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  • Simon Vincent

The Christianization of the Vikings

Updated: Sep 11, 2021


Olaf Haraldsson, or Saint Olaf, prays before the Battle of Stiklestad, by Peter N. Arbo.

The Vikings were once the sworn enemies of Christendom. Within two centuries, however, most Vikings had adopted the religion they once despised, leaving pagan Norsedom in the ashes. This is remarkable transformation baffles modern scholars, and begs the question: how could Europe's most notorious raiders become such ardent believers? Was it for power, riches - or a genuine, heartfelt conversion?


Clash of Civilizations

In 793 A.D, a group of Norwegian Vikings attacked the illustrious Lindisfarne monastery. This was one of Western Europe's most important religious sites. The Vikings slaughtered the monks and plundered the gold. For Europeans, this was an unbelievable sacrilege, an omen of pure evil. For the Vikings, an all-too-easy loot.


In the following years, scores of raiding Vikings terrorised Britain's towns, villages, churches and monasteries, committing horrid atrocities. It soon spread to Frankia (France), the Holy Roman Empire (Germany), Spain and even Italy. Churchmen dubbed these Northern pirates as the Scourge of God.


In 850, the so-called Great Heathen Army invaded England (led by the Sons of Ragnar Lodbrok). The Vikings were now bound on territorial expansion, challenging the kingdoms of Christendom for political power. All the while, the brutality against Christians persisted.

Vikings raid a monastery, by Tom Lovell.

But the world of Christendom fought back. By 890, the Anglo-Saxons had driven the Vikings back to the sea, and the Franks had found ways to halt their raids in Normandy. What had been unleashed, however, was a clash of civilisations. The raiding had initiated a struggle between Old Germanic Norsedom and Christianity.


Trade, Slaves and Hermits - the first, quiet signs

This was not the first time Western Europeans had encountered the Vikings. For centuries, Europeans had voyaged along the "North Way" trade route, stretching along the Norwegian coastline, in search of hides, ivory and other precious Arctic commodities.

Merchants who often traversed the trade routes would sometimes settle there, bringing their Christianity with them.


Vikings were also very avid slave traders. As the slave trade was frowned upon in Christian Europe, Scandinavia became a hot market to sell European slaves in. But these slaves were Christians. Based on medieval writings, scholars believe these slaves introduced Christianity to Norse families, and especially to the women. The women, in turn, influenced their husbands to listen to the testimonies of their servants.

Viking slave traders, by Tom Lovell.

The vast, barren landscapes also proved tempting for Christian hermits and monks seeking a life of seclusion. Some began to settle in deserted Scandinavian lands. Encounters with these strange, contemplative folk may also have advanced the Christian faith in Norse circles.


Ironically, the Vikings themselves often sailed out as pagans but returned as Christians. Having bonded with Anglo-Saxons, Franks or Greeks, or simply found to admire the Christo-centric civilizations, many would convert and bring crosses and Bibles home. Vikings who enlisted in Christian armies also typically had to get baptised beforehand, inviting them into the religion.


In the late-800s, it is believed that the Norwegian coastline already had enclaves of Christian communities. In Denmark, Christianity was even more prevalent. King Harald Klak of Jutland converted already in 825. In 829, King Bjorn the Tall in Sweden not only converted - but requested missionaries from Hamburg to come to Sweden and preach Christianity. In come St. Ansgar - the "Apostle of the North".

The baptism of Danish King Harald Klak in 826 A.D.

The Missions

St. Ansgar preached in Sweden and, reportedly, conducted mass baptisms before returning to Hamburg. As Archbishop, Ansgar organised missions across Denmark and Sweden, establishing good relations with Norse monarchs to permit their entry. However, in the 840s the Great Heathen Army was raiding at will in England, and the clash between Norsedom and Christendom was at its peak. Norse communities began showing stiffer resistance to the new faith. In 845, Norse Danes raided Hamburg, destroying the holy sites and burning all the books. Despite this setback, St. Ansgar continued his missionary work out of Bremen and personally voyaging into Sweden by himself in order to accomplish his tasks.

St. Ansgar in Sweden, by Hugo Hamilton.

In the mid-900s, Denmark was united under one king, Gorm the Old, who was already well disposed to Christians. His son, Harald Bluetooth, was even more so. In 958, he converted to Christianity and was baptised in a public ceremony. All his court followed suit. This cemented Christianity in Denmark, and Danish society adapted to the new faith.


Harald Bluetooth's baptism was a dramatic turning point. A united Denmark was now ruled by a Christian King. But this did not mean the political wars with the rest of Europe had ended. Far from it. The Danes would continue invading England, but now there would, at least in official terms, be granted more respect to Christian holy sites.


Norway also had a Christian King at this time, Haakon the Good, but his faith was not as warmly embraced. After he had erected a series of churches along the coast, bands of Norse pagans began burning them down. When King Haakon confronted the pagans, he was humiliated and forced to sacrifice to the old gods to avoid an open revolt. It was an embarrassing affair that demonstrated the superior power Norwegian farmers had over their kings. From that moment on, Christianity in Norway became a very politicized arena.


The Importance of St. Olaf

The politicization is well reflected in King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, who made it a condition of loyalty that his subjects were baptised. Much of Norway was Christian at this time, but it still led to hostile clashes with the remaining pagan communities, culminating in Olaf's fall [1].


