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Sunday, October 30, 2011

The PhD applicant and the modern Scandinavian language: A Battle of Wills!

One of the major obstacles standing between me and a PhD in a Scandinavian Studies Department is the lack of a modern Scandinavian language.

I don't know if I could have taken it at University while I was there. I am about 98% certain there was no opportunity while I was doing a Medieval Studies degree at Queen's University in Kingston, though I did take Old Norse and Anglo Saxon. If I did have an opportunity it would probably have been during my MA in Norse/Viking Studies in Nottingham. But in my defense, I neither saw anything about it, nor at the time did I realize how much I was going to need one. I actually had the same problem with German, didn't quite realize how necessary it was, but the fix for that has been very easy. At the University of Western Ontario I took German in a class, but if I wanted to do some night school in German here in Toronto somewhere it would be quite easy.

Now, a modern Scandinavian language however, no such luck. No schools in Toronto offer any such thing. Spanish, sure. Greek, no problem. But Swedish? Nah! But to do a PhD in the departments that are most likely to have supervisors for my work, a.k.a. Scandinavian Studies departments, I need it. Right now the schools that I am particularly looking at are the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UCLA Berkeley. This is why it has become a Battle of Wills: my determination to do whatever it takes to get in. When it comes to my PhD, to quote the immortal Wayne's World, 'it will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.'

So this is the result of my research:

I have decided to start by learning Swedish. This choice is in part because, as my two specialties are Norse history and Public History eventually I am going to want to look at how movies portray Norse history. Then I should pick the language of the most robust film industry in Scandinavia. But I was on the fence with Swedish and Norwegian. It was the excellent website, and program, of the Uppsala International Summer Session that put me over the edge. Their intensive program, with easy to understand website and application process, put me over the edge. Since making the decision to go there I have also spoken with at least two other people who have gone there, making me feel more confident in this choice. So the plan is to peruse the Swedish grammar over the next six months, so that I do not have to enter the beginner-beginner program. I will probably sign up for Babbel, or try the University of Stockholm's free exercises. I will also probably get a starter grammar book and work through the exercises and vocabulary. Then I will do the course in Uppsala in the summer (hopefully with the aid of a scholarship, because otherwise it may be more of a problem.)

But in my research I came across several options for people trying to study Scandinavian languages in Canada/North America.


As I say, this is the language I have chosen, the language of Ingmar Bergman, the place of many runestones. I have chosen to study in Sweden because of the value this would be to admissions boards, and because there is no better way to learn a language than by immersion. Trust me. I studied French since I was 8, but it wasn't until I spent three months with a Francophone family that I could actually speak the language. But you can also learn from a local institution (though, as I have said this is not everywhere available), or you can learn online.

An excellent summary of options for learning Swedish is provided by Study in Sweden. If you choose to study online, for admissions purposes a paid course is better, as there will be evaluation. However, they cost just as much or more than regular university courses. Folkuniversitet looks like it may be the best. It ends up to be about $860(Canadian) a module. Because I want to study in Sweden, this is why I do not wish to pay for other courses.


I was also thinking about studying Norwegian, because I actually hope to do my dissertation on the King's Sagas. More specifically Harold the Hardruler, who was king of, well, Norway. So in many ways it makes sense, particularly for studying the historiography. However, I will still study this, just in an informal setting. The reasons I did not chose Norwegian is because they had no equivalent classes like that offered at Uppsala. The closest I found was the International Summer School at the University of Oslo, which does still seem to offer a lot for those interested in learning Norwegian in Norway. For a summary of how to learn Norwegian a list of options is provided by this Study in Norway website, which is not quite as comprehensive as the Study in Sweden equivalent.


Danish is an excellent option because, of course, politically speaking it was dominant for so long that many of the historiographical works from throughout Scandinavia are written in Danish. The University of Copenhagen has courses for students, but it is not obvious whether the classes are Danish. A list of other options is provided on the Danish consulate in New York's website. Those are paces that teach Danish in Denmark. Here is another list, from Work in Denmark that give options for learning Danish. I did less research here, as this was less interesting to me, so there may be a more comprehensive website, but as of now I am yet to find it.


It may be erroneous to say so, but from what I understand Icelanders read Old Norse like we read Chaucer. You can kind of read it. You have to have an open mind for interpretation, but it is possible. Therefore this, you would think, would be really useful for a student of Norse and Viking Studies. But be careful, because some of the Departments require a 'mainland' Scandinavian language. The University Centre of the Westfjords offers Icelandic courses, so it is already up on Denmark on having language courses easy to find over the web. Likewise, there are many online options. I am yet to discover a comprehensive list of ways to learn modern Icelandic, like there are for the other countries, but it may yet be out there.


Um, there are many good things to say about Finnish, but if you are a student of Norse/Viking Studies you are barking up the wrong tree. The other languages are in a similar linguistic group. Finnish has so many - was it cases, or maybe it was tenses - that it has been called one of the hardest languages to learn. It is closest to Hungarian, as opposed to anything else. And the history is rich, but different. I did no research here. I say go up and read one of the other languages I looked into.

So good luck to all PhD applicants out there, or people interested in Scandinavia. Hopefully your determination too will win out.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

History in the City for the young and the young at heart

So, you've done Centre Island and they've been to Canada's Wonderland. You went to the zoo and they spent the day at the beach. Now what? And why was any sort of museum programming the last thing you thought of? Don't worry, it's not just for the nerdy children amongst us. Often they have so much fun they don't realize they're learning something. Or they don't learn anything, which is fine too, because you might, and they would learn the same nothing at Canada's Wonderland and they'll still have fun.

Studies often show that most of us did not retain the history we do know from what we were taught in school. Many of us remember snippets of movies, books or, mostly, the museums we visited as children. And don't worry if you don't remember what the population of Toronto was when it was founded in 1834, if you remembered that it's only really been around for less than two hundred years, or even if you got the sense that the city was kinda old you did take something away from the experience, whether you meant to or not.

I loved going to museums when I was little (surprise, surprise). Living history museums shaped a large part of the trajectory of my life. I felt like I was stepping into a story. That interested my sister less, but she always liked things like art and making things, and there was always something interesting for everyone to do.

