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University of Iceland

The 1st year: Iceland

The first year (autumn and spring semesters) is devoted to course work at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík, Iceland, and the associated Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies. Three separate faculties at the University of Iceland participate in the program and offer courses and thesis supervisors: The Faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies, The Faculty of History and Philosophy, and the Department of Folklore Studies at the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences. The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies is a research institute that houses a large collection of Icelandic medieval manuscripts, visual and oral documents, as well as a research library in medieval studies that will be open to students in the program. The staff of the institute will provide assistance and participate in teaching and thesis supervision.

The principal aim of the first year is to lay the groundwork for further academic work in the field of Viking and Medieval Norse studies. The core of the coursework consists of three components:

(1) Language. No prior knowledge of Old Icelandic is required, but special emphasis is placed on developing skills in Old Icelandic in the first year through courses in Old Icelandic at introductory and intermediate levels. Courses in Modern Icelandic as a second language are also offered. 

(2) Literature, mythology, pre-Christian religion, memory of the Viking voyages. The student will get an overview of Norse literature and literary activity in Iceland and Norway in the middle ages by studying a variety of medieval texts, such as Eddic and Skaldic poetry, kings’ sagas, þættir, lives of the bishops, sagas of Icelanders, the contemporary sagas, romances, the legendary sagas (fornaldarsǫgur), as well as religious and didactic literature. In addition, students will be introduced to different theoretical approaches in the field of Norse medieval studies and contributions from other fields, such as archeology, anthropology, and sociology.

(3) History. The students will get acquainted with the fundamentals of medieval Icelandic and Scandinavian history.

Before enrolling in the programme, all students are required to complete the free online introductory course The Medieval Icelandic Sagas (UOI001X) run by the University of Iceland at edX.org.

See further on preparatory work on the Preparatory Reading List.

In the first year, students complete four obligatory core courses; 30 ECTS credits in the autumn semester and 10 ECTS credits in the spring semester.

Required courses in the 1st semester — 30 ECTS

MIS105F Old Icelandic 1 (10 ECTS)

This course allows students to discover and learn Old Norse-Icelandic, the language of the Vikings and the settlers of Iceland, the language of Egill Skallagrímsson and Snorri Sturluson and the rich Old Norse-Icelandic medieval literature including the Eddas and the Sagas. Old Norse, Old West Norse, or more specifically Old Icelandic, is the language most abundantly attested in the literary sources handed down to us from medieval Iceland in the 12th century onwards. In this course, an overview of the structure of Old Icelandic, in particular the phonology and morphology, will be provided. Excerpts of original texts will be read, translated and parsed, including stories from Snorri Sturluson’s Edda (also known as the Prose Edda), the most extensive account of Norse mythology and legends that has survived from the middle ages. For a more detailed description, please see the Course Catalogue.

MIS701F The Old Norse-Icelandic Literary Corpus – Overview and Main Questions (10 ECTS)

This course offers a detailed presentation of the Old Norse-Icelandic literary corpus, covering all of the major types of texts (poetry, sagas, laws, encyclopaedic literature, etc.). The main scholarly issues will be discussed as well as the history of scholarship in the field. A selection of texts will be read in translation. By the end of the semester the students will be familiar with the range and diversity of Old Norse-Icelandic texts. They will be aware of the main aspects of the research history and be capable of identifying the main types of texts. They will have read and discussed five major texts from the corpus.  For a more detailed description, please see the Course Catalogue.

SAG716M The Medieval North (10 ECTS)

Historical and historiographical survey of major topics in the history of the medieval North, with special emphasis on Iceland and Norway from the Viking Age into the fourteenth century. Topics include: power, kingship and state; law and feud; kinship, gender and social ties; religious and mental outlook(s); conversion, Christianity and church; economic conditions. Prior knowledge of the “factual” narrative is helpful but not necessary. Reading ability in German and/or the modern Scandinavian languages is also helpful but, again, not necessary (all mandatory readings are in English). For a more detailed description, please see the Course Catalogue.

Required course in the 2nd semester — 10 ECTS

MIS810F Old Icelandic 2 (10 ECTS)

This advanced-level course aims at developing reading skills in Old Icelandic by reading a variety of texts, both prose and poetry. Texts will be read in both normalized classical Old Icelandic orthography, reflecting the language of the early 13th century, as well as in medieval orthography from different periods (in printed diplomatic editions based directly on medieval manuscripts). Students will thus become familiar with the characteristics of different types of text editions and develop skills in reading different types of orthography. For a more detailed description, please see the Course Catalogue.

