The Conversion of Scandinavia

The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Conversion of Scandinavia
    Book Description:

    In this book a MacArthur Award-winning scholar argues for a radically new interpretation of the conversion of Scandinavia from paganism to Christianity in the early Middle Ages. Overturning the received narrative of Europe's military and religious conquest and colonization of the region, Anders Winroth contends that rather than acting as passive recipients, Scandinavians converted to Christianity because it was in individual chieftains' political, economic, and cultural interests to do so.

    Through a painstaking analysis and historical reconstruction of both archeological and literary sources, and drawing on scholarly work that has been unavailable in English, Winroth opens up new avenues for studying European ascendency and the expansion of Christianity in the medieval period.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17809-8
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Note on Names and Translations
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Maps
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  6. Introduction: Europe, Scandinavia, and Hallfred the Skald
    (pp. 1-11)

    In 988, a young Icelander, embarking on an ambitious journey, secured passage on a ship bound for Norway, where he was going to seek his fortune.¹ Unlike some other Scandinavians of the time, he was not a Viking sailing out to maraud along the coasts and rivers of Europe. This Icelander possessed an outstanding skill more valuable than martial prowess—the ability to write an extremely complex and demanding poetry called skaldic verse—and he was looking for an appreciative and generous patron. He particularly excelled at composingdróttkvættstanzas, which praised and flattered princes through elaborate and complicated circumlocutions...

  7. 1 The Dynamic Eighth Century: Scandinavia Comes of Age
    (pp. 12-23)

    The pagan men from “the ends of the earth” in the north suddenly appeared on the European stage in around 780. Uncouth, unshaven, and—most importantly—unchristian, they were on the minds of rulers and intellectuals, a subject of wary conversation at the centers of power and culture in Europe, already before the beginning of the Viking raids. The Danes, in particular, were a political problem for the Frankish king Charlemagne, and all sorts of Scandinavians would soon become everyone’s security problem, when the Viking Age began in earnest in 793.

    The political and intellectual center of western Europe toward...

  8. 2 The Raids of the Vikings
    (pp. 24-40)

    “Liberate us, Lord, from the wild Northmen who lay waste our country. They strangle the crowd of old men and of youth and of virgin boys. Repel from us all evil.” ¹ So prayed the inhabitants of the Frankish Empire in the ninth century, helping to give early medieval Scandinavians a reputation for being bloodthirsty and brutal pirates. The word “Viking” has in popular culture become associated with mindless violence. The Vikings were, however, not interested in violence and destruction for their own sake; their goal was to acquire wealth, which might gain their leaders the reputation of being generous...

  9. 3 The Power of Gifts
    (pp. 41-51)

    On Palm Sunday, 25 March 1016, a great sea battle raged at Nesjar in southern Norway. Olav Haraldsson had returned to Norway with a band of warriors after many years as a Viking raider and mercenary soldier in Europe, and he planned to conquer the country. A critical moment came when Olav’s fleet engaged the ships of Norway’s current ruler, Earl Svein Håkonsson, the son of Håkon Sigurdsson, Hallfred Ottarson’s first patron. The clash of weapons was loud, and many corpses floated on the water, which was colored red with blood, drink for the raven, claimed the eyewitness Sigvat Thordarson,...

  10. 4 Carving Out Power
    (pp. 52-60)

    A decade and a half before the turn of the millennium, a young murderer named Erik was condemned to lesser outlawry by an Icelandic court. This meant that anyone could lawfully kill him at any point during the next three years if he remained in Iceland. He had to move away from the island, but this was not a terrible blow, for he did not have much of a position to uphold there anyway. He was a troublemaker and ne’er-do-well, who had already been forced to move twice after slaying several people. First he had moved with his father from...

  11. 5 Weland, Ulfberht, and Other Artisans
    (pp. 61-75)

    Chieftains used artisans to add value to their gifts. Instead of simply giving a bar of silver or a sword—valuable gifts in themselves—the chieftain might first have an artisan work on the gift, turning the precious metal into an exquisite piece of jewelry or embellishing the sword with gems. The same applies to other, less intrinsically valuable materials, such as bone, antlers, and wood, which expert artisans turned into objects of beauty that thrilled people across early medieval northern Europe and still excite and enchant museum visitors today.