So if you live in the city and are wondering what to do with these last dog days of summer, here are some of the programs aimed at children being put on until the end of August at Toronto Heritage Institutions (which I think includes things like Halls of Fame, Art Galleries and Science Centres, but that is a debate for another day):

Colborne Lodge

Colborne Lodge
has Pay What you Can Sundays. Go and see what you can of the house of High Park founders John and Jemima Howard. And while you're at it, spend the day in the park.
Hours: Tuesday - Sunday noon-5 p.m.
Admission: Adults: $5.71
Seniors (65 +): $2.62
Youth (13-18 yrs.): $2.62
Children (4-12 yrs.): $2.38

Fort York

Fort York has special programming going on all summer. See the cannons fire at 12:30, see the fife and drums in the afternoons, and enjoy the hourly drill demonstrations. This one of the larger living history museums in the city, and certainly represents the oldest time period for Toronto (Fort York was founded when this area was made Upper Canada's capital, around 1796).
Hours: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults: $7.62
Seniors (65 +): $3.81
Youth (13-18 yrs.): $3.81
Children: (4-12 yrs.): $2.86

Gibson House

The Gibson House has a special tour on Sundays, noon to 5 pm, of their 1850s kitchen. This includes a taste of what's cooking and, of course, the hands-on children's activities available in the Discovery Gallery.
Hours: Tuesday - Sunday, noon - 5 p.m.
Admission Adults: $5.48
Seniors (65 +): $3.10
Youth (13-18 yrs.): $3.10
Children (2-12 yrs.): $2.62

Mackenzie House

Mackenzie House, home of Toronto's first mayor has kids crafts on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4:30.
Hours: Tuesday - Sunday, noon - 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults: $5.71
Seniors (65 +): $3.81
Youth (13-18 yrs.): 3.81
Children (5-12 yrs.): $3.33
Children (4 and under): Free

Scarborough Museum

The Scarborough Museum has special activities for adults and kids every Saturday and Sunday for their Summer Victorian Extravaganzas. Shows, music, merriment; experience early life in Scarborough.
Hours: Tuesday - Sunday, noon - 5 p.m.
Admission: Donation

Legislative Assembly of Ontario

The Legislative Assembly of Ontario, perhaps not one of the first places we think of when we think of history, but has been there since 1893 and is one of the rare historic buildings that is still in use today. Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m. until the end of the summer there is a scavenger hunt on the grounds, aimed at children between the ages of 6-12. Pre-register or drop in.
Hours: 9:00-5:00
Admission: Free

Royal Ontario Museum

At the Royal Ontario Museum the ongoing exhibit Water includes many hands-on activities and panels aimed at kids. This is in addition to their usual galleries, where the natural history (dinosaurs, bugs, birds and the like) is usually a big hit.
Hours: Saturday - Thursday 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. - 8:30 p.m.
Admission:Adult: $24 + exhibit $31 ($24 + $7)
Senior (65+ years): $21 + exhibit $28 ($21 + $7)
Student (15 to 17 years): $21 + exhibit $28 ($21 + $7)
Child (4 to 14 years): $16 + exhibit $19.50 ($16 + $3.50)
Infant (3 years & under) Free

Bata Shoe Museum

At the Bata Shoe Museum host Weekend Family Fun every weekend, save for when they have other big events. There they can try on shoes, paint a clog or go on a treasure hunt in the galleries. This too is in addition to their usual hands-on exhibits.
Hours:Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: 10:00am – 5:00pm
Thursday: 10:00am – 8:00pm
Sunday : 12:00pm – 5:00pm
Admission:Adults: $14
Senior citizens (65+): $12
Students (with ID): $8
Children (5-17 years inclusive): $5
children under 5 are free

Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art

At the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art every Sunday is family day. The first Sunday of a month is a movie and a themed scavenger hunt. The second Sunday is themed paper crafts in the lobby. The third Sunday is the guided kids tour and on the fourth Sunday of the month there is typically a performance by storytellers, musicians and other entertainers, though this month the last Sunday will be more crafts in the lobby.
Hours: Monday to Thursday: 10 am – 6 pm
Friday:10 am - 8 pm
Saturday & Sunday: 10 am – 5 pm
Admission:Adults: $12
Seniors: $8
Students: $6
Children: FREE (under 5)

Black Creek Pioneer Village

At Black Creek Pioneer Village, another living history museum, everyday at 2:00 they have a demonstration of something, perhaps butter churning, harness making or something else. They also have daily animal programs, as well as a hands-on history centre. Collect an historic passport and get it stamped at five of the different historic buildings once you complete a task or explore a Country Kids Trail. All these activities are available all summer.
Hours: Week days: 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Weekends: 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Admission: Adult (Age 16-59): $15.00
Child (Age 5-15): $11.00
Infant (Age 4 and under): Free - does not apply for group bookings
Senior (60+): $14.00
Student (16+): $14.00

Ontario Science Centre

At the Ontario Science Centre join them for KidSpark, an activity happening each weekday at 11:00 in July and August. It could be a number of things, including a science demonstration or an art project.
Hours:10 am - 6 pm
Admission:Adult (18-64): $20
Child (4-12): $13
Youth (13-17), Student (with ID), Senior (65+): $16
Infant (3 & under): Free!

Canadian Air and Space Museum

The Canadian Air and Space Museum has a Future Pilots program running on August 20-21. This is a hands on full day activity for teens.
Hours:Wednesday, 10:00am - 8:00pm
Thursday - Saturday, 10:00am - 4:00pm
Sunday, 10:00am - 4:00pm
Holiday Mondays, 10:00am - 4:00pm
Admission: Adults 18+: $ 11.00
Seniors 60+: $ 9.00
Students with school ID: $ 9.00
Military with ID:$ 9.00
Children 5 & under: FREE
Family: 2 adults & 2 Students: $ 27.00

And don't forget the other museums etc. around the city:

Art Gallery of Ontario

The Hockey Hall of Fame
Historic Zion Schoolhouse
Montgomery's Inn
Spadina House: Historic House and Gardens
Todmorden Hills Heritage Site
York Museum
Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art

For more information of upcoming events check out Toronto Museum Events, or the ROM, AGO, Hockey Hall of Fame, Black Creek Pioneer Village etc. websites.

