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The Vikings

Discover the tremendous impact Vikings had on the history and culture of Western civilization in this engrossing course by an award-winning professor of History.
The Vikings is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 239.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thorough and riveting I've read other histories about the vikings, and watched other documentaries, but this course includes information that was left out of my previous studies. More comprehensive information makes the course of history seem much more understandable. The thoroughness of this course, combined with a quite compelling presentation of material, make for a rivetting view into this era of history.
Date published: 2024-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof Harl is the best I've watched many of his of my favorite..... possibly the favourite great courses professors. He combines humour with tons of interesting information which makes his courses watchable... over and over.
Date published: 2024-02-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent presentation of Europe’s pivotal history Dr. Harl is an excellent lecturer who brings history alive. I had earlier viewed his Great Course on the Crusades. The Vikings cover three centuries where Europe went from small and many fifdoms to much better organized and larger countries we recognize today. Dr. Harl stresses.the gradual conversion of the Vikings to Christianity and how this lead to centralized government and the formation of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
Date published: 2024-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great comprehensive overview of Viking history Prof.Harl is very well organized, clear and knowledgeable. Viking history is a vast subject; and new research areas are developing all the time. There has been a move away from portraying Vikings simplistically as ruthless murdering pirates. New research has developed a much more nuanced view, including the superb trading networks created by Vikings from Scandinavia down to Constantinople and Iran. Dr.Harl expands this more nuanced view in a wide variety of topics in this course. I found it greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the two TV series: Vikings (UK, created by Michael Hirst) and Vikings: Valhalla (USA production), which can be streamed on Netflix or Amazon. When you watch those TV series, you catch many small details that bring the history to vivid life (if you watched this course first). Makes it much more fascinating. I also recommend several books about Viking history: River Kings by Cat Jarmin, and Ash & Elm by Neil Price.
Date published: 2023-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Foundational Course This course is foundational to understanding how feudal Europe came about and how Christianity changed the purpose of war from heroics to justice over the Islamic slave-holding superpower. It is best done in video, as Harl’s maps are vital. THE 5TH CENTURY'S MIGRATIONS of Germanic peoples across the Rhine caused the Franks to dominate the former western Roman Empire and Scandinavia (Lecture 5 = L5). The Frisians (of the lower Rhine) established brisk trade between Scandinavia and Europe. In 550 AD (L8) Hrolf Kraki became Scandinavia's epitome with his pattern of heroic wars deep in the forests of Sweden. There was no "just war"...rather an emulation of boastful heroes. L9 beautifully discusses ships capable of traveling 150 miles upriver to Paris in a week: "3-5 times faster than any opponent on land". L10 summarizes England’s fate: "In 15 years, the Vikings had conquered eastern England, a feat that (took) the Anglo-Saxons nearly 150 years”. MAJOR THEME: (L11-L12): “The Islamic world was the greatest civilization and the primary economic driving force (of) the early Middle Ages". The “long 8th century” saw the Abbasid caliphate’s demand for slaves and materials. Harl specifically states: “…the driving force behind economic development was the Islamic world". From 750-800: “the prime commodity from Western Europe alone was slaves” and “½ to 2/3 of all slaves arriving in the Islamic world for a period of 250 years were sold by Scandinavian merchants". This created a Swedish slave route of Slavs down the Dneiper and of Irish (from Dublin - the “northern trade arc”) down the Volga to the Black Sea; the Frisian movement of timber and slaves; and Western Europe’s similar trade to Muslim Spain. L23-26: The Islamic Turkomen harassment of the Swedish Volga route forced trade down the more dangerous Dneiper through the violent Pecheneg tribes. Trade finally started to dry up when Charlemagne conquered the Saxons of northwestern Europe. The Scandinavians of the High Middle Ages (L3-33, 35) were eventually converted after exposure to Orthodox Christianity via the Byzantine Empire (because they associated it with victory). Their conversion was incomplete initially. Quoting Helgi the Lean (L19): "On land I will worship Christ but at sea I always invoke Thor". Regardless, Christianity had immediate and gradual effects: it forbade Christian slavery and wars of justice gradually replaced wars of heroics. WESTERN WARFARE: L13 -18 discuss the Viking attacks on the Carolingian Empire, England and Ireland. L13: A bankrupt Carolingian king (Charles the Simple) gives Normandy to aging Frisian Vikings. In return, they blocked other Vikings from attacking Paris up the Seine. The Viking “Great Army" assaults on England are next. These chapters reinforce G.A. Henty's 18th century historical novels centering around the heroic 9th century King Alfred (nicknamed “Solomon" and Lawgiver of England, L15) who went on to create both Wessex’s defenses and its monastic life. His son and grandson would reunite lost English boroughs. England's Danes, who saw Christianity's power adopted it. Later they realized they'd also adopted monotheism, and the warrior ethos was abandoned. Neither Ireland nor Scotland had been conquered by the Romans and thus had little infrastructure for the Vikings to capture. Ireland’s Viking invasions were complicated by bog/forest Irish guerilla warfare. Her Vikings then became vassals of the Irish high king and Dublin became a slave trade center of outlying villagers. ICELAND: While the course well covers Viking discoveries of Greenland and North America, the Icelandic manuscripts (L21-22) are also seen to be of major import. L29-32: the pagan Scandinavian King Cnut’s military genius won over a massive empire from England yet lost the victory’s glory when Olaf (Cnut’s major opponent who had died in a desperate gamble to gain the throne) became the first canonized Scandinavian king causing Cnut to fade from saga. Additionally, he physically lost the territory because of “...the Germanic principle of providing separate realms for each of his sons” (L29). His three sons’ power struggle ended in the (L30) two famous battles: STAMFORD BRIDGE (ending the Viking threat) and HASTINGS where William of Normandy would establish a Norman/Carolingian style feudal England. ENTERTAINING: L14: The Viking sea king Hrolf was to be given Normandy by converting to Christianity and symbolically kissing the foot of his new lord, the Carolingian king Charles the Simple. Hrolf converted but substituted a warrior to “kiss Charles' foot". Hrolf's huge warrior picked up the foot thereby pitching Charles on his back. Politics never seems to be a dignified science.
Date published: 2023-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This was a great course, very interesting as well as entertaining.
Date published: 2023-02-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative course I had seen Professor Harl's lectures on the Ottoman Empire and found this course of the same high standard. I did not know how extensive the influence of the Vikings was outside of Scandinavia.
Date published: 2023-01-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my favorites! Fascinating subject matter and a very enjoyable delivery. I've read some of the negative reviews that critique Professor Harl's filler words and digressions, but this what makes his delivery seem more like an intimate conversation than a formal lecture. Real human interaction works that way, regardless of how speaking clubs try to eliminate certain habits. "Uh's" and "um's" are only distracting if you count them.
Date published: 2023-01-02
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Explorers and traders, the Vikings sailed from Newfoundland to Baghdad, across raging seas and swift rivers, extending trade and prosperity in voyages of creative destruction. By 1100, however, the Vikings had disappeared, having willingly shed their identity and dissolved into the mists of myth and legend. How did this happen? And how should we remember this formidable civilization? Who were the Vikings? Dr. Kenneth W. Harl rediscovers these warriors, artists, merchants, poets, and kings, explaining their role on the world stage.


