Centre for Medieval Studies Lecture Series

Jan Alexander van Nahl

“… ok vissu þeir eigi, hvert at þeir fóru”

Viking Ships and Navigation

Thursday, January 25, 2018, at 16.30
Lögberg 101

Jan Alexander van Nahl

Composed around 1250, the Old Norse King’s Mirror (Konungs skuggsjá) mentions three reasons for people to go abroad against all odds: glory, curiosity, and wealth. It is not far-fetched to assume that the same reasons were effective some four or five centuries earlier, when the Vikings started their trading and raiding. Their venturous undertakings brought wealth to Scandinavia, stimulated the development and improvement of ships, and accumulated knowledge about the vast extent of the world. The synergy of these factors, among others, eventually allowed for the settlement of as remote a place as Iceland more than 1,100 years ago.

The first part of my lecture intends to give an overview over a selection of ships that a time traveller might observe sailing the Atlantic Ocean at the time of the Icelandic settlement. Not for nothing is the ship among the most popular symbols for the Viking Age, but most settlers probably arrived in a kind of open merchant vessel rather than richly-ornamented long ships.
Knowing how to build a reliable ship is one thing, knowing how to navigate it another thing. Many theories have been put forth as to how the Vikings possibly knew where they went, prominently including the usage of the Polar Star and dubious types of compass-like instruments. But how did these things possibly work? Did they work at all? And by what other means could an experienced Viking-age sailor make sure that he was not totally off course? The second part of my lecture will focus on these question.

Rather than being an exhaustive report, my talk seeks to arouse interest among landlubbers, and asks both for approval and contradiction from experts.

Jan Alexander van Nahl holds a Dr. phil. in Scandinavian Studies and Archaeology from the University of Munich. Among his publications are two books on Snorri Sturluson, a book on Digital Humanities, and most recently a book on Icelandic language and culture. He is currently finishing a book on the Old Icelandic Kings’ sagas, based on his postdoctoral research at the Árni Magnússon Institute since 2014.

The talk will be delivered in English. All are welcome to attend.