SNL, Pop Culture and Popular Medieval Misconceptions

Read my new blog post on the Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages blog .

In it I muse on how when someone says Viking funeral, the image that is recalled is of a burning ship. No one really cares whether or not this is an accurate tradition, because while the people who are saying are only cursorily meaning to refer to the Middle Ages. What they mean to refer to is the pre-existing cultural image of something going up in flames. It is more interesting to medievalists than anyone else the process of how it got from the historical act of burying their dead to the current twentieth/twenty first century idea of a 'Viking' burial.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review of Mapping Medievalism

Prof. Richard Utz, in the blog medievally speaking, gives the Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier project a wonderfully glowing review, commenting on both the originality of the project as well as its place in the academic world of medievalism.

medievally speaking: Brush, ed., Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier: "Kathryn Brush, ed., Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier . London, ON: Museum London & McIntosh Gallery, 2010. Reviewed by Richard Utz."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The 44th and 46th International Congress of Medieval Studies

This is the first year that I presented at the International Congress of Medieval Studies, which you can tell if you look at an earlier post, but it is not the first time I have ever attended.

44th International Congress of Medieval Studies

One of my favourite stories to tell is my trip to the 44th International Congress of Medieval Studies. I had asked my friend to go with me. She is not a medievalist per se, but she is interested in all things historical and I knew that if I could drag anyone to come with me, it would be her. She is not, how shall we say, the most organized of people to ever grace this planet. For the purposes of the story I will call her K.

I had personally helped K to fill out a passport application, as hers was expired, but day of she still didn't have it. So the day when we are supposed to leave we head over to the passport office, and it seems that it's never been processed because for some reason her fee has not been processed. So, no chance there. This is before they got stringent however, and we decided we would try to cross anyway. I proposed, instead of driving to Windsor from Toronto and crossing right into Michigan (the location of the conference) that we would go the shorter distance, to Niagara on the Lake, and cross into New York and go under the lake. Longer in the long run, but shorter if I needed to drive her back to Toronto. On the way down we did a bit of obsessing, and I mentioned, as a joke, that we could hide her in the trunk. She looked at me a little cock eyed, and I had to explain how we weren't actually going to do that. Good thing to, because once we got there, since we were going somewhere academic (probably also because we were young females) and because she had her old passport and health card, they let us across. They did, however, take a scan of the car. Bullet officially dodged.

We got to the other side, and had a lot more driving to do than we otherwise would have, but were basically kissing the American soil.

The 46th International Congress of Medieval Studies

If you want to make one of the border crossing officers actually smile tell them you are going to the International Congress of Medieval Studies. Don't, however, tell them about your paper, as they are amused and not necessarily interested.

I drove up on Thursday evening, and missed Wednesday and Thursday's sessions, but here are the sessions I did attend:


10:00 am
Session 199
Old Norse Literature and Culture - organized by Paul Acker, St. Louis Univ.

Warriors and Wild Beasts in the Heroic Poems of the Elder Edda
- Richard North, Univ. College, Univ. of London

This was the only presenter for this panel, the others had cancelled. It as a very convincing argument about the connection between wolves, bears and warriors. The premise was that when the warrior goes into battle he takes onthe qualities of an animal. Usually, as well, if they are a bear that is good and wolves are bad.

1:30 pm
Session 262
Twenty-First Century Medievalisms - presider Julie Nelson Couch, Texas Tech Univ.

"The Darkness of the Womb": Allegory and Early Medieval Historiography in S.M. Stirling's Emberverse
- Alicia McKenzie, Wilfred Laurier Univ.
This paper examined how the author not only interprets medieval society, but also how the author interprets medieval historiography and his rejection of the very rigid 'medieval' structure in favour of a fluid and adaptable one.

Rexiles: A Re-envisionist History of the Kings of Britain
-Aaron Long, American Univ.
Unfortunately I do not remember much about this paper.

What is the Impact of Popular 'Medieval Films' on the Public's Understanding of the Middle Ages? A Sociological Approach
- Paul B. Sturtevant, Univ. of Leeds
This looked at the impact of medieval film on popular understanding of the Middle Ages by conducting focus groups to talk about it with members of the public.

Concerning the Newfound Popularity of Lionheart's Acre Massacre in Video Game Narratives
- Carl S. Pyrdum, III, Yale Univ.
This paper was about the appearance of the massacre of Acre in video games. He traced the popularity of the event to it's appearance in Assassin's Creed, and compared it to it's appearance in Dante's Inferno. The conclusion was that while Dante's Inferno is less well done for a video game, it almost had a better treatment of the massacre because it was dealing better with the actual event, and the political correctness of Assassin's Creed limited their interaction with the event.


10:00 am
Session 369
Old Norse Literature - presider Jana K. Schulman, Western Michigan Univ.

Out of Silence, Vision: Helga's Gazing in Gunnlaug's saga
- Molly Jacobs, Univ. of California-Berkeley (Graduate Student Prize Winner)
This was a very interesting paper about how Helga's gaze actually makes her an active participant, as opposed to a passive character.

1:30 pm
Session 437
Nineteenth Century Medievalisms - organized by Richard Utz, Western Michigan Univ.

A Tale of Two Medievalisms: Muscular Christianity and the Tour de France
- Christine M. Havens, Hawkeye Community College
This paper argued that the Tour de France celebrates a tradition of masculine and muscular christianity, and uses medieval imagery to celebrate this. And there were so many parallels, including a disgraced hero named Lance.

Recovering a Not so Imaginary Past: Medievalism in Scott's Harold the Dauntless
- Renee Ward, Wilfred Laurier Univ.
This paper talked about the medievalism of Sir Walter Scott in one of his least loved works.

Ancient Mysteries: A Regency Printer Uncovers the Medieval
- Clare A. Simmons Ohio State Univ.
Unfortunately, Ido not really remember what this was about.