Optional courses

In addition to the obligatory core courses, the students can choose optional courses (at least 20 ECTS), primarily in the spring semester. These vary from one year to another; see the current Course Catalogue

MIS704F Reading the medieval sagas (10 ECTS; autumn semester)

This ten-credit course presents methods of reading different types of medieval sagas, based on a variety of theoretical approaches. The sagas under study belong to the genres of Íslendingasögur (sagas about early Icelanders), riddarasögur (chivalric sagas), and konungasögur (kings’ sagas). They will be read in English translation though references will also be made to the original texts. By the end of the course, the student will have acquainted himself thoroughly with several major sagas, understand their mode of narration as well as some of their other literary aspects. The student will also be aware of scholarly discourse on the sagas and will be able to use it as a basis for his own research.


MIS808F Vikings in the East (5 ECTS; autumn semester)

This course focuses on the eastward expansion of Scandinavian peoples during the Viking Age.  A vast amount of textual and archaeological material attests to their presence in a large part of Eastern Europe, Byzantium and even Bagdhad.  Vikings, or Rus as they are referred to in the contemporary sources, make an impact as important links in the large-scale north-south trade route which had further links with the Mediterranean and Silk Road trading networks and the Islamic Caliphate. They are also reported to undertake raids on the coastline of the Caspian Sea, and serve as a special guards unit for the powerful Khazar kaghan as well as the Byzantine Emperor. The Vikings' much debated involvement in the establishment of the Kievan State will also be discussed. By the end of the course students are expected to have a grasp of the chronology and main events as well as of the main cultural and geographical aspects of the region, and also how this part of the Viking Age connects with its better known episodes in Western Europe.

MIS204F Icelandic medieval manuscripts (10 ECTS; spring semester)

This course is an introduction to Icelandic manuscript studies with a strong focus on the medieval period. Icelandic manuscript culture is remarkable in many respects, not least because of the great quantity of medieval parchment manuscripts and documents still extant today. These contain secular texts (prose and poetry), mythological texts, legal texts, ecclesiastical texts, as well as administrative material, for example. Unusual, too, was the continuity in Iceland with regard to the practice of hand-copying books over many centuries, from the medieval period to the early 20th century. The making and writing of manuscript books was a central part of Icelandic culture, and did not stop once the printing press arrived in Iceland in the mid-16th century.  The course will provide a general overview of paleographical terminology; the types of letter forms and abbreviations used in medieval Icelandic manuscripts (as well as how to expand abbreviations); and the development of script in Iceland, alongside the development of Icelandic orthography. It is on the basis of script-types, orthographical features, and identifiable scribal hands that Icelandic manuscripts are most often dated; equally, the history of the Icelandic language is also, to a significant degree, based on the extant manuscript evidence for language use and morphological forms. Types of errors made by scribes when they copied (and how to recognise them) will also be covered – this is necessary for understanding how modern printed editions of manuscript texts are put together. Topics furthermore include the technology of book-making and writing, and the historical context for producing manuscripts in the medieval period in Iceland; the circumstances surrounding the collection and the significance of the manuscripts as cultural objects, together with the circumstances of their return to Iceland in the 1970s.

MIS803F History of the Icelandic language (10 ECTS; spring semester)

This course presents an overview of the history of Icelandic language from its earliest attestation to the present. Topics covered include the nature of language change, the sources of evidence for the history of the Icelandic language, the prehistory of Icelandic, selected phonological changes, morphological changes and syntactic changes, the First Grammatical Treatise, Norwegian influence in the 13th and 14th century, the language of the Reformation Era, dialectal variation, the standardization of Icelandic in the 19th and 20th century, tradition, legislation and controversy on personal names and family names, the Icelandic Language Council and some current issues in Icelandic language policy. The course is taught through a combination of lectures and workshops. A fair amount of time will be spent examining texts from different periods in their original orthogra-phy, identifying and analysing indications of language change and developing skills in dating texts based on orthographic and linguistic evidence.

MIS805F Landscapes, Places and Sagas about Early Icelanders (5 ECTS; spring semester)

In this course, emphasis will be placed on approaching the corpus of Íslendingasögur narratives from a spatial perspective in order to better understand (1) the role of landscape in the sagas, and (2) the place of the sagas in Icelandic landscapes over time. In each of the six taught sessions, a different landscape-related theme will be explored with reference to specific sagas, and attention will be drawn to some of the theoretical and interpretative questions and disjunctures that arise when these sagas' literary geographies are mapped onto 'real' modern-day Icelandic landscapes. 

FOR102F Viking Age Archaeology (10 ECTS; spring semester)

Overview of the history of the Viking age and history of Viking research. Emphasis is placed on the archaeological evidence, the sites and the objects, and discussing how archaeological data has contributed to our understanding of this period. Particular attention is given to economic patterns, issues of ethnicity and state formation.


