The traditional tales of the Vikings’ conversion to Christianity are sleek dramas full of zealous missionary saints, kings, and clerics who Christianize entire populations in a few heroic actions that are hardly short of miracles. As is the case with most medieval hagiography (a genre focused on recounting the lives of saints and other holy men and women), the historical reality seems to have been much humbler and more mundane. In the words of historian Richard Fletcher, “we may be confident that the conversion of Scandinavia was gradual, piecemeal, muddled and undisciplined.”
In this article, we’ll explore the real process by which the Norse switched their religious allegiance from their ancestral paganism to Christianity. First, let’s look at the general characteristics that defined the Christianization process, and then move on to consider the specifics of how this transformation occurred in the main Norse countries and colonies of the Viking Age (roughly the years 793 to 1066).
Since the Norse had always been in contact with other parts of Europe through trade, travel, and war, they had encountered Christians both abroad and in their own homelands for centuries before the start of the Viking Age.Small populations of Christians lived in Scandinavia’s coastal trade towns. Thus, the Vikings certainly had some familiarity with Christianity before the first missionary ever set foot on their shores.
In fact, many of the Norse had incorporated aspects of Christianity into their own personal religiosity before the official conversion got underway. The tenth-century historian Widukind of Corvey tells us that some pre-conversion Danes believed “that Christ certainly was a god, but claimed that other gods were greater than he, since they revealed themselves through greater signs and omens.”
In Denmark and Sweden, remarkable Viking Age soapstone molds for making pendants have been discovered by archaeologists – remarkable because the molds contained spaces for making both cross pendants and Thor’s hammer pendants, side by side. Archaeology also furnishes us with examples of people who were buried with both symbols, including the grave of a ninth-century woman in Hedeby (Denmark) and that of an eleventh-century Norseman in western Finland.
When the Vikings settled in already-Christian lands such as England, Scotland, and Ireland, they tended to readily adopt the religious modes of the local inhabitants.As with their counterparts back in Scandinavia, this led to a hybrid religiosity with elements of both paganism and Christianity.
A particularly striking example of this is the so-called Gosforth Cross, which was erected in a churchyard in the early tenth century in Viking-occupied England. While clearly a Christian monument, its elaborate carvings nevertheless contain illustrations of episodes from pagan Norse myth.
Another depiction of this intriguing religious fluidity comes from the medieval Old Norse pseudo-historical writings. According to the twelfth-century Landnámabók (“Book of Settlements”), one of the first Norse settlers to arrive in Iceland in the mid-to-late ninth century was a man named Helgi the Lean. During Helgi’s voyage to Iceland, he called upon Thor for protection, as he often did when he found himself in an especially tricky, trying situation. Yet Helgi had been baptized and thought of himself as a Christian, and when he landed safely on the shores of that new country, he named the settlement he founded Kristsnes, “Christ’s Headland.” It’s impossible to know whether or not Helgi actually existed, but the fact that such characters existed in the popular Norse imagination is telling, especially when compared with the other evidence for the often-ambiguous religious identities of the period.
All of this is to say that, in the words of historian Anders Winroth, “Most Scandinavians of the conversion era did not accept Christianity as a readymade package of beliefs and practices; instead, they accepted a few ideas at a time.” Conversion was a slow process that unfolded over the course of several centuries and many, many generations. The Norse were partially Christian before the formal conversion began, and they remained partially pagan long after it had been officially completed.
Formal conversion, therefore, wasn’t really a matter of introducing Christianity to peoples who were unfamiliar with it, but rather of insisting that peoples who had already integrated some Christian practices and beliefs into their own traditions had to give up paganism altogether and embrace only Christianity. (Needless to say, that insistence was seldom rigorously heeded.)
The official conversion of the Vikings – the process by which the institutions of the church were established in their lands and certain rudiments of Christian belief, practice, and identity became customary or obligatory – mainly took place during the tenth and eleventh centuries.