Transatlantic Medievalisms: Julian of Norwich's XVI Revelations in the East End and Harvard in the 'Hungry 40s'
- Vickie Larsen, Univ of Michigan-Flint
This looked at one nineteenth century translator's Julian of Norwich and the way that his era affected his work.

3:30 pm
Session 478
Twenty-First Century Medievalism: Re-envisioning the Medieval in the Contemporary World (A Roundtable) - organizer Michael A. Toregrossa, Vistual Society for the Study of Popular Culture and the Middle Ages

Siegfried the Volk-Sung: Examining the Interpretations of Siegfried the Dragon-Slayer and the Making of a National History
- Peter H. Johnsson San Francisco State Univ.
This was a paper examining how this saga is used to make a national history in several different nations and how it is used in current popular culture.

Analysis of Arthurian Film Reviews
-Laurie Rizzo, Univ. of Delaware
This was a paper that really stuck with me, about how many couch their criticisms of King Arthur films in terms of their 'inaccuracy.'

Beowulf in the Twenty-First Century
- Suanna H. Davis, Houston Community College: Central
This paper was about the use of Beowulf in Science Fiction and how it is used to give layers to narrative, as a sort of specialized knowledge, where the authors assume we already have this knowledge.


Session 528
The Central Issue: What does the Public Actually Think about the Middle Ages? - organized by Paul B. Sturtevant, Univ. of Leeds

The Perceptions of Medieval Heritage among Modern Master Falconers
- Leslie Jacoby, San Jose State Univ.
This paper was about how faloners themselves see their art in relation to medieval falconry.

'Viking' North America: The North American Public's Understanding of Its Norse Heritage
- Megan Arnott, Univ. of Western Ontario

My paper!

10:30 am
Session 569
Saga Studies - presider Andrew M. Prefenger, Kent State Univ. - Salem

On the Paroemial Delineation of Character in Grettis saga
- Richard Harris, Univ. of Saskatchewan
A very interesting discussion of how literarily character is created.

Sisterhood and Female Friendship in the Islendingasogur
- Natalie Van Deusen, Univ. of Wisconsin Madison
A good paper that came to the conclusion that friendship amongst females did not really exist in the same way as it did amongst men. Men had friends and women had relatives.

I did not go to the dance. Not because I'm against dances, but mostly because I both went by myself and was presenting at 8:30 the next morning.

One of the best things about this particular congress was that I had the chance to talk one on one with so many professors in this field. I met with Profs. Acker, Schulman, Falk, Mellor and Hill and had a chance to talk about grad school in Norse studies in North America.

I look forward to my next congress. Thanks to everyone who came up to me and said they enjoyed my talk, and especially to Paul Sturtevant for organizing both the Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages and for organizing the session.

Musings on Public History Management

The majority of Public History Institutions are open and running in the summer. In fact in Canada very few of them have any winter program at all. This means that the majority of the work force is summer students. For most public history managers the trick is to try and create a programming where you can have consistency from year to year even when you are training mostly new people for each summer. This means laying out in detail what is expected of every position, including when you would take lunch, what equipment you will need to complete your task, what information you will need to know and what your curatorial duties could be. In many ways this is the very professional way to run a public history institution, and that professionalism comes through in the programming and interpretation.

And yet, since those that have been hired are often extremely talented, capable people (often they have gone through school to study this subject, and have taken the time to make themselves bilingual) there is a reaction against any micro-management, or criticisms of downtime when they produce such quality work when they are called upon. This is particularly true of places where the same staff are hired every year, or where, in the odd case, the majority of the historical interpretation takes place throughout the education year as opposed to during the summer.

True of all offices, long term people do not like to be micro-managed. But the struggle for Public History management is how to maintain that balance between letting the employees do what they do, and to be flexible to maintain better customer service, and to put in place that well structured programming necessary for places with huge staffing change over from year to year.

There is no answer, it depends on the location and the individuals, which is the trick for public history managers. Often those institutions that offer more all year programming or have the same employees year after year want less structure in their historical interpretation positions because they know how to read a group and offer each individual group the best possible history experience. Likewise, institutions with larger change over benefit more from the structure. But this is not an absolute, because it depends on the individuals. Sometimes long term people want more structure in their jobs because it increases the professionalism of the experience they offer and perhaps as a group they will be taken more seriously the more consistent the program is. But for the profession, particularly for those people who interact with the public on a daily basis, flexibility is key to offering a great experience and to effectively communicating history to the public.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Marvel's Thor and the danger of subverting expectations

While watching the movie my sister texted me "there were no Asian Vikings!"

I think the expectations for this movie were different than what we would expect from other movies. Thor, like its counterpart Captain America, also coming out this year, have been produced almost for the sole purpose of giving back stories to some Marvel characters that are required to be in the Avengers movie, coming out next year. Both Captain America and Thor were poplar comics, but did not carry over into current generations in the same way that X-men, or Ironman, or Spiderman did. I am not tuned in enough to the Marvel universe to give appropriate explanations for this, however from my point of view I feel that it could be that either these characters never had the depth of the other ones, or that certainly, in the case of Captain America, even his name is hokey by modern standards. This is why the Captain America movie is set in the era in which he was born, the 1940s, because this is the only era where such a name is acceptable. I think it is perhaps a little less clear cut for Thor, but perhaps he was actually hindered rather than helped by the ties to a medieval mythology. The hammer is, in some ways, a less glamorous weapon, though really Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did him no favours by giving him that outfit, but I guess it was okay for the time.

As Laurie Rizzo pointed out in her paper on "Analysis of Arthurian Film Reviews," delivered at Kalamazoo this year, it is the discourse around a film that shapes how that film will be received.

I rather enjoyed Thor. I think it can be said to have lived up to expectations. It was pretty and the acting was also pretty good. It lacked the depth, somehow, of other marvel films like the first Ironman or the Spiderman films, and played out exactly how you would expect Thor's story to play out. And it is interesting because criticisms of the film have taken the form of complaints about the film's accuracy.

