greenland
[Oxford 110-120; McDonald 330-331, 336-343, 346-348, and 350-357]; see a brief history and a map of the Norse settlement in Greenland; see a plan of the Brattahlid settlement and the house said to have been that of Erik the Red; see also a map of Iceland

(*, due on May 21, in the evening) Viking ships and eastern trade [Oxford 182-201; McDonald 318-320]; see an example of clinker construction and a depiction of a Viking priare on the Hejnum stone; see also the Skuldelev ships (nos. 2, 5, 3, and 1) and the Krampmacken replica of a Viking ship that travelled from the Baltic to the Black Sea

[May 22] The Rus' Vikings [Oxford 134-145; McDonald 302-328]; see the Russian Primary Chronicle, a map of the most important sites and a shaded relief map of Russia
                                   The tenth century

[[May 23] Background: Western Francia and the Ottonian Empire

May 26: Memorial Day (no classes)

[May 27] Denmark under the Jelling dynasty
[Sawyer 54-57; Oxford 156-171; McDonald 439-443]; see the Jelling mounds and church; visit Trelleborg and Fyrkat; see a map and an aerial photograph of the Danevirke; see also a map with the most important sites mentioned in lecture

[May 28] Danelaw [Oxford 63-82; McDonald 274-282]; visit the Jorvik Viking Center in York; see presentations of the Cuerdale hoard, the Gosforth cross, and the Brompton hogbacks; see the Anglo-Saxon poem about the Battle of Maldon; see also an example of Aethelred's pennies of the small cross type
                                    Second Viking Age

[May 29] British Isles
[Oxford 97-109; McDonald 294-295 and 464-471]; see the Braddan and Kirk Andreas crosses; read about the Viking-Age Isle of Man; visit Clonmacnoise with its monastic tower; read about Viking-Age Dublin, Wexford  and Waterford, as well as about the Viking cemeteries excavated in Kilmainham and Islandbridge; see a biographical note for Olaf Cuarán, king of Dublin; visit the archaeological site at Dublin-Temple Bar; see examples of Ringerike and Urnes ornamental styles; see the Cross of Cong and the Clonmacnoise crozier

[May 30] Iceland, Greenland, America [Oxford 120-128; McDonald 348-357]; see the Brattahlid church; visit L'Anse aux Meadows (see the smithy found on the site) and the Goddard site in Maine  that produced a coin of King Olaf Kyrre; see two pages of the Jonsbok manuscript of the Grágás

(* due on June 1 in the evening) Kievan Rus' [Oxford 145-153; McDonald 321-325]
                                    Viking society

[June 2] Written sources and archaeology
; read Ibn Fadlan's account of a Rus' ship burial (Risalat); see the rune stone from the island of Berezan' mentioning a félag

(*, due on June 2 in the evening) Kings and royal retinues [Sawyer 86-89 and 92-94; McDonald 434-439 and 457-461]; see one of the mounds  excavated at Borre (Norway) and some artifacts found within the great hall at Slöinge; see the great halls found at Borg (Lofoten Islands, Norway) and Lejre (Sjaelland, Denmark; see also a view of the reconstructed interior); read the Life of Anskar, §26 on the power of the Svea kings
                                      Before the conversion to Christianity

[June 3] Paganism
[Oxford 202-210; McDonald 101-106 and 162-170]; see the Stora Hammars rune stone, with a depiction of a human sacrifice to Odin

Wednesday, June 4: Midterm

[June 5] Mythology [Oxford 210-216; McDonald 76-101]; read Völuspá

(*, due on June 5 in the evening) Burial assemblages and religion [Oxford 216-218; McDonald 106-114]; see pictures of Hemlanden, the main cemetery of Birka, and of Lindholm Høje in Denmark

                                       Conversion to Christianity

[June 6] Early attempts. Denmark
[Sawyer 57-58 and 100-108; Oxford 218-224; McDonald 398-416 and 421-423]; see the cathedrals in Roskilde and Trondheim;
see examples of stave churches from Hopperstad, Urnes, and Borgund

[June 9] Iceland [Oxford 128-133; McDonald 417-419]; see another account of the conversion of Iceland in Njal's Saga

(*, due on June 9 in the evening) Rus' [Oxford 153-155]; see an icon of SS. Boris and Gleb and read the account of their  passion

                                       After the Viking Age

[June 10] Native saints: St. Olav, St. Knud, St. Erik, and St. Birgitta (Bridget)
[Sawyer 214-232]; see the St. Olav frontal and visit the Stiklestad National Culture Center;
visit the Uppsala Cathedral,  read St. Bridget's Revelations to the Pope, and visit the Vadstena Abbey

[June 11] The Danish empire [Oxford 171-181; McDonald 444-457]

(*, due on June 11 in the evening) The post-Viking Middle Ages [Sawyer 57-71]; see a portrait of Valdemar the Great on one of his coins and a Romantic version of the story about the Dannebrog at the battle at Lyndanis (1219); visit Tallinn, ca. 1300 , the Kalmar castle, the medieval city of Abo (Turku), and the Vyborg (Viipuri) castle;
read a short biography of Alexander Nevsky

                                      Land and tenure

[June 12] Landowners and peasants
[Sawyer 129-142; McDonald 18-28]

[June 13] Family and inheritance [Sawyer 166-187]

                                     Kings and kingdoms

(*, due on June 15 in the evening) Law, kings and things [Sawyer 80-85 and 89-92]; see the itinerary of the Eriksgata, ca. 1200; visit the Kronborg Castle; learn more about the Danish Folketing, the Norwegian Storting, and the Sameting in Sweden

[June 16] Church organization [Sawyer 108-123]; see images of the Benedictine Selja Abbey and the Cistercian Hovedøya Abbey in ruins; visit the church of the Augustinian chapter in Vestervig and the Cistercian abbey at Alvastra
                                      Trade and towns

[June 17] Trading centers
[Sawyer 144-152]

(*, due on June 17 in the evening) Towns [Sawyer 152-165]

                                     Scandinavian women

[June 18] Before conversion
[Sawyer 188-197; McDonald 130-134, 148-149, and 151-154]; see the ship in which the Viking-age woman was buried in Oseberg (Norway)

[June 19] After conversion; Valkyries and they myth of the "shield maiden" [Sawyer 197-213McDonald 135-137]; watch Éowyn of Rohan fighting like a man and listen to a particularly good version of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries"; see the Hollywood version of Viking history in Eastern Europe and of Viking-Muslim cooperation and Goscinny and Uderzo's version of a Viking raid

June 20:                          Final exam

© 2014 Florin Curta