Kenneth W. Harl

We will be looking largely at archeological evidence and analysis done by anthropologists because we are operating largely in a world without writing.


Tulane University
Dr. Kenneth W. Harl is Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he teaches courses in Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader history. He earned his B.A. from Trinity College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Recognized as an outstanding lecturer, Professor Harl has received numerous teaching awards at Tulane, including the coveted Sheldon H. Hackney Award. He has earned Tulane's annual Student Body Award for Excellence in Teaching nine times and is the recipient of Baylor University's nationwide Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teachers. In 2007, he was the Lewis P. Jones Visiting Professor in History at Wofford College. An expert on classical Anatolia, he has taken students with him into the field on excursions and to assist in excavations of Hellenistic and Roman sites in Turkey. Professor Harl has also published a wide variety of articles and books, including his current work on coins unearthed in an excavation of Gordion, Turkey, and a new book on Rome and her Iranian foes. A fellow and trustee of the American Numismatic Society, Professor Harl is well known for his studies of ancient coinage. He is the author of Civic Coins and Civic Politics in the Roman East, A.D. 180-275 and Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700.

By This Professor

The Ottoman Empire
The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes
The Vikings
The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity
The Vikings


The Vikings in Medieval History

01: The Vikings in Medieval History

Hostile Christian sources demonize the Vikings; Muslim accounts render them exotic; and recent revisionist historians downplay the impact of Norse raids. Archeological finds such as ship burials, coin hoards, and human remains, combined with close study of the Norse sagas of Iceland, can enrich and balance our understanding of Scandinavia's place in medieval history.

32 min
Land and People of Medieval Scandinavia

02: Land and People of Medieval Scandinavia

Scandinavia's landscape shaped its culture. Dense forestation led to small, close-knit communities, skill in woodworking, and to sailing as the primary means of long-distance transport. Long, harsh winters engendered skill in cold-weather travel, a unique cosmology, and the emergence of great halls where storytelling and hospitality traditions were born.

30 min
Scandinavian Society in the Bronze Age

03: Scandinavian Society in the Bronze Age

The physical evidence, expertly interpreted, paints a compelling picture of the Bronze Age in Scandinavia (2300-450 B.C.) Viking ancestors traded Arctic goods, amber, and slaves in exchange for foreign copper and tin to produce impressive bronze objects. New wealth fostered larger villages led by chieftains. A gilt bronze sun chariot, rock tracings, and other material culture indicate the beginnin...

30 min
Scandinavia in the Celtic and Roman Ages

04: Scandinavia in the Celtic and Roman Ages

Scandinavia fed off of trade with the Celts (450-50 B.C.) importing improved cart, ship, and metalworking technology. Contact with Rome (c. 50 B.C.-A.D. 400) enriched the upper classes with fine silver, ceramics, and glass. More ominously, Scandinavians returning from Roman military service brought back advanced weapons and armor. Petty kings surrounded by loyal bands of warriors emerged, along wi...

30 min
The Age of Migrations

05: The Age of Migrations

Between 400-700, as the Roman political order collapsed in Western Europe, Scandinavians poured in: Anglo-Saxons in England, Franks in Gaul, Swedish Goths in Italy and Spain, Danes in Frisia. Cultural ties were so close that Scandinavian legends celebrated legendary West Germanic figures for centuries. But in the 7th and 8th centuries, Christianization and linguistic change transformed these immig...

31 min
The Norse Gods

06: The Norse Gods

Norse religion was integral to Scandinavian life. A creation myth tells of primeval frozen wastes and sacred trees. The pantheon contained gods of war (Odin), sky (Thor), and fertility (Frey and Freya). The afterlife in Valhalla and other great halls was a reward for great deeds. Worship of these gods, and veneration of the ancestors united communities and separated them from Christendom.

31 min
Runes, Poetry, and Visual Arts

07: Runes, Poetry, and Visual Arts

As a non-urbanized culture, Viking society expressed its visual genius in elaborate woodcarving and intricate jewelry, not architecture. Gods were represented by charming cult statues and contacted through magical runic drawings. Without writing, great myths and legends were transmitted in great halls by poets, playing a harp and composing spontaneous, witty, and metrical verse.

30 min
Legendary Kings and Heroes

08: Legendary Kings and Heroes

The Epic of Beowulf (c. 675-725) and The Saga of Hrolf Kraki (c. 13th century) look back to the 6th century when legendary kings of Denmark and Sweden ruled from great halls and won great victories, albeit without the Viking longships of the 9th and 10th centuries. These figures were role models and inspirations to the sea kings and territorial rulers of the Viking Age....