FOR802M Medieval Archaeology (10 ECTS; spring semester)

During the last decades, medieval archaeology has experienced significant growth as a discipline concerned with material culture. Initially, the use of material culture was marginalized to the role of confirming or refuting historical knowledge about this period but today it is understood as having equal historical importance to the archived material. The course is thus intended to improve student’s understanding of Medieval Europe during the period 800–1600 AD through the study of material culture. It deals with general themes in medieval archaeology, such as identity, social status, rural and urban landscapes, religion, life and death, rather than the historical development of the Middle Ages in chronological order. The aim is to give students insight into the different fields of theory and method of medieval archaeology through both material and documentary evidences in accordance with the current state of research. A special emphasis will be put on medieval Iceland, as a part of European culture and society, but even on how medieval archaeologists gather their sources, analyse them and reach conclusions of historical importance.

ÞJÓ203F Old Nordic Religion and Belief (10 ECTS; spring semester)

An examination will be made of the religious beliefs and practices of people in Scandinavia from the earliest of times until the conversion, material ranging from burial practices to rock carvings, to the written evidence given in the works of Tacitus, Adam of Bremen and Saxo Grammaticus, as well as in early Icelandic works like the Eddic poems and the Kings' sagas. Alongside this discussion of the development and key features of Old Norse religion, some attention will be paid to the concepts of seid and shamanism, especially in connection to their role in early religions. Finally, an examination will be made of the conversion of Scandinavia and how Christian concepts and practices both fitted and contrasted with the previously dominant Old Norse worldview.

MIS810F Christian Culture in the Medieval North  (5 ECTS; autumn or spring semester)

The course will examine how Christianity was practiced in the Medieval North from its adoption to the Reformation. Students will acquire a knowledge of the history and terminology used in discussing Christian practices, administration, and theology. The conversion and possibility of Christianity before that time will be discussed, but the course will concentrate on the twelfth century until the Reformation. It will examine the evidence for liturgy, theology, material culture, and popular beliefs that can be attested in Iceland, against the larger European background. In this course, the student will acquire a good general knowledge of the Conversion of Iceland and the history of Christianity in Iceland until the Reformation, the principal historical sources (bishop‘s sagas, homilies, church deeds, etc.), elements of liturgy, theology, church administration and popular beliefs. The student will be able to understand this history and these sources in the context of Icelandic, Scandinavian and European history.


MIS603M Magic and Sorcerers in Old-Norse Icelandic literature (5 ECTS; autumn or spring semester)

The course will examine how magic, magicians, and magical beings such as trolls and elves are portrayed in different genres of Old-Norse Icelandic literature. The genres will include runic inscriptions, law codes, Eddic poetry, sagas of saints, sagas of icelanders, kings' sagas, contemporary sagas, chivalric sagas, legendary sagas, annals, legal and and medical texts. The texts and attitudes will, where possible, be compared to those in the British Isles and continental Europe. At the end of the course we will look at attitudes towards magic and its practitioners in the Early Modern Period. While excellent knowledge of Old Norse/Icelandic is not required, the course will emphasize the precise language used in each genre. English translations of relevant passages will be provided as necessary. We will also consider the attitudes of the authors/scribes of the various genres to magic (and how it manifests itself), as well as the attitudes of scholars who have studied magic to the subject-matter.

MIS201F New Critical Approaches (5/10 ECTS)

The New Critical Approaches seminar, a week-long intensive seminar offered in the second half of May every year, is taught by visiting faculty and covers a different subject every year. Recent seminars include:

2019

Julia Zimmermann (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München): Telling of the Past: Case Studies of German Heroic Epics

2018

Carolyne Larrington (Oxford University): Literary Culture in Medieval Iceland: Continuity and Change

2017

Stephen Mitchell (Harvard University): Magical Texts: Memory, Learning, and the Power of Words

2016

Barbara H. Rosenwein (Loyola University Chicago): What Is the History of Emotions?

2015

Rita Copeland (University of Pennsylvania): Rhetoric and the Emotions in the Middle Ages

2014

Gerd Althoff (University of Münster): Violence in the Middle Ages

2013

Dominique Barthélemy (Université Paris — Sorbonne): Chivalry and the Peace of God in feudal France (11th and 12th century): A reassessment

2012

Kevin J. Wanner (University of Western Michigan): The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu and Medieval Literature

2010

Jesse L. Byock (UCLA): Archaeology, Sagas, History and the Mosfell Excavations

2009

Peter Brown (Princeton University): Treasure in Heaven: Wealth, Poverty and the Christian Church, 60-600 AD

2008

Patrick J. Geary (UCLA): Feuding, Peace-Making and Conflict Processing in the Middle Ages: A Comparison of Iceland and Continental Europe

2007

Margaret Clunies Ross (University of Sydney): Myth and Religion of the North: Critical Approaches for the Twenty-first Century

2006

William Ian Miller (University of Michigan): “Getting Even”

Other courses offered in recent years include:

In addition to traditional course work, excursions in Iceland will be offered. These typically include visits to important locations from the sagas, such as Njáls saga (Southern Iceland), Gísla saga (the Westfjords) or Bárðar saga and Eyrbyggja saga (Snæfellsnes).

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