In 1015, another Olaf seized the throne - Olaf Haraldsson. Once an atrocious villain who had plundered churches and cities, Olaf was now baptised and had an ardent desire to revamp all of Norway and make it like the other feudal kingdoms of Europe. He, therefore, made the monarchy stronger, founded the Church of Norway and introduced a series of new laws rooted in Christian ethics [2].


He inevitably met resistance, but surprisingly not on religious grounds. His subjects vehemently rejected feudalism and defected to King Cnut of Denmark, forcing Olaf to flee his kingdom. In 1030, he returned but was killed at the battle of Stiklestad.


The Battle of Stiklestad and fall of Olaf by Peter N. Arbo.

Olaf Haraldsson's life seems underwhelming - but his death was quite the opposite. Posthumously, scores of people began calling Olaf a holy man. Even his enemies - his very killers - confessed it. As the clergy dug up his deceased body, they found it uncorrupted, an indisputable mark of holiness.


It seems paradoxical - even futile - to proclaim such a violent man as a Saint. But Olaf's Sainthood is not about him, but about his people. He was a Viking who once committed horrific acts of sacrilege. After his conversion, he was torn by the wedge between his Norse lifestyle and the ideals of Christianity and fell many times. But in the last year of his life, when he was exiled and lost it all, the sagas reveal that he finally rid himself of his ego and fully repented. Thus, his very life and death became symbolic of the conversion of Scandinavia. It resonated with all the other thousands of Vikings whose crimes convinced them they would never attain God's grace. St. Olaf became the proof that even a man with an atrocious track record could, through repentance and by God's mercy, be embraced by God as one of His finest.


As words of his Sainthood spread across Scandinavia, Christianity gained a sense of respect and admiration. The miracle of incorruptibility was uncontested, making even Norsemen acknowledge the power of St. Olaf's faith. Folk from Britannia to Russia came to Norway to venerate his relics, and so-called "St. Olaf's churches" were erected all over Northern Europe. A complete paradigm shift had occurred over all of Scandinavia - Christianity was never contested again.


Christian Orthodox icon of St. Olaf.

True Motives


So, what forces drove this unprecedented transformation?


It is undeniable that there was a politico-cultural element at play. In contrast to Scandinavia, the world of Christendom was spoiled with feudalist power and advanced societies [3]. For Viking raiders, these wealthy towns were perfect prey. But it eventually morphed into a sense of respect. It is safe to assume that many mercenaries, traders, sailors - even Kings - converted to become a part of this promising civilization. The early life of St. Olaf is a clear testament to this. Not only did he convert, but he implemented the European political model in his own country, trying to help Norway produce similar results (aggregating more power to himself in the process).


Of course, the Norse political elite sometimes used baptism to secure political alliances (Harald Klak of Jylland is a good example of this). This explanation is a favourite of modern scholars, presenting the conversions as being solely for political intentions. However, it does not capture the full picture. Scandinavians kept warring with Christian kingdoms despite having converted, showing a surprising lack of political commitments after baptism. Then there are the baptised Kings who spent their lives spreading the religion in their homeland - why bother if the conversion was merely a ceremonial gimmick? Perhaps spreading Christianity was done to justify the feudalist model - but feudalism and Christianity are not interlinked. Christianity survived feudalism. Moreover, St. Olaf's killers were also Christians. They simply resisted his political ideology, not his religion.


Thus, we see elements of sincerity hidden between the lines. This is nothing new. It was always there. The Viking Christians who returned home did so knowing that they would be religious minorities in a hostile, political environment. This is a curious move if the intention was merely to enjoy the perks of Christendom. This was accelerated by the quiet entry of Christian slaves, missionaries and traders, initiating an underground, social turn to Christianity. It simply awaited the attention of Scandinavias Kings and Earls, and in the 900s, it happened. Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, Haakon the Good of Norway, Olaf Skottkonung of Sweden - Christianity had gained the hearts of the Kings.


In summary, we see a gradual process. The lower classes adopted the faith but kept it private. As the clash with Christian Kingdoms intensified in the outside world, tolerance to the growing religion soured, causing a more tense political climate. Then, the upper and ruling classes began to convert, reverting the political pressure back at the pagan Odin-worshippers. As the Kingdoms were transformed into feudal ones, the last pagans were viewed more as stubborn rebels than fellow countrymen. Facing this, paganism gradually died out. Finally, if there was any paganism lingering on by 1030, the Sainthood of Olaf stamped it out.


What began with an attack on Lindisfarne Monastery in 793, therefore, had culminated in the complete extinction of the Norse pagan religion, and the triumph of Christianity in Scandinavia.


Footnotes:


[1] After fighting an ambush at sea, Olaf Tryggvason jumped into the sea to escape. However, he was never seen again and probably drowned. There is a legend that he quit politics and instead went to Jerusalem to become a monk.


[2] The Christian Law of St. Olaf and Bishop Grimkell stated that slaves had to be freed every 7th year, work was disallowed on Sundays, abortion was illegal, and blood-feuding was outlawed, among many social and religious laws.


[3] Many aspects of Viking society were advanced in their own right, especially in areas pertaining to power devolution, law and trade (read my article: How the Vikings made the West for more information). However, the overall splendour of the Christian kingdoms was still unmatched.




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