31 min
A Revolution in Shipbuilding

09: A Revolution in Shipbuilding

Without the advances in shipbuilding that occurred in the 9th and 10th centuries, Viking success in raiding and trading would have been impossible. Viking vessels evolved from the earliest paddleboats to the great cargo and war ships that carried Viking goods and armies farther and faster than anyone else in the Medieval world.

31 min
Warfare and Society in the Viking Age

10: Warfare and Society in the Viking Age

Swords, bows and arrows, javelins, spears, and axes made up the Viking arsenal, but their greatest weapon was unit cohesion. Trained since youth, they were expert in winter travel and foraging, the building of fortifications, and coordinated attack in advanced formations like the "shield wall." The Great Army of 865-878 showed that, when massed together by the thousands, they could virtu...

30 min
Merchants and Commerce in the Viking Age

11: Merchants and Commerce in the Viking Age

From 675-840, Western economic and political activity revived, fueled by improved agriculture, growing towns and monasteries, and renewed Mediterranean trade. But it was the need for slaves in the Islamic world that led Vikings to pioneer extensions of this trade, southwest to Islamic Spain and southeast to Constantinople and Baghdad. Cosmopolitan market towns in Scandinavia eventually became sour...

31 min
Christendom on the Eve of the Viking Age

12: Christendom on the Eve of the Viking Age

The Carolingian Empire, which had actually conquered Germanic peoples under Charlemagne, possessed the economic and military strength to challenge the Vikings. But partition in 843 and civil conflicts between the nobles weakened Carolingian defenses, even as Frankish prosperity invited Viking raids. England and Ireland had cultural and economic ties to the Latin West through their vibrant and pros...

30 min
Viking Raids on the Carolingian Empire

13: Viking Raids on the Carolingian Empire

Vikings raided the Carolingian Empire throughout the 9th century, disrupting trade routes and depleting imperial coffers through the extraction of tribute (Danegeld). Local vassals stepped into the power void and claimed fiefs, while veteran Viking companies put down roots in the empire at fortified camps and bases. The axis of trade shifted away from the weakened empire, towards Scandinavia.

31 min
The Duchy of Normandy

14: The Duchy of Normandy

In 911, Frankish king Charles the Simple faced the Viking sea king Hrolf and a massive Viking fleet en route to Paris. With no money to offer as ransom, Charles offered Hrolf the land around the town of Rouen. Hrolf's warriors, and their families and descendants, forged the powerful feudal state of Normandy that would later found two great feudal kingdoms.

31 min
Viking Assault on England

15: Viking Assault on England

Vikings had been merchants in England for centuries when the first Viking raid destroyed Lindisfarne in 793. Viking raids climaxed in the Great Army's methodical ravaging of southern England and the Midlands from 865-878. They conquered three English kingdoms, but the fourth, led by Alfred the Great, fortified itself militarily and fiscally, preserving its independence.

31 min
The Danelaw

16: The Danelaw

Many Danes settled in the northern areas of England conquered by the Great Army. In the 9th and 10thth centuries, Anglo-Danish rule brought prosperity and lasting changes in language, customs, and legal institutions. But in adopting Christianity and becoming a landed class, these Danes also surrendered their Viking identity and, with shocking docility, accepted the rule of the kings of Wessex by 9...

31 min
Viking Assault on Ireland

17: Viking Assault on Ireland

In 432-433, St. Patrick brought Roman Christianity to Ireland, but not Roman government. So in the Viking Age Ireland possessed great, learned, clan-supported monasteries surrounded by chieftain-led tribes. Norse Vikings devastated the monasteries, dominated the river systems and coastal ports, and co-opted local chieftains, transforming Ireland into a hub for the slave trade to Muslim Spain.

