Study Guide: Sample EPQ topics

A depiction of the Vikings in a twelfth-century manuscript. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

If you are interested in doing an extended essay for your EPQ, it can sometimes be difficult to narrow down a topic. This page will take you through the early stages of planning and researching an extended essay project, using the example of an essay relating to the history of the Viking Age, although these skills are transferrable to other topics and disciplines.

 

Where to start?

If you are in need of inspiration, there are two possible courses to take. The first is to do some reading around of secondary literature. This might involve reading a survey of the topic. These surveys will often touch upon key issues and may start you on the path to discovering a topic that interests you. You might also find an interesting topic by reading internet articles or blogs—although be careful in these instances, as unannounced opinions and misinformation often plague such sources (for a guide to independent study on the internet, click here).

The following page steers you through a different method of structuring of a possible research project by reading primary sources. We explore the preliminary steps one might take using examples taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Annals of Ulster. However, these are only intended to be examples that will teach you the research methods necessary to construct your own project using different sources.

At each stage, consider for yourself the research how you would answer the questions posed and formulate your own research areas, before revealing our suggestions. You may well come up with directions that we didn’t think of!

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E manuscript)

793: Here terrible portent came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: there were immense flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the raiding of heathen men (the Vikings) miserably devastated God’s church in Lindisfarne island by looting and slaughter.

The Annals of Ulster

852: … 3. The complement of 160 ships of Findgennti (Pale Foreigners = Vikings) reached Snám Aignech to give battle with the Dubgennti (Dark Foreigners = Vikings); they were fighting for three days and three nights, but the victory as won by the Dubgennti (Dark Foreigners = Vikings) so that their opponents left their ships in their hands. Stain escaped by flight and Iercne, having been beheaded, lay dead.

853: … 3. Amlaím (Olaf), son of the king of Laithlind, came to Ireland, and the Gaill (Foreigners) of Ireland gave hostages to him, and tribute was paid by the Irish.

 

Close Reading

One of the best ways to come up with a study topic is to do a close reading of a text or a number of texts; this can help to provide you with ideas or avenues of thought that might not have occurred to you. When doing a close reading, nothing in the passage you are reading is irrelevant.

 

When attempting a close reading, nothing in the text you are reading is irrelevant. Besides the events that are described, even small details such as the words used can provide you with the basis for an analysis. Furthermore, you do not necessarily need to have a wider knowledge of the events being referred to in order to pick up on details: it is good idea to be able to develop the skills to carry out close readings without having prior knowledge. Test yourself now by doing a close reading of the two examples given; make a list of all the features which you can notice. Then, you may wish to read the background to the events listed in these sources on the following pages of this website, before rereading to texts to pick up on anything that you may have missed:

Once you have done this, expand the sections below to see what we came up with! For each feature that we have noted, we have inserted a little bit of broader context. Bear in mind that you may have come up with stuff that we didn’t think of—that doesn’t mean that these findings are less valid. Finally, consider the similarities and differences between the two texts, as this may point you towards shared themes or ideological divides.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
A year of ill omen

The ill-omens that precede the Viking raid on Lindisfarne reveal that the Anglo-Saxons believed that phenomena they couldn’t explain warned of tragic events to come. Portents of this kind are common to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, particularly before tragic events or deaths. The raid on Lindisfarne seems to have been particularly shocking, as it became the subject of a contemporary letter written by the English scholar Alcuin at the court of Charlemagne.

Belief in supernatural creatures

This entry refers to fire-breathing dragons, indicating that they were believed to be real. The Anglo-Saxon understanding of the world was different to our own. Natural occurrences could be associated with the supernatural and people generally believed in the existence of creatures such as dragons despite never seeing them.

Famine

Crop failures were one of the realities of medieval life. A bad harvest could mean starvation and death for the poorer members of society and even the rich and powerful would find it hard to maintain their standing without being able to feed their followers. Annals frequently recorded events such as these, along with diseases among livestock.

Vikings described as heathens

The reference to the Vikings simply as heathens reveals the Christian perspective of the annalist. One the one hand, the Vikings were pagan at this point, but on the other, by referring to them solely as heathens the annalist portrays them as a faceless, alien ‘other’. This is just one of the terms used by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle used to refer to the Vikings.

The looting of churches

This reference reveals the modus operandi of the Vikings who attacked Lindisfarne: they targeted the churches, which at this time would have contained a lot of valuable items wrought out of gold, silver and jewels. Monastic communities were also a good source of potential slaves. Throughout the British and Irish world, raids on churches were the most common feature of the early Viking Age.

An attack on a church is an attack on God

There is an implication in the passage that the attack on God’s church at Lindisfarne is an attack on God Himself; this is revealed by the aforementioned ill-omens, which lend supernatural qualities to the raid itself, and by the language which contrasts the word ‘heathen’ with the word ‘God’ in close proximity to one another, identifying them as the main opponents in a spiritual battle.

The Irish Annals
The size of the Viking armies

This reference to the number of ships tells us two things. It gives a rough indication of the size of the Viking armies operating in Britain and Ireland in the mid ninth century (160 ships might hold as many as 8000 men). However, the number is suspiciously round, revealing that the figures that appear in annals are often estimates and can’t be taken as absolute truth.

The Vikings are referred to as 'foreigners'

Once again, we see an annalist using a technique to present the Vikings as a hostile force of ‘others’; this time by referring to the Vikings as foreigners, rather than heathens. This terminology is used even though the phrase ‘Gaill of Ireland’ would imply that some of the Vikings were living in Ireland.