One of the criticisms is how well it reflects 'vikings.' The film makes a bit of a play for appealing to Norse mythology, explaining how the world of Asgard came to be interpreted by the old Scandinavian cultures. And it is this more than the marvel comics that makes people question why there should be a black heimdalr or an asian warrior for Asgard. This is an interpretive decision I support, since in the end it is nearly as arbitrary to not include diversity as it is to include it. As I have said before the film will be charged more to stick to the marvel canon than to adhere to any Norse mythology (which is all very interpretive anyway). And the choices of people had more to do with the demography of the sixties than it did with accuracy to Norse mythology, so that it might as well be updated for a modern audience, just as the dialogue and the characters and the plot lines have to be updated. This criticism really comes because out expectations for what a society that inspired Norse mythology would look like.

And speaking of characters, one of the other criticisms I heard was of Natalie Portman's character, Jane Foster. Natalie Portman has been in a few movies this year with vague and yet obvious medievalism references; Thor and also Your Highness. The problem with Jane's character was that she ended up swooning over Thor. Modern heroine's simply do not swoon. Despite the fact that the character is clearly smart, as evidenced by her profession and drive, and is independent, and also makes a show of not being interested in Thor at first, her comments about how nice he looks in his god armour subverted our expectations of a modern heroine. Despite her strength, one of the only things we saw was her apparent weakness. I would argue that it is not inaccurate for a girl to be so taken by a guy, and it is not like she was a bond babe where all he had to do was look at her and she would sleep with him. And yet, it is that subverted expectation. I would compare it to the recent Robin Hood film with Russell Crowe. Cate Blanchett's Marian comes out in armour and with a sword. This is not necessarily inaccurate, but it subverted the audience's expectations for what a woman who was actually in that period would do, and so criticism centered around that issue.

I think it was a highly enjoyable, if kind of flat, film, which has some great Norse medievalisms. One expectation that was not subverted was the appearance of Stan Lee in the film. Look for him when the hillbillies come together and try to lift up Thor's hammer Mjolnir.

Monday, May 16, 2011

“Viking” North America: The North American Public’s Understanding of Its Norse Heritage

I presented this paper, “Viking” North America: The North American Public’s Understanding of its Norse Heritage at Session 528, 8:30 Sunday Morning in Fetzer 2020 at Western Michigan University for the 2011 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo. The conference was, for me, a great success. As I mention in the paper a lot of these ideas I developed in part while working on the article for Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier at the University of Western Ontario, and some I developed while interning at L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. In this reproduction all the footnotes are left out, so if you are looking for references please look to the paper I did for Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier. I have, however, included my bibliography and all my visual aids.

“Viking” North America: The North American Public’s Understanding of Its Norse Heritage

(slide 1)

I would like to start off with a clip. During the 2010 Winter Olympics this ad ran in the province of Ontario nearly once a commercial break. It was part of a larger campaign for Newfoundland and Labrador tourism, though this was the ad they chose to run most frequently. While you watch, take note of the way that North America’s Norse heritage is being presented.

And once again:
And so they came,
five centuries before Columbus,
fearless warriors out to discover a New World,
the Vikings.
While they left behind their mark, they have long since gone …
… so far as we can tell.
Newfoundland and Labrador.

This summer, as part of my internship for my public history degree, I worked at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site.

(slide 2: images from summer 2010)

What I can identify as public knowledge about North America’s Norse heritage comes from informal discussions with tourists, from the study of the way that promoters of heritage frame the Norse-North American connection in order to appeal to the public and finally from cursorily studying the historiography. From my research and my experiences I can tell you that this advertising campaign was widely successful. Through talking with people I discovered that a great many of them (I would be so bold to say as one out of three people) had seen the advertisement and had decided to visit L’Anse aux Meadows because of it. For many it was a case of “well we always wanted to come and then we saw that advertisement, you know, with the children.” It was so successful amongst North American audiences that tourism numbers, I can say unofficially, were the highest they had ever been, despite the drop off in American tourism that resulted from the closing gap between the two dollars.

The success of the ad campaign is in part from its stunning images of Newfoundland landscape. However, what brought people up to the northernmost parts of Newfoundland was not just the landscape, since this is stunning, but not remarkably more stunning than other, perhaps more easily accessed, parts of the province. The draw was this emphasis on a medieval European past that genuinely belonged to North Americans. If we listen to the words of this advertisement, in it the province is appealing to everything that makes the ‘Vikings’ popular amongst North American audiences. The advertisement is emphasizing and then reasserting exactly what North Americans think about their own Norse heritage.

(slide three)

I argue that the North American public understands their Norse heritage as part of their origins mythology as a settler/invader nation. This is seen through the continuous coupling of Norse explorers such as Leifr Eiríksson with late medieval European explorers, specifically Christopher Columbus. I would also argue that the North American public’s understanding of the Norse culture can be summed up in everything that is meant by the word Viking and, as in the advertisement, is epitomized by the phrase ‘fearless warriors out to discover a new world.’

(slide 4: image of Christopher Columbus)

Nobody thinks that Christopher Columbus was the first European in North America. Granted, if we are talking about the knowledge of tourists who have made their way to L’Anse aux Meadows, likely if they have made it that far off the beaten path they probably already have an inkling as to why that site is important. However, it has been my experience amongst my friends, family, general adult education classes and pretty much everyone I talk to, that no one still thinks that Christopher Columbus was the first. But he persists as the poster boy for European exploration and colonization in North America and he is the common reference point for the discussion about European arrival to this continent.

(slide 5: images of the manuscripts that contain the Vinland Sagas)

The presence of Vikings, or Norse, in North America was speculated about long before any of the archaeological evidence at either L’Anse aux Meadows or Skraeling Island (just off of Ellesmere Island) was found. The two Icelandic sagas, Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða, have been dubbed the Vinland sagas because of their descriptions of voyages to Helluland, Markland and finally Vinland by the likes of Leifr Eiríksson and Thorfinnr Karlsefni, amongst others. The presence of a real Vinland is corroborated by other textual references.

The level of descriptors in the sagas has caused scholars to find the places mentioned in the sagas in North American localities since the first translations into Latin, and then Danish in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much scholarship since the nineteenth century has been characterized by this desire to find the real places of the sagas, to find the ‘true’ discoverers of America. This is done by locating the ‘real’ Vinland. Some of these attempts have been more nationalistic than others.

