HIST 300
Celts to Vikings

Course Syllabus

Hood College
Spring 2011

Dr. John Bedell                      

I have prepared this online version of my course syllabus for any friends who want to follow along with what I am doing. I have included many links to online editions of the documents we are reading. Most of the texts available online are old translations and some of them are bad, but on the other hand they are free and available at the click of a mouse.

You can follow the class on my blog; the class posts will carry the label "Celts to Vikings."

Required Books:
Tacitus, Agricola and Germania.
Over Nine Waves: a Book of Irish Legends, edited by Marie Heaney. 1994.
Saga of the Volsungs.
Saga of the People of Laxardale.

Course Packet

Course Description

In this course we will explore the history of “barbarian” Europe. During the classical and early medieval periods, the Romans and their successors regarded the people of northern Europe as uncivilized and strange. But the Celtic and Germanic peoples were not uncivilized, or at any rate not any more uncivilized than the Romans were. They had their own rich cultures. Those cultures did not include the writing of history as we understand it. Instead, they recorded their past in myths and heroic epics. This makes it difficult for us to get at the facts of Celtic or Germanic history. The few generally accepted facts we do have come mainly from Greek and Roman authors. What we have instead is a rich record of the mythology of these people, as well as of their artistic achievement in both literature and the visual arts. Putting these artistic works together with what we can learn about the barbarians from Roman sources and from archaeology, we will try to build up a picture of their culture and the way they understood their world.

After AD 400 the western Roman Empire collapsed, and barbarian tribes overran large areas of western Europe. The more important tribes include the Franks, the Goths, the Vandals, the Lombards, the Angles, and the Saxons. The leaders of these tribes set up kingdoms that fused Roman and barbarian traditions. After AD 500 writers appeared in these kingdoms who were versed both in Celtic or Germanic culture and the Roman tradition of writing history, and they began to write histories of these kingdoms. Much of the ancient lore of the tribes was still known at that time, and the leaders of the “barbarian” kingdoms still acted much as their ancestors had. Through examining these histories we can learn more about the ancient tribes and follow their development in the old imperial lands. We will read two historians of this period, Paul the Deacon and Asser, author of the Life of King Alfred.

A remarkable native, non-classical tradition of history writing appeared in medieval Europe in an unlikely place, Iceland. The Icelandic sagas of the 12th and 13th centuries are an extraordinary artistic creation and a remarkable record of life in Viking times. We will explore this unique record by reading one of the most famous works in this tradition, The Saga of the People of Laxardale.

We will conclude the class by looking at medieval society as it took form in the Carolingian Empire and its successor states, and ask what the barbarians contributed to medieval Europe and hence to us.

Throughout the class our focus will be on reading works by ancient and medieval authors and understanding the past through their words. We will also examine many works of visual art from this period. Our goal is not to learn lots of facts about the past but to develop a feel for how these people understood their world and their own place within it.

Course Outline

Jan. 24        60,000 BC to the Present: Genetics, Archaeology, and the Oldest Stories

    Reading: The Spoils of Annwn


Jan. 26        The Roman Way

    Reading: Livy, The Commands of Manlius (Ab Urbe Condite Book VIII, Chapters 6-7); Funeral Oration for a Noble Roman Woman; St. Augustine’s Mother (Confessions, Book VIII, 7; Book IX, 8 - 9)

Jan. 31        Conquest

    Reading: Tacitus: Agricola

Feb. 2        The Empire in its Dotage

    Reading: Ammianus Marcelinus on Good and Bad Emperors (Book XIV, Chapters 1, 7; Book XV, Chapter 5; Book XVIII, Chapters 1, 2; Book XXIX, Chapters 1, 2)

Feb. 7        The Empire as it Fell

    Reading: Ammianus Marcelinus, the Campaign of Adrianople (Book XXXI, Chapters 1-7, 11-16)


Feb. 9        The Ancient Celts

    Reading: Ceasar on the Gauls (6.13-20); Diodorus Siculus on the Gauls (Book V, Chapters 24-32); Tacitus on Boudicca’s Revolt  (Book XIV, 29-39)
Feb. 14    The Druids and the Transmigration of Souls    

    Reading: “The Tuatha de Danaan,” “The Voyage of Bran” “Mider and Etain,” and “The Children of Lir,” from Over Nine Waves, and “The Battle of the Trees”

Feb. 16    Were the Celts Destined to Fall?

    Reading: Welsh Elegies; “Deirdre of the Sorrows,” from Over Nine Waves.

Feb. 21    The Society of Ancient Ireland

    Reading: “The Weakness of the Ulstermen,” “The Birth of Cuchulainn,” “The Boyhood Deeds of Cuchulainn,” “Cuchulainn Takes up Arms,” “The Wooing of Emer,” “Bricriu’s Feast,” and “Cuchulainn and Ferdia’s Fight at the Ford,” from Over Nine Waves.


Feb. 23    Celtic Saints

            Reading: Adomnan’s Life of Saint Columba  (Book I, Chapters 5-16; Book II, Chapters 11-41; Book III, Chapters 2-22)

Feb. 28     King Arthur the Welsh Revival    

            Reading: Gildas, On the Ruin of Britain


March 2    Merlin and the Bards

    Reading: The Life of Merlin  and The Apple Trees (Nice synopsis of the question of Merlin here.)

March 7    Picts, Scots, Saxons, Normans, and the Formation of Scotland

March 9    Mid Term Exam / In Class Source Analysis


March 21    The Ancient Germans

            Reading: Tacitus, Germania

March 23    Germanic Paganism

    Reading: Ibn Fadlan on a Viking Funeral; Voluspo; Snorri Sturluson on Yggrasil; and an Appearance by a Prophetess from the Greenland Saga (Course Packet)

March 28    Germanic Myth (I)

    Reading: The Saga of the Volsungs, pp. 35-75

March 30    Germanic Myth (II)

    Reading: The Saga of the Volsungs, pp. 75-109

April 4        The Time of Wandering

    Reading: Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards,

April 6        The Romano-Barbarian Kingdoms

    Reading: Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards,

April 11    The Anglo-Saxons

    Reading: The Wander, The Battle of Maldon, and Cynewulf and Cyneheard

April 13    The Vikings

    Reading: Laxdaela Saga, Chapters 1 to 18 (pp. 1 to 35 in the new Penguin)

April 18    Iceland

    Reading: Laxdaela Saga, Chapters 18 to 39 (pp. 35 to 128)
April 20    Viking Archaeology    

            Reading: Laxdaela Saga, Chapters 40 to 56 (pp. 84 to 128)


April 25    The Emperor

    Reading: Carolingian Capitularies, Life of St. Elizabeth (Course Packet)
April 27    King Alfred
    Reading: Life of King Alfred

May 2        The Ninth-Century World    

    Reading: Dooms of King Alfred; excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
May 4        Are We All Barbarians?