Vikings fighting Vikings

At the centre of these entries is a conflict between two factions of Vikings, referred to as the Findgennti and Dubgennti (Pale and Dark Foreigners). We then hear of a man named Olaf (a Norse name), whose father is the king of a location overseas. This tells us two things: firstly, that Viking armies were not a homogenous force, but comprised of different factions that weren’t always aligned in their interests; secondly, that the annalist knew enough about the Vikings to know that this was the case.

A three-day battle

We associate the Vikings with hit-and-run raids that would involve only short skirmishes between attackers and defenders. If this conflict did indeed take three days, we must imagine that it was a much more organised pitched battle, involving the careful positioning of troops, offensives and counter offensives. The annalist is attempting to convey that this was not simply a brawl.

Travel by ship

In the Viking Age it was often far quicker and more convenient to travel by ship than overland. However, the tendency to do so is far more associated with the Vikings than the Irish themselves. The annalist draws attention to the fact that the Findgennti were forced to abandon their ships: this detail suggests the value that the Vikings placed in ships and the seriousness of this defeat.

The chronicler knows the names of the Viking leaders

The fact that the annalist was able to name some of the Viking leaders in this passage reveals that the Irish were beginning to know more about the forces that were harassing them, instead of seeing them simply as faceless hordes. It can also prompt us to seek further evidence of these individuals to build a more complete picture of the Viking armies.

Hostages and tribute

The annalist’s casual mention of hostages and tribute implies a commonplace mechanism by which peace was secured between opposing forces in the Viking Age. Hostages, comprising of close family members (often sons who stood to inherit) were offered as a sign of loyalty, on the assumption that any disloyalty would result in the hostage being killed. The giving of tribute was a more short-term way to offer submission to someone — usually in the hope that they would go away.

Comparison
The 'Othering' of the Vikings

Both texts refer to the Vikings in ways that present them as a faceless other. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the Vikings as heathens and the Irish annals refer to them as foreigners. This demonstrates that neither of the annalists have a favourable view of the Norse. It makes it hard to get a clear picture of how much the Irish or the Anglo-Saxons actually knew about the Viking aggressor.

Different levels of familiarity

Having said that, the Irish annals do seem to have some appreciation of distinctions between different factions and are aware of individual Vikings, whereas the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not. This suggests that local understanding of the Norse varied across time and between places.

Different levels of religious interpretation

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is much more religious both in its label for the Vikings and its alignment of the raids with supernatural events, implying some sort of act of God. The Irish annals seem in this instance to be much more secular. This might suggest that attitudes towards the recording and interpretation of history varied between Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England.

Research questions

Once we’ve got an idea of the subject or theme we’d like to explore, we can expand our project beyond these two small extracts and being to structure a larger project. To do so, it is important to come up with key research questions that we can keep in mind when conducting further research. Sometimes, simply devising research questions might lead you to a topic that you would prefer to explore.

In the following section, we give examples of the kind of research questions one could ask oneself at the outset of a piece of research. We have divided these into three sections based on the type of project one might wish to pursue: a source analysis, a historical analysis or a thematic analysis.

 

A source analysis extends the scope of the project beyond the extracts above to consider the texts they appear in as a whole.

What kind of source is it?

Many types and genres of text provide us with evidence for the Viking Age, many of which aren’t found in the present day. Some, such as sagas, are closer to what we now regard as fiction, whereas others are more similar to modern history books. The examples above are both taken from sets of annals, meaning that the information they contain is structured year by year. For each year, a brief description of the main events of the year are noted: this often includes the deaths of notable individuals and major political events. Records of Viking activities are common.

Where and by whom was the source composed or commissioned?

Historians of the medieval period must grow accustomed to the fact that many of our sources are anonymous. This is particularly the case for annals, as these texts were often updated by many different anonymous scribes as the years went by. Yet even if we cannot tell who composed the text, we can try and find out for whom and where it was composed, which can tell us just as much about its use as a source. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was first produced during the reign of King Alfred the Great, and thus its early material reflects his West-Saxon perspective. On top of this, the different versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Irish annals (see below) were often associated with specific monasteries in different parts of the England and Ireland, respectively, and represent both the religious and regional perspectives of those monasteries.

Why was the source produced?

This question ties into both of the previous two: often the nature of a text and the people who commissioned it can tell us a great deal about why it was produced. In this case, the question is more complicated as the texts survived in so many different versions and were updated at different times.

How has the source been preserved?

This is always an important question in studies of the medieval period. Texts are often found in manuscripts composed long after the text itself. Before the printed word, texts had to be copied out by hand, often resulting in mistakes or deliberate changes. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, is preserved in a number of different manuscripts and all preserve a slightly different version of the text. We can even tell when a text was first copied, because after that point the annal entries start to differ from one another as they get updated by different people. The most famous manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is known as the Parker Chronicle. The question of how a source is preserved is hugely important and could easily form the basis for its own project.

How does the style or genre of the text affect its usefulness as a source?

The sources used in the extract are both from annals. The information found in annals is often brief, as an entire year’s worth of events had to be fit into a few sentences; however, the annals were usually updated relatively soon after events—at least in comparison to many histories from the period which were written decades or centuries after the events they describe. Being so short, entries in annals are somewhat immune to literary embellishment, yet they might still reflect an agenda, particularly in how groups like the Vikings are portrayed. Furthermore, the choice of which information to include is just as reflective of one’s agenda as the way in which that information is conveyed.