31 min
Norse Kings of Dublin and Ireland

18: Norse Kings of Dublin and Ireland

In 917, Hiberno-Norse kings reestablished rule over Dublin and its hinterland, and many key ports. With Norse immigration in decline, however, they lacked the numbers to dominate the island. Cooperation, intermarriage, and assimilation marked Norse-Irish relations. Irish king Mael Sechlainn's victory over the Norse at Tara in 980 cemented their secondary position thereafter.

32 min
The Settlement of Iceland

19: The Settlement of Iceland

Iceland filled with settlers between 870-930. Some sought relief from an overcrowded Norway, some sought free land, and others desired freedom from the tyrannical Norwegian king Harald Finehair. On this remote, barely habitable island just below the Arctic Circle, a purely Scandinavian experiment in self-government produced a remarkably independent society of free farmsteads, minimally governed by...

31 min
Iceland-A Frontier Republic

20: Iceland-A Frontier Republic

The rugged terrain of Iceland necessitated egalitarianism. As men left home to hunt, fish, and tend pastures, women ran the households, handled legal settlements, and even acted as delegate chieftains. Law was informal, and justice "face to face," adjudicated by a trusted member of the community. These traditions persisted for centuries, even after timber depletion and civic unrest rende...

31 min
Skaldic Poetry and Sagas

21: Skaldic Poetry and Sagas

Icelanders preserved memories of their Scandinavian homeland and transmitted tales of the ancient Germanic gods through recited poems, consistent with an oral culture in which even law was recited publicly from memory. From the 10th century onward, literature became ever more ornate and sophisticated, culminating in the great written works of the 12th-14th centuries: the collections of Norse poetr...

30 min
Western Voyages to Greenland and Vinland

22: Western Voyages to Greenland and Vinland

The daunting climate and the ultimate paucity of marketable trade goods prevented Greenland from becoming a viable settlement, while Vinland settlements foundered due to hostile Algonquins and remoteness from the Scandinavian homeland. The American fascination with these voyages reveals a sentiment the Icelanders would have appreciated, a yearning for connection with an ancient past.

32 min
Swedes in the Baltic Sea and Russia

23: Swedes in the Baltic Sea and Russia

By the 8th century, intrepid Swedes had moved into the Russian forest zones, acquiring slaves to trade with Khazar middlemen that controlled the Volga. These Swedes, or Rus, braved rapids and marauding steppe-peoples, adapting to a foreign land and adopting some indigenous customs and institutions. The market towns they established formed the core areas of future Russian states.

30 min
The Road to Byzantium

24: The Road to Byzantium

The shift in Swedish trading activity from the Volga in the east to the Dneiper in the west was also a shift away from the Islamic world and towards a Byzantine Christian civilization that greatly impressed the Swedes. The Rus became mercenary allies and trading partners with the emperors in Constantinople and imported imperial institutions into an incipient Russian kingdom, beginning the process ...

30 min
From Varangians into Russians

25: From Varangians into Russians

Prince Vladimir of Kiev's momentous conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 989 was revolutionary. The Rus adopted literacy and the Slavic language, imported Byzantine builders to create masonry churches, shifted patronage from pagan poetry to Christian works, created cavalry and a military elite, and converted a slave-trade economy into an agricultural economy that would feed the great cities now ...

31 min
Transformation of Scandinavian Society

26: Transformation of Scandinavian Society

From 790-1000, a massive influx of silver led to the minting of Scandinavian coins and resulting monetized markets. Newly wealthy individuals, increasingly women, enjoyed their largess through imported luxury goods and personal ornamentation found in ever-more opulent ship burials. Overseas Viking kingdoms in Russia and England provided the model, and silver provided the means, for Christian Scand...

30 min
St. Anskar and the First Christian Missions

27: St. Anskar and the First Christian Missions

In a Viking-Age Scandinavia well served by the traditional gods of war, sailing, and prosperity, the Carolingian missionary St. Anskar had little success convincing the Vikings that Christianity was a powerful religion of victory. But by training Frankish clergy in the Scandinavian tongue, he put in place the institutions that would aid future Christian kings.