One way that the Norse have been used is to indigenize Europeans to the North American landscape, by at the very least giving the Europeans a longer history on the continent, and by at the most appropriating native arts, culture, or artefacts, and attributing them to the Norse instead of to Native cultures. For example, in 1883 Rasmus B. Anderson wrote a new prologue to his book America Not Discovered by Columbus, in which he said of the creation of the “runes” on the Dighton Rock that had been found in the Taunton River:

(slide 6)

I think they were iron implements, and that they were in the hands of a skilled mechanic—a Norseman worthy of the name. I do not know that my opinion on this question is of any consequence, still I have seen work undoubtedly performed by an aboriginal American with flint and stone tools, but the characters were not nicely edged, as these are. I cannot believe they were made by the lazy Indian of Schoolcraft.

Starting in 1940, Reider T. Sherwin wrote eight volumes on The Viking and the Red Man; The Old Norse Origin of the Algonquin Language. In them he went through the Algonquin vocabulary and showed how each word had an Old Norse origin.

In the search for the 'true' first Europeans it is typical to view the Vikings and Columbus as foils for each other, and to show that only one can be the real 'first.' Take for example, as an extreme, Mary B. Shipley, who, in 1877, wrote one of the more overtly nationalistic works concerning the Norse landings in North America. Her book was entitled The Icelandic Discoverers of America, or, Honor to Whom Honor is Due. In it she stated that the founding of America was one of the greatest achievements in all of world history, and if North America ceased to acknowledge Columbus, but instead acknowledged the Vikings, all the corruption of Catholicism and its most devout followers, the Spanish, would disappear from American culture. In short everything that was good, including the self-determinism and self-government espoused by the Norse, would again be emphasized. That is an extreme, though looking at Vikings in America by Graeme Davis, published in 2009, Davis also saw the “marginalization” of the knowledge of the Icelanders as a plot by Columbus, the papacy, and the Spanish monarchy, and persisted in construing the Norse voyages in terms of the American ideal. He stated that “in the Vikings, America finds its first European settlers. Most fittingly these first European Settlers in America were people searching for what we know today as the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

(slide 7: Top left corner; 1840s lecture describing Norsemen as first. Bottom right corner; Mary B. Shipley's book. Centre; Publication accompanying 1992 exhibit at the Canadian museum of Civilization. Bottom left; W.A. Munn. Top right; Helge Ingstad.)

Before the discovery of the archaeological evidence there was a scholarly reaction against taking the sagas as proof of any real place, but that didn’t stop the popular and perhaps amateurish wave of interest in locating the real Vinland. This desire to find the places of the sagas is what lead people like W.A. Munn in 1914, and eventually Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, to the Straits of Belle Isle to look for evidence of the Norse past. By the end of the 1960s it was agreed that the Norse had been to North America, though we will never all agree as to the locations in the sagas, despite the sometimes fine arguments that are made, because while there are many specific details about geography in the sagas there are too many variables and interpretations possible for those details. Halldór Hermansson’s 1909 Vinland bibliography was ninety pages in length and contained 750 entries. By 1997 Robert Bergersen’s Vinland bibliography, Writings Relating to the Norse in Greenland and America, was 400 closely printed pages. And that was thirteen years ago. I think as well the sheer number of treatises and papers written about this subject, and particularly about the geography of Vinland problematizes this division between scholarly and the public, because I think numbers like this indicate that this subject, possibly because of the traditionally nationalistic overtones, has a wide appeal. In the last thirty years many scholars who work on the Vinland Sagas, and even those who work both with the sagas and with the archaeology, have tried to distance themselves from such nationalistic discussions. In fact many scholars don’t care what personage was first, and see the arrival of these individuals as marking larger trends in technology and in European expansion and colonialism movements from different times. However, if one refers to the corpus of recent publications on Vinland it is evident that about as many analyses were published in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus, as there were in 2000, the supposed 1000th anniversary of Leifr’s settlement. Because scholars approach it from this direction, this nationalistic discourse frames our understanding of the Norse voyages to North America.

And its place in our national mythologies is going to ensure that scholars and the public alike are going to continue to be interested in this particular piece of medieval and North American history.

(slide 8: Leif Eiríksson statue erected in 1887 in Boston)

The knowledge about the Viking arrival, “five centuries before Columbus,” as it states in the advertisement, may have trickled in from scholarly (or less than scholarly) work into the general education. However, this Columbus/Leifr Eiriksson debate has occasionally, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, become very public. With the erection of any new public history site, from the Leifr Eiríksson statue erected in Boston 1887 to the recognition of L’Anse aux Meadows as a Norse site in 1960.

(slide 9: Vinland Map, Yale University)

The Vinland map, discovered in the Yale library in 1965, was unveiled a few days before Columbus day and was viewed by some as unseating Columbus once and for all. The map was supposedly from the year 1470, twenty-two years before Columbus’s first voyage. The last time I delivered some of these ideas, someone told me afterwards that one of the people who was really upset by this was Frank Sinatra, who was among those who viewed this as an attack on Italian/American heritage. The map is know largely regarded as a fake, but regardless the existence of a physical map shouldn’t be that different from the oral map that exists in the sagas, though this is a more modern opinion and perhaps a more scholarly one. Inga Dóra Björnsdóttir talks about how the juxtaposition of Leifr and Columbus is politically charged because of the importance of both to the chronology of the North American founding myth, and also because of the importance of having a symbol of unity representative of the Anglo-Saxon race and not of Catholic origin. Leifr Eiriksson day is October 9th. This date was chosen because the ship the Restauration arrived on October 9th, 1825, bringing the first Scandinavian immigrants to the New York harbour from Stavanger, Norway. What is interesting is that Leifr Eiríksson day pre-empts Columbus Day, on 12 October, by three days. The choice of dates is legitimate but also political.

(slide 10: Top left; Runestone museum in Alexandria. Bottom left; Yarmouth Runestone, Nova Scotia. Bottom right; Recreation group at Norstead in L'Anse aux Meadows. Top right; L'Anse aux Meadows.)