    The best artisans gained a legendary reputation. The Frankish sword...

  12. 6 The Lure of the Exotic
    (pp. 76-84)

    In the early ninth century, a slain Norwegian chieftain was buried in Gokstad with not only his ship, horses, dogs, and weapons but also a set of peacock feathers, still recognizable although badly decayed after a millennium underground. Peacocks may symbolically suggest Christian belief in resurrection or Roman belief in Juno, but on a more fundamental level the presence of exotic feathers, which must have been extremely rare in early medieval Norway, signals a wealthy and important man, whether he acquired them as a treasured gift, as booty, or as trade goods.¹ The Gokstad man’s peacock feathers illustrate the value...

  13. 7 Networks of Trade
    (pp. 85-101)

    The northern trading network was important not only because it supplied chieftains with exotic items but also because it created wealth, making it possible for those same chieftains to remain in the gift-giving business and thus to retain power. This trading network, the creation of chieftains and kings, also exported merchandise, particularly the furs and slaves to which northerners had easy access.

    A surprising archeological find strikingly illustrates the reach of the northern trading network. People who had traveled far often visited Hedeby, at the southwestern corner of the Baltic Sea, so it was nothing out of the ordinary when...

  14. 8 The Story of Conversion
    (pp. 102-120)

    At the same time that the northern trading network was flourishing and the Vikings were acquiring wealth and an unflattering reputation in Europe, the Scandinavian homeland became Christian. The coincidence is striking and seems to require explanation.

    The fundamental nature and sheer scope of this religious change are clearly apparent in a comparison between two European travelers in the north. They visited Scandinavia more than three centuries apart, and they had very different experiences. One visitor was a cardinal who would become pope and the other a monk who would become archbishop. Both owed their promotions to their travels in...

  15. 9 Writing Conversion
    (pp. 121-137)

    The real role of Christianity in shaping early-medieval northern Europe has long been obscured by medieval conversion narratives, which lead us astray for two reasons. First, they were often written long after the events, making the real political and social contexts of the conversions impossible for the narrators to grasp. Second, the writers of such narratives were less interested in conveying what actually happened than in extolling the heroism of individual converters, supporting the institutions they represented, and, ultimately, praising God himself. Thus the conversions tend to be quick and immediately complete. The authors of the narratives were trained to...

  16. 10 The Gift of Christianity
    (pp. 138-144)

    Just as Scandinavian chieftains sought out prestigious trade goods, they also pursued prestigious ideology, and in Viking Age Europe, no ideology was more prestigious than the Christian religion. It was the religion associated with truly powerful European rulers, including the emperors in Constantinople and Aachen. Chieftains brought Christianity to Scandinavia to gain a share in that prestige for themselves—in other words, for the same reason that they brought trade goods. They distributed both the goods and the religion among their followers, to gain new followers and to strengthen the loyalty of those they already had. This was their immediate...

  17. 11 Kings of God’s Grace
    (pp. 145-160)

    A new kind of regime turned up in Scandinavia, starting in Denmark, in the late tenth century. This was the European-style kingdom, which did not rely on personal relationships among a small group of warriors reinforced by gift exchange. Instead it relied on formalized power relationships reinforced with a suitable ideology (some of which the church provided). The growth of the high-medieval kingdom was a slow process, which began when Harald Bluetooth first garrisoned soldiers throughout the Denmark that he “had won for himself,” and thus he became able to control the territory. He made himself the lone ruler in...

  18. 12 Scandinavia in European History
    (pp. 161-168)

    Historians of medieval Europe often treat the expansion of European Christian culture during the early and high Middle Ages as a protocolonial endeavor.¹ If conquerors and colonizers did not go out into the barbarian world to conquer and colonize, then at least missionaries played a key role in bringing Christianity to the heathens and in thus pulling them into the sphere of European civilization. In understanding the missionaries as driving agents and the pagans as passive recipients, many scholars have fallen prey to two strong story lines that insist on this distribution of roles. One is the story told by...

  19. Abbreviations
    (pp. 169-170)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 171-206)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 207-228)
  22. Index
    (pp. 229-238)