31 min
Formation of the Kingdom of Denmark

28: Formation of the Kingdom of Denmark

Denmark was forged under threat from the Holy Roman Empire to the south. Responding to Henry the Fowler's 934 invasion, the pagan king Gorm the Old raided the southern frontier, securing Jutland. His successor Harold Bluetooth precluded further invasions by Christianizing Denmark, fortifying the Danevirke, and establishing massive military camps. Harold's son Svein inherited a Danish kingdom with ...

32 min
Cnut the Great

29: Cnut the Great

Cnut the Great (1014-1035), along with his father Svein Forkbeard, reclaimed England for Scandinavia, but viewed himself as a pan-European king in the mold of Charlemagne. Though not remembered fondly by his subjects, his maintenance of a powerful fleet, innovative use of proxy rule, and savvy employment of marriage alliances turned Denmark from a fragile kingdom into a Christian North Sea Empire.

31 min
Collapse of Cnut's Empire

30: Collapse of Cnut's Empire

At Cnut's death in 1035, his sons clashed for control while also fending off Magnus the Good of Norway. In 1066, with Cnut's sons both dead and his nephew Svein Estrithson holding Denmark, Magnus's uncle Harald Hardardi attempted to wrest England from Cnut's distant relative Harold II. Harold repelled Hardardi but fell at Hastings to William the Conqueror, who had just begun to put Normandy on the...

30 min
Jarls and Sea Kings of Norway

31: Jarls and Sea Kings of Norway

Harald Finehair, a king in Upplönd, imposed his rule over Norway after defeating a coalition of jarls at the naval battle of Hafsfjord c. 875. Although his line ended in 970, another sea king, Olaf Tryggvasson, used his Viking fleet, and Christian institutions, to become king of Norway. Olaf fell fighting a Danish rival, Swein Forkbeard, at the naval battle of Svöld, and Norwegians again...

31 min
St. Olaf of Norway

32: St. Olaf of Norway

Converted in England, Olaf rose from a Viking raider to become a great Christian king of Norway, which he liberated from Danish rule in 1015. His heavy-handed rule led his subjects to expel and then kill him at the Battle of Stikelstad in 1030, but they later repented, and he survives in memory as Scandinavia's first royal saint.

31 min
Kings of the Swedes and Goths

33: Kings of the Swedes and Goths

Sweden, in resources and population, seemed destined for primacy in Scandinavia, but the Yngling kings of Uppsala did not profit from the Viking expansion in the East. In contrast to Norway and Denmark, Sweden lacked powerful sea kings that could forge a territorial state under hereditary Christian monarchs.

30 min
Christianization and Economic Change

34: Christianization and Economic Change

In the 11th century, distinct national churches emerged in the Scandinavian kingdoms. Christianity brought new prosperity and population growth. Cathedrals and monasteries stimulated the rise of market towns. Coulter ploughs, better tools, and the three-field system improved agricultural productivity significantly for the first time since the Iron Age.

31 min
From Vikings to Crusaders

35: From Vikings to Crusaders

By 1100, the Viking age had passed. On the eve of the Black Death (1347-1351), all three Scandinavian kingdoms shared similar fiscal and institutional weaknesses. The three kingdoms were united under the treaty of Kalmar, a weak union that dictated the course of Scandinavian history down to the Reformation.

31 min
The Viking Legacy

36: The Viking Legacy

The course of Medieval history was fundamentally altered by the Viking Age. The feudal states of Western Europe were born. The kingdoms of England and Scotland arose. Orthodox Kiev, founded by Swedish Rus, gave political organization to the East Slavic peoples. The three Scandinavian kingdoms emerged, as did the Norse settlements in the North Atlantic. The Vikings gave Christian Europe strength, a...

32 min