So the public understands this Columbus/Viking dichotomy. We can look then at the way that heritage/tourism industries appeal to this sense of ‘who was first.’
There are several locations in North America that celebrate North America’s Norse heritage. L’Anse aux Meadows has the most legitimacy because of the presence of the archaeological site. The arctic sites are important to heritage, but the lack of the tourist gaze in that area of the world has resulted in very little commemoration. Therefore, in that area no one is concerned about marketing the area’s medieval heritage in terms of the public’s interests and understanding. Some heritage/tourism sites gain a form of legitimacy by claiming to be an interpretation of what could have been or are museums to the culture as opposed to any specific events, like Norstead, the living history museum across from the official site at L’Anse aux Meadows. Some institutions house artefacts that could be Norse, and might not be, like the runestone at the Yarmouth museum, and allow visitors to make up their own mind. What is really interesting is that the meagre set of evidence has resulted in the proliferation of interpretation sites all the way from Minnesota and Ohio to the edge of Newfoundland. This helps to represent the place that this history holds in the minds of the public, in that there is an audience for this wide range of sites.

(slide 11: sign erected by tourism association on road into St. Anthony/ L'Anse aux Meadows)

One interesting thing I came across during my time at L’Anse aux Meadows was this sign, which has been placed by the Northern Peninsula tourism association along the road into St. Anthony and L’Anse aux Meadows. The interesting story that I heard, as it was told to me, is that the consultant had suggested putting a sign there that said ‘Is this Vinland?’ Instead, the tourism association were the ones who decided that now was no longer the time to question. The sixties is when they questioned, now was when they marketed this very real and very tangible connection to the medieval.

(slide 12: signs marking the major route, the Viking trail, through the northern peninsula)

The whole landscape of the Northern Peninsula now reflects this rebranding and this reinterpreting in terms of the connection to the medieval, because this is a part of history that continues to resonate with people.

Whether Norse or Viking is a more appropriate term to describe the culture of culture of 750-1100 CE Scandinavia is an ongoing debate. Viking is a word that conjures up images of brutal raiders and pirates, as well it should as the Old Norse word vikingr and the Anglo Saxon wicingas refers to basically pirates. Viking is a reflection of Victorian imaginations of romantic brutality. This is not to deny the brutal aspect of the culture, but it is only one aspect of this largely agrarian and mercantile society. Here a division between scholars and public is a bit more defined, as scholars like the word Norse better. The public has never heard this word. L’Anse aux Meadows archaeologist Birgitta Wallace has this to say about the continuing debate between the use of the two words.

(slide 13)

Historians have substituted the words “Viking” and “Vikings” with Norse, which is a more comprehensive term, corresponding to the Scandinavian norroen, and referring to all Scandinavians of the Viking and Medieval periods. Historians have tended to insist on this more correct term, but references to “Vikings” and “Viking Age” has [sic] become so successful in the promotion of heritage and tourism that most historians now accept these terms.

Like many nineteenth century romantic medievalisms, the term Viking and all that it evokes has proved so durable a concept, that it is counter productive to disregard this word as a term for that culture. Without it we discard the basic building block for the public’s understanding of this culture. The word Viking carries basic images with it. Likewise, the use of certain symbols in pop culture, for better or worse, can stand in for a description of Vikings. One has only to give a character a horned helmet for the audience to understand that he is meant to be a Viking.

(slide 14: Top; How to Train your Dragon. Bottom left; Hagar the Horrible. Bottom right; Commercial for Capital One. Bottom centre; Commercial for Volkswagen minis.)

I would say that films, like How to Train your Dragon, and popular culture, credit card commercials, continue to use this image not because they are ignorant and because they don’t know any better per se, but because they can skip a lot of exposition about who one is trying to depict by just giving them the helmet. So much is implied by these images because it is assumed that the public understands and has seen these images before. They draw on the public understanding and continue to foster it, misconceptions and all.

(slide 15: images from L'anse aux meadows summer 2010)

Telling visitors that there was no evidence of horned helmets, and that the concept had come instead from Wagnerian opera, was one of the most interesting interpretation tools at the disposal of the L’Anse aux Meadows staff, because in some ways it is challenging the one thing that most of the public believes they know about the Vikings.

(slide 16)

In conclusion, the North American public understands this not as Norse, but as Viking heritage. The culture is known for its violence and its raiding; for being one of ‘fearless warriors.’ And yet, it also gives it a place of primacy in the history of North America. It will continue to be a favourite subject amongst people who write popular histories, because of the emotional and romantic place accorded to these events and to the arrival of these so-called ‘first’ Europeans. Talking with tourists I was able to confirm that the way that the Norse heritage in North America is marketed by institutions like Newfoundland and Labrador tourism both reflects and in turn is further constructing the way the heritage is understood by the North American public.

(slide 17: images from the Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier project)

Many of these ideas are versions of ones that I put forth in my paper “Putting the Vikings on the Canadian Map,” which was published as part of the UWO project and exhibition Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier. A copy of this version of my paper I am going to put up on my blog, but for a more in depth discussion look to this original paper, published by Museum London.

Thank you

(slide 18)


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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Your Highness and your Lowness: A Medievalist's Review

Described in the Your Highness trailer blog, the source of this photo, as a "new medieval comedy," Your Highness is a tribute to stoner culture featuring stoner poster boys James Franco and Danny McBride. Being appreciative, but not a participant of the culture, it took me much longer than I would like to admit to get the Your Highness reference. The actors, all extremely talented individuals, manage to have good comedic timing and the acting was overall, surprisingly good considering the content of the movie.

But everybody who has seen the trailers knows exactly what they are going to see, written at least in part by Danny McBride, the movie has the stupidest, most obvious jokes anyone has ever written, including the 'booby' trap, the sucking of one's 'own venom' and any other crude reference ever concocted. In this context, given the aim of the movie, stupid, obvious, obnoxious, crude and rude are not exactly bad things. One of the stupidest, weirdest, grossest things was that (spoiler alert) after defeating the minotaur Danny McBride's character wears the Minotaur's penis around his neck for the rest of the show as a trophy. It is the kind of running gag that starts off kind of funny, becomes less funny, and is really funny by the end of the movie.