Each Scandinavian country, province, or locality has its legendary missionary who is credited with more or less singlehandedly converting the populace. They brought the people to the new faith through a bottom-up process like the one modeled in the gospels, where Jesus and his disciples go around and convert the common people directly. In terms of historicity, these accounts are almost exactly backwards. Generally speaking, rulers were the first to be officially converted, and then Christianity “trickled down” to their subjects.
The Christianization of the Norse countries didn’t happen in a vacuum; it was part of a broader trend of Europeanization that Norse societies were undergoing at the time. Formerly, they had been part of a barbarian fringe of Europe rather than “proper” Europeans in the eyes of their southerly neighbors. But during the second half of the Viking Age, they came to adopt many of the staples of European culture and civilization, which brought them into the “proper” European fold. In addition to Christianity, these changes included the adoption of writing (beyond the nominal writing system that runes had provided), the growth of a political system based on kings rather than chieftains, and various smaller modifications of the Vikings’ legal and cultural frameworks.
And why did the Vikings convert to Christianity? What motivated them to give up much of their traditional religion in favor of a new one? Of course, it’s impossible for us to know what was in the hearts and minds of the specific individuals involved. Surely some cases involved genuine religious convictions; it would be superficial and reductionistic to assume otherwise. However, it seems that the majority of conversions occurred largely, and perhaps entirely, for the sake of the tangible, practical advantages that the new religion brought with it.
Recall Widukind’s description of the Danes quoted above: they professed “that Christ certainly was a god, but claimed that other gods were greater than he, since they revealed themselves through greater signs and omens.” The pagan Norse worshiped the gods that they believed were the most powerful and could therefore bring them the best fortunes in this life. Pagan piety had a reciprocal, transactional character that assumed that if one did right in the eyes of a deity – offering sacrifices and prayers, maintaining the sanctity of his or her holy sites, etc. – then the deity would reward such piety with worldly prosperity. There was no doctrine of salvation that would have undergirded the practice of spirituality for its own sake, apart from any earthly benefits it might bring. Thus, the spiritual tended to be seen as a means of achieving natural human ends, and the Norse judged their gods on the basis of the criterion “What can this god do for me?” (It’s arguable that this is how most people from all over the world, pagan, Christian, or otherwise, have always viewed their deities, but such a question is far beyond the scope of this present piece.)
The Norse judged the Christian god according to the same standard. Conversion was therefore predominantly a means of becoming convinced that the Christian god could bring more benefits than the previous gods could – or, at the very least, that he could bring enough benefits to merit being worshiped alongside the established gods.
According to the traditional legends about the conversion process, missionaries often persuaded the people of the extreme power of the Christian god by performing fantastical miracles in his name, feats which always led to a great number of conversions. Needless to say, it’s impossible to determine whether or not there’s any historical truth in such accounts. What we can say, however, is that the Norse seem to have become convinced of the might of the Christian god largely through more down-to-earth political and economic means.
Viking rulers – who, as we’ve noted, were generally the first to formally convert to Christianity – wanted to forge alliances with the powerful Christian kingdoms to the south so as to consolidate their own power. The kings of those southerly kingdoms, in turn, were happy to oblige, as this enabled them to turn former enemies into pacified friends.Viking kings also found that “the document-based church administration was unsurpassed and utterly useful to rule and administer a kingdom.”
After the Viking rulers converted, the nobility followed suit in order to win or maintain the ruler’s favor. Then came the common people, who likewise wanted and needed to stay in the good graces of their superiors. In any case, the acceptance of Christianity (or at least the basics of its outward, formal aspects) was eventually made obligatory for all.
Merchants and traders had an additional incentive to convert: Christians were more comfortable trading with other Christians than with pagans, so being a Christian gave a trader an advantage.
Thus, the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity was primarily a peaceful, voluntary affair. However, there may have been some notable exceptions to this, which we’ll examine below as we now turn to the specifics of the conversion process in each of the Scandinavian countries and the Viking colonies of the North Atlantic.