An Introduction to Viking Culture

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SWBAT connect culture with text to better understand audience and purpose.

Big Idea

How does audience determine purpose in a text?


This lesson is the first in a series of lessons about Beowulf storytelling.  In this lesson I show students artifacts of Viking culture as presented in PowerPoint.  My main objectives are:

  • Help students understand the importance of loyalties among tribal members, esp. men.  
  • Discuss the importance of sharing in a world of scarcity and how people might organize themselves.  
  • Students are also curious about hygiene and food and drink.  They are shocked when they learn how quickly diseases spread and how mead and ale were the main drinks.
  • Finally, help students understand the importance of wealth in this culture and how much that varies with Plains Indian (Dakota, Lakota, Nakota, Crow, Cheyenne, Gro Venes) culture which valued giving more than owning.

An Introduction to Viking Culture 1000 A.D.

50 minutes

My main source for notes for this lecture come from the introduction to Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney and the introduction "The Middle Ages to ca. 1485" in The Norton Anthology of English Literature 7th ed. as well as the Beowulf liner notes in that same volume. I've developed a short PowerPoint to keep me on task while I deliver the lecture because students have so many questions. 

Slide 2 – I start the presentation by explaining that although the events we are going to read in Beowulf are fictional (very), the people and even some of the locations mentioned are not.  While there is no historical correlative to Hrothgar or Beowulf, the Danes, the Geats, the Swedes, etc. are a group of people collectively known as the Vikings. I then explain that the English language Beowulf is written in is not the language the Vikings spoke, but that the dialect it’s written in suggests it was written down in eastern or southeastern England sometime in the late tenth century but dates from as early as the 6th century.

Slide 3 & 4  – This map helps students understand the approximate locations of the action taking place in Beowulf, and helps them understand that the countries we now call Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Germany were once tribal territories that shifted and moved according to war, resources, and marriage.  I take the time here to contrast this map with the next map that shows language families of Native American tribes pre-colonization. I point that migration for resources was common all over the world and still happens today.  I also explain that like the Native American people, Vikings drew their affiliations based on kinships and oaths of loyalty.

Slide 5 – Now I switch gears a little and point to the manuscript fragment on the slide. “What language do you think this is written in?” I ask the students.  I usually get shrugs, or responses like, Latin, Viking, German.  When I tell the students that it’s written in English there are a lot of raised eyebrows. I tell them I will explain more indepth, and then I move on to defining epic.  In this case I want them to understand that an epic presents one worldview, and that it often exemplifies the values of the culture it represents.  I explain that the Iliad, Odyssey & Aeneid are examples of epics that represent Greek and Roman values, and that each culture has its own unique stories that are valued by its people. While there are no written examples of Native American epics, the cycles of stories told by Montana native peoples represents the ethos of the epic tradition: namely, to teach people the right way to behave and live.

Slide 6 – Next I explain how Viking people conducted raids and later built settlements. This photo is one I took at the National Museum in Dublin and it shows what Viking Dublin would have looked like. I point out the smaller dwellings, and the larger, mead hall, off to the right.  I explain that Heorot would have looked something similar. I then explain to students that Viking homes had no windows, one door and no chimney, just a hole in the roof for ventilation.  The interiors were dark, smoky and crowded. Not the kind of place a person wanted to linger in.

Slide 7 – Next I show the students a torque of gold, this picture is also from the National Museum in Dublin and while the torque dates from around 300 B.C. represents the type of economic exchange that happened in Beowulf’s time as well. I then take the time to describe the wergild as Norton Anthology explains “If one of his kinsmen had been slain, a man had a moral obligation either to kill the slayer or to exact the payment of wergild (man-price) in compensation. Each rank of society was evaluated at a definite price, which had to be paid to the dead man’s kin if he wished to avoid their vengeance – even if the killing had been an accident” (pg. 31). I also take the time to explain the concept of ring-giver, that is the importance of generosity in a time of extreme scarcity.

Slides 8- 10 – Next I show the students pictures, again from the National Museum in Dublin, of Viking swords and shields, from around the time period of Beowulf. I explain to the students how valuable the weaponry and armor were, and that is why it was common for warriors to name their sword and shield. I also discuss the brutality of life in Viking times, and that people faced a constant shortage of food and water. I then explain that Vikings drank various mild to strong alcoholic beverages as those were safer than water. 

The Vikings are typically a popular topic with my students, and they usually have a lot of questions about they way Vikings lived common questions are "How long did people live back then? What did they eat? How big are their communities? What did they do in Viking raids?" 

Although I only have a few slides, the pictures and my lecture make the class period go by quickly.  Students are usually pretty excited to start reading Beowulf after this lecture.