It was a movie by men, for men. Natalie Portman and Zooey DesChannels, talented actresses, hold their own, but they kick butt and are dim damsels respectively, and don't have as much character as the male leads.

I enjoy stupid humour, and was glad to see the movie, but it wasn't good enough to watch a second time. What was really well done, however, were the set designs and the art direction. The world of Your Highness was more stunning than the content of the movie warranted. Castles, caves, huts, vast valleys, trees and woodlands, dungeons, labyrinths, cliffs and a climactic scene in a tower made this movie worth watching. Specifically, what was really breathtaking was the fantasy world, based on quasi medieval worlds, that the director and art supervisor created.

What was really interesting, however, is that the 'medieval' world created by the film had a distinctly eighties feel to it. To understand the appeal of Your Highness, look back to fantasy and medieval worlds of the 1980s and early nineties to see director David Gordon Green and Danny McBride's influences. Watching Your Highness I felt nostalgia for the tolkie-esque and medieval-esque films from that period. The influence was also really seen in the aspects of medieval culture that were highlighted. The movie made jokes about chastity belts, like Robin Hood Men in Tights. They also used puppets as opposed to CGI for their wise pervert who started them on their quest, reminding us of films like Labyrinth or the Dark Crystal. The costumes and the settings reminded us of the Princess Bride or other fantasy films like Legend. The final scene before the denouement reminded us of a similar scene in Prince of Thieves, where Robin must rescue Marian before the Sheriff of Nottingham assaults her. The bad guys hair kind of reminded me of flock of seagulls, but that is in a slightly different vein. The use of evil wizards and witches, however, reminds us of so many different things, particularly the early video games from that age. There is clearly a debt here to the medievalism of the eighties, and the movie has gone through that filter and acknowledged its debt to those sources in its 'medievalism.'

It was a beautiful film though. It made me wish for a film that used those kinds of, what I might call 'medieval faire', aesthetics to tell a perhaps slightly more serious fairy tale story. Medievalists should watch it, and be nostalgic for the eighties, and for the movies that we watched that led many of us to medieval studies even though they were a far cry from most things medieval. Just, don't expect the film to be more than it is.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

PhD in Viking/Norse Studies in North America

A little while back the blog Old Norse News had a discussion about the different places where one might be able to study Viking/Norse Studies in North America. It was a good start, and the real value to that was in the comments, because people commented on what their schools had to offer.

I don't know everywhere in the States or Canada that offers Old Norse at the undergraduate and graduate level, but I can share my experience of applying to different schools and the PhD programs that I have encountered here in NA. I feel it is pretty thorough, but maybe because I just feel like I have been looking at this subject for awhile.

University of Toronto:

I will continue to apply to this school, though my chances continue to be slim. I was at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo at the University of Toronto reception and told some of the students that I was interested in going to the UofT Centre for Medieval Studies to study a Norse subject. One of the students looked at me and said 'really?' Apparently, though it is synonymous with medieval studies it is not necessarily with Norse Studies. This is not because there is not quailty people, because there is. However David and Ian McDougall don't really supervise PhD candidates, because they are mostly involved with the Dictionary of Old English program. This leaves Andy Orchard as the only person who could supervise a thesis on a Norse subject, which is a big burden for a large institute. In addition, so far he has been a bit more difficult to get a hold of to consult with. However, it is still one of the best institutions in North America and I will continue to apply also because it would be the most convenient for me.

Cornell University

This is a more obvious choice. Both Oren Falk, who does not just philology and language but society as well, and Thomas D. Hill are both Norse supervisors at this Medieval Institute. The ideal thing about this school and U of T are that they are both Medieval Institutes. This means that interdisciplinarian approaches and backgrounds are appropriate.

University of Saskatchewan:

Richard Harris in the English department is very active in the North American Norse scholarly community. However, the PhD is in English, so if you have an interdisciplinarian background you are unlikely to be considered.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Scandinavian Studies program does have a PhD program here. There are quite a few good people working here that could supervise a PhD on a Norse/Viking subject. However, you will need to speak a modern Scandinavian, preferably mainland, language. Background in Old Norse is not sufficient.

University of California - Berkeley:

The Department of Scandinavian Studies takes PhD students in Norse/Viking subjects. A modern mainland Scandinavian language helps. John Lindow is one of the primary supervisors and definitely the one to talk to.

Fordham University:

Again, only apply here if you have a solid background in English, as it is not really about interdisciplinary programs. But Martin Chase is a scholar here.

University of Western Michigan

As the home of the International Congress of Medieval Studies it hosts a good number of people, including Jana Schulman. International Students have to apply through the international studies department first. And their is no PhD in Medieval Studies so the degree has to be in either English or Comparative Religion, so prepare for requirements and distributions that are unrelated to what you would like to do. But they do accept people with un-traditional backgrounds.

Indiana University:

Prof. Fulk is in the English department and Prof. Gade is in the Germanic Studies department. If your PhD is focused more on Old Norse than English or Germanic Studies, then there is not really a place here for you. However, both of those departments do have people who work in Old Norse and PhD programs.

University of Washington and University of Minnesota:

Both have Scandinavian Studies programs, but do not seem to have the resources to host PhD students doing an Norse/Viking topic. This may change.

University of Western Ontario:

Dr. Poole was, up until recently, a member of the English Faculty here. He will no longer be shortly, and will not be able to supervise any theses. This was, but is no longer an option for a PhD.

Harvard University:

Yes, Prof. Mitchell is here. And there is room for interdiscipline studies. But it is also Harvard, so all the difficulties implied for getting accepted stand.

I am welcome to more suggestions of other places to apply. I realize I have picked a subject that not many people in North America are working on or can supervise, but I am interested in continuing my studies in North America since I would like to be a scholar in North America. Don't get me wrong, wouldn't trade my MA in Norse and Viking Studies from the University of Nottingham (see photo above) for anything. But how will I be known if I can't do the conference circuit here instead of there. I hope these tips and this experience can help others as well as generate some help for me.